“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.” (Susan Sonntag)
Old Paris around the turn of the century (Eugène Atget)—a man with a bowler hat and a cigarette holder in an avenue in Marseilles (Henri Cartier-Bresson)—people hurrying to work in the early morning light of Wall Street (Paul Strand)—Clochards beneath the Pont Neuf at night (Brassaï)—Lovers in a café, on the street, in the park (Ed van der Elsken, Bill Brandt)—children playing in Harlem or on the Lower East Side (Helen Levitt)—feet running across the pavement (Lisette Model)—women strolling down Fifth Avenue (Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Bruce Gilden)—passengers on the bus (Robert Frank) and the subway in New York or Tokyo (Walker Evans, Bruce Davidson, Nobuyoshi Araki)—a young family on a Sunday outing in Brooklyn (Diane Arbus) . . .
These are just some of the motifs and masters that have become classics of street photography, known through some of the characteristic hallmarks of this genre. Even if we leave out its predecessors in the nineteenth century, street photography can still look back on approximately 120 years of history. It denotes a practice of photography in the broadest sense, and the kinds of photographs whose setting is the street, meaning, the public space. Above all, street photography is city photography, but it is not a topographical approach taken from a distant perspective. It does not concentrate much on panoramic, inanimate views of streets or skylines, and is rarely focused on buildings and their relationships to their surroundings, their mass, or the interplay of light and shadow on façades. Street photography, as its name indicates, takes place mainly at eye level, on the level of the street, and is devoted to situations and people in (mostly) urban spaces, while its range of expression covers the entire spectrum, from documentary photojournalism to the fine arts photograph.
Paris is considered the “cradle of street photography.” As early as 1850 one of its predecessors, the pioneering French photographer Charles Nègre, began capturing pictures of heavily trafficked streets and lively scenes from everyday life in Paris—although, due to the long exposure time necessary in those days, the photos were a little blurry. Around fifty years later Eugène Atget documented old Paris, threatened with demolition, in dreamy, surrealistic photographs of surprising motifs and unconventional perspectives. His work paved the way for Brassaï’s impressions of Paris by night, for example, which were published in 1933 in the famous book, Paris de nuit.
In his pictures Atget seems to capture something that is eternally valid, but he did not appear to be trying to react to the many stimuli and dynamics of the large modern city. He worked with a cumbersome plate camera, even though the first handheld cameras were available in the 1890s. As a result of the spread of handheld cameras, street photography began to unfold as a genre of its own around 1900. Artists such as Paul Martin, Heinrich Zille, George Hendrik Breitner, and Arnold Genthe, or wealthy amateurs such as Giuseppe Primoli, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, and Alice Austen wandered through cities besides Paris, spontaneously capturing situations that they happened to run into in London, Berlin, Amsterdam, San Francisco’s Chinatown, Rome, and New York. Sometimes they posed the people they encountered for a picture, but often they did not know they were being photographed. They were anonymous subjects for voyeur photographers, whose “secretive curiosity” was encouraged even more by the rise of the compact camera. Without this technological tool, street photography would have been inconceivable.
Early 20th-century street photography developed a “kind of snapshot aesthetics that was perfectly adapted to modern city life . . . Urban rhythms were translated into a celebration of the instantaneous and into an acceptance of unclassical framings and a moderate motion blur. In the 1930s, these aesthetics principles were brought to perfection by photographers working with the Leica such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and André Kertész.” With his famous philosophy of the “decisive moment,” Cartier-Bresson gave a suitable response to the hectic pace of life in the big city, as he understood how to combine his quickly captured motifs with a sense of balanced, elegant composition. Until well into the 1950s he was a role model for street photographers in both Europe and the United States.
Street photography blossomed in the 1930s. Before and after World War II Paris and life on the street in the French metropolis were immortalized and published in countless books of photography by not only Kertész and Cartier-Bresson, but also Lartigue, Germaine Krull, Brassaï, Robert Doisneau, Ed van der Elsken, and John Van der Keuken.
Across the Atlantic the so-called New York School flourished between 1936 and 1963, with photographers such as Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, William Klein, Weegee, Bruce Davidson, and Diane Arbus modeling themselves after Cartier-Bresson. However, these photographers worked with more asymmetrical or dynamic composition, skewed angles, blur, and incongruous elements, in order to capture the exuberance of everyday life surrounding them in Harlem and the Lower East Side, or the “random choreography of the city’s sidewalks, the crush of bodies on Coney Island’s beaches, the glow of street lights, and the glare of Times Square.” They all shared a common sense of interest in society—something that also distinguished Ben Shan and Walker Evans, who impressively documented the poverty during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The works by Frank—who achieved fame with his classic book of photos, The Americans (1958) on everyday life in 1950s’ America—along with the works of Weegee and Klein expressed the nervousness, rawness, and harshness of life in the big city. Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus carried this approach further in the 1960s. Their works are regarded as the apex of classic street photography, but also seemed to signal a caesura, as changes in urban, social, and aesthetic ideas and circumstances in the late 1960s and early 1970s occurred.
Increasing individualization, the rise of the multicultural society, and the growing importance of marginalized groups led to the collapse of bourgeois society in the classic sense, and with that, the disappearance of public space. Photographers such as Bruce Davidson and Nan Goldin devoted themselves in the late 1970s and early 1980s to phenomena of a personal character, preferring jarring or extreme subjects and the depiction of subcultures.
By that time urban life had shifted from the inner cities outward to the suburbs and urban peripheries. “The hot, jerky snapshot aesthetic of street photography was exchanged in favor of a revaluation of the large-view-camera and its cooler, slower, and more architectural and topographical approach more adapted to lower density suburban areas. The leading tendencies in the urban photography of the last decades—conceptual art, New Topographics, and the new German photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and Axel Hütte—are characterized by a topographical interest or by a predilection for spatial structures, often inspired by a minimalist abstraction.”
In the 1980s and ‘90s street photography showed people in a post-urban landscape, but it had taken on to a great extent the stillness of large-format, topographical urban photography. The people in the pictures of Jitka Hanzlová or Joel Sternfeld pose, while in the photos by Francis Alÿs or Erwin Wurm they even seem to have been transformed into living sculpture. Jeff Wall works with artfully arranged scenes, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia uses a large-format camera and theatrical spotlights. The works of Nikki S. Lee or Beat Streuli also feature similar strategies, which simply stage the spontaneity and coincidence of street life.
Perhaps we have simply lost sight of the original kind of street photography. As the volume Street Photography Now (2010) documents, there has been a revival of this kind of street photography since the turn of this century, which reconnects to the classics of the genre in the way that it relies upon spontaneity, coincidence, and the snapshot aesthetic, in order to capture street life in and outside of the old and new metropolises throughout the entire world.
Based on: Steven Jacobs, “Street Photography,” in: Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Lynne Warren, ed., vol. 3: O–Z, London and New York 2006, pp. 1503-1508.
December 5, 2011 Anja Breloh