Track A (History of Street Photography) Part 2: The Foundational Epoch

See Track A, Part 1 here:

We continue our view of the History of Street Photography with the first of four epochs in street photography, this of the art form’s founding fathers — the Foundational epoch, from 1839 to the start of World War I.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (France) – 1787 – 1851

Louis_Daguerre_2Photography as an art form began in earnest on 7 January 1839, when members of the French Académie des Sciences were shown artifacts from an invention by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who humbly called his then-astonishing prints daguerreotypes. These were the first photographs – highly polished, silver-plated sheets — produced from an actual camera, which Daguerre invented. It wasn’t magic, although as someone suggested, had it emerged a couple hundred years earlier, someone would have burned his ass as a witch. Daguerre had been looking for a way to permanently record what he saw on his camera obscura, and the 1820s work of Nicéphore Niépce was just the thing. Niépce, now credited with inventing photography, worked with Daguerre to develop the set of chemicals that allowed Daguerre to develop daguerreotypes some six years after his partner’s death. The first permanent photo ever recorded was by Niépce, a view of his window, in 1827. Still, the process was unreliable, the image blurry, and it took 8 hours exposure. Daguerre’s process took only 10 to 30 minutes.

Joseph Nicephore Niepce

Joseph Nicephore Niepce

Both Niépce and Daguerre had been drawn toward photography by the camera obscuras and via art. In Niépce’s case it was lithographs, although he had little artistic talent. In his partner’s case it was painting, and Daguerre was an accomplished Romantic painter and printmaker. Why is this important in a discussion of street photography? I’m glad you asked. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art states:

“From the moment of its birth, photography had a dual character—as a medium of artistic expression and as a powerful scientific tool—and Daguerre promoted his invention on both fronts.”

Indeed, Daguerre’s photo “Boulevard du Temple“, taken by Daguerre in 1838 in Paris, includes the earliest known candid photograph of a person. The image shows a street, but because of the over-ten-minute exposure time, the moving traffic does not appear. At the lower left, however, is a man apparently having his boots polished along with the bootblack who was polishing them. The two were motionless enough for their images to be captured, and are forever immortalized on the print.

Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre

Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre

Daguerre chose a street scene as an early photo, perhaps because it is what painters had been doing for centuries. Indeed, as María points out, you can trace the idea of life on the street as a vibrant art form as far back as Canaletto’s paintings of Venetian life. Daguerre opened the door to photography, and at the same time, the idea of photographing life on the street.

John Thomson (Scotland) – 1837 – 1921

John Thomson and Honan Soldiers, self-portrait, 1871

John Thomson and Honan Soldiers, self-portrait, 1871

John Thomson was a photographer, geographer, and traveller, and one of the first people to travel to the Far East, photographing the people and landscapes of China and Southeast Asia. Once he returned Britain, his London photography cemented his reputation, and is considered some of the earliest instances of social photography, laying the foundations for photojournalism.

Thompson was born at the advent of photography, and by the time he picked up his first camera under an apprenticeship in the early 1850s, the medium had evolved to mostly the use of wet plates, but cameras where still bulky enough and exposures long enough to make stealthy photography all but an impossibility. When Thomson joined his brother in Singapore in 1862, he began taking serious photographs, moving on to what is now Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

He published his works upon return to Britain in 1866, exhibiting them around the country. He returned to China the next year, repeating the process as before, and returning to London around 1872, and establishing his reputation as a leading authority on China. In London, he joined forces with journalist Adolphe Smith on a monthly publication entitled Street Life in London, which pioneered the genre of photojournalism.

Thomson’s photos are stunning in their composition, not only capturing mid-19th-century life, but with an artist’s eye for composition and a journalist’s eye for detail. It was Thomson who first married street photography and journalism into a meld of documentary photography that was both an art form and a social record. Despite long exposure time, his photos suggest both formalism and spontaneity, as seen in the sampling below. (Click on any image for a slideshow.)


