The history of street photography has much to reveal about our changing world
A small Leica camera, pressed to the eye, snaps a photo. The woman and her dog move too quickly, however, and the resulting photo is just a blur.
The next, a man holding a briefcase, blushes as he spots the camera. He lets out a nervous laugh and strides to work holding his briefcase a little tighter.
Finally, the photographer spots a perfect candidate. A man jumps through the puddles, his dark suit starkly contrasted against the brightness of the sky. A few shots later, and Henri Cartier-Bresson has the photo he’s been waiting for.
Often regarded as the most unassuming of art forms, street photography has captured the interest of the world since the 19th century.
Something about the normalcy of the images, depicting ordinary characters in an ordinary environment, fascinates us.
Perhaps it’s the subtle details on a building or sidewalk not noticed when we go about our lives. Perhaps it’s the way the light and shadows play to create pools of darkness in an alleyway. Or perhaps it’s simply the realization that nobody is ordinary, and there is something intriguing about each person to be photographed.
Today, street photography has arguably become the most popular form of art. With smartphones a ubiquitous reality, everyone is now armed with the tools to take street photos, and the fascination with everyday scenes has only grown.
In this article, we’re going to take a step back. From Henri Cartier-Bresson to Eric Kim, we revisit the artists who have dominated the street photography scene over the last century (disclaimer: there are many more artists than are featured here, we could not possibly feature every significant contributor to the history of street photography! Treat this article as a brief snapshot of a very rich history).
We explore the changes in technology from the beginning of the 1900s to today, with the rough time period indicated throughout.
Dive in to the rich history of street photography! Learn from other artists, discover the technological advancements made over time, and grow in your understanding of photography and the world.
Used almost exclusively in the 1900s, the Leica was a 35mm still camera. Created by Oskar Barnack of the Leica Camera AG, this camera truly ignited the spark of the street photography scene, as it was compact and fairly light to carry around.
Henri Cartier-Bresson: the decisive moment
1930s – 1960s
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the undisputed father of street photography, used a Leica camera almost exclusively.
After experimenting with a Brownie camera in his early life, he soon realized that photography was his passion, and purchased the Leica camera associated with his images today.
Preferring to remain hidden from view, Cartier-Bresson would often cover the small camera with a handkerchief, so intent was he on staying unnoticed.
Throughout his successful career as a Humanist photographer (more on that later), Cartier-Bresson would photograph oblivious passersby on the street, documenting the day-to-day life of a city. He traveled extensively, straying from his hometown of Chanteloup, France, to Africa, England, New York, and India.
Cartier-Bresson was a pioneer of street photography.
His goal in capturing “the decisive moment” guided all his work and is still regarded as a key technique used today in street photography. He believed that there is a split second when the perfect photo opportunity arises, and if it is missed, then that photo is gone.
Disdainful of editing, Cartier-Bresson was a photography purist in the sense that his editing took place right there and then. Hidden from his subject’s gaze, he would position himself and wait for that “decisive moment”.
“Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson
After a three-year voyage through Asia, Cartier-Bresson returned to France and published his book, Images à la sauvette; in English, The Decisive Moment.
He remains one of the most influential street photographers of all time, and his work kicked off the street photography crusade.
Cartier-Bresson, among others such as Willy Ronis and Robert Doisneau, was a self-proclaimed practitioner of Humanist photography.
This movement focused on depicting all aspects of human life, no matter how small or insignificant. By photographing the everyday, humanist photographers hoped to capture the beauty of humanity, even in its ugliest forms.
Most prominent in France, the movement developed amidst the factories, streets and bars of Paris before becoming popular over the world.
After the horror of the first (and later, the second) World War, humanist photographers hoped to inspire compassion in the public through their images of ordinary citizens. Humanism helped to shape the focus of street photography in its early days, and remains its intrinsic philosophy.
Robert Doisneau: sentimental scenes (with a touch of humor)
1940s – 1970s
Robert Doisneau is the photographer behind Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville (The Kiss), the internationally-recognized photo depicting a kiss in the streets of Paris.
Interested in the eccentric characters seen on the street, Doisneau’s most famous work spans from the end of WWII to the 1950s.
He credits Cartier-Bresson, among others, as a heavy influence in his photography, and was inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s treatment of ordinary life as worthy to be photographed.
Doisneau was a shy man, and when he first began street photography, he would take photos of cobblestones before he gained the courage to photograph people! When he did, however, he never looked back.
His work is sentimental, and expresses life on the street in an innocent, almost melancholic fashion. He was also highly attuned to the composition of his photos, and as a member of Group XV, dedicated himself to improving the careful artistry of photography.
Doisneau’s keen sense of humor is often visible in his work, such as in the above photo.
However, he was never mocking of others; his work always demonstrated an unquestionable respect for his subjects. His many images of children playing in the street have a serious style, indicating his view of their games as equally important as his photos of businessmen.
