Street Photography Research

Here, I am going to research into street photography. I will be looking at the history of street photography to help me gain a better understanding of the subject. I will also be analysing some existing street photographers work to help me get inspiration for my own work. Finally, I will develop a detailed definition of what I consider as street photography. 

The History of Street Photography

Street photography is essentially described as ‘a genre of photography that records everyday life in a public place’ (Britannica, n.d.). Some of the earliest known photographs that I am about to analyse were taken in the street but may not necessarily be classed as street photography, I will be exploring this concept more later.

One of the earliest known photos is titled ‘View from the window of Le Gras’ and was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in around 1826/27. The scene was captured using a Camera Obscura and processed using the heliographic process, which Niépce had invented. This process would then form the foundations for Louis Daguerre to be able to invent one of the most revolutionary photographic processes, the Daguerreotype, which was ‘the first successful form of photography’ (Britannica, n.d.). 

Another good example of early street photography was taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838 titled ‘View of the Boulevard du Temple’. It shows a Parisian street scene and was one of the first photos taken of a human. As the Daguerreotype needed about 15 minutes of exposure time, the man in the photograph getting his shoes shined shows up on the photograph and there is a faint outline of the shoe shiner, but it was said that ‘others were walking or riding in carriages down that busy street that day, but because they moved, they didn’t show up’ (Open Culture, 2017). 

After this early photography period, ‘street photography’ still wasn’t necessarily a known term. However, documentary photography and photojournalism did exist from the mid 1800’s and these genres of photography would crossover into what we think of as street photography today. ‘Documentary Photography describes photography that attempts to capture real-life situations and settings’ (The Art Story, n.d.), this could also easily be used to describe street photography.

Often, documentary photographers would be commissioned by someone to take photos of certain situations amongst society. For example, Jacob Riis, who was a Danish immigrant who lived in New York and ‘was a police reporter for the New York Tribune newspaper.’ (The Met Museum, 2004). In the 1880’s, he took photos to go alongside his work reporting on the over-crowded and run down Lower East Side slums. From this, he ‘became known as one of the city’s most important social reformers.’ (The Met Museum, 2004). He ended up publishing his collection of photos into a book, titled ‘How the Other Half Lives’ to try and bring attention to the terrible conditions the residents of the Lower East Side were living in. Riis’ book even caught the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who at that time was a Police Commissioners board member in New York. Roosevelt said to Riis ‘I have read your book, and I have come to help.’ (Kuroski, 2021). Roosevelt eventually went onto become the 26th US president, and he was said to be ‘especially active in addressing the treatment of the poor’. (Kuroski, 2021). This shows just how impactful photography can be. 

Eventually, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, newer photographic processes came about which were easier to use. This led to street photography becoming much more popular and ‘coincided with the urbanization and globalisation of the world’ (Kim, n.d.). One of the earliest street photographers was Eugene Atget. He ‘photographed the streets of Paris at the turn of the 20th century [and] he worked at a time when photography was rising in popularity’ (Mishra, n.d.). Many of Atget’s work didn’t necessarily feature people in the street scenes. He was more focused on capturing the architecture within the streets of Paris as they were at risk of modernisation. From this, his work would more likely be classed as documentary photography or architectural photography, ‘but he is cited by many later street photographers as a major influence’ (Mishra, n.d.).

Many photographers were then influenced by Atget’s work including French photographer, ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose early work sought to imitate Atget’ (Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson). Cartier-Bresson started his photographic career in the 1930’s, eventually becoming a pioneer within street photography, and is probably one of the most well known street photographers to this day. I feel that his work captures moments really naturally, shown by how ‘his signature shooting technique was to find a visually arresting setting for a photograph and then patiently wait for that decisive moment to unfurl’ (Estrin, 2016). Cartier-Bresson was even known to sometimes go as far as concealing his camera, making it much less conspicuous meaning that ‘most of the images that he captured his subjects were oblivious of the camera, and thus truly candid’ (Kim, n.d.).

Street Photographers Research

After having looked into the history of street photography, and gaining a better understanding of where street photography originated from, I am now going to look into the works of some more street photographers whose work I find very inspiring. 

