Track A – History of Street Photography, Part 1

As indicated in the Introduction, this is Track A (History of Street Photography). Track B (Art of Composition and the Composition of Art) will start in the near future. You can find a link to the posts already written to date on The Art of Street Photography page in the header above.

Part 1 – The Evolution of Street

When María and I sat out to begin documenting the history of street photography, after some discussion, we realized that given the great variation in the art form, it was best to begin a discussion of what street photography is by looking at its pioneers and the work they created. In this chapter, we’ll touch on some of the acclaimed masters and tell you a bit about them and their work. We won’t do much analysis of their work here; that’s probably best served by looking at one photographer at a time. (Besides, María’s better at analyzing art than I am.) We’ll also limit our discussions to final prints, and ignore the tremendous amount of work printers put into creating them from the raw material.

An example of the detailed mapping of dodging and burning-in that went into master images, by master darkroom wizard Pablo Inirio, of Magnum Photos

An example of the detailed mapping of dodging and burning-in that goes into master images, by master darkroom wizard Pablo Inirio, of Magnum Photos. Photo of James Dean in Times Square, by Dennis Stock, copyright Magnum Photos

There are a few immediate problems when you try to document street’s history. First, very few credible and comprehensive works on street photography exist, and those that do exist are quite pricey. Second, there’s little consensus on how to categorize the history. That’s not to say you won’t run into hordes of photographers who insist they know when the art form began and exactly what the deciding factor was. However, I promise you, those people are wrong.

What is “Street Photography?”
Photograph by John Thomson, ca. 1876, Traveling Photographer on Clapham Common

Photograph by John Thomson, ca. 1876, Traveling Photographer on Clapham Common

My smarter half and I will discuss this more later in the series, but let’s lay out a few premises: 1) Street photography didn’t start in the 20th century. 2) It certainly didn’t start with the invention of the Leica camera, or with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (HCB) use of it. And 3) it’s clear that “street photography” is as broad a label as, say, “street art.” So why are some so certain they know what is street photography and what isn’t? It’s because a few well-known pioneers, like HCB, laid out “rules” that their followers declared defined street photography and groundwork prior to that doesn’t count. Of course, that’s nonsense.

It’s not absolutely clear when the term “street photography” was coined, but photographer Osborne I. Yellott appears to have been the first person to use “street photography” in print, using it as the title of an essay he wrote in 1900 “Street Photography (The Photo-minature).” As stated in the book, Unfamiliar Streets – the Photographs of Richard Avedon, Charles Moore, Martha Rosler, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, by Katherine A. Bussard, Yellott defined street photography as either the “pictorial treatment of locality,” or a “record of scene or incident which may possess sentiment or merely human interest.” Yellott, a frequent writer on the subject of photography, wrote this tome ten years before Cartier-Bresson’s birth and 30 years before HCB took up the camera.

One of the photographic journals of the day - 1898 (from Google)

One of the photographic journals of the day – 1898. Yellott had photos in this periodical, which also included the unattributed photo of Watermelons, below. (Digitized by Google)

"Watermelon Scene, Arkansas," publish 1898, Unattributed

“Watermelon Scene, Arkansas,” published 1898, Unattributed

In other words, rules be damned – street photography is a photograph of life on a street (with or without people) or a human interest photograph (which doesn’t require a street). For the purposes of this series, this is the definition we’ll use. This is because it’s safe to assume that Yellott was simply describing how the art form had grown at that point – starting as a device for studies, often commissioned by painters, of life on the streets and growing to a tool for documenting human society. This definition is the culmination of over 60 years of photography to that point.

So, How Do We Proceed from Here?

After mulling it for a bit and realizing that many find history boring, we decided the best way to start examining street photography is by looking at the history as it evolved through time. Here, we’ll talk about the key photographers, show a few examples of their work, but we won’t linger. This isn’t the fun bit for most, but we think it’ll put all the later discussions and analyses into context. And, since we’re writing this in real time, you get to influence how the series evolves. Besides, if you get bored, just look at the pretty pictures. 🙂

Street Photography’s Epochs

When I started researching this project, I had zero idea how street photography evolved. I had an idea it evolved from street art, a theory that María agreed with and expounded on. In fact, what I discovered, when I looked at my list of masters of street photography, was that distinct periods emerged, the first four of which we’ll discuss in this series. And, validating our theory, was the fact that many early photographers were trained as artists.


