The History of Street Photography and Its Growing Popularity

A man man on the street taking photos.

The purpose of a street photographer is to capture what happens right in front of him. (Image: StockSnap via Pixabay)

Street photography is sometimes mistakenly thought to mean taking photos on the streets. This isn’t accurate. Street photography does not require a street or any urban areas, in fact. In simple terms, street photography is taking pictures in public places.

Unlike studio photography, the street style does not set anything up prior to taking pictures. Instead, the purpose of a street photographer is to capture what happens right in front of him. Whether it be a person or an object, a street photographer strives to capture the emotion or essence of his subject.

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A brief history of street photography

Street photography depicts daily life as it happens in a public space. This is actually not a new trend that was started by someone, but an extension of earlier trends in other artistic fields like painting. Even as far back as Egyptian times or during the more recent medieval renaissance period, artwork that portrayed daily life was common.

The invention of cameras just provided creative people with a new way to portray public spaces. The first-known street photographs date from around 1838 and were made by a French artist named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. The images showed a view of the streets from his window.

The first book exclusively containing street photography was published by Scottish photographer John Thomson in 1877. Named Street Life in London, it was published in 12 monthly installments. Thomson’s work played a critical role in normalizing street imagery as a valid subject of photography. French photographer Eugène Atget is another noteworthy pioneer of early street photography. Between the 1890s and 1920s, Atget mostly photographed the architecture and landscape of Paris, making street photography popular.

The Eiffel Tower at sunset.
Eugène Atget, a pioneer of early street photography, mostly photographed the architecture and landscape of Paris. (Image: via Pixabay)

In 1925, the world of street photography changed with the introduction of Leica cameras. The bright viewfinder, changeable lenses, and overall compactness made Leica a hit with photographers, allowing them to easily navigate streets and quickly take pictures. In the U.S., the popularity of street photography has often been linked with the growing interest in jazz music, since both of them focus on narrating the everyday life of people. Between 1938 and 1941, photojournalist Walker Evans worked on a photo series of the New York City subway. He used a hidden camera to take pictures of people in public spaces.

In 1958, American photographer Robert Frank published a book called The Americans. The street photos he took broke away from what was considered ‘normal’ at that time. Frank’s photos were raw depictions of life and were mostly out of focus. Most American photographers rejected Frank’s book.

But later on, The Americans became a deeply influential book that inspired photographers to step out of their comfort zones and explore new paths in street photography. Some people consider The Americans to be one of the most influential photography books of the last century.

Growing popularity

The late 20th century and the early 21st century saw a boom in street photography. Cameras became cheaper and of higher quality, easily accessible to enthusiasts. However, what truly impacted street photography in the 21st century is the spread of smartphones. Featuring high-end cameras and software, smartphones allow even someone with zero experience in photography to take some outstanding images. Suddenly, almost everyone had the potential to become a street photographer, a field that was out of bounds for most people earlier.

A woman takes a photo of people walking down the street.
Smartphones give everyone the potential to become a street photographer. (Image: via Pixabay)

Today, you can find countless online platforms and social media communities dedicated to street photography. Armed with technology that none of our predecessors had, millions of people take random shots of everyday public life, editing them in innumerable ways, and publishing them for millions of other people to rate online. While 20th-century street photography allowed professional photographers to capture the life of the common man, the current technology has enabled the common man to take street photographs from his own perspective.

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