Street photography

Street photography, also sometimes called candid photography, is photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents[1] within public places. Although there is a difference between street and candid photography it is usually subtle with most street photography being candid in nature but not all candid photography being classifiable as street photography. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be of an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.[2][3]

"The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world "picturesque.""

Susan Sontag, 1977

The street photographer can be seen as an extension of the flaneur, an observer of the streets (who was often a writer or artist).[4]

Framing and timing can be key aspects of the craft with the aim of some street photography being to create images at a decisive or poignant moment.

Street photography can focus on people and their behavior in public, thereby also recording people's history. This motivation entails having also to navigate or negotiate changing expectations and laws of privacy, security and property. In this respect the street photographer is similar to social documentary photographers or photojournalists who also work in public places, but with the aim of capturing newsworthy events; any of these photographers' images may capture people and property visible within or from public places. The existence of services like Google Street View, recording public space at a massive scale, and the burgeoning trend of self-photography (selfies), further complicate ethical issues reflected in attitudes to street photography.

Much of what is regarded, stylistically and subjectively, as definitive street photography was made in the era spanning the end of the 19th century[5] through to the late 1970s; a period which saw the emergence of portable cameras that enabled candid photography in public places.


Depictions of everyday public life form a genre in almost every period of world art, beginning in the pre-historic, Sumerian, Egyptian and early Buddhist art periods. Art dealing with the life of the street, whether within views of cityscapes, or as the dominant motif, appears in the West in the canon of the Northern Renaissance, Baroque, Roccoco, of Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. With the type having been so long established in other media, it followed that photographers would also pursue the subject as soon as technology enabled them.

Nineteenth-century precursors

Louis Daguerre: "Boulevard du Temple" (1838 or 1839)

In 1838 or 1839 the first photograph of figures in the street was recorded by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in one of a pair of daguerreotype views taken from his studio window of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. The second, made at the height of the day shows an unpopulated stretch of street, while the other was taken at approximately 8:00 am, and as Beaumont Newhall reports, "The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed. His feet were compelled of course, of course, to be stationary for some time, one being on the box of the boot black, and the other on the ground. Consequently his boots and legs were well defined, but he is without body or head, because these were in motion."[6]

Charles Nègre was the first photographer to achieve the technical sophistication required to register people in movement on the street in Paris in 1851.[7] Eugene Atget is regarded as a progenitor, not because he was the first of his kind, but as a result of the popularisation in the late 1920s of his record of Parisian streets by Berenice Abbott, who was inspired to undertake a similar documentation of New York City.[8] As the city developed, Atget helped to promote Parisian streets as a worthy subject for photography. From the 1890s to the 1920s he photographed mainly its architecture, stairs, gardens, and windows. He did photograph some workers but people were not his main focus.

John Thomson, a Scotsman working with journalist and social activist Adolphe Smith, published Street Life in London (1877)[9] prior to Atget.[10] Thomson played a key role in making the capture of everyday life on the streets a significant role for the medium.[2]

Twentieth-century practitioners

United Kingdom

Paul Martin is considered a pioneer,[5][11] making candid unposed photographs of people in London and at the seaside in the late 19th and early 20th century in order to record life.[11][12] Martin is the first recorded photographer to do so in London with a disguised camera.[11]

Mass-Observation was a social research organisation founded in 1937 which aimed to record everyday life in Britain and to record the reactions of the 'man-in-the-street' to King Edward VIII's abdication in 1936 to marry divorcée Wallis Simpson, and the succession of George VI. Humphrey Spender made photographs on the streets of the northern English industrial town of Bolton, identified for the project's publications as "Yorktown", while filmmaker Humphrey Jennings made a cinematic record in London for a parallel branch of investigation. The chief Mass-Observationists were anthropologist Tom Harrisson in Bolton and poet Charles Madge in London, and their first report was produced as the book "May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 1937 by over two hundred observers"[13]

The decisive moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson, was a 20th century photographer whose poetic style focused on the actions of people in time and place. He was responsible in the 1950s for the idea of taking a picture at what he termed the "decisive moment", "when form and content, vision and composition merged into a transcendent whole".[14] The idea of the decisive moment he espoused in his book Images à la Sauvette (1952)[15] (the English-language edition was titled The Decisive Moment) that inspired successive generations of photographers to make candid photographs in public places before this approach per se came to be considered déclassé in the aesthetics of postmodernism.[16]


