Street Photography - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Street Photography
In the very beginnings of photography, the world had to "stand still" in front of the bulky copper-plate camera. Advances in its technology meant that exposure times quickly decreased, but the first Daguerreotypes placed restrictions on the choice of subject available to the photographer, especially outside of the studio. The Daguerreotype's limitations were revealed in 1838 by the inventor himself - Louis Daguerre in what is thought to be the very first street photograph. For his iconic image Boulevard du Temple (1838), Daguerre pointed his camera out of his studio window to capture a view of the Parisian boulevard below. The long exposure time meant that the busy Paris thoroughfare appears empty, except for two men - a shoe-shiner and his client - who remained still for long enough that their images (towards the bottom left of the frame) left their impression on the photographic plate.
Two years after this picture was taken, William Henry Fox-Talbot had developed the Calotype, and though it lacked the detail of the copper plate Daguerreotype, it offered capacity for producing a flexible negative from which multiple copies could be made. The Calotype was adopted by the likes of Charles Nègre who took his camera out of the studio onto the streets of Paris. Known for his early experiments with different lenses, Nègre managed to capture something of the movement of the city. Amongst his most successful images were Market Scene at the Port de L'Hotel de Ville, Paris and Chimney Sweeps Walking, both taken in 1851. Other important examples of early street projects followed, such as John Thomson's Street Life in London in 1877 and Paul Martin's London by Gaslight series (c. 1896).
By the turn of the century, the city was seen as an obvious site for new picture possibilities. As photography historian Graham Clarke observed, "photography established itself in a period when the growth of the city and industry had already provoked a formidable literature and art in response to the increasing influence of urban areas, especially such cities as London, Paris and New York." In New York, the likes of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen were turning towards city architecture in the name of a Pictorialist photographic art. Steichen, a founder member of the Photo-Secession group, was for instance interested in the interrelationship between photography and Tonalist painting. Steichen, who produced several images of the Flatiron Building (the tallest building in the world on its completion in 1902), was interested in adapting and manipulating his photographs and he colorized his images of the Flatiron using layers of pigment in a light-sensitive solution.
In Paris, meanwhile, Eugène Atget was taking to the deserted city streets and alleyways with the aim of preserving something of the forgotten and unremarkable aspects of the French capital that were being lost to sweeping re-modernization projects. Atget used a large format camera, often with wide views, to capture something of the true ambiance of the city. Though he considered himself a documentarian, Atget's sparse photographs were admired by many important artists working in Paris during the first decades of the twentieth century including Matisse, Picasso, Man Ray, and Man Ray's close colleague, Berenice Abbott.
Abbott was in fact instrumental in bringing the work of Atget posthumously (he died in 1927) to the attention of the American public through her connections with New York's Julien Levy Gallery which acquired most of the Frenchman's negatives and prints on his death. When she arrived in New York (from Paris) Abbott (herself a native American) was taken aback by the transformation in New York's manmade landscape. Abandoning her allegiance to the American and French avant-gardes - which seemed to her like folly given the onset of the Great Depression - Abbott, with the financial support of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project (between 1935 to 1939), followed the spirit of Atget in documenting the changing face of the city.
Concepts and Styles
Towards a Snapshot Aesthetic
Photography's first revolution occurred as early as 1888 when George Eastman produced the Kodak camera. The Kodak was a small fixed focus camera that was relatively cheap and easy to use (it was sold on the slogan "you press the button and we do the rest"). By the turn of the century the emergence of the hugely popular pocket size Brownie prompted the Vorticist Alvin Langdon Coburn, to comment that the camera had become as "common as a box of matches." Indeed, historian Graham Clarke suggested that by empowering anyone to "construct an individual view of their world" the Brownie had effectively given rise to the "ultimate democratic art form." The issue for Street Photographers and photojournalists was still one of professional quality however. This discrepancy was soon to be remedied by the German Leica company. Leica developed its first 35mm camera in 1914 and, following modifications to several prototypes, Leica manufactured a practical 35mm film camera from 1924. The Leica was a small camera producing small negatives that lent themselves well to enlargement. Thus, in order to achieve its ends, the Leica offered fast shutter speeds with high quality lenses that would yield high definition negatives.