Robert Doisneau also photographed the streets of Paris around the 1930’s, alongside other great street photographers of that era, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and André Kertész. However, in researching different street photographers, I did find Doisneau’s images very striking. He was known for being ‘always charmed by his subjects, he enjoyed finding amusing juxtapositions or oddities of human nature’ (Svenning, n.d.). One of my favourite photos by Doisneau is the one with the man stood in the rain, holding an umbrella over a cello case whilst a man in the background is painting. I find the photo very captivating, I feel that the photo leaves the viewer quite intrigued as to what is going on in the image and why. Doisneau has definitely managed to capture an unusual and unique moment in time. I also find black and white photography to be very fascinating. The high contrast black and white helps to add to the overall atmosphere, which is also emphasised by the rain on the floor giving it a rather moody vibe. 

I find Vivian Maier’s story to be really intriguing. She began working as a nanny in Chicago in the 1950’s, where she also began to take photographs on the streets of Chicago. She took many photographs until into the late 90’s, amassing a collection of 100,000 negatives. In her old age, she had to store her collection in a storage locker. Due to not keeping up with the storage locker payments, her storage locker was put to auction. ‘Maier’s massive body of work would come to light when in 2007 her work was discovered at a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest Side’ (Vivian Maier.com, n.d.) by John Maloof, ‘who has since dedicated himself to establishing her legacy’ (Howard Greenberg Gallery, n.d.). He put Maier’s photographs online, and they ended up going viral. Unfortunately, Maier had passed away by this time.‘Maloof [then] began to investigate the life and work of Maier, culminating in the Oscar-nominated documentary Finding Vivian Maier (2014). Since the discovery of her work, Maier’s photographs have [been] the subject of several publications and have been exhibited at major institutions throughout the world’ (Howard Greenbery Gallery, n.d.). It is not known as to why Maier kept her photography a secret or whether she would have liked the fact that her images have been seen by so many people posthumously. I feel that the mystery surrounding her and her life story just adds to the intrigue to her photos. 

Shirley Baker documented the working class streets of Manchester and Salford from the 1960’s-80’s. Many of these photographs, like the ones shown above, are taken during the ‘slum clearance’ years which many towns and cities in the UK experienced post-war. Baker said ‘my sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them’ (Baker, n.d.). One photo in particular is very impactful. The image of a large queue of people outside a caravan with a sign above that reads ‘rehousing enquiries’. It shows that, although there is a lot of destruction going on in the lives of the people in the image, life still goes on. Even though these moments are quite mundane to them, the resulting photograph is quite powerful.

Alan Schaller is a modern day photographer who opts to take mainly black and white photos. He incorporates lots of use of light and shadow, similar to the work of the older photographers that I have researched such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. I find this style of high contrast photography stands out really well, and I feel very inspired by this style in my own work. 

Street Photography Pinterest Inspiration Board


(Please click on ‘Street Photography Inspiration’ to view the whole board on Pinterest or click here)

Here is a Pinterest moodboard which I am compiling of different Street Photography Photos that I hope to find inspiration from when doing my own work. 

Defining Street Photography

After researching into the history of street photography and analysing some of the photographers work, I now need to develop a more detailed definition of what I consider to be street photography so I can follow this guideline when doing my own practical work.

Initially, when looking at the very early photos, I assumed that they could be classed as street photography, as they are taken in the street. However, I realise now that it could be argued that they aren’t. This is down to the fact that these early photos took hours of preparation and exposure time to create any results. The resulting image doesn’t portray the actual life of the street accurately. 

For example, the photo that I researched earlier, ’View of the Boulevard du Temple’ by Louis Daguerre was an image of a Parisian street scene. It shows the architecture, the road lined with trees, and a person stood getting their shoes shined. Although there are some signs of life within the photo, the final resulting photo wasn’t an accurate portrayal of how this street scene would have looked to the photographers eyes. It took around 15 minutes of exposure time to create this photo, meaning that lots of other things were happening in the street, such as other people walking along the path and horse carriages travelling down the street. Due to the long exposure time and the fact that they were moving (unlike the man getting his shoes shined) they didn’t appear on the final photograph. So, technically, this doesn’t capture the scene as how it would have appeared in a certain moment in time 

I also have considered whether having no human present in a street photograph would still be defined as street photography. In my opinion, a street photograph can be classed as street photography if there is a living thing in the street – this may be a human or an animal, and if there was no sign of a living thing, the photograph would be classed as architectural photography.