“The Grand Canal and the Church of the Salute,” Canaletto, 1730

Perhaps a true discussion of street photography should start with Giovanni Canal, better known as Canaletto (“Little Canal”) born in Venice in 1697 as the son of theatrical scene painter Bernardo Canal, with Canaletto himself taking up the profession early in his career. Canaletto was one of the earliest painters to break from tradition and paint “from nature,” meaning he went out on the street instead of completing his work in a studio. The result was brilliant early work that captured Venice in realistic detail, as opposed to the blurry details often seen in landscape painting, due to artists, use of camera obscuras

Artist using an 18th-century camera obscura to trace an image

Artist using an 18th-century camera obscura to trace an image

to capture and trace scenes onto paper or canvas. As Canaletto’s fame grew, taking him to England, his realistic and dynamic style permanently influenced later artists.

A sketch from use of a Camera Obscura, by Canaletto

A sketch from use of a Camera Obscura, by Canaletto

So, at its core, and even before it began, street photography was born as an offshoot of urban landscape painting, and to similar effect. One can imagine Canaletto himself switching to the medium later in life when critics began to decry his work as repetitive. One hundred years after Canaletto’s heyday, the age of photography began in France, and street scenes were still very much in demand.

The names of periods that I collectively call Photographic Epochs don’t really matter. Basically, I made them up. What is important is the broad artistic and social brush stroke they encompass. So, for discussion purposes, we’ll label them as follows:

  • Foundational – 1838 to 1914
  • Transitional – 1915 to around 1928
  • Rule Making – 1929 to around 1948
  • Urban Explosion – 1948 to around 1969
  • Hot Streets – 1970 to around 2004
  • Digital Age – 2005 to present

Now, while I didn’t try to align these Epochs with generations, it’s perhaps no real surprise it worked out that way. The first group of photographers, during the Foundational period, were the art form’s inventors and innovators. At its inception, photographers shot street scenes, much as painters had done for centuries.

By the start of the 20th century, photography was well established and quickly diverged into a number of schools, especially documentary photography that focused on war and the muckrakers’ march toward social change. Post World War I shooters, like Dorothea Lange, used the tool to document life in a way that led to real change in the human dynamic. By the 1930s, the art world had begun to embrace photography as a viable form, and artists like HCB were drawn to the camera. This was a step up from the Foundational epoch, where early shooters, like Atget, took photos the late 19th century and early 20th that were originally intended as documents for artists rather than as independent works of art.

Photography had arrived, and needed Rules. Enter the Rule Makers. What were these rules? Mostly a documentation of the most well-known photographers’ work flows. Were these the only or right rules? Who knows, but if you’re first on paper, you get to make the rules.

Once some idea of what photography’s capabilities were established, street photography followed post WWII’s urbanization of the world, sending hordes of photographers on city streets in the process. The result was an Urban Explosion epoch that saw photographers began to overtly rebel against all the “rules” their predecessors’ created, each trying to make their mark and document the social upheaval that dominated much of the world. This brings us to street shooters that emerged up to the end of the 1960s, where we’ll stop.

So, as we said, before we jump into really looking at street photography as an art form, let’s introduce the key players. We’ll brief you on (as of now) 47 shooters, split up into the 4 Epochs, starting with the Foundational Epoch and those pioneers who started it all. Understand that María and I are fans, not experts. While we are both street photographers and lovers of history, we are amateurs. As such, don’t assume our list to be absolutely comprehensive. I’m certain I left some off deserving to be here. If you think so, feel free to talk about them in the comments and we’ll see if we can add them in.

Next: The Foundational Epoch

15 thoughts on “Track A – History of Street Photography, Part 1

  1. Hi again Bill and Maria. Just to say that I was up early and looking forward to reading your second installment on ‘Street Photography’
    I am finding myself quite wrapped up in this and find your research on the topic so interesting.
    For someone who by my own admission has a limited span of attention; this series is perfect and I find I want to do a little more digging. The comment about highlighting links is a great idea; but as the writer states; this means additional work for you both.
    Either way thank you guys; it’s a pleasure to read and I am enjoying gaining a better understanding of this fascinating topic.
    Hope you are both well?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your support and encouragement Bob. It’s been good fun delving into this very broad subject, with interesting results that I’m currently writing about and hope to publish soon. Glad you are enjoying the series so far. We are well, thank you Bob. I hope all is well with you too my friend.
      Maria x


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