“The marvels of daily life are so exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.”
– Robert Doisneau
Robert Frank: opinions reflected in photography
1940s – 1950s
A photographer prevalent in the 1950s, Robert Frank widened the world’s perspective on photography.
After moving to the USA from Switzerland, Frank had big dreams for his new American life. However, he soon viewed America with disdain, after he realized the intense grip money had on American citizens.
His work is colored with that disdain, and often depicts the obvious absurdity of excessive wealth on the street.
In 1958, he published his book The Americans. A collection of his photographs on American life, The Americans is still regarded as one of the most influential photography books of all time.
In it, Frank often emphasizes the loneliness that he believed plagued Americans, due to their obsession with wealth.
His work opened new doors in street photography, but was initially met with criticism. Frank’s use of low lighting, specific focus and unusual crops were regarded as sloppiness, until critics became accustomed to his style and began to appreciate his artistry.
In addition, street photography until that time had remained fairly unbiased. Frank challenged that norm by taking photos that were heavily influenced by his opinions on the subject matter.
Today, most street photography does the same, directing the viewer’s attention to an aspect of the photo the artist wants to be noticed. Robert Frank is the man to be thanked for granting photography the heavy influence on society that it has today.
Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz: masters of 1960s photography
1960s – 1980s/present
Garry Winogrand, a dominant street photographer in the 1960s (although he hated the term “street photographer”, preferring to call himself simply a photographer) was inspired to start shooting candid photos when he read The Americans.
A New Yorker through and through, Winogrand would spend entire days shooting on the streets, preferring to go out another day instead of editing and sorting his photos at home. For him, experiencing came before photographing.
Winogrand’s method of photography is perhaps one of the most unusual in the history of street photography.
He wouldn’t hide himself, blatantly taking photos of everything he saw; with only a brief glance in the viewfinder, he would snap countless photos of the same scene.
Instead of waiting for the “decisive moment” like Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand’s mantra was to shoot as much as possible. Every millisecond changes a scene slightly, perhaps leading to a better photo than the millisecond before. Winogrand understood this instinctively.
“Every photo is a battle of form versus content.”
– Garry Winogrand
Described as a “magician using color”, Joel Meyerowitz was photographing on the streets of New York at the same time as Winogrand, and often with him.
The first true champion of color photography, Meyerowitz is credited as changing the condescension of the public into acceptance, and finally appreciation, of color photography.
“If my pictures work at all, they are suggesting tenuous relationships between two unrelated things.”
– Joel Meyerowitz
Meyerowitz constantly questioned himself. What do I want to photograph? Why am I taking photos? What do I hope to learn or teach or experience through my photos? Those questions provided Meyerowitz with the drive to make definitive choices in his photography, as an answer to those questions.
For years Meyerowitz carried two cameras on the street: a black and white Leica and a color Leica.
Over time, Meyerowitz began to prefer the results from the color Leica, describing color photos as having “more wavelengths, more radiance, more sensation”. His rationality was that humans don’t see in black and white, so why should photos be black and white?
Meyerowitz proved that color photos are just as professional and artistic as black and white photos, and in doing so, opened the doors of color photography to the world.
Tony Ray-Jones: British society immortalized
Tony Ray-Jones, a friend of Meyerowitz and Winogrand, made influential changes to street photography – despite his short-lived career of 10 years.
After studying photography among these fellow masters in New York, Ray-Jones returned to Britain, and began photographing the eccentricity of England.
His 35mm lens Leica camera in hand, Ray-Jones set out on the streets (and beaches, and parks, and fields…) of Britain to capture the nostalgia of his home country. He believed that soon the British way of life would be Americanized, and it was his duty to record it before it disappeared.
“My aim is to communicate something of the spirit and the mentality of the English…”
– Tony Ray-Jones
After his death, Ray-Jones inspired many notable photographers, Martin Parr among his most devoted fans.
The most intriguing feature of his photos (that interested many in his work) is his photo compositions. They are often complex, seeming cluttered at first. However, each detail adds a relevant aspect to the photo; it is due to this fine control of composition that his photos became noticed.
Humour is often injected into his work, offering a quirky and sentimental attitude to his photographs. The peculiar characters often featured in his images contribute to his obvious affection for Britain, and preserve the unique lifestyle he spent the last decade of his life striving to capture.
Kent State Shooting
Because of their instant nature, street photography can capture extremely poignant events, almost before the photographer realizes what is going on. Such images have the power to open the eyes of the public to important societal issues.
A notable example of one such photo depicts Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the body of her classmate, a victim of the 1970 Kent State University shooting.
The gunshots fired for 13 seconds. Startled by her scream, student John Filo captured the tragic scene on camera; the image went on to feature in the New York Times, win a Pulitzer Prize, and inspire the song “Ohio” by Neil Young.