I’ve included a fairly robust sampling of Thomson’s work (vs. the 1 or 2 of other photographers) in order to demonstrate the thin line that separates documentary from candid street photography. Certainly some images were posed, given long exposures, but that’s really just a result of technology. Indeed, many of the “rules” associated with street was based on the availability of technical breakthroughs, not any pure artistic bent. By any standard, Thomson’s work stands as a revealing document of the brilliant ordinariness of life 140-odd years ago and as lovely works of art.

Alfred Stieglitz (USA) – 1864 – 1946

Alfred_StieglitzAlfred Stieglitz wasn’t, in its narrowest definition, a street photographer. He was however, an accomplished photographer and modern art promoter who during his five-decade career was instrumental in photography being accepted as an art form. Stieglitz would be best described as a crossover artist, his work crossing into genres as diverse as nudes. He’s best known, according to Wikipedia, “for the New York art galleries that he ran in the early part of the 20th century.” He was married to painter Georgia O’Keefe.

Stieglitz was the child of successful German-Jewish immigrants, growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1881, his father moved the family to Europe, and though they returned within a few years, Alfred remained for the rest of the decade. A bright and accomplished student, he amassed an extensive library that led to his ideas of photography as an art form. Back in New York, he worked as editor of the journal of the prestigious Camera Club, Camera Work, until 1917. His turn-of-the-century street photography reflected its roots in painterly ideas of art.

Stieglitz, Venetian Canal -- a little Canaletto-like, no?

Stieglitz, Venetian Canal — a little Canaletto-like, no?

Stieglitz was always something of a rebel and began his divergence from existing photography as early as 1902, embracing what Nicole Rae in “To Hold A Moment: Alfred Stieglitz,” quoted as his “Photo-secession” from from “the accepted idea of what constitutes a photograph.” By the end of WWI, and entering the epoch we’ll call Documentarians, Stieglitz’s ideas of photography had changed, and he embraced and promoted emerging photographers like Paul Strand, pushing a dynamic type of photography suited to capture the fast-paced world. With this shift, and his deep influence in the art world, Stieglitz helped push the evolution of street photography from a static record of life to the living record it has become. His work continued evolving, increasingly moving toward abstraction, always with artistic compositional principles in mind. (Click on image below to open gallery.)


Jacob Riis (Denmark, USA) – 1849 – 1914

Jacob_Riis_2Jacob Riis was a social reformer, muckraking journalist, and documentary photographer. His primary fame was earned in using photojournalism to help the poor in New York city. Starting as a police reporter, his pioneering use of social reform photography in addition to articles, books, and lectures, demonstrated the power of photography in the late 19th century.

Riis’s 1890 treatise of social criticism How the Other Half Lives, according to, “was written in the belief ‘that every man’s experience ought to be worth something to the community from which he drew it, no matter what that experience may be, so long as it was gleaned along the line of some decent, honest work.’” It is certain that he helped to revolutionize journalism with his ability to let the readers see what he saw. Street or documentary? The lines were ever blurred. (Click to enlarge.)

Eugène Atget (France) – 1857 – 1927

BNF_-_Portrait_d'Eugène_Atget_-_1890_-_001Atget was a French photographer and a pioneer of documentary photography who was (according to Wikipedia) “noted for his determination to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before their disappearance to modernization.” Most of his work was published after his death, by photographer Berenice Abbott. Although he became an inspiration to artists, he lived in relative artistic obscurity during his life. Atget never called himself a photographer, preferring the title “author-producer.” Atget’s work was by no means modern, using techniques that “were obsolescent when he adopted them, and very nearly anachronistic by the time of his death (more here).” Still he left a timeless beauty of a photographic catalog that continues to inspire and blends the idea of cityscapes with human-centered street scenes.

Lewis Hine (USA) – 1874 – 1940

Lewis Hine, selfie

Lewis Hine, selfie

Unless you are a street photography devotee, you’ve likely not heard of Lewis Hine. However, I bet you’ve seen his work. Rather than a trained artist, Hine was a sociologist and photographer. He used the camera to promote social change, and his shots were instrumental in changing child labor laws in the U.S. He was staff photographer for a number of social organizations throughout his life and up to the very end.

