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Street Photography from Grove Art Online

In honor of World Art Day on 15 April 2014, Oxford is hosting a street photography competition. But what exactly is street photography? The below article from Grove Art Online by Lisa Hostetler explores the history of street photography, as well as its relationship to contemporary art.  As Dr. Hostetler explains, this type of art includes “photographs exposed in and of an urban environment and made with artistic intent.”

Street photography

Genre of photography that can be understood as the product of an artistic interaction between a photographer and an urban public space. It is distinguished from documentary photography in that the photographer is not necessarily motivated by the evidentiary value or socio-political function of the resulting photographs. Unlike photojournalism, a street photographer’s images are not intended to illustrate a news story or other narrative. Instead, their primary goal is expressive and communicates a subjective impression of the experience of everyday life in a city. Thus neither the locale nor the subject-matter defines street photography; it is the photographer’s approach to the medium and movement through public space that differentiate street photography from related forms of photography.

1. Technological factors and the roots of street photography

Photographs made in or of an urban environment are as old as the history of the medium itself, but street photography did not coalesce into a distinct form of photographic practice until the 20th century. Louis Daguerre‘s view of the Boulevard du Temple (1838), made from the window of his studio, suggests one reason why: the daguerreotype’s relatively long exposure time meant that the majority of people on the street were invisible in the photograph; the only person who stood still long enough to register on the plate was a man who stopped to get a shoeshine. In the first decade after the announcement of photography’s invention, photographic optics and chemistry were not fast enough to capture bustling crowds—a hallmark of urban life and a key element in street photography. The wet collodion negatives that dominated photographic practice in the 1850s and 1860s continued to involve significant time, requiring the photographer to prepare, expose, and develop negatives all in the space of about ten minutes. This made immersion in the experience of the street difficult and did not lend itself easily to spontaneity—a quality upon which later street photography thrived. With the introduction of dry-plate negatives in the 1870s and then gelatin silver roll film in the 1880s, photographic technology became more conducive to street photography. In addition, the launch and dissemination of the 35mm camera beginning in the mid-1920s was a particular boon to street photography; its hand-held size allowed for candid, easy movement through well-populated spaces, and many of the films developed for it were sensitive enough to record images even in situations with limited light. Unlike earlier snapshot cameras, the photographer held the camera up to his or her eye to look through the viewfinder instead of peering down into it from above. This facilitated the sense of the camera as an extension of the mind’s eye and permitted photographers to move along with the rhythm of street life more fully. With such technological developments in place, street photography flourished, particularly in the decades immediately after World War II.

Before that time, much of the photography that has come to be associated with the genre had its roots in another form of the medium. For example, Charles Marville’s photographs of French architecture and condemned roads in Paris suggest urban life in the 1850s and 1860s, but they were produced primarily to record the existence of culturally significant buildings and infrastructure slated for demolition. Similarly, Eugène Atget‘s images of Paris from the late 19th century and early 20th were originally intended as documents for artists rather than as independent works of art. Nevertheless, their collective impression of the city as a place with a specific mood—one in which ageing building façades and reflective store windows combine to evoke the mien of an anonymous urban populace—established Atget as a godfather of street photography for generations of subsequent artists.

The seeds of street photography are also present in photographs from the early years of the 20th century by Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand. Stieglitz’s Winter, Fifth Avenue (1893) and The Terminal (1893) record quotidian scenes of New York life, employing snow and smoke to enhance the pictorial power of the image. In photographs such as Wall Street, New York (1915), Strand created an image that defines the experience of scale in the city’s financial district while juxtaposing the structural geometry of the built environment with the pattern of figures and shadows on the sidewalk. Blind (1916) depicts an unfortunately common feature of urban life, a blind beggar on the street, but the image may also be interpreted as a comment on the voyeurism of candid photography in public. Thus, both Stieglitz and Strand made photographs on New York streets that contributed to the development of the genre, but street photography was not their primary pursuit.

2. Development and fruition

In the years between World War I and World War II, several photographers had a formidable impact on the subsequent maturation of street photography. Hungarian photographer André Kertész‘s images of Paris made after his adoption of the 35mm camera in 1928, such asMeudon (1928) and Carrefour Blois (1930), communicate the everyday surrealism and graphic élan characteristic of metropolitan life. Kertész was an important figure for both Brassaï and Henri Cartier-Bresson—two photographers whose work fundamentally shaped the practice of street photography after World War II. Brassaï, whom Kertész introduced to photography, became especially well known for his photographs of Paris at night. His images of the characters, sights, and activities endemic to the nocturnal life of France’s capital city were published in book form asParis de nuit (1933), a foundational book of street photographs. Kertész was also a mentor to Cartier-Bresson, whose concept of the ‘decisive moment’—the instant when subject-matter and compositional form align, as in Behind the Gare Saint Lazare (1932)—guided his photographs of everyday life in Paris, Madrid, New York, and other cities beginning in the 1930s. Famous for his devotion to the Leica camera, rejection of flash photography, and purported refusal to crop his images, Cartier-Bresson advocated spontaneity and intuition as the driving forces of creative photography. His 1952 book Images à la sauvette laid out these principles and became a touchstone for subsequent generations of street photographers.

