Street photography, as an artistic genre, has been around for over a century, evolving with changes in technology, art, and culture. At its core, street photography captures candid moments of everyday life in public spaces, and it has become a vital part of visual storytelling and documentary photography. Street photography can be a valuable tool in exploring unique identities and culture of regions and communities, particularly in times of social growth and strife.
In the early years of photography, street photography was not particularly common due to the bulky and cumbersome equipment required–portrait work and practical bureaucratic documentation was more a priority and lucrative business. However, the advent of the portable camera in the early 1900s made it possible for photographers to capture candid moments on the streets. Pioneers such as Eugene Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson in the 1920s and 30s paved the way for modern street photography, using handheld cameras to capture everyday life in the cities they lived in.
In the 1950s and 60s, street photography flourished, thanks to the rise of faster, more accessible cameras and film. Photographers like Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand captured the spirit of post-war America, documenting the changing social and political landscape of the country. The 1970s saw street photography become more introspective, with photographers such as Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander exploring themes of identity and alienation in their work.
Since the advent of photography, socio-political changes have informed artists and key movements have emerged throughout its history. We’ve identified some of the most significant movements in street photography:
- Pictorialism: This movement emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s and was characterized by a soft focus and a painterly aesthetic. Pictorialist photographers often took photos of the urban environment and everyday life, capturing street scenes and candid moments.
- The New Vision: This movement emerged in the 1920s and was characterized by a focus on the formal elements of photography, such as lines, shapes, and patterns. New Vision photographers often experimented with angles and perspectives to create abstract and surreal images.
- Humanism: This movement emerged in the 1930s and was characterized by a focus on human emotion and experience. Humanist photographers often captured candid moments of people in public spaces, highlighting the struggles and joys of everyday life.
- Documentary: This movement emerged in the 1930s and was characterized by a focus on social issues and political events. Documentary photographers often captured images of poverty, war, and social injustice, using photography as a means of activism and social change.
- Modernism: This movement emerged in the 1950s and was characterized by a focus on the aesthetic qualities of photography, such as light, shadow, and texture. Modernist photographers often captured abstract and minimalist images of the urban environment.
- Postmodernism: This movement emerged in the 1980s and was characterized by a rejection of the traditional conventions of photography. Postmodernist photographers often used irony and humor to critique society and challenge the idea of photographic truth.
These movements are not mutually exclusive, and many street photographers have been influenced by multiple movements throughout their careers. However, each movement represents a distinct approach to the art of street photography and has had a significant impact on the genre.
There have been many notable street photographers over the past century who have made significant contributions to the genre. Five key street photographers from the past 100 years include:
- Henri Cartier-Bresson: Considered by many to be the father of modern street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer who helped define the genre in the 20th century. He was a master of the “decisive moment,” capturing fleeting moments of everyday life with his Leica camera.
- Dorothea Lange: Lange was an American photographer best known for her powerful images of the Great Depression. Her photographs of migrant workers and poverty-stricken families captured the hardships of the era and helped bring attention to the plight of those struggling during the economic crisis.
- Vivian Maier: Maier was an American photographer who worked as a nanny in Chicago for most of her life. She was also an avid street photographer, capturing images of people and places around the city. Her work remained largely unknown until after her death, when a box of her negatives was discovered at an auction.
- Garry Winogrand: Winogrand was an American photographer who captured the energy and chaos of the 1960s and 70s. His street photographs often featured candid shots of people on the move, and he was known for his ability to capture the humor and absurdity of everyday life.
- Lee Friedlander: Lee Friedlander is an American photographer known for his innovative approach to street photography. His use of reflections, shadows, and other elements of the urban environment created complex and layered images that challenge traditional notions of photographic truth. His work has had a significant impact on the evolution of street photography in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Black photographers have made significant contributions to street photography over the past century and have made important contributions to how history has been re-examined and rewritten. These artists have captured impactful visual narratives of the intimate lives and culture of Black communities that historically have been overlooked and repressed from broader narratives.
- James Van Der Zee: Van Der Zee was an African American photographer known for his portraits of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1886, Van Der Zee began his career in photography in the early 1900s and opened his own studio in Harlem in 1916. He was known for his skill in capturing the essence of his subjects, particularly African-American celebrities and cultural figures.
- Roy DeCarava: DeCarava was an American photographer known for his black and white images of African American life. His work often captured the beauty and dignity of everyday people and celebrated the richness of black culture. DeCarava’s photographs of Harlem in the 1940s and 50s are considered some of the most important images of African American life in the 20th century.
- Gordon Parks: Parks was an American photographer and filmmaker who documented the African American experience in the mid-20th century. His images of poverty, segregation, and racism in America helped bring attention to the civil rights movement and made him one of the most important photographers of his time.
- Jamel Shabazz: an American photographer known for his images of the hip-hop culture of the 1980s and 90s. His photographs capture the vibrant energy and style of young people on the streets of New York City, and his work has been instrumental in shaping the visual language of hip-hop culture. Shabazz’s images are a testament to the creativity and resilience of African American youth culture in the face of social and economic challenges.
In the digital age, street photography has undergone another evolution, with photographers using smartphones and social media to share their work and connect with a global audience. With the proliferation of social media platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr, and others, street photography has become more democratic, accessible, and inclusive practice than ever before.
Here are a few contemporary street photographers:
Brandon Stanton (Humans of New York): Stanton interviews and transcribes the lives of New Yorkers he meets on the streets of the city and provides intimate insight into the colloquial saying, “can’t judge a book by it’s cover”. His Instagram account acts as a visual anthology of the lives who make the fabric of New York.
Daido Moriyama: Moriyama is a Japanese photographer known for his gritty, black and white images of Tokyo and other urban environments. His work often features abstract and distorted images that capture the energy and chaos of modern life.
Alec Soth: The American photographer is known for his large-format color photography that often explores themes of American life, identity, and community. His photographs often have a cinematic quality, as he captures people and places in a way that suggests narrative and emotion.
Where to see photography?
- The International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City: The ICP is a museum and educational institution dedicated to photography and visual culture. It has a collection of over 200,000 photographs, including many examples of street photography, and hosts exhibitions and educational programs throughout the year.
- The Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris: The MEP is a museum and cultural center dedicated to photography. It has a collection of over 20,000 photographs, including many examples of street photography, and hosts exhibitions, workshops, and educational programs throughout the year.
- The Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) in Chicago: The MoCP is a museum dedicated to contemporary photography. It has a collection of over 16,000 photographs, including many examples of street photography, and hosts exhibitions, lectures, and educational programs throughout the year.
- The Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland: The Fotomuseum Winterthur is a museum dedicated to photography and contemporary art. It has a collection of over 20,000 photographs, including many examples of street photography, and hosts exhibitions, workshops, and educational programs throughout the year.
Many others could have also made the list, the Musée de la Photographie in Charleroi, Belgium, Houston Center for Photography, Fotografiska in many cities around the world, The Photographers Gallery in London, and Foam in Amsterdam are amongst those! Which one would have been on your list?
Keep an eye on local museums and galleries as well for exhibitions focused on regional explorations and stories of the community.
Throughout its history, street photography has been a powerful means of capturing the essence of life in public spaces, reflecting the cultural and social changes of the times. As a genre, it continues to evolve, reflecting new technologies, art forms, and cultural movements. It has helped inform and redefine how we view history and acts as a lens into the lives and infrastructure of the past.