Street Photography between Reportage, Cinema and Theatre

Street Life: the street in art from Kirchner to Streuli, Hirmer / Wilhelm Hack Museum, 2021

Street Photography between Reportage, Cinema and Theatre. 

by David Campany

An essay commissioned for the book Street Life: the street in art from Kirchner to Streuli, edited by Astrid Ilhe and René Zechlin, Hirmer / Wilhelm Hack Museum, 2021

As this exhibition and book make abundantly clear, there are any number of ways of making photographs of the space and activity of the street. Photography has had important roles in street theatre and performance art, political protest, and even public sculpture and installation.  Any kind of camera equipment can be used, many kinds of outcome are possible, and the photographer can be anything from an invisible observer to an active participant, facilitator, or instigator.  And yet, if there is a special case to be made for the relation between public space and the art of the camera, it is the genre of ‘street photography’.

Most of the genres that we find in photography have been borrowed and adapted from the older pictorial arts. Portraiture. Still life. Landscape. However, ‘street photography’, it could be argued, is a genre that is specific to the medium; specific to the still camera that is portable and easy to use. What comes to mind most readily is a type of more or less spontaneous picture, made reactively by a photographer working alone, speculatively and perhaps inconspicuously. For centuries the pictorial arts had been fascinated with the idea of the revealing instant, in which gestures and movements almost too rapid for the naked eye to perceive could be depicted in profound and revelatory ways. This was something modern photography could offer. The street photographer could be mindful of the pictorial ideals of the past, but is involved in the making of a new kind of image that can only emerge from this way of working. As the photographer Jeff Wall put it, in street photography “every picture-constructing advantage accumulated over centuries is given up to the jittery flow of events as they unfold.”[i] In this mode, the street photographer might have the cold heart of a hunter, the fascination of a distanced voyeur, or a deep feeling of empathy and understanding.

Although photographs have been taken in streets since the very beginnings of the medium in the 1830s, it is in the 1920s that street photography in the modern sense comes into being. As the pace of urban life begins to quicken after the First World War, and the consumption of images grows via the illustrated press and popular cinema, a profound desire emerges to suspend urban time and contemplate its frozen appearance. The emergence of street photography was closely related to the new professional fields of reportage and photojournalism. The instantaneous photograph, in which the fast shutter arrests events in motion, was beginning to be codified in newspapers and magazines as a kind of urgent description of ‘history in the making’.  However, the camera also has access to occurrences beyond and between historically significant events. A visual poetry can be made of everyday life, of moments so nondescript that only the image itself makes them compelling. With a camera, great art can be conjured out of the almost-nothing of daily experience.

Some of the pioneers of street photography, such as André Kertész, Umbo and Friedrich Seidenstücker worked for the illustrated press, and pursued their art as an offshoot of their professional activity. Some, like the multi-media artist László Moholy-Nagy, were involved in teaching. Others, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt, were more independent from the beginning.  Nevertheless, they all shared an understanding that the model established by photo-reportage could be pursued as an art in itself.

From around 1920, several manufacturers began to produce small, lightweight and easy to use cameras that allowed for the closing of the gap between noticing and picturing. The most well-known of these was the Leica, which was designed to make use of the sensitive, small format 35mm film stock that was becoming standard in cinematography and the movie industry. Indeed, the technical, aesthetic and philosophical connections between cinematography and photography ran very deep at this time.  The French company Debrie produced the ‘Sept’, a camera with multiple functions, including the option to shoot stills, moving footage, or short bursts of frames. Such cameras did not simply ‘appear’ on the market: they were developed and refined in response to new desires as to how modern life was to be pictured.  That is to say, changes in modern life and changes in cameras and photographic practices were closely interrelated.

In his essay ‘Photography’ (1927), Siegfried Kracauer characterised the urban experience:

“The street in the extended sense of the word is not only the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters but a place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself. [O]ne will have to think mainly of the city street with its ever-moving crowds. The kaleidoscopic sights mingle with unidentified shapes and fragmentary visual complexes and cancel each other out, thereby preventing the onlooker from following up any of the innumerable suggestions they offer. What appeals to him are not so much sharp contoured individuals engaged in this or that definable pursuit as loose throngs of sketchy, completely indeterminate figures. Each has a story yet the story is not given. Instead, an incessant flow casts its spell over the flâneur or even creates him. The flâneur is intoxicated with life in the street – life eternally dissolving the patterns which it is about to form.”[ii]

Kracauer’s highly visual description feels photographic and cinematic. Street life is defined by small and separate instants but they flow and dissolve, extending into sequences of association, like strings of images edited together. In his account of life in Berlin in the late 1930s, the novelist Christopher Isherwood wrote:

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Someday, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”[iii]