The immediate post-war years inaugurated a particularly rich era in the history of street photography in the United States. Several key street photographers—including Lisette ModelHelen LevittLouis FaurerWilliam Klein, Saul Leiter (b 1923), and Robert Frank—produced their best-known images between 1940 and 1959. Some, such as Helen Levitt, distilled decisive moments from city life into universal human images. Others, such as William Klein, transformed restless glances and brash gestures into grainy, often blurry images that embodied the frantic pace and aggressive rhythm of post-war New York City. Meanwhile, Louis Faurer trained his camera on the idiosyncratic characters, gritty nightlife, and poignant personal interactions that were common to the urban scene but absent from mainstream representations of American social life. Such photographs imparted a particularly subjective view of public space, underscoring the expressive possibilities of photography. In 1955–6, Robert Frank travelled throughout the United States making the photographs that would eventually become The Americans, a book of his work published in France in 1958 and in the United States in 1959. Although not composed exclusively of street photographs, the book established street photography as a legitimate creative pursuit and launched Frank as one of the consummate American photographers of his generation.

Street photography flourished outside the United States during the post-war period as well. In France it was dominated by three figures: Robert DoisneauWilly Ronis, and Izis. Doisneau’s The Kiss (1950), which depicts a sailor passionately kissing a woman in front of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, captured the energy and optimism to which many aspired after the devastation of World War II. It became one of the best-known photographs of the era. In England, Roger Mayne photographed everyday life on working-class streets after the war. His perceptive impressions of Teddy Boys and working ‘stiffs’ sharing the pavement in London foreshadowed generational tensions that would erupt in the 1960s. Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama also turned to street photography during these years. His images suggest an undercurrent of restlessness and repression in a society shattered by war and caught between tradition and modernity.

By the 1960s the snapshot aesthetic had become a prominent motif in American photography, thanks in large part to curator John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. A master of this mode, Garry Winogrand applied his talents to the streets of New York and other cities throughout the 1960s and 1970s. His street photographs, in which titled horizon lines, apparently haphazard framing, and bold movements make frequent appearances, seem to channel the kinetic energy of his subjects, making many of his images iconic examples of the genre.

3. Street photography and contemporary art

As conceptual artists began to incorporate photographs into their work in the late 1960s and 1970s, the presence of photography in contemporary art expanded, and street photography became a form of performance art. Douglas Huebler (1924–97) and Sophie Calle created work that shared street photography’s embrace of chance interactions in public space. However, their work replaced street photography’s spontaneous, subjective edge with the prescriptive procedural frameworks characteristic of conceptual art.

In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, as the world became increasingly saturated by photographic imagery that was ever easier to manipulate, street photography found new contexts. Its emphasis on spontaneity and intuition promised an inherent authenticity, making it an appealing genre for a number of contemporary artists. Some, like Philip-Lorca diCorcia (b 1951), used it to question photography’s axiomatic association with truth. DiCorcia’s photographs on international city streets in the 1990s appear to be extemporaneous examples of street photography, but in fact, the scenarios were carefully arranged and lit. Other artists, such as Zoe Strauss (b 1970), continued to pursue street photography in its straightforward form. Her images, made in South Philadelphia, extended the accessibility, sincerity, and sense of personal exposure associated with classic street photography into the contemporary age. Outside the United States, artists such as Alexey Titarenko (b 1962) and Graeme Williams have also brought the genre of street photography into the 21st century.


J. Livingston: The New York School: Photographs, 1936–1963 (New York, 1992)
J. Meyerowitz and C. Westerbeck: Bystander: A History of Street Photography (New York, 1994)
K. Brougher and R. Ferguson: Open City: Street Photographs since 1950 (Oxford and Ostfildern, 2001)
U. Eskildsen: Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography (London and New York, 2008)
L. Lee and W. Rugg, eds: Street Art, Street Life: from the 1950s to Now (New York, 2008)
L. Hostetler: Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in Photography 1940–1959 (Milwaukee, 2010)

Lisa Hostetler

Oxford Art Online offers access to the most authoritative, inclusive, and easily searchable online art resources available today. Through a single, elegant gateway users can access — and simultaneously cross-search — an expanding range of Oxford’s acclaimed art reference works: Grove Art Online, the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, The Oxford Companion to Western Art, and The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, as well as many specially commissioned articles and bibliographies available exclusively online.

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