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Straight Photography Collage

Straight Photography - History and Concepts

Started: 1910
Straight Photography Timeline

Beginnings of Straight Photography

Precursors: The Early Practitioners of Photography

From the time of the camera's invention in 1839, it was used as a tool to document everyday objects, daily scenes, nature, and cultural artifacts. The basis for photography as it is practiced today stems from Henry Fox Talbot's invention of the calotype: a paper negative produced by exposing a sheet of paper coated with silver chloride to light. Talbot, a British scientist, mathematician, author, and inventor of photography, shortened exposure times and allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative. He would have us believe that the photograph was created by the action of light, by nature herself, on sensitive paper, and depicted by optical and chemical means alone. His French counterpart Louis Daguerre, a painter, printmaker, and inventor of the daguerreotype, shared Talbot's belief that photography "gives nature the ability to reproduce itself .. not with their colors but instead with a very fine gradation of tones."

Talbot and Daguerre agreed on the importance of camera's truthful imaging, yet they had seemingly divergent interpretations of the role of photography. Talbot understood the photograph's literal description in terms of the language of the fine arts and their aesthetics of beauty, whereas Daguerre's singular photographs went hand-in-hand with sociological categories used to collect and classify objects. These two definitions of photography actually comprise the photograph's complex character, which Straight photography takes full advantage of as it transformed the photograph's literal description of reality into a "feeling" or vision of modern life.

By the later half of the 1800s, photography influenced various painting styles such as Naturalism and The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, just as photographers resorted to imitating painting to elevate photography to a fine art. In 1869 Henry Peach Robinson's book, Pictorial Effect in Photography: Being Hints On Composition And Chiaroscuro For Photographers championed the use of composed images and using darkroom techniques to create the photographic equivalent of chiaroscuro in painting. Thus, these ideas contributed to the Pictorialist photography movement, the first major movement in photography, which persisted in claiming the medium as fine art.

Yet, in the late 1880s, Henry Frederick Evans first advocated for a pure photography, known later as Straight photography, as a viable alternative to Pictorialism by creating Symbolist images that evoked the meaning suggested by architectural forms. Subsequently, the British photographer Peter Henry Emerson argued in his book Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1890) that photographs should be sharply focused in order to depict a scene as it appeared in nature - how nature appears to the human eye. His camera was part of his probing of human existence as he saw it referenced in daily tasks and everyday objects. Emerson sought to visualize the feeling of life in a scene. His approach found resonance in the American tradition of Straight photography as practiced by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston.

Early Photography, Fine Art, and the Avant Garde

With the advent of the snap and shoot approach of the amateur handheld Kodak camera in 1888, American Pictorialists, in particular Alfred Stieglitz, continued to stake out photography's claim as a fine art. However, he shifted his position as early as 1907 to advocate for photography's own unique visual language. Marius De Zayas, writing in Stieglitz's journal Camera Work in 1913, claimed that the photograph was an ideal form based on its own potential as a means of image-making. The modern definition of a Straight photography appeared in 1916 in the critic Sadakichi Hartmann's essay, "A Plea for Straight Photography," which advocated for the pure photographic approach to depict modern reality. This argument is first visualized in Paul Strand's abstract studies published in the last, 1917 issue of Camera Work (which was edited by Alfred Stieglitz). Strand's abstract studies drew on lessons of Cubism where flattened pictorial space and tight cropping defamiliarized the subject to create an intense seeing of pure form. So, Straight photography developed in the work of Strand within the artistic milieu of Stieglitz's 291 Gallery in New York, a place attentive to the avant-garde movement of Cubism.

By the end of World War I, Straight photography became standard practice in the fields of advertising, design, and journalism in the United States. In particular, Paul Outerbridge's advertising photography introduced graphic clarity into advertising, as in his 1922 ad for the Ide Shirt collars. A commercialized Straight photography went hand-in-hand with the advent of the illustrated magazines that maximized photography for popular influence.

