Important Photographs and Artists of Street Photography

Progression of Art

Place de l'Europe

Artist: Henri Cartier-Bresson

This iconic image depicts a man skipping (with a true sense of Parisian élan) over a flooded area in the Place de ;'Europe, just outside the Saint Lazare train station. The photograph illustrates Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" technique - described by him as that "one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance" - in the way his camera freezes the exact moment the prancing man touches heels with his reflected image. Cartier-Bresson was inspired by the Surrealists and we see that influence too in the surrealistic preoccupation with the idea of the uncanny doppelgänger (revealed in the man's reflection). The surrealistic mystery of the man's flight is only strengthened by the "floating" ladder from which he appears to have sprung while the shadowy onlooker in the middle-distance merely completes the image's element of incongruity.

Beneath the chimney in the upper left of the frame, meanwhile, a circus poster shows a female dancer in a pose that copies that of the main subject. The superior lens quality of the Leica camera would lend the image a potential for fine picture detail such as this to emerge. It is also of some significance (for the idea of photography as an art form in its own right) that Cartier-Bresson's figurative juxtaposition is set against a hazy background of Saint Lazare. These buildings had been painted previously by the likes of Monet and Manet which suggests that the photographer wanted to invite associations, not just with the Surrealists, but with the great masters of French modernism.

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Bijoux de Montmartre, Bar de la Lune

Artist: Brassai

Playing a significant role in creating the bohemian image of Paris, Brassaï photographed the artists, socialites, prostitutes, and philosophers who populated the streets, parks, and bars at night. This image, featured in his famous book Paris by Night, depicts a mature woman - La Môme Bijou ("the urchin Bijou"), or Miss Diamonds, as she was variously known within the Montmartre community - sitting alone in a bar with a wine glass and two stacked small white plates on the table before her. She wears a hat with a flower and a fur-collared coat (despite being indoors) and several strands of pearls around her neck. Described by Brassaï as "the queen of Montmartre's nocturnal fauna [and a] fantastic apparition that had sprung up out of the night," she carries a fading image of a glamorous past.

Though his images featured people who lived at the forgotten margins of society, Brassaï brought a kind of poetic reverie to his images: "I was seeking the poetry of the fog which transforms people, the poetry of the night which transforms the city" he said. Bijou with her faded glamor embodied the La Belle Époque ("the beautiful era") in France, but, despite clinging to the past, she retains a distinctive presence, as her knowing gaze shrewdly evaluates the scene before her. As a further measure of Bijou's presence, the protagonist of the French Jean Giraudoux's play The Madwoman of Chaillot (1945) was inspired by this photograph.

Gelatin silver print - The John Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California


New York (Children with Broken Mirror)

Artist: Helen Levitt

In the 1930s Levitt began taking the photographs of children at play in the streets of New York, for which she is best known. Influenced by Walker Evans and Cartier-Bresson, her photographs combine the objective humanism of Evans with Cartier-Bresson's emphasis on the "decisive moment" and, like Cartier-Bresson, her work was influenced by Surrealism's interest in exploring the idea of the uncanny.

In this photograph, two children hold up a broken mirror as two others crouch, examining the glass shards around the curb. Behind the frame a little boy on a bicycle surges forward, as if he is about to pitch through the frame itself. At first glance, it seems that the boy on the bicycle is a pictorial incongruity. Only upon closer reflection does the spectator realize that the mirror is broken, and that the boy pitching forward is (potentially) about to emerge through the empty frame. A further examination of the image requires an adjustment of the spectator's imagination since she or he realizes that the boy on the bike is in fact stationary and has stopped to see what the boys on our side of the frame are doing. As a result, the image's play upon the mirror becomes a play upon the nature of photographic reality itself and the part the viewer's imagination plays in forming that reality.

Silver gelatin print - Whitney Museum, New York


Lower East Side

Artist: Lisette Model

This photo depicts a middle-aged woman standing astride her steps, her powerful body leaning emphatically as she points aggressively outside of the picture's frame, her mouth curled angrily around her words.

Born in Austria, Lisette Model first became known for the often brutally revealing photographs she secretly took of wealthy vacationers in Nice in 1934. In 1938 Model moved to New York City and in 1951 she began teaching at the New School for Social Research where she taught and influenced photographers like Rosalind Solomon, Larry Fink, and most notably, Diane Arbus.

Before turning to photography, Model had studied music with the composer, Arnold Schönberg, and Expressionism's emphasis on conveying often dark emotional reality continued to influence her frank images of iconic characters. Closely cropped, the woman fills the frame, and the diagonals of the step's railing and the angle of her coat exaggerate the emotion expressed in her body language. The shot, taken from a low angle, makes her appear to loom over the street like a fury of scolding chastisement.

Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Fall 1953, New York

Artist: Vivian Maier

In Maier's image, a fashionable middle-class woman, with a parcel and her purse on one arm, looks on at an incident to her left where a policeman is helping a man bent on crutches into the entrance of a building. In the middle left an older man has paused to survey the scene as well.