Cartier-Bresson was associated with the post-war Humanist School whose photographers found their subjects on the street or in the bistro. They worked primarily in black‐and‐white in available light with the popular small cameras of the day, discovering what the writer Pierre Mac Orlan (1882-1970) called the 'fantastique social de la rue' (social fantastic of the street)[17] and their style of image-making rendered romantic and poetic the way of life of ordinary European people, particularly in Paris. Between 1946-1957 Le Groupe des XV annually exhibited work of this kind. Street photography formed the major content of two exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York curated by Edward Steichen, Five French Photographers: Brassai; Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Ronis, Izis in 1951-1952,[18] and Post-war European Photography in 1953.[19] Steichen drew on large numbers of European humanist and American humanistic photographs for his 1955 exhibition The Family of Man, proclaimed as a compassionate portrayal of a global family, which toured the world, inspiring photographers in the depiction of everyday life.


Alfred Stieglitz: "The Terminal" (1892)

Walker Evans[20] worked from 1938 to 1941 on a series in the New York subway in order to practice a pure 'record method' of photography; candid portraits of people who would unconsciously come 'into range before an impersonal fixed recording machine during a certain time period'.[21] The recording machine was 'a hidden camera',[22] a 35 mm Contax concealed beneath his coat, that was 'strapped to the chest and connected to a long wire strung down the right sleeve'.[23] However, his work had little contemporary impact as due to Evans' sensitivities about the originality of his project and the privacy of his subjects, it was not published until 1966, in the book Many Are Called,[24] with an introduction written by James Agee in 1940. The work was exhibited as Walker Evans Subway Photographs and Other Recent Acquisitions held at the National Gallery of Art, 1991-1992, accompanied by the catalogue Walker Evans: Subways and Streets.[25]

Helen Levitt, then a teacher of young children, associated with Evans in 1938-39. She documented the transitory chalk drawings that were part of children's street culture in New York at the time, as well as the children who made them. In July 1939, MoMA's new photography section included Levitt's work in its inaugural exhibition.[26] In 1943, Nancy Newhall curated her first solo exhibition "Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children" there. The photographs were ultimately published in 1987 as In The Street: chalk drawings and messages, New York City 1938–1948.[27]

The beginnings of street photography in the United States can also be linked to those of jazz, both emerging as outspoken depictions of everyday life. This connection is visible in the work of the New York school of photography (not to be confused with the New York School). The New York School of photography was not a formal institution, but rather comprised groups of photographers in the mid-20th century based in New York City. Robert Frank's 1958 book, The Americans, was significant; raw and often out of focus,[28] Frank's images questioned mainstream photography of the time, "challenged all the formal rules laid down by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans" and "flew in the face of the wholesome pictorialism and heartfelt photojournalism of American magazines like LIFE and Time."[28] The mainstream photography community in America fiercely rejected Frank’s work, but the book later "changed the nature of photography, what it could say and how it could say it".[28] It was a stepping stone for fresh photographers looking to break away from the restrictions of the old style[2] and "remains perhaps the most influential photography book of the 20th century."[28]

Individual approaches in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries

Inspired by Frank, in the 1960s Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Joel Meyerowitz[29] began photographing on the streets of New York.[14][30] Phil Coomes, writing for BBC News in 2013, said "For those of us interested in street photography there are a few names that stand out and one of those is Garry Winogrand";[31] critic Sean O'Hagan, writing in The Guardian in 2014, said "In the 1960s and 70s, he defined street photography as an attitude as well as a style – and it has laboured in his shadow ever since, so definitive are his photographs of New York."[32]

"Crufts Dog Show 1968" by Tony Ray-Jones

Returning to the UK in 1965 from the US where he had met Winogrand and adopted street photography, Tony Ray-Jones turned a wry eye on often surreal groupings of British people on their holidays or participating in festivals. The acerbic comic vein of Ray-Jones' high-contrast monochromes, which before his premature death were popularised by Creative Camera (for which he conducted an interview with Brassai),[33] is mined more recently by Martin Parr in hyper-saturated colour.