This research has helped me to realise that the timing of the photograph definitely plays an important part into what I consider is classed as street photography. I feel that it needs to capture a more genuine moment in time, the same image as what the photographers eyes would have seen. For these reasons, I will be personally defining street photography as ‘a photograph taken in the street of a singular moment in time’ throughout the rest of my work.

Is Street Photography Acceptable?

I have decided to raise the question of whether the act of taking street photography photos of people is acceptable or not. In the UK, it is legal to take photos of ‘people and buildings without needing permission, providing you are in a public place’ (BLPA, n.d.). However, many of the people who are the subjects of street photography don’t always know they are being photographed and, if they did, some wouldn’t necessarily consent to it. On the other hand, if the photographer was to ask permission from someone to take their photo, this would result in a posed photo, which takes away from the more candid ‘photograph taken in the street of a singular moment in time’ that I have previously defined as what I believe to be true street photography.

I feel that the subject within my photos will be very important. When researching into street photography, I did come across many photographs of people living in very poor conditions and lots of homeless people. I am of the opinion that this can be interpreted as quite exploitative, particularly if the photographer is just making money off the images and not helping the subjects. Although, if their photographs were to highlight important societal issues, I think that it would definitely be acceptable. For example, the documentary photographer Jacob Riis photographed the people living in the slums of New York and then ‘asked citizens from the upper and middle classes [to] help the poor’ (Herrera, 2018) and ‘pushed for laws to improve immigrant communities’ (Herrera, 2018). On the other hand, there are subjects where street photography would be more acceptable, such as street performers and musicians because they are already ‘putting themselves out there’ in front of people. 

‘The Street Photographer is […] often likened to the historical figure of the flâneur: namely someone who mingles anonymously amongst the crowd observing and recording the ways the unsuspecting city dweller interacts with his or her environment’ (The Art Story, n.d.) This is a good description, however, in my opinion, some street photographers have taken this a step too far by taking their photos using concealed cameras. It is true that this can result in a very candid photo, but I also feel like this could come across as creepy and exploitative. For example, the American street photographer Bruce Gilden has quite a controversial approach to taking photos. He is ‘known for his graphic and often confrontational close-ups made using flash’ (Magnum photos, n.d.). I think that this approach is not only too direct and risky, as it could provoke a violent reaction from the subject, but it also takes away from street photography being more candid. For my work, I will hopefully find an approach that I feel comfortable with. I won’t conceal my camera and I certainly won’t be getting right into peoples faces. I will try to find an acceptable balance, possibly taking inspiration from Vivian Maier, who shot her photographs at waist height. I feel this method is very unobtrusive and will hopefully make me feel less awkward about shooting my photos. 

Overall, I am going to take considerable care in ensuring I am taking my street photographs in an acceptable manner. I am going to consider the overall subject of my images and be respectful towards people at all times, particularly if they were to approach me and ask me to delete their photo. However, I will still stick to my belief that street photographs should be candid and will do this by taking my photos as subtly as possible.

Summary

Overall, I feel that street photography is a way of not only documenting brief and unique moments in time, but researching into many street photographers throughout history made me realise just how important street photography is. It is a way of visually gaining an understanding of someones life and preserving periods of history like a time capsule. Many street photographs capture very mundane moments in peoples lives, yet somehow they can be very thought provoking works of art in their own right. 

References:

Britannica (n.d.) Street photography. Available online: https://www.britannica.com/art/street-photography [Accessed 20/10/21].

Britannica (n.d.) Nicéphore Niépce. Available online: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nicephore-Niepce [Accessed 20/10/21].

Open Culture (2017) See the first photograph of a human being: A photo taken by Louis Daguerre (1838). Available online: https://www.openculture.com/2017/11/see-the-first-photograph-of-a-human-being-a-photo-taken-by-louis-daguerre-1838.html [Accessed 20/10/21].

The Art Story (n.d.) Documentary photography. Available online: https://www.theartstory.org/movement/documentary-photography/ [Accessed 20/10/21]. 

The Met Museum (2004) Early documentary photography. Available online: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/edph/hd_edph.htm [Accessed 20/10/21].

Kuroski, J (2021) Heartbreaking Jacob Riis photographs from how the other half lives and beyond. Available online: https://allthatsinteresting.com/jacob-riis-photographs-how-the-other-half-lives [Accessed 21/10/21].

Kim, E (n.d.) The history of street photography. Available online: https://erickimphotography.com/blog/2013/03/04/timeless-insights-you-can-learn-from-the-history-of-street-photography/ [Accessed 21/10/21].