Meanwhile, in Europe, a New Objectivity emerged in the arts and photography. Albert Renger-Patzsch's photo book The World is Beautiful (1929) exemplifies a modern, yet objective (Straight) way of looking at the world, as it developed in Germany. His collection of one hundred photographs reveal patterns of beauty and order in the natural and man-made world. By comparison, August Sander documented the people of his native Westerwald, near Cologne, Germany from all walks of life. He organized his typographical catalog by professions and trades, which he titled The Face of Our Time (1929).

Renger-Patzsch's clear and rigorous depictions have an affinity with the work of the French photographer Eugène Atget, one of the most influential early modern photographers. He documented Old Paris, as it was transforming into a modern city from 1889 to 1924. His lifelong project, informed by the 19th-century ambition to record events and classify objects, became well known in the 1920s primarily due to the photographers Man Ray and Berenice Abbott. Their interpretation of Atget's work as artistic documents set up a new modern model for the relationship between visual documents and knowledge.

Because Atget produced photographs for all kinds of purposes, his documents revealed how one photograph had multiple interpretations. The way images could open themselves up to multiple meanings with the help of the imagination sparked the interest and fascination of the Surrealists such as Man Ray, Brassaï, and Marcel Duchamp, as well as modern photographers such as André Kertesz, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, László Moholy-Nagy, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and later, Irving Penn.

The new emphasis on the photograph's function in the 1920s rather than its pure visual form owed much to the development of aviation and aerial photography during the first World War. Because the camera image reproduced from a high vantage point the interweaving geometric forms on the ground for military intelligence, it changed the very basis of photographic vision. This "view from above," which became a cliché in the 1920s, re-ignited the debate on visualization, an issue actively debated in the scientific field, beginning in the 1850s, about photography's ability to show the results of an experiment: for example, the shock wave produced by a bullet passing through a pane of glass. Modern photographers, in particular Moholy-Nagy, relished the way this new vision dismantled space and identified new relationships between objects. Visualization, however, would take on a different meaning in American Straight photography with its emphasis on form, texture, and light.

Group f/64: Modern Objects and National Parks

Straight photography became dominant during the thirties in the United States. The West Coast photographers, known as Group f/64, advocated what they called "pure" photography. As Edward Weston described, they believed in the "innate honesty" of the camera, which, "should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself." Weston became central to the development of modern photography in California due to his stylistic boldness that treated the object or the body in terms of form, texture, and light. He founded together with Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, Sonya Noskowiak, Dorothea Lange, an informal group, who took the name Group f/64 in reference to an extremely small aperture setting which would produce sharp focus and great depth of field. The most influential of these photographers was Ansel Adams.

Adam's photographs from the late 1920s and 1930s suggest the sculptural work to come in the 1940s. For instance, Factory, San Francisco (1932) employs a Cubist arrangement of walls and roofs that never yields to total abstraction, but instead shows the power lines and the texture of corrugated steel under strong sunlight. Adams achieved the crisp perfection associated with Strand and Weston and, like Weston, he made a pilgrimage to see Alfred Stieglitz, the major force in avant-garde American photography. Adams journeyed to New York City in 1933 in the hope that Stieglitz's blessing would enhance his career and which Stieglitz promptly did by organizing an exhibition of Adam's work in 1936.

By the 1930s, Strand, like Adams, documented the world rather than pure form. His interest in using art to create awareness about social issues compelled him to become involved in progressive causes. In 1936, he joined the volunteer organization of the Photo League, whose primary aim was to educate photographers and to document the everyday life of workers. Photographers were at the core of the group and the founding members included Sid Grossman, Aaron Siskind, Walter Rosenblum, and Max Yavno. Strand had a profound influence in the League through his lectures and course on documentary photography.

Documentary Photography finds its Voice in the Great Depression

Even though Straight photography became irrelevant during the Great Depression, its legacy proved resilient. Photographers now knew they could use the medium to make documentary images of reality that were expressive through formal means, as in the work of Walker Evans. Evan's documentary style, like Emerson's, used the camera as part of his investigation of rural life, its particular atmosphere, daily rhythms, and vernacular forms.

