Street photography

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Alfred Stieglitz: "The Terminal" (1892)

Street photography is photography that features the human condition within public places. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. The subject might be absent of people and can be an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.[1][2]

Framing and timing can be key aspects of the craft with the aim of some street photography being to create images at a decisive or poignant moment. Much of what is regarded, stylistically and subjectively, as definitive street photography was made in the era spanning the end of the 19th century through to the late 1970s; a period which saw the emergence of portable cameras that enabled candid photography in public places. Street photographers create fine art photography (including street portraits) by capturing people in public places, often with a focus on emotions displayed, thereby also recording people's history from an emotional point of view. Social documentary photographers document people and their behavior in public places for the purpose of recording people's history and other purposes. Services like Google Street View also record the public place at a massive scale. Photojournalists work in public places, capturing newsworthy events, which may include people and private property visible from public places.

"Crufts Dog Show 1968" by Tony Ray-Jones


Eugene Atget is regarded as the father of the genre, not because he was the first of his kind, but as a result of his popularity as a Parisian photographer.[citation needed] As the city developed, Atget helped to promote the city streets as a worthy subject for photography. He worked in the city of Paris from the 1890s to the 1920s. His subject matter consisted mainly of architecture; stairs, gardens, and windows. He did photograph some workers but it is clear that people were not his main focus.

John Thomson, a Scotsman, photographed the street prior to Atget and had more of a social subject style than Atget. Though he does not receive the same amount of recognition, Thomson was vital in the transition from portrait and pictorial photography to capturing everyday life on the streets.[1]

Henri Cartier-Bresson, who has a reputation comparable to Atget, was a 20th-century photographer whose poetic style focused on the actions of people. He was responsible for the idea of taking a picture at what he termed the "decisive moment", "when form and content, vision and composition merged into a transcendent whole".[3] He was influenced by his interest in traditional art, as his ambition was to be a painter. This influence is revealed through his skill in combining timing and technique.[4]

The beginnings of street photography in the United States can be linked to that of jazz in the music domain, both emerging as outspoken depictions of everyday life. This connection is visible in the work of the New York School of Photography. The New York School was not a formal institution, but rather comprised groups of photographers in the mid-20th century based in New York City. One of its most notable and influential photographers, Robert Frank, was a part of the beat movement interested in Black-American and counter cultures. Frank's 1958 book, The Americans, was significant. Raw and often out of focus,[5] Frank's images questioned mainstream photography of the time, such as Ansel Adams's landscapes, "challenged all the formal rules laid down by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans" and "flew in the face of the wholesome pictorialism and heartfelt photojournalism of American magazines like Life and Time."[5] The mainstream photography community in America fiercely rejected Frank’s work, but the book later "changed the nature of photography, what it could say and how it could say it".[5] It was a stepping stone for fresh photographers looking to break away from the restrictions of the old style[1] and "remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century."[5]

Inspired by Frank, in the 1960s Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Joel Meyerowitz[6] began photographing on the streets of New York.[3] Phil Coomes, writing for BBC News in 2013, said "For those of us interested in street photography there are a few names that stand out and one of those is Garry Winogrand";[7] critic Sean O'Hagan, writing in The Guardian in 2014, said "In the 1960s and 70s, he defined street photography as an attitude as well as a style – and it has laboured in his shadow ever since, so definitive are his photographs of New York."[8]


Eddie Wexler: East Village, New York City, 1998

Most kinds of portable camera are used for street photography; for example rangefinders, digital and film SLRs, and point-and-shoot cameras. A commonly used focusing technique is zone focusing — setting a fixed focal distance and shooting from that distance — as an alternative to manual-focus and autofocus. The traditional (but not exclusive) focal lengths of 28 mm to 50 mm (in 35 mm terms), are used particularly for their angle of view and increased depth of field, but there are no exclusions to what might be used. Zone focusing also facilitates shooting "from the hip" i.e. without bringing the camera up to the eye. Alternatively waist-level finders and the tiltable LCD screens of digital cameras allow for composing or adjusting focus without bringing unwanted attention to the photographer.

Street photography versus documentary photography[edit]

Street photography and documentary photography can be very similar genres of photography that often overlap while having distinct individual qualities.

Documentary style is defined by its premeditated message and intention to record particular events in history. The documentary approach includes aspects of journalism, art, education, sociology and history. In documentary's social investigation, often the images are intended to pave way to social change. Street photography is disinterested in its nature, allowing it to deliver a true depiction of the world.[9] Street photographs are mirror images of society, displaying "unmanipulated" scenes, with usually unaware subjects.[4]


Several legal cases in the United States and other countries, for example Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia, have established that taking, publishing and selling street photography (including street portraits) is legal without any need for the consent of those whose image appears in the photos, because photography is protected as free speech and artistic expression by the First Amendment in the US and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in the European Union.[10]

The issue of street photographers taking photos of strangers in public places without their consent (which is the definition of candid photography) for fine art purposes has been controversial in some countries, notably France.[11] A legal case in France between a street photographer and a woman appearing in a photograph published in the photographer's book decreed that street photography without the consent of the subject is an important freedom in a democracy: "the right to control one’s image must yield when a photograph contributes to the exchange of ideas and opinions, deemed “indispensable” to a democratic society."[11]

In Hungary, from 15 March 2014 anyone taking photographs is technically breaking the law if someone wanders into shot, under a new civil code that outlaws taking pictures without the permission of everyone in the photograph. This expands the law on consent to include the taking of photographs, in addition to their publication.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Westerbeck, Colin. Bystander: A History of Street Photography. 1st ed. Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b O'Hagan, Sean (18 April 2010). "Why street photography is facing a moment of truth". The Observer. Retrieved 15 February 2015. 
  4. ^ a b Gleason, Timothy. “The Communicative Roles of Street and Social Landscape Photography.” Simile vol. 8, no. 4 (n.d.): 1–13.
  5. ^ a b c d O'Hagan, Sean (7 November 2014). "Robert Frank at 90: the photographer who revealed America won't look back". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  6. ^ O'Hagan, Sean (8 March 2011). "Right Here, Right Now: photography snatched off the streets". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 February 2015. 
  7. ^ Coomes, Phil (11 March 2013). "The photographic legacy of Garry Winogrand". BBC News. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  8. ^ O'Hagan, Sean (15 October 2014). "Garry Winogrand: the restless genius who gave street photography attitude". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  9. ^ Wells, Liz. Photography: A Critical Introduction. Psychology Press, 2000.
  10. ^[dead link]
  11. ^ a b Laurent, Olivier (23 April 2013). "Protecting the Right to Photograph, or Not to Be Photographed". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 February 2015. 
  12. ^ Nolan, Daniel (14 March 2014). "Hungary law requires photographers to ask permission to take pictures". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 May 2014. 

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