While the Leica was the camera of choice for many Street Photographers, some, such as Vivian Meyer, turned to a 120mm format twin lens Rollieflex camera. The Rollieflex was held at waist or chest height and allowed for greater depth of field and picture detail. However, the Rolliflex demanded a slower exposure time and the camera was more noticeable to the passer-by meaning the photographer had to forego some of their anonymity. More recently still, photographers such as Joel Meyerowitz even experimented with the larger format 8x10 Hasselblad camera.
The “Decisive Moment” and the “Vernacular”
During the 1930s the famous French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson set the precedent for what became known specifically as Street Photography (though, like most Street Photographers, that term does not do justice to his whole career). Inspired initially by Martin Munkácsi's image Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika (c.1930) - "I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment" he said on seeing the Hungarian's photograph - Cartier-Bretton bought a Leica I fitted with a 50mm lens. He painted his camera black, making it less visible to onlookers, and took to the streets of Paris with the aim of "fixing for eternity" something of the movement of the city. Through what became better known as his "decisive moment" technique, Cartier-Bresson's street photography distinguished itself from the more prosaic documentary approach.
A contemporary of Cartier-Bresson was the Hungarian born French photographer Brassaï who was widely acclaimed for his photographs of Parisian night life and especially his famous book Paris by Night (1932). As much as Cartier-Bresson is associated with "the decisive moment" so Brassaï is associated with the idea of slang, or "vernacular," photography. Brassaï developed innovative solutions to help compensate for the lack of daylight, using the street and interior locations as "sets" from which he could draw on indirect, or man-made, lighting sources. Both men formed close bonds with the Surrealists and so their Street Photography - which at core embraced the principle of the Surrealist's spontaneous "automatic" technique - is often attributed with blurring any obvious distinction between what might be called Documentary Photography and fine art. But ultimately, it was the photographers' curiosity for the lived phenomena of twentieth-century urbanization, and of Paris in particular, that determined the subjects onto whom, and on which, these two great pioneers turned their lenses.
Towards The Americans
There was no such room for artistic ambiguity when viewing Walker Evans's raw photography. Evans is still perhaps best known for his social documentary photographs of the Great Depression and his 1938 collection American Photographs was in fact the first photographic exhibition held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That exhibition also featured Street Photography from his travels to Cuba and the Southern states, though his most iconic street photographs were taken between 1939-41 - and in fact beneath the streets - on the New York subway system. Using a concealed 35mm Contax camera, which Evans activated with a rigged shutter cable release, he was able to record the culture and manners of commuters.
An important contemporary of Evans, the Brooklyn born Helen Levitt took her inspiration from both Cartier-Bresson and Evans. Levitt used her camera to capture the street lives of women and children, and people from New York's minority communities through a style that blurred the line between documentary and theatricality. Levitt's work is revered for the way it matched creative and technical skill with a tender humanism. But there can be little doubt that Street Photography was elevated to new artistic standards in the late 1950s with the publication of Robert Frank's book The Americans, undoubtedly one of the most influential photographic projects of the 20th century.
Driven by the wanderlust of a Beatnik, Frank took his Leica onto the streets and highways of 1950s America. Describing himself as being "like a detective or a spy" Frank used his camera to capture an unvarnished and unguarded cross-section of American society, and in so doing, he brought a new sense of liberation to photographic art. Frank shunned the principle of balanced compositions in favor of crooked, grainy high contrasts in black and white and his spontaneous approach to his subjects was to prove decisive in expanding the creative possibilities for Street Photography. The Americans, which boasted an introduction from the famous Beat writer Jack Kerouac, was so influential because Frank achieved a further - or higher - meditative dimension to his work. He realized this feat by coupling images of American citizens with the street signs and symbols of consumer culture that defined their lived environment. The spectator is therefore encouraged to look at The Americans as a whole; to make sense of the collected images through poetic and conceptual relations between his subjects and how they interact with their immediate surroundings.
