The History of Street Photography

For the most part, a photographer’s attitude to a public scenario in front of him can be best described as one of opportunity. Unlike documentary photography, street photography focuses on capturing the random interactions of everyday human activity in urban environments. 

The origin of street photography dates back to the invention of photography. In the early twentieth century, the invention of photography practically overlapped with the world’s urbanization and globalization.

As a result, the first photographs were typically taken on the streets. This meant that street photography was born at the same time as photography itself.

However, “street photography” is sometimes misunderstood as being limited to “photography on the street,” which isn’t accurate. In actuality, street photography does not necessarily mean the use of a street or any metropolitan location. Street photography is the practice of capturing photographs in public locations.

Unlike studio photography, street photography does not require any prior preparation. Instead, a street photographer’s goal is to capture the moment and, of course, a good quality photograph.

Early Beginnings of Street Photography

two women taking photos using smartphone, modern street photography

In the early days of photography, the world had to “stand still” before the enormous copper-plate camera. Exposure durations dropped as technology advanced, but the initial Daguerreotypes limited the photographer’s subject selection, especially outside the studio. The inventor, Louis Daguerre, showed the Daguerreotype’s limits in what is claimed to be the first street snapshot in 1838. 

Through his studio window, Daguerre pointed his camera outside to capture a scene of the Parisian boulevard below for his renowned shot Boulevard du Temple (1838). The busy Paris boulevard appears empty because of the extended exposure period, save for two individuals – a shoe-shiner and his client – both stood still long enough for their photographs to leave an impression on the photographic plate.

William Henry Fox-Talbot then invented the Calotype two years after Daguerre’s photograph was taken. While it falls behind on the detail of the copper plate Daguerreotype, it allowed for creating a flexible negative from which multiple copies could be made. 

Calotypes were popularized by photographers such as Charles Nègre, who carried his camera out of his studio and onto the streets of Paris. Nègre, known for his early experiments with various lenses, was able to catch some of the city’s activity. Chimney Sweeps Walking and Market Scene at the Port de L’Hotel de Ville, Paris, both photographed in 1851, were among his most popular works. The London by Gaslight series (c. 1896) by Paul Martin and John Thomson’s Street Life in London in 1877 are two other noteworthy early street undertakings.

The Father of Street Photography

By the turn of the century, the city had established itself as a prominent location for fresh photographic opportunities, especially for the likes of London, Paris, and New York.

Although Henri Cartier-Bresson is generally referred to as the “Father of Street Photography,” this is not entirely true. There is a need to probe a little deeper into the annals of history to find a suitable starting point. Regardless, Eugène Atget is widely acknowledged as the genre’s rightful father.

Eugene Atget, man sitting, black and white

Beginning with the 1890s and continuing into the 1920s, Eugène Atget worked in the streets of Paris. He was the one who first established the street as a viable photographic location. He explored the city’s abandoned lanes and alleyways in the hopes of conserving some of the city’s forgotten and inconspicuous characteristics that were being lost to vast re-modernization projects. To capture something of the actual mood of the city, Atget utilized a large format camera with often wide views. Surprisingly, his photographs primarily featured non-human subjects.

Though he considered himself a documentarian, many significant artists working in Paris during the first decades of the twentieth century applauded Atget’s austere images, including Matisse, Picasso, Man Ray, and Man Ray’s close colleague Berenice Abbott.

The “Decisive Moment”

Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is known to almost every photographer in some manner, is the next big name to hit the scene. He was one of the leading photographers to capture what he called the “decisive moment” on the streets. This is the belief that there is an “ideal” moment to shoot a photograph in any evolving human event on the street. 

Following his logic, a fraction of a second before or after this perfect period will considerably reduce the aesthetic value of the shot. And though the premise is intriguing, it is a widely debated topic. To argue that there is an objectively determined right moment is, to say the least, difficult to establish. Regardless, the concept took hold and is now regarded as a crucial and influential contribution to the genre.

The Americans

In the mid-twentieth century, Robert Frank, a Swiss photographer and documentary filmmaker, and a group of photographers from the New York School of Photography, popularized street photography in the United States. Frank published The Americans in 1958, and it is now widely regarded as one of the most popular and best-selling monographs on street photography. Frank’s photographs had a raw, edgy, and often unplanned quality that shocked the photography community at the time. Most of what we now term street photography — raw, gritty, honest photographs of individuals going about their daily lives — began here.

Growing Popularity

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, street photography expanded rapidly. For the first time in history, enthusiasts could afford better cameras at a lower price. 

On the other hand, the proliferation of cell phones has had a significant impact on street photography in the 21st century. Smartphones now are equipped with high-quality cameras and software, allowing even those with little experience in photography to capture some stunning photographs. 

Anyone could now become a street photographer, something that was previously out of reach for most people. Today’s modern technology has certainly made it possible for ordinary people to take street images from their own perspective, as opposed to the professional street photographers of yesteryear.