Street photography

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Alfred Stieglitz: "The Terminal" (1892)

Street photography is photography that features the chance encounters and random accidents [1] within public places. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be of an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.[2][3][dead link]

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. Street photography can focus on emotions displayed, thereby also recording people's history from an emotional point of view. Similarly, Social documentary photographers document people and their behavior in public places for the purpose of recording people's history and other purposes; photojournalists work in public places, capturing newsworthy events, which may include people and property visible from public places; services like Google Street View also record the public place at a massive scale.

Much of what is regarded, stylistically and subjectively, as definitive street photography was made in the era spanning the end of the 19th century[4] through to the late 1970s; a period which saw the emergence of portable cameras that enabled candid photography in public places.

"Crufts Dog Show 1968" by Tony Ray-Jones


Charles Nègre was the first photographer to achieve the technical sophistication required to register people's movements on the street in Paris in 1851.[5] 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 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. Thomson was vital in the transition from portrait and pictorial photography to capturing everyday life on the streets all over the world.[2] Paul Martin is considered a pioneer,[4][6] making candid unposed photographs of people in London and at the seaside in the late 19th and early 20th century in order to record life as it was.[6][7] Martin is the first recorded photographer to do so in London with a disguised camera.[6]

Henri Cartier-Bresson, was a 20th-century photographer whose poetic style focused on the actions of people in time and place. He was responsible in the 1950s 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".[8] The idea of the decisive moment inspired successive generations of photographers to make candid photographs in public places before becoming outmoded photographically.[9]

The beginnings of street photography in the United States can be linked to those of jazz, both emerging as outspoken depictions of everyday life. This connection is visible in the work of the New York school of photography (not to be confused with the New York School). The New York School of photography was not a formal institution, but rather comprised groups of photographers in the mid-20th century based in New York City. Robert Frank's 1958 book, The Americans, was significant. Raw and often out of focus,[10] 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."[10] 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".[10] It was a stepping stone for fresh photographers looking to break away from the restrictions of the old style[2] and "remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century."[10]

Inspired by Frank, in the 1960s Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Joel Meyerowitz[11] began photographing on the streets of New York.[8][12] 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";[13] 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."[14]


An example of a hand-held portable camera, the Leica I

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.[15] Street photographs are mirror images of society, displaying "unmanipulated" scenes, with usually unaware subjects.[16]


The issue of street photographers taking photographs of strangers in public places without their consent (which is the definition of candid photography) for fine art purposes has been controversial.


A legal case in the United States, Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia, 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 photographs, because photography is protected as free speech and artistic expression by the First Amendment in the US.[17]

United Kingdom[edit]

In the United Kingdom (UK), in terms of photographing people, a right to privacy exists in law, as a consequence of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998. This can result in restrictions on the publication of photography.[18][19][20][21][22] The right to privacy is protected by Article 8 of the convention. In the context of photography, it stands at odds to the Article 10 right of freedom of expression. As such, courts will consider the public interest in balancing the rights through the legal test of proportionality.[20]

In terms of photographing property, in general under UK law one cannot prevent photography of private property from a public place,[citation needed] and in general the right to take photographs on private land upon which permission has been obtained is similarly unrestricted.[citation needed] However, landowners are permitted to impose any conditions they wish upon entry to a property, such as forbidding or restricting photography.[citation needed] There are however nuances to these broad principles.


In France, a legal case 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."[23]


Production, publication and non-commercial sale of street photography is legal in Greece, without the need to have the consent of the shown person or persons. In Greece the right to take photographs and publish them or sell licensing rights over them as fine art or editorial content is protected by the Constitution of Greece (Article 14[24] and other articles) and free speech laws as well as by case law and legal cases. Photographing the police and publishing the photographs is also legal.


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.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Warner Marien, Mary (2012). 100 ideas that changed photography. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 169. ISBN 978-1-85669-793-4. 
  2. ^ a b c Colin Westerbeck. Bystander: A History of Street Photography. 1st ed. Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b Watts, Peter (11 March 2011). "London Street Photography, Museum of London". The Independent. Retrieved 28 April 2015. 
  5. ^ Mora, Gilles (1998). PhotoSPEAK. New York, Ny: Abbeville Press. p. 186. ISBN 0-7892-0068-6. 
  6. ^ a b c "London street photography through the decades". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 28 April 2015. 
  7. ^ McDonald, Sarah. "The hidden Camera" (pdf). Getty Images. Retrieved 28 April 2015. 
  8. ^ a b O'Hagan, Sean (18 April 2010). "Why street photography is facing a moment of truth". The Observer. Retrieved 15 February 2015. 
  9. ^ Jobey, Liz (15 August 2014). "Street photography". Financial Times (London). Retrieved 28 April 2015. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ O'Hagan, Sean (8 March 2011). "Right Here, Right Now: photography snatched off the streets". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 February 2015. 
  12. ^ Jobey, Liz (10 February 2012). "Paul Graham: ‘The Present’". Financial Times (London). Retrieved 28 April 2015. 
  13. ^ Coomes, Phil (11 March 2013). "The photographic legacy of Garry Winogrand". BBC News. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  14. ^ O'Hagan, Sean (15 October 2014). "Garry Winogrand: the restless genius who gave street photography attitude". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 January 2015. 
  15. ^ Wells, Liz. Photography: A Critical Introduction. Psychology Press, 2000.
  16. ^ Gleason, Timothy. “The Communicative Roles of Street and Social Landscape Photography.” Simile vol. 8, no. 4 (n.d.): 1–13.
  17. ^ "Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia". New York Supreme Court. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  18. ^ Human Rights Act 1998 sections 2 & 3
  19. ^ Human Rights Act 1998 Schedule 1, Part 1, Article 8
  20. ^ a b Mosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2008] EWHC 1777 (QB)
  21. ^ Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd [2004] UKHL 22
  22. ^ Murray v Express Newspapers Plc [2008] EWCA Civ 446
  23. ^ Laurent, Olivier (23 April 2013). "Protecting the Right to Photograph, or Not to Be Photographed". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 February 2015. 
  24. ^ Article 14 of the Constitution of Hellas
  25. ^ 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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