Throughout her life Maier worked as a nanny and the 150,000+ street photographs she took remained unknown to the public until the age of social media dawned. In 2007, two years prior to her death, she was unable to pay the rent on a storage locker and the contents, which included her negatives, prints, some 8mm film, and audio recordings, were sold to three collectors. In 2009 one of the collectors, John Moloof, linked a Flickr page of her images to his blog and Maier's work became a viral sensation, resulting in international attention for her work, and an acclaimed film: Finding Vivian Maier in 2013.

Maier often used a Rollieflex, a larger camera that, while, allowing for finer detail, made the subject often aware the photograph was being taken. As a result, one of the themes of her work is how the observer is simultaneously observed, as can be seen here as a man, only partially visible at the far right, turns to look at the photographer with the same look that the woman, passing by, directs toward the trio at the door. A number of her images are self-portraits, caught in the reflection of a shop window or mirror, and in this work too, the solitary woman observer passing by becomes a kind of allegory for the photographer.

Silver gelatin print - Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York


New York City

Artist: Robert Frank

While working on assignments for Harper's Bazaar, Frank made the acquaintance of the Russian art director and photographer, Alexey Brodovitch and it was the Russian who encouraged Frank to pursue his creative goal of developing a new and authentic photographic art. Brodovitch urged his mentee to take greater risks in his work and emboldened Frank to "unlearn" the studio practices he had learned since his time as a young apprentice in his Swiss homeland and to venture out onto the streets and highways of his adopted land (America).

New York City, a photograph that is part of Frank's seminal The Americans photobook, captures a group of striking white workers on a New York sidewalk. We can see in the foreground a working-class African-American man slouched against a trashcan. He appears to be carrying a giant American flag - something of a motif throughout The Americans project - though on closer inspection we realise that this is in fact an optical illusion. The "flagbearer's" demeanour - arms folded across his chest, his gaze turned towards an object or events outside the frame, and away from the protesters - suggests an indifference towards the plight of the white workers. Though the subjects belong to the same social class, the image alludes to a contradiction by presenting a picture of a conflicted ethnic society rather than that of "one nation" united under the same flag.

Photograph on paper - Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University, California


New York World's Fair

Artist: Garry Winogrand

Winogrand stated (in a discussion about this image in particular) that the "problem" facing the Street Photographer was "How do you make a photograph that's more interesting than what happened"? In other words, the quest of the Street Photographer was to elevate the everyday to the status of art. Here, Winogrand's off-center snapshot features six women and two men who share a municipal bench during New York's World Fair of 1964-65. Save the middle-aged man on the far right who is reading a newspaper, the subjects are energetically absorbed in their own private conservations and are clearly oblivious to Winogrand's presence.

The image amounts to more than documentary and/or nostalgia by virtue of the fact that the meaning of the image is potentially ambiguous. With the only clue to its meaning being the photograph's title (which gives us a time and place) the spectator is invited to use their imagination in bringing their own reading to the picture. However, the timeless allure of finding the image's true meaning was emphasized some fifty years later, in 2014, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured a retrospective of Winogrand's work. In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum tracked down two of the women, Karen Marcato Kiaer (third in from our left) and Ann Amy Shea (fourth in from our right). In an exchange of emails (published in The New Yorker) Ann confirmed that the six women were classmates from a small city college called Duchesne Residence School. The school's headmistress had provided tickets for the girls to attend the World's Fair. Karen recalled: "We college girls lived together on the sixth floor of the convent school [and] were celebrating, that day at the fair, knowing school was finishing up for the year, and looking forward to being part of the freedom movement and spending the summer in Shreveport, Louisiana, doing voter-registration work." However, the idea that Street Photography could appear on the hallowed walls of an art gallery was met with incredulity by Ann who supplied the following comment: "Girls will be girls - we were kidding with each other and those around us. I never saw a photographer, or anyone taking our picture [...] We were just a bunch of girls out having fun. Why would anyone take our picture"?

Gelatin silver print - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California


New York City

Artist: Joel Meyerowitz

This photograph marks a crucial point in Meyerowitz's career. In this period during the mid-1970s, Meyerowitz switched from a small handheld camera to a large format 8 x 10 Deardorff. The loss of mobility is however compensated for by the much larger, high quality color prints. Though the switch to the Deardorff took away some spontaneity, it adheres to the same "snapshot" principle of Meyerowitz's earlier Street Photography: that of capturing a moving city in a split moment in time and place. Speaking of the location on the intersection of 59th street and Madison Avenue, Meyerowitz suggested that he had "picked a hard, sunny corner, with something in the frame that appealed to [him];" in this case specifically, a "gaudy and horrible" office building that was "exactly of its era."

In terms of its composition, we see that the picture frame is divided into geometric shapes of light and shadow. Against this architectural order, passing individuals are purposeful, concentrated and introspective, striding across the composition in a mix of drab greys and tans and gaudy pink or blue. Yet collisions seem somehow inevitable given that each figure is in a world of their own. The color film meanwhile is integral to creating the overall impression. As Meyerowitz himself put it in this discerning quote: "When I first showed these sorts of image to my friends Garry Winogrand and Tod Papageorge they thought that I had lost my mind, or lost my eye. And yet, when I look back on this picture - at the newsagent, or the man striding around the corner, or the gigantic woman - I feel a kind of giddy delight that I was there [...] Anyone who looked at this in 2050 would be able to say: 'So that's what it was like to be in New York 75 years ago."

Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Street Photography Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 15 Jan 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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