Street Photography: How a Single Camera Invented a Subgenre
Candid photos of the daily, of normal or unique scenes playing out in public, are so pervasive in today’s image-heavy media that it’s easy to forget that street photography as a genre just emerged a little more than a half-century ago. At the turn of the twentieth century, several well-known artists (e.g., Alfred Stieglitz) were taking photographs of their urban surroundings, but the medium was still so new and the technology so limited that most photographers were simply testing the camera’s ability to document and often manipulated their images in the darkroom to achieve the desired effect. Street photography did not emerge as a recognisable art form until technology caught up with the desire to capture fleeting moments of real life (a desire that erupted in the 1880s, the Impressionist artists were in full force).
The Leica handheld camera, which became commercially accessible in 1924, was the key to allowing a photographer to be on the move while also capturing movement. The Leica, a 35-mm film camera, had a large aperture that needed a short exposure time, especially for outside shots, and it could advance quickly, allowing the photographer to capture multiple shots of a subject in quick succession. The days of sitters keeping difficult poses for extended periods were over or that blurred movement captured
The Leica became the camera of choice for photographers like André Kertész, Ilse Bing, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others working predominantly in Europe in the 1930s. Those photographers did not identify as street photographers, even if some of their subject matter met the genre’s present definition, but rather as photojournalists, fashion photographers (many for magazines), or just experimenters with a new medium. After WWII, the Leica remained the go-to camera for photographers, particularly New York City photographers such as Roy DeCarava, Lisette Model, William Klein, and Helen Levitt. Mr Robert Frank, He is beknown for his book The Americans (1959), which had a major impact on the next generation of street photographers and chronicled culture around the United States and Europe. With Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide, street photography took off in Mexico as well. Robert Doisneau was in Paris, Josef Koudelka was in Czechoslovakia, and Bill Brandt was in London.
The Leica was also employed by the 1960s generation, whose most renowned practitioners included Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus, and in some cases, such as Joel Meyerowitz, began to experiment with colour. The 1967 show “New Documents” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art characterised that generation. For documentary photographers with a subjective bent and a snapshot aesthetic, for better or worse. Documentary photographers were now (finally) regarded as artists with points of view rather than merely recorders of their environment or facts. The recognition of the creativity involved in photographic documentation paved the way for subsequent generations of photographers. Street photography is still undertaken by artists all over the world (some with Leicas) and amateurs with cell phones, the handheld image-capturing instrument of choice in the twenty-first century.