To this day it remains a bleak snapshot of the horror of unprecedented attacks on innocent people, made pertinent again in the wake of the Manchester bombing.
In 1978, the “Jasupin” Konica C35 AF was released, a point-and-shoot camera. This was a revolutionary step forward. Now, cameras would auto-focus, meaning less time spent fiddling with the camera, and more time shooting.
The first electronic still camera by Canon was invented only 6 years later. By 1991, Kodak had created the first DCS Nikon F-3 camera, and photographers never looked back.
David Alan Harvey: introducing photography to the internet
1970s – present
Still photographing at 70 years old, David Alan Harvey can be credited as bridging the gap between photography and the internet.
Harvey expanded on the more vibrant world of color allowed by more advanced camera technology, producing intense colored images that were a peephole into the cultures of the world.
He was a prolific National Geographic photographer, shooting street photography in places all over the world; Vietnam, Mexico, Nairobi… Through his travels, Harvey documented everyday life around the world, providing many with their first glimpse into life overseas.
“Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.”
– David Alan Harvey
Harvey was also a firm believer in “the decisive moment”. His take on it was to shoot as soon as an interesting subject appears. By fiddling with camera settings, focusing on the subject and moving to the correct light, the photo will be lost forever.
“Shoot first, focus later.”
– David Alan Harvey
One of Harvey’s key aspects in taking a photo is emotion.
If a photo doesn’t speak to him, cajole him, anger him, persuade him; there is no use in the photo. Often photographers will keep a photo because the technical features are appealing. However, the allure to Harvey’s work is in the emotion of his images. Each photo tells a story.
Bruce Gilden: a different method in the streets
1990s – present
One of the most controversial photographers of all time, Bruce Gilden has a reputation for his photography approach.
Unlike Cartier-Bresson, Gilden is pushy, and sometimes aggressive when shooting strangers on the street. He has elicited mixed responses from fellow artists; some call him a genius, others, such as Meyerowitz, refer to him as “an aggressive bully”.
His work has been compiled into 6 books, each of which display different cities or sets of images. His book “Haiti” displays the poverty-stricken island in an interesting light; he strives to capture the humanity present on the street in each photo he takes, capturing unusual circumstances in some photos.
There is much to be learnt from Gilden. His unapologetic photography creates realistic characters out of strangers; despite shooting only in black-and-white, the flash he uses illuminates their faces and highlights the anxiety that Gilden feels consumes New Yorkers.
His work is certainly beautiful in its own way. Often shooting from a low angle to make the subject appear larger, Gilden’s characters pop out the photo.
They are sometimes angry (due to his ruthless photography technique) and sometimes indifferent, but either way, their emotion is tangible.
That’s what Gilden appreciates in street photography, the capturing of raw emotion and personalities in public, something missed when walking the streets and keeping your head down.
Magnum Photos is a photographic co-operative.
Co-founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum is owned by a collection of the greatest street photographers of all time, including Bruce Gilden and David Alan Harvey, and hosts the most impressive collection of street photography in the world.
Updated daily, every new and promising photo is uploaded to the collection, making it the best resource for the aspiring street photographer to reference and explore.
Eric Kim: a future for street photography
Eric Kim is perhaps the most knowledgeable street photographer today.
Well-versed in the masters, continually seeking new techniques, and with an impressive portfolio in addition, Kim can truly be ranked among the greats in street photography.
Based in LA, Kim is satisfied with shooting his hometown streets. He is a strong believer that there is nowhere in the world that is boring to photograph: each place has its own quirks, its own characters, and its own interesting scenes.
His photography style is ever-evolving, but Kim regards himself as a “social-critique photographer”. With a background in Sociology, he conveys his views on society through his images, awakening others to issues that are perhaps hidden from plain view.
Through his photography, Kim offers us a glimpse into his perspective of the world, and his work is often extremely moving.
Interestingly, Kim shoots with a film camera. He prefers the long wait before being able to view his photos, as it offers time to detach himself emotionally. Then, he can look at his photos in an objective light, and make better judgment on whether to keep them or not.
On Kim’s blog, he offers his tips and tricks, reviews, and lessons he’s learnt from the masters of street photography. If you want to learn more about the history of street photography, check out his comprehensive article here.
The beauty of street photography is that it remains relatable, regardless of how much society has evolved since the photo was taken.
The common themes captured in street photography remain visible today: homelessness, wealth, oblivion, embarrassment, tenderness, love, pain… These threads running through street photography of the past still feature in works of new artists like Eric Kim and Carolyn Drake.
There are no new emotions. Each photo simply shows the world as it is, unobscured and open.
“If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph.”
– Bruce Gilden
Why is street photography so appealing, then?
In the words of Ralph Hattersley, “We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.” If there is always emotion in the world, there will always be street photography.