Evans was among a group of documentary photographers who went to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1935 to 1944. These FSA photographers were tasked with photographically documenting "all aspects of the American way of life," particularly the effects of the Great Depression on the Dust Bowl (which is namely the Great Plains that extend over southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and northeastern New Mexico). Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks were noted photographers of this social documentary movement. They photographed in the fields or among the urban poor, while striving to depict the unvarnished truth of their subjects. Social documentary photography aimed to inform people about the state of the nation, using an emotional language to move them to empathize with its subject.

Evans, also stayed true to his own agenda as he photographed rural America's small-town life, shopfronts, vernacular architecture, and basic American artifacts and materials of old - as though in search for a definitive American image. Graveyard, Houses, and Steel Mill, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1935) captures a series of Americas that coincide, yet lack coherence and continuity. Evans' "fractured vision of America," to borrow photo-historian Paul Graham's phrase, influenced the work of Robert Frank, Harry Callahan, and William Eggleston.

The Changing City and Street Photography

Street photography responded to the urban experience of the modern city. Photographers explored the city by day and by night to expose its true condition: the loss of the old urban spaces, modern changes and confusion, human activity on the street, or the city's darker, bizarre, even surreal elements. Street photographers used an expressive style to describe Paris and New York from the 1930s to the 1980s.

With the advent of the 35mm camera, street photography became a notable style in 1930s France. Cartier-Bresson's use of this small camera and his full-framing of a scene visualized at the time of exposure, defined the modernist, camera aesthetic of the 1930s. The 35mm camera allowed him to blend into situations and act like an alert detective, waiting for the moment when an essential meaning of the scene revealed itself, as in Paris, Gare St. Lazare (1932). A photographer on the go, Cartier-Bresson made it acceptable to use professional labs to process and print the images. The days of the unique print, developed by the artist-photographer, were becoming a thing of the past.

For Brassaï, the city became a surreal event he viewed at night to capture the city's darkest and deepest needs and desires in bars, hotels, brothels, and clubs. For example, No. 27 (1933) describes a dark city street lined by a series of hotels whose illuminated signage punctuated the street.

Berenice Abbott, also inspired by Atget, made New York City's entire urban space her subject. She captured the city's dynamic transformation in her project Changing New York (1939) by using a variety of approaches in her photography. This allowed her to describe the city's fractured character, as in Columbus Circle (1929), full of adverts, signs, boards, and directions, as well as its "views from above" the city's skyscrapers.

Helen Levitt's lifelong project presents another view of the city through the activity of children at play in New York neighborhoods. The Viennese-born, American photographer Lisette Model, a teacher and lecturer of photography (taught Diane Arbus), drew attention to average people in the city in a direct, honest manner. Yet, her photographs impacted the street photography of Levitt and Lee Friedlander in their direct, candid approach to children or average people on the street.

Photojournalism Reports World Events

Capa on assignment in Spain, using a Filmo 16mm movie camera. Photo by Gerda Taro

Over the next three decades, the documentary style became instrumental in covering major world conflicts. In Europe, it became associated with the news agency Magnum, founded in 1947 with offices in New York and Paris. This international news agency embraced individual approaches to documentary photography. The agency's founding members were: Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David (Chim) Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert. Each photographer had a readily identifiable individual style. Robert Capa, Hungarian-born photojournalist, exemplified the Magnum photographer: the globetrotting heroic photojournalist, who moves between cultures documenting everything happening in the world. For Capa, it started with his coverage of the Spanish Civil War and on through the second World War. Photojournalists like Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson depicted the allies entry into WWII as well as the horrors of the French refugee camps at the end of the war, as reflected in Capa's D-Day (1944) and Cartier-Bresson's Accused Gestapo Informer, Dessau, Germany (1945). Evidently Magnum, influenced by Cartier-Bresson, emphasized the chance encounters and random incidents, which define the photograph's meaning.

