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Street photography is a form of documentary photography, although unlike photojournalism or reportage, it rarely tells a story (Lederman, 2012:288-291). Henri Cartier-Bresson (b.1908) photographic practice was characterised as a lying in wait ‘for all the messy contingency of the world to compose itself into an image that he judged to be both productive of visual information and aesthetically pleasing’ (Wells, 2004:73). A movement that influenced Cartier-Bresson’s practice was Surrealism, founded in Paris in the 1920’s. The main revolutionary idea of Surrealism was ‘to discard all culturally acceptable rules and access the unconscious mind through methods such as automatic writing where conscious control could be abandoned’ (Bull, 2010:49). Cartier-Bresson’s pictures of Paris in the 1930’s are defined by ‘an aesthetic risks that could only exist within the context of Surrealism. They include the arresting juxtapositions or unanticipated compositional tensions’ (Lederman, 2012:288-291). The photograph Behind the Gare St. Lazare (see fig.1.) where the image of the leaping man is mirrored by both his shadow and the figures on the circus poster in the background, is often taken as an exemplar of Cartier-Bresson’s humanist approach which ‘was formative for a whole school of documentary inspired ‘street photography’, as a means to comment on everyday life, but less concerned with goals of social reform or general education’ (Bate, 2009:60). The American photographer Helen Levitt (b. 1913) was influenced by Cartier-Bresson (Lederman, 2012:288-291) and produced images of the New York street (for example see fig. 2.). The tradition of street photography continued especially after the post-Second World War economic boom ‘where documentary began to be concerned with new kinds of cultural space, in particular those that were encountered in everyday life, rather than places that were exemplary of grinding poverty or social injustice’ (Wells, 2004: 100). An important milestone in this change of emphasis was the publication in 1959 of Robert Frank’s (b. 1924) ‘The Americans’ (Frank, 1959) where he:

refused a documentary project that saw life as productive of weighty events that the photographer might chronicle and analyse. He seems to be saying that none of the many scenes that happen in the world are invested with any special meaning, … (Wells, 2004:100)

More innovations followed:

Diane Arbus (b. 1923) brought the 6 x 6 format of square images (so loved by studio portrait, fashion and some news photographers) to the streets in the 1960s; Lee Friedlander (b. 1934), Garry Winogrand (b. 1928), Martha Rosler (b. 1943), Bill Owens (b. 1938), Allan Sekula (b. 1951) and William Eggleston(b. 1939) … Tony Ray Jones (b. 1941) Victor Burgin (b. 1941),  in the 1970s,… (Bate, 2009:142)

Colour Contemporary street photography is noted for its use of colour, something rejected by previous practitioners because of colour’s association with ‘garish fanciful advertising or frivolous snapshots’ (Bull, 2010:112; Dyer, 2005:188). In June 1976 John Szarkowski, then the Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, opened a retrospective exhibition dedicated to photographer William Eggleston (b. 1939), accompanied by the book William Eggleston’s Guide published by the Museum (see fig.3.). Eggleston pioneered the use of colour (Dyer, 2007:129) and his and others use of colour enabled ‘them to capture more closely the vitality of the American way of life and the transformation of its urban landscapes, they snapped neon billboards, ads, supermarkets, and gleaming automobiles’ (Couturier, 2012:134). In this manner Helen Levitt, ‘a recorder of street life in New York since the 1940s, [see above] either sets friezes of polychromatic figures against dark grounds or keys the whole of the picture into a dominant primary blue or red’ (Jeffrey, 1981:229). In the 1980s the ‘new colour’ photography by Martin Parr (b. 1952 ) and Paul Graham (b. 1956) created distinctive bodies of work ‘on the streets’ (Bate, 2009:142). Along with Parr and Graham (above), among the main photographers who today incorporate street photography in their practice are: Chris Steele-Perkins (intimate portraits of Tokyo street life); Raghu Rai (vibrant images of India’s teeming cities); Raymond Depardon (outsider’s view of Manhattan in the 1980s); Giacomo Brunelli (often unsettling shots of animals in the urban jungle); also Alex Webb, Polly Braden, and two masters of the genre: Joel Meyerowitz and Bruce Gilden (O’Hagan, 2011). Commenting on Joel Meyerowitz’s photograph ‘“Camel Coats”, New York City, 1975’ (see fig. 4.) Mark Durden says that Meyerowitz’s ‘colour street photography extends Henri Cartier-Bresson’s lyrical form. Consider, for example, the remarkable coincidences of dress, colour and light in his 1975 New York City street picture of a couple, both wearing similar yellow camel coats and walking away from the camera’ (Durden, 2014: 138). Meyerowitz says of the time in the 1970s when he began working exclusively in colour:

By the early 70’s colour technology had advanced to the point where one could make prints in the darkroom without the difficulties and expense experienced in the 60’s. It was then that I committed myself entirely to working in colour. My reasoning was; if we accept the idea that a photograph basically just describes things, then a colour photograph describes more things, that there is more content in colour and I wanted to see what those kinds of photographs might look like. At the same time I was beginning to feel that there was more to photography than making good “catches” of life on the streets, and that the contrapuntal tactics of Cartier-Bresson, and the well timed, and gesture centered images of my own and my peers was something I had to give up.

Because of using colour my efforts on the street moved away from the “caught” moment toward a more dispersed observation, toward a non-hierarchical image in which everything played an equal role; the people on the street, the architecture, the quality of the day, the angle of the light, the weight of the shadows, the simultaneity of minor events. This overall-ness I called, “field photographs.” I meant them to be about the “experience” of being on the street, in that specific city, on that day, in that precise season and year, so that viewers might experience for themselves what it felt like in that moment. I hoped that people might “read” the photograph rather than look for an incident as the hook to lure one into the photograph.

Step by step I moved larger and then, suddenly, I bought an 8×10 inch view camera. This was antithetical to my whole way of thinking and working. This was the camera those “old men” on the west coast, Adams and Weston used, and I was a New Yorker, speed was my nature, the jazzy riffs of street life were my milieu.

My rationale in this moment is that during this period I changed from the quick, reflexive 35mm shooting of the urban scene and its complex spaces, to the more meditative, spacious and luminous view camera work. And that In fact, my behavior and my sense of time underwent a transformation that deeply influenced my work from that time on. (Houlette, 2005)

This blog entry continues with Research Point (ii) at: https://cormac513273.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/research-point-ii-2/ 


Bate, David (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. New York: Berg

Bull, Stephen (2010) Photography. London: Routledge

Couturier, Elisabeth (2012) talk about contemporary photography. Paris: Flammarian

Durden, Mark (2014) Photography Today. New York: Phaidon

Dyer, G (2007) The Ongoing Moment. London: Vintage

Frank, Robert (1959) The Americans. New York: Grove Press

Houlette, Michaël (2005) Joel Meyerowitz  Colour Work, 1970-1980, Changing Time. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/joel-meyerowitz-joel-meyerowitz-color-work-1970-1980-changing-time#slide-2 (Accessed on 22.09.14)

Jeffrey, Ian (1981) Photogrqaphy A Concise History. London: Thames and Hudson

Lederman, Errika (2012) ‘Street Photography’ In: Juliet Hacking (ed.) Photography The Whole Story. London: Thames & Hudson. Pp. 288-291

O’Hagan, Sean (2011) Right Here, Right Now: photography snatched off the streets. At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/mar/08/street-photography-format-festival-derby (Accessed on: 22.09.14)

Wells, Liz (2004) Photography: A Critical Introduction Third Edition. London: Routledge

List of illustrations

Figure 1. Cartier-Bresson, Henri Behind the Gare St. Lazare (1932) [Gelatin silver print] At: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=98333 (Accessed on 21.09.14)

Figure 2. Levitt, Helen Untitled, NY (kids in masks on stoop) (c. 1942) [silver gelatin print] At:  http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=45324 (Accessed on 20.09.14)

Figure 3. Eggleston, William Untitled, Memphis (1970) [dye transfer print] At: http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/11384 (Accessed on 2209.14)

Figure 4. Meyerowitz, Joel Camel Coats”, New York City, 1975 [Archival pigment print] At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/joel-meyerowitz/camel-coats-new-york-city-a-8_DKLAAK_qeiH5bMRnGjjg2 (Accessed on 22.09.14)