A Brief History Of Street Photography

If there’s one discipline of photography that appeals to nearly every photographer at some point, it’s street photography.

And street photography has a long and exciting history that begins before the invention of the camera.


The Origins Of Street Photography

Street photography is a kind of documentary photography that concerns itself with everyday life and as an art form, it existed even before the first street photograph was ever taken.

Of course, we’re referring to the act of painting people in ordinary life situations. And you can find such pictures from ancient Egyptian times onwards.


When Did The Term Street Photography Start?

Street photography emerged as people began to play with the first cameras. The camera obscura wasn’t ideal for this kind of art but the daguerreotype certainly was and Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre‘s invention was first used by its inventor to take images of the streets outside his bedroom window, in fact.

John Thomson Street Photography

However, it’s probably fair to say that the first of the real street photographers was John Thomson, a Scottish photographer, who published the first-ever book of street photography called Street Life in London.

Interestingly, it wasn’t published all at once but rather in 12 monthly installments to ensure those who wanted to purchase it could afford it! Printing photographs wasn’t cheap back then.


The First Street Photographers

Other street photographers soon emerged and artists such the French photographer Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier Bresson, and the American, Walker Evans began to capture moments around them, and street photography started to become an “official” photographic discipline.

In fact, in the US the street photographer appears to have emerged in step with the growing popularity of jazz music. Walker Evans’ images showed how people lived in New York City and were captured with a hidden camera.

By the 1950s, Robert Frank’s The Americans was published and it became clear that street photographers were no longer to be considered frivolous but instead, were capable of creating raw and vivid images that stirred the emotions as much as any other. The most enduring photographs, in fact, were now made with the photographic methods that exemplify street photography.


Women In Street Photography

And let’s not forget the women street photographers either.

Historic women photographers have included Dorothea Lange (of the San Francisco Portrait Studio), Vivian Maier, Zoe Strauss, and many others. Women street photographers emerged at roughly the same time as their male counterparts and their work has become more and more important over time.

Vivian Maier Street Photography

The photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White was the first Western professional photographer allowed to shoot street scenes of the Soviet Union and her most famous photographs are those that showed everyday life in Soviet industries laboring under the Five-Year Plan.


The Growing Popularity Of The Street Photographer

However, it’s fair to say that the most excitement in street photography has been recent – while Henri Cartier-Bresson may have found the “decisive moment” on the streets, the decisive moment for street photography appears to have been the advent of digital photography.

Now, every photographer was able to see if they had what it took to become the next Robert Frank and try out being a documentary photographer for themselves.

Candid pictures seem to evoke something very primal in a photographer, perhaps it’s the unusual street types that you meet when out shooting?

Anyway, no longer was street photography the preserve of artists sporting a Leica camera but anyone could get involved and they did.

New names began to emerge in the pantheon of greats many from the New York School of photography such as Bruce Gilden, Bruce Davidson, Matt Weber, Joel Meyerowitz, etc.

In fact, it would be fair to say that a fully comprehensive history of street photography is now impossible due to the explosion in popularity of this style of photography.

The biggest challenge facing many in the next generation of street photographers is that of standing out from an already crowded field. The days of being Eugene Atget and being recognized for being one of the first photographers on the streets are done.


The 202X Controversy Surrounding Street Shooting

And, of course, the environment in which street shooters work is changing too.

In the 202X’s you would think that this way of photography would be commonly accepted, after all there’s a camera on every street corner even if most of us don’t think very much about it.

However, instead, there’s a growing movement of individuals only too happy for big corporations to spy on their every move becoming angry that a photograph might be taken by a human being with intent before pushing the shutter button.

Some are demanding a complete move away from street shooting to street portraiture where every subject has to consent before the photographs are taken – but this would destroy the candid and documentary nature of this branch of photography.


Is It True Street Work Has No Standards?

No. However is fair to say that you can certainly find street photographs that would make you think this.

In an age where everyone has a camera, it would be fair to say that it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed by terrible images and thus, convince yourself that standards have been abandoned.

But if you follow artists like Alec Soth or Jeff Mermelstein, you will know that there are plenty of top-level professionals who still take street images that are of a very high standard, indeed.


What Is The Purpose Of Street Photography?

The true purpose of street photography is to capture a record of the world around us but in a way that is interesting, engaging, and stirs thoughts and emotions.

It is never to take a picture of an empty street but rather to focus on the people and, occasionally, animals that bring our streets to life.


Final Thoughts On Street Photography And Its History

Street photography, like it or not, is probably here to stay and as you can tell from our brief history – that’s because a huge number of photographers love this genre and the chance to tell stories of our lives that bring us closer together.

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