In the United States, photojournalism was closely associated with the work of Margaret Bourke-White, who documented the nation's industrial achievements as in the creation of Fort Peck dam in her New Deal, Montana: Fort Peck Dam (1936) for Life magazine. Photojournalism in both the United States and Europe continued to sustain Straight photography's artistic sensibility as it shaped the world's news stories in arresting images in the pages of the highly-popular illustrated magazines: Life, Fortune, Time, Paris Match, Epoca, among others.

Straight Photography: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

Straight photography, identified with a pure approach to the medium, was used across all fields of photography and different styles: from avant-garde photographs, documentary and street photography, to abstract photography. Each photographic style adapted the approach to emphasize its own treatment of form, sensory experience, or the changes in the social and cultural environment.

Social Documentary Photography and Street Photography

Social documentary photographers draw attention to the social conditions that need social reform or to convey the underlying power structures causing social problems. For instance, Walker Evan's famous image, Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama (1936) highlighted the plight of poor sharecroppers and the need for social reform during the Great Depression. Evans emphasized the photograph as "fact," yet aimed to create images that had a lyrical quality. As he said, with the images he wanted to "make an attack on the establishment... wanting to disturb them." Consequently, the documentary photograph needs to be seen in relation to the world, from where it was taken and the histories associated with it.

Street photography adopted a casual, yet candid view of human activity in public spaces and in the city. Evan's series Subway Portraits simply captured people at moments on the subway, lost in thought, in mid conversation, reading a newspaper; these images describe a reality often overlooked in the anonymous space of the underground. These photographs impacted the work of street photographers such as Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, and Helen Levitt. Street photography created ambivalent images alert to the city's modernity and its human inhabitants. New responses, however, continuously emerge to register the ever-changing metropolises as diverse as Mexico City, Bombay, Shanghai, Tokyo.


With the rise of the Nazi Era, and the outbreak of World War II, photojournalism earned the reputation for providing truthful and objective images of world events in the illustrated press. Magnum Photos, the first international photographic cooperative, exemplified the highest standard in the field of photojournalism. Their ethical and socially conscious approach to documenting events lent credibility to the news stories based on their photographs.

In the years following World War II, Photojournalism with its straight approach became profoundly connected to ethical questions of authenticity, objectivity, and accuracy in reporting. As the photo-historian Fred Ritchen contends, the language of photojournalism was forged in adversity - "a tragic history related through photography." With the Vietnam war, a crisis of loyalty occurred and the politically committed photographer protested against and "denounced the hypocrisy of the cause of the conflict and its gratuitous violence." After this war, it would become more difficult for American photojournalists to gain access to areas of conflict and to have such a freehand at reporting.

Due to the advent of Photoshop the manipulation of the image has become more easily achieved and disguised. Still news photographs are expected to provide accurate information as well as in their captions to avoid casting aspersion upon the photograph and the photographer. For instance, in 2015, 20% of the photographic entries for the World Press Photo Award were disqualified for being manipulated, and a major prize was withdrawn after the winner was found to have staged images and provided misleading captions.

Abstract Photography

Abstract photography emphasized the experimental and conceptual character of the photograph. It uses composition, line, color, and forms that may or may not have an association with objects in the world. Some abstract photographers sought out the details of the city or landscape rather than the experimental possibilities of the medium. For instance, Aaron Siskind, a noted social documentary photographer, who depicted life in Harlem in his photo book Harlem Document (1932-40), began to take extreme close-ups of subjects in the early 1940s. This led to works like Jerome, Arizona 21 (1949) where a close-up of peeling paint on a wall becomes an abstraction of shape and form. Inspired by Edward Weston to take up photography, Frederick Sommer used a large format camera to document the desert landscape and adopted innovative framing techniques, for instance, photographing the desert without a horizon to create, what he called, "constellations" as the landscape itself approached abstraction.