Most kinds of portable camera are used for street photography; for example rangefinders, digital and film SLRs, and point-and-shoot cameras.

An example of a hand-held portable camera, the Leica I

The commonly used 35 mm full-frame format focal lengths of 28 mm to 50 mm, are used particularly for their angle of view and increased depth of field, with wide-angle lenses potentially permitting a candid close approach to the human subjects without their suspecting they are in the frame. However, there are no exclusions as to what might be used.

Two commonly used alternative focusing techniques are zone focusing and hyperfocal distance, either to free the photographer from manual-focus; or where autofocus is too slow, or the photographer cannot be sure the focus point will fall where the photographer chooses to place their subject in a quickly changing situation; and which also facilitate shooting "from the hip" i.e. without bringing the camera up to the eye.

With zone focusing, the photographer chooses to set the focus to a specific distance, knowing that a certain area in front of and beyond that point will be in focus. The photographer only has to remember to keep their subject between those set distances.

The hyperfocal distance technique makes as much as possible acceptably sharp so that the photographer is freed up even further, from not having to consider the subject's distance, other than not being too close. The photographer sets the focus to a fixed point particular to the lens focal length, and the chosen aperture, and in the case of digital cameras their crop factor. Thus everything from a specific distance (that will typically be close to the camera), all the way to infinity, will be acceptably sharp. The wider the focal length of the lens (i.e. 28 mm), and the smaller the aperture it is set to (i.e. f/11), and with digital cameras the smaller their crop factor, the closer to the camera is the point at which starts to become acceptably sharp.

Alternatively waist-level finders and the articulating screens of some digital cameras allow for composing, or adjusting focus, without bringing the camera up to the eye and drawing unwanted attention to the photographer.

Anticipation plays a role where a relevant or ironic background that might act as a foil to a foreground incident or passer-by is carefully framed beforehand; it was a strategy much used for early street photographs, most famously in Cartier-Bresson's figure leaping across a puddle in front of a dance poster in Place de l'Europe, Gare Saint Lazare, 1932.

Tony Ray-Jones listed the following shooting advice to himself in his personal journal:[34]

  • Be more aggressive
  • Get more involved (talk to people)
  • Stay with the subject matter (be patient)
  • Take simpler pictures
  • See if everything in background relates to subject matter
  • Vary compositions and angles more
  • Be more aware of composition
  • Don’t take boring pictures
  • Get in closer (use 50mm lens [or possibly ‘less,’ the writing is unclear])
  • Watch camera shake (shoot 250 sec or above)
  • Don’t shoot too much
  • Not all eye level
  • No middle distance

Street photography versus documentary photography

Street photography and documentary photography can be very similar genres of photography that often overlap while having distinct individual qualities.

Documentary photographers typically have a defined, premeditated message and an intention to record particular events in history.[35] The gamut of the documentary approach encompasses aspects of journalism, art, education, sociology and history.[36] In social investigation, often documentary images are intended to provoke, or to highlight the need for, societal change. Conversely, street photography is réactive and disinterested by nature[37] and motivated by curiosity or creative inquiry,[38] allowing it to deliver a relatively neutral depiction of the world[39] that mirrors society, "unmanipulated" and with usually unaware subjects.[40]

Legal concerns

See also: Wikimedia's "Country specific consent requirements"

The issue of street photographers taking photographs of strangers in public places without their consent (i.e. 'candid photography' by definition) for fine art purposes has been controversial. Photographing people and places in public is legal in most countries protecting freedom of expression and journalistic freedom. There are usually limits on how photos of people may be used and most countries have specific laws regarding people's privacy.


A legal case in the United States, Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia, established that taking, publishing and selling street photography (including street portraits) is legal without any need for the consent of those whose image appears in the photographs, because photography is protected as free speech and artistic expression by the First Amendment in the US.[41]

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom (UK), in terms of photographing people, a right to privacy exists in law, as a consequence of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998. This can result in restrictions on the publication of photography.[42][43][44][45][46] The right to privacy is protected by Article 8 of the convention. In the context of photography, it stands at odds to the Article 10 right of freedom of expression. As such, courts will consider the public interest in balancing the rights through the legal test of proportionality.[44]

In terms of photographing property, in general under UK law one cannot prevent photography of private property from a public place, and in general the right to take photographs on private land upon which permission has been obtained is similarly unrestricted. However, landowners are permitted to impose any conditions they wish upon entry to a property, such as forbidding or restricting photography. There are however nuances to these broad principles.


