Track A: History of Street Photography, Part 3 – “Unchained”

Part 3 – Chained No MoreIn which our jaunty photographers learn that street photography wasn’t invented with the Leica and really didn’t change all that much once someone finally invented some fast film.

Charles "Teenie" Harris

Portrait of Charles “Teenie” Harris

To this point in the history of street photography, which represents the emergence of a second generation of photographers around the time World War I began, urban photography had existed for nearly 80 years. “Official” art registries, such as Oxford Art Online, would insist out that “street photography did not coalesce into a distinct form of photographic practice until the 20th century.” This is, of course, due to the narrow definition of street photography that these institutions use. Oxford, for instance, states:

“[Street photography] can be understood as the product of an artistic interaction between a photographer and an urban public space. It is distinguished from documentary photography in that the photographer is not necessarily motivated by the evidentiary value or socio-political function of the resulting photographs. Unlike photojournalism, a street photographer’s images are not intended to illustrate a news story or other narrative. Instead, their primary goal is expressive and communicates a subjective impression of the experience of everyday life in a city.”

Now, this is a lovely definition, except, of course, that it’s completely wrong. (Dear museum guys: please shut the hell up.) There is no evidence that street photographers intend to leave a “subjective” record. In fact, quite the contrary seems to be true. Shooters have always used street photography to leave a narrative, albeit a personal one. But personal doesn’t mean it’s not objective. It is rather, the world the photographer sees and wishes to share. Some shooters’ primary motivation is creating art, I’m sure. Meanwhile, artists like Hines and Riis used their photographs to create an emotional response that would illicit a tangible response. Here, the art is the hook, not the intent. The line between objective and subjective photography, by the turn of the 20th century, had been blurred enough to be non-existent. To suggest that photography isn’t street photography if the shooter’s main motive is to illustrate a narrative misses a substantial portion of what street shooters do.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange not giving a damn what a museum guy thinks. She shot life, where life happens. That is the definition of Street.

So what, then, really does define street photography as we know it? For most lovers of the art form – ignoring the belief that a viewer or a museum curator can know a photographer’s motivation – street photography is defined by what is in the photo rather than in the shooter’s head. A modern understanding is that street is defined by action and spontaneity, by crowds and movement. The street shooter is immersed in the street, not rushing from a wet plate to the development lab within minutes to secure the precious print. She holds her camera to the crowds, weaving her way through the throng to catch a glimpse of art. She is no longer chained to huge cameras on tripods or a wet chemical poisonous soup that threatens to go sour in minutes.

Eastman's Brownie, 1900

Eastman’s Brownie, 1900

By the late 1800s, George Eastman had pioneered portable cameras with his “Kodak,” first sold in 1888 and with transparent film that didn’t need to be reloaded in a darkroom. By the turn of the century, his $1 “Brownie” with its 15-cent roll of film, had made photography simple and accessible, becoming the first camera of many a shooter. It had followed Eastman’s folding pocket camera in 1894. Still, high-quality prints demanded a high-caliber camera, and that still meant bulky equipment for most.

1900 Bulky view camera, like the one used by Atget.

1900 Bulky view camera, like the one used by Atget.

However, the accessibility of cheap cameras had done one significant thing: Mr. Eastman, former bank clerk, had put photography in the hands of “the people” and invented the snapshot, a style which some pros (like Garry Winogrand) have adopted ever since.

Freedom for most pros finally came in the form of the launch of 35mm cameras in the 1920s. Oskar Barnack, who was in charge of research and development at Leitz, created the prototype “Ur-Leica” in 1913, just in time for development to be interrupted by WWI. Still, it’s advent coincided with the end of the Foundational Epoch. By 1925, the Leica I (Leitz camera) was available, and the age of the 35mm had begun. The single lens reflex lens allowed shooters to look up when shooting instead of down, and suddenly “seeing” the shot felt a hell of lot more like seeing life. These new-fangled cameras were still inaccessible to most, and remained so until 1936 and the relatively cheap Argus A and the entry of the Japanese into the market. I call this new age the “Rule Making Epoch” but I could have just as easily named it the 35mm Epoch. The chains were broken and shooters were on the street like cockroaches when the lights come on.

Leica 1, 1930s

Leica 1, 1925

Argus C3, 1939

Argus C3, 1939

All this is true. However, does that mean that the former, more static street photography was invalid as an art form? Is it only street when what you capture is the frenetic pace of urban life? No. In fact, hell no. HCB jumped into the fray in the 30s when 35mms became stable, but the Art of Street had continued undaunted. The evolution of cameras made certain aspects of street photography easier, but they NEVER defined street. And while it’s sexy to think the third generation of shooters “invented” the form, all they did was reintroduce the artistic elements that the great photographers had been using since 1838.

Street is Life and Life is Street. It has always been so. What actually defines street photography is capturing what is, and using whatever means you can. Limiting street to the advent of 35mm shooting not only invalidates entire portfolios of artists, it ignores the fact that many shooters continued with the same type of street photography as before, irrespective of the advantages of new equipment. Photography is, as we’ve shown, rooted in art, centuries old, not some Leica development lab. This is why, with the technological advances of the 21st century, most of us on the street are shooting the same way our forerunners did 80 years earlier. Life is dynamic, as shooters like Weegee would attest. But it sometimes requires one to stop, to notice, to document, just as Teenie Harris and Dorothea Lange would.

Robert Doisneau

Robert Doisneau, “Concours de Chars Fleuris, Choisy le Roi (Man and Boy in Flower Decorated Airplane,” 1934

In photography’s second epoch, which I’ve named the Transitional Epoch, photographers took to the streets with their new-found freedom afforded by smaller cameras and faster film, and began to lay out what was there. It was a lovely blend of action and art, of composition and energy. This is the era when humans really began to understand the power of the camera and even the power of the snapshot. Before HCB scribed his “decisive moment” tomes, shooters took to the streets and used the devices they’d always used, using rules the later Rule Makers would claim as their own.

Aaron Siskind, Harlem, 1935

Aaron Siskind, “Untitled,” Harlem, 1935

The Foundational photographers had done their jobs, and the age of the camera was about to begin in earnest.

You can find a link to the posts already written to date on The Art of Street Photography page in the header above.

Next: Shooters in the Transitional Epoch.


9 thoughts on “Track A: History of Street Photography, Part 3 – “Unchained”

  1. Pingback: Track A (History of Street Photography) Part 2: The Foundational Epoch | Just Us

  2. When it comes to defining something like Street Photography people do seem to like stretching or confining the language to justify their own ends. You can only get a true definition of what street photography is by examining the historical evidence as we are doing in this series, also by asking photographers directly what they consider this particular genre to be. My guess is that definitions are vague, because no street photographer is just a street photographer, they are photographers who either only shoot street according to prescribed rules, or they sometimes shoot street amongst a lot of other things. The artist’s job is to express art through whatever medium of choice, but the underlying principles of composition are exactly the same, no matter how you paint it, with oils, ink, or light.


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

  4. what i find amusing about the Teenie Harris picture.. is that 50 years … or more.. before there was an iPhone… he had adopted that posture of someone waiting or a subway train, checking messages on their cell fone. Maybe he was just looking at his Weston IV Meter. That would make sense..


  5. Pingback: Track A, History of Street Photographers, Part 7 | Just Us

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