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.

1 BoulevardduTemple Daguerre

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

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