Exploring Street Photography, part three, the backstory

(And the work of four innovative photographers you may not know)

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Fifth arrondissement, Paris, Charles Marville

Charles Marville

Meanwhile in Paris, Napoleon 3rd had a vision for the city in which the streets would be a glorious stage and Parisiennes strolling the boulevards would be the actors. In 1853 he employed Baron Hausmann to renovate Paris. This involved tearing down old buildings, cutting 80 kms of new avenues through the city, laying the foundations of four grand parks and installing 20,000 gas lamps.

Which photographer springs to mind from this era? Eugene Atget. An enigmatic character who never showed at a Salon, worked in obscurity for most of his life until being discovered by the Surrealists who published a few of his images a year before he died.

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Paris streets, Atget / Marville 

But the person I want to highlight is Charles Marville, described in the magnificent book, ‘Bystander, A History of Street Photography’, link below. He was the official photographer to the Louvre employed by the City of Paris to record the rebuilding works in 1862. Apart from the more academic histories of photography, Marville has been something of a mystery. Partly because documents that would shed light on his biography were thought to have disappeared in a fire that consumed the Paris city hall in 1871.

He shot in the same locations in (arguably) a very similar style to Atget, around two decades earlier. There are notable similarities in composition and cropping. He was better known during his lifetime as a photographer and recorded both the old narrow streets and the new broad boulevards. As Luc Sante writes in the New Yorker, ‘His exquisitely nuanced and lavishly detailed views of the alleys and impasses of the Cité anticipate Atget so completely you’d occasionally swear they were the same person.’

marville atget

Marville / Atget, centre lines, similar ways of composing

Yet today because he made the street interesting, it is Atget who is often honoured as being the virtual ‘Father of Street’. Possibly due to the fact that  after his death Berenice Abbott and Julien Levy bought many of his glass plates/prints and subsequently exhibited his work in New York. As ever, art is subject to fickle fashion and finance.


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Chinatown, “The smell of the place—it was a mixture of the scent of sandalwood and exotic herbs…”

Arnold Genthe

German born Arnold Genthe, a professor of Philology was definitely not overlooked. At the end of his career he had taken portraits of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John D. Rockefeller, Greta Garbo, Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan and many others.

However it is the early part of his career that interests us. He taught himself photography after emigrating to San Francisco in 1895 and became a leading figure in the ‘art’ movement decrying the traditional posed style of photography. Dorothea Lange started her career as his studio assistant. Using a small Zeiss camera he became fascinated with the Chinese Community. “The smell of the place—it was a mixture of the scent of sandalwood and exotic herbs, the sickly sweetness of opium smoke, the fumes of incense and roast pork … and in the air, always the sound of temple gongs…”

Whether for security or the subject’s reluctance to be photographed he hid his camera under his coat and was one of the early pioneers of genuinely candid street photography. His photographs are some of the very few to survive the earthquake of 1906.


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‘A good joke’ by Alfred Stieglitz, Bellagio, Italy 1887

It wouldn’t be right to leave this era without showing one of the most celebrated photographs of the period, by the legendary Alfred Stieglitz. It was amongst the first of more than 150 prizes he would go on to win in his career. This image came top in a UK Amateur Photographer magazine competition in 1887. So accustomed were people to staged images that it won because the judges cited it as the only spontaneous work in the competition. Stieglitz went on to be remembered for many photographic achievements, amongst them the quote, “George Eastman put photographs in people’s wallets, Alfred Stieglitz put them on museum walls”.

The Backstory

The period between 1880 – 1900 is a particularly important part of the backstory. Wet collodion was replaced by gelatin, firstly on glass plates and then by celluloid on roll film. Professionals started using small folding view cameras. Kodak introduced a hand held camera pre-loaded with roll film and followed that with the Brownie in 1900. The consumer market was born.

At the turn of the century social changes as far apart as railroads and urban transformation had shaped photography. Cultural change moved subject matter from the exalted to the everday. Technology had enabled it to move from posed to candid, from waist level to eye level, from professional to mass market. The powerful symbols of the motor car, the skyscaper, mass production and high speed printing presses enabling photo essays, announced the dawn of the machine age. With it, the vitality of the street became a theatre, a backdrop for a new genre of photography.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this three part voyage of discovery as much as I did in writing it.

Olaf Willoughby

Note: in researching material for the Street Photography workshops I teach with Eileen McCarney Muldoon, I became fascinated with the origins of this genre. I found one book particularly useful in providing authoritative, sensitive commentary. If you’d like to read more, I heartily recommend it.


Exploring Street Photography, part two, the backstory

(And the work of four innovative photographers you may not know)

4 thomson Dealer-in-Fancy-Ware

A dealer in Fancy Wares. “It’s not so much the imitation jewels the women are after, it’s the class of jewels that make them imitation ladies.”

John Thomson

‘The Streets of London’, originally a monthly magazine created in 1877 by John Thomson was the first publication devoted exclusively to Street Photography. In what was also an early form of photo journalism, he took a writer (Adolphe Smith) with him and recorded the lives and characters of the people he met on the street. Check out the Flying Dustmen but here is a dealer in Fancy Wares with a classic observation on the lives he sees pass before him, “It’s not so much the imitation jewels the women are after, it’s the class of jewels that make them imitation ladies.” How carefully the image is staged. How perfectly positioned are all the main players plus the boy looking out the window at the back. These subjects had been photographed previously but the interviews and the careful staging brought energy into street life.

