Summary of Street Photography
Associated initially with Paris, and figures such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and André Kertész, Street Photography became recognized as a genre in its own right during the early 1930s. While there are precedents, and areas of overlap with documentary and architectural photography, Street Photography is unique in the way it is associated with the photographer's skill in capturing something of the mystery and aura of everyday city living. As such, the human figure becomes the Street photograph's most vivid and defining feature. Street Photographers will sometimes engage directly with their subjects (Brassaï, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand) but it became more common for the photographer to roam the streets with a concealed 35mm camera. The Street Photographer is then often likened to the historical figure of the flâneur: namely someone who mingles anonymously amongst the crowd observing and recording the ways the unsuspecting city dweller interacts with his or her environment.
While the early French pioneers formed close associations with the Surrealists, the improvisational quality that embraces the uneven and spontaneous Snapshot Aesthetic carried across the Atlantic where it lent itself perfectly to the post-war urban experience. Possibly the most important Street Photographer of all, the Swiss-American Robert Frank, raised the status of the Snapshot to art and his influence was to enthuse the next generation of American photographers. The mid-1960s and early-1970s became the "golden-age" of Street Photography when the likes of the Arbus, Winogrand and Lee Friedlander allowed their own sassy personalities to impinge on the images of their subjects. Joel Meyerowitz completed this new dynamic by raising the status of color, hitherto thought of as somewhat artless and vulgar, to a new level of credibility.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Street Photography tends to be spontaneous and seeks to capture a moment - or a split second - that would have, without the photographer's intervention, gone unnoticed. It is closely associated with a Snapshot Aesthetic which describes a technique in which a loose and informal composition brings an intense energy and a new truth to the image.
- Street Photography emerged as a genre in its own right as a direct result of advances in camera technology. It is associated (if not exclusively so) with the hand-held 35mm SLR camera and especially the emergence of the very compact Leica and its superior lens quality.
- Street Photography can certainly qualify as Documentary Photography, yet documentary asks for a different type of intention from that of the Street Photographer. The documentary photographer tends to be less spontaneous, more prosaic, in their approach with the documentarian invariably using his or her lens to expose social injustices or involved stories.
- Though there remains a strong lineage to documentary, street photography tends to position itself as art. Street Photographers want their audience to think more profoundly about the meanings behind the images they produce.
- The latter-day Street Photographer is typically possessed of a particular attitude; someone who sees their art as a calling or vocation. Street Photography is as much about a "state of mind" and a Street Photographer is someone who tends to treat their camera as a constant companion.
Overview of Street Photography
Henri Cartier-Bresson once described his behavior as that of a “thief” pilfering people’s belongings; taking their private moments and their culture. He thought of himself as a pickpocket, stealing through the Parisian streets, helping himself to what he wanted. He even went as far as painting his camera black to hide it from his unsuspecting subjects. His spoils were groundbreaking however, and Cartier-Bresson and his contemporaries' work documented in a new and intriguing way the ordinary lives of the people on the street.
Important Art and Artists of Street Photography
This iconic image depicts a man skipping (with a true sense of Parisian élan) over a flooded area in the Place de ;'Europe, just outside the Saint Lazare train station. The photograph illustrates Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" technique - described by him as that "one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance" - in the way his camera freezes the exact moment the prancing man touches heels with his reflected image. Cartier-Bresson was inspired by the Surrealists and we see that influence too in the surrealistic preoccupation with the idea of the uncanny doppelgänger (revealed in the man's reflection). The surrealistic mystery of the man's flight is only strengthened by the "floating" ladder from which he appears to have sprung while the shadowy onlooker in the middle-distance merely completes the image's element of incongruity.
Beneath the chimney in the upper left of the frame, meanwhile, a circus poster shows a female dancer in a pose that copies that of the main subject. The superior lens quality of the Leica camera would lend the image a potential for fine picture detail such as this to emerge. It is also of some significance (for the idea of photography as an art form in its own right) that Cartier-Bresson's figurative juxtaposition is set against a hazy background of Saint Lazare. These buildings had been painted previously by the likes of Monet and Manet which suggests that the photographer wanted to invite associations, not just with the Surrealists, but with the great masters of French modernism.