Mishra, J (n.d.) 20 most famous street photographers you should now. Available online: https://expertphotography.com/famous-street-photographers/ [Accessed 21/10/21].

Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (n.d.) Exhibitions. Available online: https://www.henricartierbresson.org/en/expositions/eugene-atget/ [Accessed 23/10/21].

Estrin, J (2016) Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose ‘decisive moment’ shaped modern photography. Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives/henri-cartier-bresson-photography [Accessed 23/10/21].

Kim, E (n.d.) 10 things Henri Cartier-Bresson can teach you about street photography. Available online: https://erickimphotography.com/blog/2011/08/22/10-things-henri-cartier-bresson-can-teach-you-about-street-photography/ [Accessed 23/10/21].

Svenning, K (n.d.) Robert Doisneau. Available online: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/robert-doisneau?all/all/all/all/0 [Accessed 23/10/21].

Vivian maier.com (n.d.) About Vivian Maier. Available online: http://www.vivianmaier.com/about-vivian-maier/ [Accessed 23/10/21].

Howard Greenberg Gallery (n.d.) Vivian Maier. Available online: https://www.howardgreenberg.com/artists/vivian-maier [Accessed 23/10/21].

Baker, S (n.d.) Shirley Baker photographer. Available online: https://shirleybakerphotography.com/bio/ [Accessed 23/10/21]. 

BLPA (n.d.) Photographers’ rights. Available online: https://www.blpawards.org/competition/photo-rights [Accessed 31/10/21].

Herrera, K (2018) Jacob Riis. Available online: https://www.timeforkids.com/g34/jacob-riis/ [Accessed 31/10/21].

The Art Story (n.d.) Street Photography. Available online: https://www.theartstory.org/movement/street-photography/ [Accessed 1/11/21].

Magnum Photos (n.d.) Bruce Gilden. Available online: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/bruce-gilden/ [Accessed 1/11/21].

Image references:

Nicéphore Niépce, J (1826) View from the window of Le Gras [Photo]. Available online: https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/the-history-of-street-photography/ [Accessed 20/10/21].

Daguerre, L (1838) See the first photograph of a human being: a photo taken by Louis Daguerre [Photo]. Available online: https://www.openculture.com/2017/11/see-the-first-photograph-of-a-human-being-a-photo-taken-by-louis-daguerre-1838.html [Accessed 20/10/21].

Jacob Riis Photos: 

International Centre of Photography (n.d.) Jacob Riis [Photo]. Available online: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/jacob-riis?all/all/all/all/1 [Accessed 20/10/21].

Eugene Atget Photos:

Cox, D (2020). The empty streets (and parks) of Eugene Atget [Photo]. Available online: https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/museum-life/the-empty-streets-and-parks-of-eugene-atget%E2%80%8B [Accessed 20/10/21].

Henri Cartier-Bresson Photos:

Artnet (n.d.) Henri Cartier-Bresson [Photo]. Available online: http://www.artnet.com/artists/henri-cartier-bresson/3 [Accessed 23/10/21].

Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (2021) “Henri Cartier-Bresson – Paris revisited” at the musée carnavalet, Paris [Photo]. Available online: https://www.henricartierbresson.org/en/actualites/henri-cartier-bresson-paris-revisited-at-the-musee-carnavalet/ [Accessed 23/10/21].

Mitphoto2016 (2017) Henri Cartier-Bresson’s compositions [Photo]. Available online: https://mitphoto2016.wordpress.com/2017/09/28/henri-cartier-bressons-compositions/comment-page-1/ [Accessed 23/10/21].

Robert Doisneau Photos:

Exibart (n.d.) Robert Doisneau: the poetic approach to street photography [Photo]. Available online: https://www.exibartstreet.com/news/robert-doisneau-the-poetic-approach-to-street-photography/ [Accessed 23/10/21].

Vivian Maier Photos:

Maier, V (n.d.) Vivian Maier gallery [Photo]. Available online: http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/street-1/ [Accessed 23/10/21].

Shirley Baker Photos:

Baker, S (n.d.) The street photographs (early colour) [Photo]. Available online: https://shirleybakerphotography.com/the-street-photographs-colour/ [Accessed 23/10/21].

Alan Schaller Photos:

Schaller, A (n.d.) Street photography [Photo]. Available online: http://alanschaller.com/streetphotography [Accessed 23/10/21].

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