László Moholy-Nagy's "New Vision" in photography experimented with the medium, its unconventional forms and techniques, to give the image a graphic structure. Some of his techniques included a simple photogram (placing an object directly on the light-sensitive paper and exposing it to light), photomontages, the combination of photographs and modern typography, or unusual angles, such as the close-up. Moholy-Nagy's photograms from the twenties are one of the many ways he experimented with the medium. As painter, photographer, sculptor, and filmmaker as well as graphic, exhibition, and state designer, Moholy-Nagy believed in the power of images and advocated for the integration of art and technology.

Later Developments - After Straight Photography

Photography's power to mirror reality shaped the Straight approach to create an ideal, yet honest picture. The influence of American Straight photography can be found as late as the 1970s in the work of Czech photographer Josef Sudek. However, given the prevalence of the photographic image and its use by democratic and dictatorial governments alike to promote their various national agendas in the post WWII period, progressive artists and photographers inevitably critiqued the media's universal claims. Conceptual photographers in the 1970s, in particular Douglas Hubler, sought to break down the conventions of documentary photography and provoke viewers to examine their visual culture. Postmodernism attacked photography's neutral, objective images. Photographers such as Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman resented the documentary approach, because as the art critic Deborah Solomon explained: "They resented the street aesthetic or documentary approach because they wanted to show that all photography - even the most seemingly real - is an illusion. They thought it was silly to pretend that documentary photography offers truths."

As a result, the viability of both the artistic and documentary photograph are still debated, given the proliferation of technology, cell phone cameras and digital software, which has resulted in an explosion of images. The photographer Stephen Mayes in a Time magazine 2015 issue argued, "We'll look back at the black-and-white photograph that was the voice of truth for nearly a century, as a simplistic and incomplete source of information about what was happening in the world."

Nonetheless, Straight photography persisted to define a vision of how we interact with the world into the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Inspired by their awareness of time, some photographers interestingly used the concept of the snapshot, tied to the fleeting experience of life, to explore the daily aspects of their own lives and/or local cultures, such as Martin Parr, Wolfgang Tillmans, Richard Billingham and Nan Goldin. Simultaneously other photographers have reinterpreted the concept of the series, by photographing a single subject over an extended period of time, as seen in the Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra's work Israeli Soldiers (1999-2003) that depicts a young woman at various points in her year and a half stint in the Israeli army. For many artists, the camera became the ultimate tool for revealing what would otherwise remain obscured or hidden from view.

Other 21st-century artists, however, continue to interrogate and reinvent the medium of photography anew, as in the work of Matthew Brandt, Marco Breuer, Lisa Oppenheim, Alison Rossiter, and James Welling, who continue to evoke the abstract and formal vocabularies used by modernist photographers in the twenties and thirties.

Key Artists

  • The iconic photographer Strand redifined the medium through his portraits, city scenes, and abstract compositions that helped define modernist photography in the twentieth century.
  • Alfred Stieglitz was an American photographer who published the pioneering journal Camera Work. His gallery 291 was a locus for modern artists in America.
  • Ansel Adams was an American photographer best known for his mid-twentieth-century black-and-white portraits of the Western frontier.
  • Moholy-Nagy was a Hungarian painter, photographer, and teacher at the Bauhaus School. He was influential in promoting the Bauhaus's multi- and mixed-media approaches to art, advocating for the integration of technological and industrial design elements.
  • Diane Arbus is recognized for her insightful street-based compositions and black-and-white portraits of marginalized individuals on the fringes of mainstream society, including images of nudists, transvestites, and mentally and physically handicapped people.
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Do Not Miss

  • Street photography captures the moments of everyday life in public places. Photographers rely on framing and timing to immortalize a candid, sometimes called "decisive" moment. Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, and Walker Evans were innovators of the movement.
  • Group f/64 photographers shared a common photographic style characterized by sharp-focused and carefully framed images. The California group followed and developed the Straight Photography approach of their East Coast peers.
  • Modern photography refers to a range of approaches from Straight Photography, New Vision photography, Dada and Surrealist photography, and later abstract tendencies.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Straight Photography Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 30 Oct 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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