Playing a significant role in creating the bohemian image of Paris, Brassaï photographed the artists, socialites, prostitutes, and philosophers who populated the streets, parks, and bars at night. This image, featured in his famous book Paris by Night, depicts a mature woman - La Môme Bijou ("the urchin Bijou"), or Miss Diamonds, as she was variously known within the Montmartre community - sitting alone in a bar with a wine glass and two stacked small white plates on the table before her. She wears a hat with a flower and a fur-collared coat (despite being indoors) and several strands of pearls around her neck. Described by Brassaï as "the queen of Montmartre's nocturnal fauna [and a] fantastic apparition that had sprung up out of the night," she carries a fading image of a glamorous past.
Though his images featured people who lived at the forgotten margins of society, Brassaï brought a kind of poetic reverie to his images: "I was seeking the poetry of the fog which transforms people, the poetry of the night which transforms the city" he said. Bijou with her faded glamor embodied the La Belle Époque ("the beautiful era") in France, but, despite clinging to the past, she retains a distinctive presence, as her knowing gaze shrewdly evaluates the scene before her. As a further measure of Bijou's presence, the protagonist of the French Jean Giraudoux's play The Madwoman of Chaillot (1945) was inspired by this photograph.
In the 1930s Levitt began taking the photographs of children at play in the streets of New York, for which she is best known. Influenced by Walker Evans and Cartier-Bresson, her photographs combine the objective humanism of Evans with Cartier-Bresson's emphasis on the "decisive moment" and, like Cartier-Bresson, her work was influenced by Surrealism's interest in exploring the idea of the uncanny.
In this photograph, two children hold up a broken mirror as two others crouch, examining the glass shards around the curb. Behind the frame a little boy on a bicycle surges forward, as if he is about to pitch through the frame itself. At first glance, it seems that the boy on the bicycle is a pictorial incongruity. Only upon closer reflection does the spectator realize that the mirror is broken, and that the boy pitching forward is (potentially) about to emerge through the empty frame. A further examination of the image requires an adjustment of the spectator's imagination since she or he realizes that the boy on the bike is in fact stationary and has stopped to see what the boys on our side of the frame are doing. As a result, the image's play upon the mirror becomes a play upon the nature of photographic reality itself and the part the viewer's imagination plays in forming that reality.
Useful Resources on Street Photography
- Street PhotographyOur PickBy Sophie Howarth and Stephen / 46 contemporary street photographers
- Bystander: A History of StreetBy Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz
- The Photograph (Oxford History of Art)By Graham Clarke
- Lee Friedlander: The American MonumentBy Lee Friedlander
- Lisette ModelBy Lisette Model with a preface by Berenice Abbott
- Why Street Photography Is Facing a Moment of TruthOur PickBy Sean O'Hagen / The Guardian / April 18, 2010
- Top 12 Street Photographers Who Captured the Grit of New York in the 70s and 80sBy Jessica Stewart / March 15, 2017
- The Man Who Saw America. Looking back with Robert Frank, the most influential photographer alive.By Nicholas Dawidoff / Mymodernmet.com / July2, 2015
- A New Look at Walker Evans's 'American Photographs'By David Gonzalez / New York Times / August 8, 2013
- America, Captured in a FlashBy Holland Cotter / New York Times / September 24, 2009
- Top 12 Street Photographers Who Captured the Grit of New York in the 70s and 80sBy Jessica Stewart / Mymodernmet.com / March 15, 2017
- The Hidden Camera: the story of Paul MartinOur PickBy Sarah MacDonald / Black and White / 10 June 2002
- 10 Street Photographers Who Are Immortalizing Our Modern WorldBy Jessica Stewart / Mymodernmet.com / April 13, 2017
- The Ladies on the BenchBy Emma Allen / The New Yorker / August 15, 2014
- Henri Cartier Bresson - Just Plain Love (Documentary)
- Garry WinograndOur Pick
- Henri Cartier-Bresson "Pen, Brush and Camera" 1998 Full Length DocumentaryOur Pick
- Visions and Images: Harry Callahan, 1981
- Finding Vivian Maier 2014
- American Journey 2009Philippe Seclier retraces the journey that Swiss photographer Robert Frank took while shooting his groundbreaking 1958 photo book "The Americans."
- Inside Photographer Robert Frank's The AmericansSmithsonian Magazine
- Streetwise - Robert Frank and The AmericansMuseum of Photographic Arts