Street photography has worked through a variety of evolutions since its beginnings in the early 1900s. Where once such work was new, a kind of novelty for artists and the public alike, the ability to take photographs on the move has developed into mass availability, and indeed, the majority of images we see taken by family, friends, and celebrities, are of them out, eating food, walking, talking, posing.
Looking through the photographs in Bystander: A History of Street Photography, chronicling the movement from its first days right up to our own, the changes are all there to see, but of course, the focus never shifts. Street photography is about the people, or more usually, a specific, often unknown person. A photo from 1910, simply titled ‘Italian Immigrant’, is a perfect example of the stranger on the street, and though this shot is now over a century old, there is no real difference between the image of this unnamed woman, and the countless unnamed selfies we see today. It is the need to photograph the everyday, or at least one idea of the everyday.
Forward to 1932, and we see a kind of triptych of man: reading the newspaper, sleeping rough, scowling back at the camera lens. 1935 and Ben Shahn’s photograph feels much more modern in its execution, a kind of casualness that can only grow as the novelty begins to wear away. Shahn’s image is a snapshot of life that, though very different, is akin to that taken by Dan Weiner in 1950. Street photography has to hit somewhere between professional but not orchestrated. Like Jeff Mermelstein’s portrait of a man in New York City, whose expression appears to only just register the photographer, but his attention is elsewhere. On the street.
As is natural with any technology, things gradually become more casual, and the point at which we are at now with street photography, with the ease of the selfie and its popularity, it does not inhabit the same place it once did. When every moment is captured, the same standards cannot be kept for the medium.
The new edition of Bystanders can be bought here.