In France, a legal case between a street photographer and a woman appearing in a photograph published in the photographer's book decreed that street photography without the consent of the subject is an important freedom in a democracy: "the right to control one’s image must yield when a photograph contributes to the exchange of ideas and opinions, deemed “indispensable” to a democratic society."[47]


Section 201a of the German Penal Code was amended early 2015 to the effect that a penalty may be imposed on persons who give third parties access to a photo of another person without that person’s consent if the photo is “capable of doing significant damage to the reputation of the person shown in it.”[48]


Production, publication and non-commercial sale of street photography is legal in Greece, without the need to have the consent of the shown person or persons. In Greece the right to take photographs and publish them or sell licensing rights over them as fine art or editorial content is protected by the Constitution of Greece (Article 14[49] and other articles) and free speech laws as well as by case law and legal cases. Photographing the police and publishing the photographs is also legal.


In Hungary, from 15 March 2014 anyone taking photographs is technically breaking the law if someone wanders into shot, under a new civil code that outlaws taking pictures without the permission of everyone in the photograph. This expands the law on consent to include the taking of photographs, in addition to their publication.[50]

South Africa

In South Africa photographing people in public is legal. Reproducing and selling photographs of people is legal for editorial and limited fair use commercial purposes. There exists no case law to define what the limits on commercial use are. Civil law requires the consent of any identifiable persons for advertorial and promotional purposes. Property, including animals, do not enjoy any special consideration.