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William Hampton of the London Nomades – “Why what do I want with education?

Any chaps of my acquaintance that knows how to write and count proper ain’t much to be trusted into the bargain.”

Here is a link to a full illustrated article: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2011/03/28/john-thomsons-street-life-in-london/  – which contains some wonderful interview quotations. Clearly his work is regarded as social documentary of the age, however it also contains the seeds of the Street Photography of today.

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1895 Whitby, UK. ‘The Fisherwomen’ by Sutcliffe

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe 

In the 1830’s and 1840’s the Railway Age boomed out across the UK, Europe and the USA. Despite the objections of the Duke of Wellington who opposed them on the grounds that, ‘Railways will encourage the masses to move around needlessly’ they opened up whole areas to visitors and therefore to photographic opportunities.

Enter Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, an entrepreneurial photographer who exploited the growing interest in the town of Whitby, Yorks, UK.  Today it is celebrated as the birthplace of Capt. James Cooke or as the setting for Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. But originally people just wanted to discover the joys of the seaside. Through his work, Whitby was nicknamed The Photographers Mecca attracting droves of visitors not only by railway but also by a packet boat from London, named ‘The Tourist’. He had a thriving trade selling beautiful views of Whitby and its inhabitants. His images were not only respectful of local people and their traditions but won international awards as far afield as Vienna, Tokyo and New York.

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“….if he has patience and waits long enough the figure will come. Then friends will say, what a lucky snapshot…..”

He worked with a mahogany/brass camera, using ‘whole plate’ glass negatives (6.5”x8.5″). Yet he produced images that (IMHO) are admirable today, with all our fresh technology. More than posed, many of his street images were constructed like stage sets. He also adopted the approach of occupying a good spot and waiting for the image to appear, “….if he has patience and waits long enough the figure will come. Then friends will say, what a lucky snapshot, how well that figure comes, an artist could not have put it in a better place”

You can see a full selection of his excellent work here: http://www.sutcliffe-gallery.co.uk/gallery.html

In the final part (published tomorrow) we move on to more of the interesting and possibly less well known individuals to emerge from this period.

Olaf Willoughby

Exploring Street Photography, part one, the backstory

0 backstory

(And the work of four innovative photographers you may not know)

Mention Street Photography. What comes to mind? Probably Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Leica. Maybe Vivian Maier and a Rolleiflex. Certainly the names of other great masters of the European and American Schools; Kertesz, Brassai, Evans, Erwitt, plus more contemporary names (Eric Kim, Alex Webb, Marius Vieth, Trent Parker) and websites such as https://www.lensculture.com and our own http://www.theleicameet.com

The works of these old and new masters are of course, inspirational but there is a rich texture to the early history of Street Photography too. A fascinating interweaving of culture, art, technology and the emergence of talented, entrepreneurial individuals. In this post I want to explore some of those lesser known influences and their stories.

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Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre, 1838

Let’s start with the first Man-in-the-Street picture. It was taken by Louis Daguerre of the Boulevard du Temple, Paris in 1838 when a man having his boots shined luckily stood still long enough for his image to be recorded. A year later photography was introduced to the USA when Samuel Morse wrote an article in a New York newspaper about a daguerrotype he had seen.

Almost immediately photography split into documentary and portraiture genres. Today we regularly refer to the rapid spread of the internet or of mobile phones; yet photography catapulted itself on to the world stage. Portrait studios opened already in London (1841) and Boston (1843).

Documentary took many forms; war reporting on the Crimea (Fenton 1856), the American Civil war (Brady 1861) and use as evidence before Congress (Jackson 1872) to declare Yellowstone a National Park.

Bandits Roost part the notorious Mulberry St area. Shot using flash powder. In 1895 the work of Danish photographer Jacob Riis was used as evidence for Theodore Roosevelt (Police Commissioner at the time) to order the slum conditions in New York City to be cleaned up.

Straddling the ‘serious’ and ‘entertainment’ markets, photographers quickly travelled the globe recording the sights and peoples of far off lands (Egypt, Du Camp & Flaubert 1849), (Palestine/Syria, Frith 1856). Many of these travel images could easily also be classed as early Street Photography.

Thomson China 1871or2

China, 1871-72 by John Thomson

And this is where we run into the issue of definitions: Street Photography is a label assigned after the event to many different types of images. For example HCB considered by many as the doyen of ‘Street’ described himself as a ‘Photojournalist’.

Of course, all these early photos either showed motion blur or needed to be posed. So if you believe that the only true ‘Street’ is candid and sharp, then you’ll have to wait until the 1890’s before camera, film and lens technology plus the advent of flash powder made that possible. In previous posts I’ve made it clear that I’m happy with loose definitions and overlap between styles.

So in the next part (published tomorrow) we move on to four of the more interesting and possibly less well known individuals to emerge from this period.

Olaf Willoughby