The Leica Meet Blog

Exploring Street Photography, part two, the backstory

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

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.

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.

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.

“….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

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