See also


  1. Warner Marien, Mary (2012). 100 ideas that changed photography. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 169. ISBN 978-1-85669-793-4.
  2. 1 2 3 Colin Westerbeck. Bystander: A History of Street Photography. 1st ed. Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
  4. Sontag, Susan (1978) On Photography. Allen Lane, London p.55
  5. 1 2 Watts, Peter (11 March 2011). "London Street Photography, Museum of London". The Independent. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  6. Newhall, Beaumont (1949), The history of photography from 1839 to the present day, Museum of Modern Art, p. 16, retrieved 26 April 2016
  7. Mora, Gilles (1998). PhotoSPEAK. New York, Ny: Abbeville Press. p. 186. ISBN 0-7892-0068-6.
  8. Thomson, J. (John); Smith, Adolphe, (author.) (2014), Street life in London, Edinburgh MuseumsEtc, ISBN 978-1-910144-25-1
  9. Abbott, Brett; J. Paul Getty Museum (2010), Engaged observers : documentary photography since the sixties, J. Paul Getty Museum, p. 4, ISBN 978-1-60606-022-3
  10. 1 2 3 "London street photography through the decades". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  11. McDonald, Sarah. "The hidden Camera" (pdf). Getty Images. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  12. Jennings, Humphrey (1937), May the twelfth : Mass-Observation day-surveys, 1937, Faber and Faber, retrieved 22 March 2016
  13. 1 2 O'Hagan, Sean (18 April 2010). "Why street photography is facing a moment of truth". The Observer. Retrieved 15 February 2015.
  14. Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1952), Images a la sauvette : photograhies par Henri Cartier-Bresson, Éditions Verve, retrieved 21 March 2016
  15. Jobey, Liz (15 August 2014). "Street photography". Financial Times. London. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  16. In the preface by Pierre Mac Orlan to Ronis, Willy (1954), Belleville-Ménilmontant, Arthaud, retrieved 29 February 2016
  17. "For a contemporary review see Jacob Deschin, 'The Work of French Photographers', New York Times (23 December 1951), X14. The u.s. Camera Annual 1953 which includes a selection of photographs from the exhibition under the revised title, Four French Photographers: Brassai, Doisneau, Ronis, Izis (because he could not be contacted by time of publication, Cartier-Bresson was omitted) Kristen Gresh (2005) The European roots of The Family of Man , History of Photography, 29:4, 331-343, DOI: 10.1080/03087298.2005.10442815
  18. Jacob Deschin, 'European Pictures: Modern Museum Presents Collection by Steichen', New York Times (31 May 1953), X13; US. Camera Annual 1954, ed. Tom Maloney, New York: U.S. Camera Publishing Co. 1953.
  19. Judith Keller (1993) Walker Evans and many are called , History of Photography, 17:2, 152-165, DOI: 10.1080/03087298.1993.10442613
  20. See Evans's manuscript in the Getty Museum collection (JPGM 84.xG.953.50.2), 'Unposed photographic records of people', first published in Walker Evans at Work, New York: Harper and Row 1982, 160.
  21. Walker Evans, 'The unposed portrait', Harper's Bazaar 95 (March 1962), 120-5, in Greenough, Walker Evans, 127.
  22. Walker Evans, 'Twenty thousand moments under Lexington Avenue: A superfluous word', unpublished draft, Greenough, Walker Evans, 127.
  23. Evans, Walker; Agee, James; Sante, Luc; Rosenheim, Jeff L; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.) (2004), Many are called (First Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press ed.), New Haven Yale University Press New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, ISBN 978-0-300-10617-6
  24. Greenough, Sarah; Evans, Walker, 1903-1975; National Gallery of Art (U.S.) (1991), Walker Evans subways and streets, National Gallery of Art, ISBN 978-0-89468-166-0
  25. Hopkinson, Amanda (April 3, 2009). "Obituary - Helen Levitt: Award-winning New York photographer noted for street scenes and social realism". The Guardian.
  26. Hambourg, Maria Morris (1991). "Helen Levitt: A Life in Part". In Phillips, Sandra S. Helen Levitt. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. pp. 45–63. ISBN 0-918471-22-2.
  27. 1 2 3 4 O'Hagan, Sean (7 November 2014). "Robert Frank at 90: the photographer who revealed America won't look back". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  28. O'Hagan, Sean (8 March 2011). "Right Here, Right Now: photography snatched off the streets". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 February 2015.
  29. Jobey, Liz (10 February 2012). "Paul Graham: 'The Present'". Financial Times. London. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  30. Coomes, Phil (11 March 2013). "The photographic legacy of Garry Winogrand". BBC News. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
  31. O'Hagan, Sean (15 October 2014). "Garry Winogrand: the restless genius who gave street photography attitude". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
  32. 'Brassai talking about photography: an interview with Tony Ray-Jones' in Creative Camera, April 1970, p.120
  33. Ray-Jones' archive, National Media Museum, Bradford, England and exhibited by them in the touring exhibition Only in England in 2015
  34. Newhall, “Documentary Approach to Photography,” Parnassus 10, no. 3 (March 1938): pp. 2–6. 22
  35. Becker, Karin E (1980), Dorothea Lange and the documentary tradition, Louisiana State University Press, p. 36, ISBN 978-0-8071-0551-1
  36. Gleason, T. R. (2008). The communicative roles of street and social landscape photography. SIMILE: Stud. Media Infor. Literacy Educ, 8(4), 1-13.
  37. Jordan, S. (2016). 12 INTERRUPTING THE STREET. Cities Interrupted: Visual Culture and Urban Space, 193.
  38. Wells, Liz. Photography: A Critical Introduction. Psychology Press, 2000.
  39. Gleason, Timothy. “The Communicative Roles of Street and Social Landscape Photography.” Simile vol. 8, no. 4 (n.d.): 1–13.
  40. "Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia". New York Supreme Court. Retrieved 2011-12-05.
  41. Human Rights Act 1998 sections 2 & 3
  42. Human Rights Act 1998 Schedule 1, Part 1, Article 8
  43. 1 2 Mosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2008] EWHC 1777 (QB)
  44. Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd [2004] UKHL 22
  45. Murray v Express Newspapers Plc [2008] EWCA Civ 446
  46. Laurent, Olivier (23 April 2013). "Protecting the Right to Photograph, or Not to Be Photographed". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 February 2015.
  47. Article 14 of the Constitution of Hellas
  48. Nolan, Daniel (14 March 2014). "Hungary law requires photographers to ask permission to take pictures". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 May 2014.

Further reading

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