The New “Golden Age”
In 1967 the New Documents exhibition announced the arrival of Frank's successors. Introducing the work of Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus, the exhibition's curator, John Szarkowski, spoke of a new approach to Street Photography; one that "emphasized the pathos and conflicts of modern life presented without editorializing or sentimentalizing but with a critical, observant eye." The three colleagues represented then a shift that saw the point of view of the photographer add to the meaning of the image. Arbus identified with, and duly sought out, particular subjects, namely those who occupied the margins of society (outsiders whom she affectionately referred to as "freaks"), Winogrand's attitude was often (though not always) one of an aggressive intruder whose aim was to elicit a response from his subjects when confronted with his camera. Friedlander, meanwhile, demonstrated a particular liking for reflections and shadows, usually his own, in windows, glass doors and mirrors while his attraction to signs, billboards and other hoardings saw critical readings of his work align with the postmodern idea of a hyperreal (the idea that all truth is masked by so many signs) America. And though he came to the fore a little later on, Joel Meyerowitz, who was most admired for changing negative attitudes towards color photography, spoke of his Street Photography in erotic terms, suggesting that his own take on New York street life during the mid 1960s and early 1970s was about "The heat of the gazes between people, the charged mystery that arises from capturing chance moments on the fly."
The Ethics of Street Photography
Some countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, where privacy rights do not extend to public places (though what qualifies as a public and private space is often contested), the rights of the photographer are favored. In other, European Union, countries, where the right to freedom of expression is challenged by the individual's right to ownership of his or her image, the situation is even more complex.
This point can be illustrated through Robert Doisneau's 1950 photograph The Kiss. Depicting a young couple stopping to kiss on a busy Parisian street, The Kiss has become an internationally recognized symbol of romantic love. Yet the photograph (unlike most of Doisneau's pictures) was not entirely impromptu. Having seen the couple (Françoise Delbart, and Jacques Carteaud) kissing, and, not wanting to photograph them without their permission, Doisneau asked if they would repeat the kiss for the camera. In fact, the story of the image's creation only came to light because another couple, believing wrongly that it was they who were depicted, sued the photographer for taking the photograph without their knowledge. They were able to bring the law suit because French law states that the individual owns the rights to his or her own likeness. Even putting the legal implications to one side, the Street Photographer carries with them the perennial moral dilemma of exploiting the lives of strangers for their own artistic ends.
Later Developments - After Street Photography
In the 1970s Street Photography fell out of favor in terms of media attention and gallery support. Though noted Street Photographers, like Martin Parr, Tom Wood, Alex Webb and Boris Savelev emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, others struggled to make a name for themselves. However, by the turn of the century the development of new digital technology and social media exhibition platforms created new possibilities for Street Photographers including the likes of Paul Graham, Laurisa Galvan, Carolyn Drake, Mark Alor Powell, and Matt Stuart. Platforms like Instagram and Flickr, and the website In-Public have made it possible for Street Photographers to form online collectives and to exhibit their work across international borders. Flickr, for instance, has over 400 groups with half a million members dedicated to Street Photography.
However, some observers, such as the Canadian photographer and writer Michael Ernest Sweet, have started to query contemporary Street Photography's validity as art. He speaks for instance of the rise of "machinegun photography," a technique whereby the digital camera (or phone) is used in "burst mode," or, the related technique through which a photographer (such as Mark Cohen) adopts a "no finder" (no viewfinder and no framing) style of shooting. Such approaches leave everything to chance and do not, in Sweet's view, bear serious comparison with the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Evans, Frank, Meyerowitz, or Arbus. It was not only the technique that troubled Sweet. There was a question of editing too. As he said: "Someone once claimed that a great photographer makes about a hundred good images in a lifetime, maybe a dozen truly great photographs." Sweet suggested that this "seems congruent with the history of photography, but plainly incongruent with the current Street Photography community where it is common for a photographer to upload a dozen or even two dozen images a day! This is simply not sustainable, not as art anyway."