His work demonstrates both the power of the photograph as a documentary medium and as an art form. It blurs the line between documentary and candid street photography, showing that the venue is not as relevant as the photographic concept. The difference between street and documentary photography is not the technique, but what you do with the photo. (Click on photo below to begin gallery. Click here for more.)

Jacques Henri Lartigue (France) – 1894 – 1986

Jacques Lartigue was born to a wealthy family in France, picking up his first camera at age 7. He was, during his lifetime, the typical amateur, taking photos of family and friends, going to sporting events, and the like. He sold a few photos during his lifetime, but kept meticulous journals of his shots, but later in life concentrated on painting. He was “discovered” at age 69, and though he was a pioneer, taking up the art in 1901, he achieved fame only when Charles Rado of the Rapho agency found his boyhood photos and managed to get them displayed in the Museum of Modern Art. Life Magazine published the photos in 1963.

jaques-HL1252877288The moral of this story is, keep shooting.

One can make the case here that the term “street” in street photography could be changed to “life photography”, as its intention to capture what is, where it is.

Paul Strand (USA) – 1890 – 1976

Paul Strand, by Stieglitz

Paul Strand, by Stieglitz

Strand could rightfully be considered a second-generation founding photographer, as he was a student of Lewis Hine at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. He was said to be further inspired while on a field trip to the 291 art gallery – operated by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Stieglitz later promoted Strand’s work in his Camera Work journal and in his studio. Strand straddled the line between photographer as artist and as advocate for social reform, bouncing from pieces of pure abstraction, to surrealist street scenes like “Wall Street” (below) as well as work as one of the founders of the Photo League, a group of social-reforming photographers.

Strand’s body of “street photography” is limited, as he’s mostly known for his abstractions; however those that exist are rich and powerful. He remains an important marker in the development of street and documentary photography. (click to view)

André Kertész (Hungary) – 1894 – 1985

André Kertész

André Kertész

André Kertész was a quiet but important influence known for his contributions to composition and the storytelling part of photography. He is best known for his extended study of Washington Square Park and his distorted nudes of the 1930s.

Despite family pressure to work as a stockbroker, Kertész worked on his own as a photographer, gaining recognition through publication in magazines. After WWI, he moved to Paris against his family’s wishes, where he gained commercial and critical success. In 1936, he emigrated to the U.S., where his reputation soared. According to Wikipedia, “His career is generally divided into four periods, based on where he was working and his work was most prominently known. They are called the Hungarian period, the French period, the American period and, toward the end of his life, the International period.”


For more information and videos, check out our links here. You can find a link to the posts already written to date on The Art of Street Photography page in the header above.

Next: Part 3: Unchained (How cameras freed street photographers from their big boxes)

13 thoughts on “Track A (History of Street Photography) Part 2: The Foundational Epoch

      • well as-is it is really nice work (and I hardly ever have time to follow up with links – but I do know that many times folks come back for them – and actually – posts like these end up being a long standing resource – so whew – nice time investment dude)


  1. Pingback: Track A – History of Street Photographers, Part 1 | Just Us

  2. Life Photography is a good way of putting it, perhaps it is a better term than Street Photography. Although I dare say that the urban cool that ‘Street’ gives this particular genre of photography is what attracts many to adopt the title. I always thought of myself as a photojournalist before I met you, now I call myself a Street Photographer, though really I’m just an artist with a camera. Nice work honey. I like these history posts of yours.


    • I saw one person used the term”urban” although that presents the same problem. I suppose one can make distinctions (as I sometimes do) between Urban street, Rural street, and suburban street. You can even distinguish between street with people and cityscapes. But I don’t think the genre should be defined by the location, since those who started it never stayed exclusively in urban settings.

      Frankly, the location has never been relevant, and is limiting to those without ready access to big cities. The more I look into it, the more it occurs to me that the only real difference between street shooting and news photography is the intent. Street, at its purest, captures Life. It is the photography of the non-event as well as the event. I suppose it’s the divine ordinariness that brings its appeal.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Track A: History of Street Photography, Part 4 | Just Us

  4. Pingback: Days of Art – Andre Kertesz, Master Photographer. | Raw, Naked Art

  5. Pingback: The Color of Street | The 79 Percent

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