‘Printed, fixed’ suggest the still image. A ‘shutter open’ at length might imply something more like a running film camera, or perhaps a long exposure capturing an abstract trace of movement over time.  Such ambiguity was a symptom of the temporal challenges of modern life and how best to describe them. Was the metropolis to be experienced in its lucid fragments, in its continuous transformation, or something in between?  The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson also wrote of the camera as an extension of his eye. Here he recalls developing his artistic credo, the ‘decisive moment’:

“I prowled the street all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to “trap” life, to preserve it in the act of living. Above all I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.”[iv]

‘Trapping’ and ‘seizing’ belong to photography’s quick snap. The ‘whole essence’ suggests a longer situation condensed into one frame. And ‘unrolling before my eyes’ hints at an observer not quite in the world but removed, as if watching it on a screen. It was almost as if cinema, in shaping the popular understanding of time, implied that life itself was made up of distinct slices and that still photography had the potential to grasp and extract them. It is no surprise that Cartier-Bresson also made films, as did Helen Levitt, Moholy-Nagy, and many others who practiced street photography.  Even news and reportage photography had a relation to the cinematic: in 1937 the historian of photography Beaumont Newall noted that “some of the most striking news photographs are enlargements from news film.”[v] Here in the twenty-first century we tend to think of the hybrid relation between still and moving images in terms of digital technologies (most contemporary cameras and smartphones allow users to shoot both) but it has had a long and complex development.[vi]

After the Second World War, the written histories of photography and cinema began diverge for various reasons. Nevertheless, in practice the parallels and overlaps remained, shaping both fields. For a while, street photography continued to model itself as the art version of reportage, largely keeping to its principles of getting involved as little as possible in the situations being photographed, the photographer not interfering beyond being present as an observer. By the 1960s however, this approach was beginning to be challenged in a number of ways that had to do with the broader changes in photography, film, art and the understanding of public space. Firstly, the presumed objectivity and neutrality of documentary photography and film began to be questioned. Who has the right to photograph? Who is being photographed, and for whom? Does the subject of the photograph have any rights and do they deserve any credit for the image? Is the street the space of an everyday pastoral, or is it a politically contested arena? These questions are still with us and they have informed image making in profound ways.  Secondly, there was a realisation that if all cinematography is photography, then everything that filmmakers do in the making of images could and should be open to still photographers. A photograph could result from preparation and collaboration, rather than spontaneous observation. It could involve the casting of models or actors, lighting, costumes, set building, and all the other elements of cinematic stagecraft. A photograph made in a street could be a mixture of observation and careful premeditation. Thirdly, in not needing to be so closely modelled on reportage and the instant, other kinds of temporality became interesting to photographers working in the street. For example, the Californian artist Ed Ruscha’s photobooks Some Los Angeles Apartments 1965, Thirty-four Parking Lots 1967, and Real Estate Opportunities 1970, depicted a world in a kind of suspended state, devoid of people and any sense of change, almost as if a capitalist terminus has been reached. But his deadpan vision immediately raised the possibility that his take might be ironic.

Ruscha’s artistic approach depended upon the automobile, which had transformed the notion of the street in the middle decades of the twentieth century, particularly in the USA. The automobile is, in effect, a privatised space moving through public space. It gave rise to the ‘road trip’ as a form of mass leisure but also as a way for serious photographers to make work on the move. In the 1970s the New Yorker Stephen Shore drove across the USA several times, producing a number of photographic projects, the most extensive being Uncommon Places. Shore found that the almost trance-like state of mind that came from driving long distances would lead to a heightened and decelerated sense of visual attention when he stepped from his car into the streets of small towns.  He used a slow and cumbersome 8×10 view camera mounted on a tripod – quite the opposite of the small cameras associated with street photography. Shore was not interested in instantaneous or reactive picturing, preferring to attune to the much longer wavelengths of time embodied in the fabric of the street and its architecture. His calm, formal photographs encourage slow looking at the complex forces that shape the built world. Shore writes:

“There is an old Arab saying, ‘The apparent is the bridge to the real.’ For many photographers, architecture serves this function. A building expresses the physical constraints of its materials: a building made of curved I-beams and titanium can look different from one made of sandstone blocks. A building expresses the economic constraints of its construction. A building also expresses the aesthetic parameters of its builder and its culture. This latter is the product of all the diverse elements that make up ‘style’: traditions, aspirations, conditioning, imagination, posturings, perceptions. On a city street, a building is sited between others built or renovated at different times and in different styles. And these buildings are next to still others. And this whole complex scene experiences the pressure of weather and time. This taste of the personality of a society becomes accessible to a camera.”[vii]

Shore’s acute observation of typical scenes extended a kind of photography that had been practiced by Walker Evans (1903-1975), and Eugène Atget (1857-1927) as a way of stepping back from the speed of modernity and urban change. The instantaneous image arresting a world in motion is always caught up in the energies and flows of the modern street, but photography can resist all that, looking to the streetscape more as a setting for the social action that is absent from the image. Indeed, in the 1920s several commentators remarked upon this quality in the work of Atget. This is Albert Valentin:

“…on closer inspection those dead-end streets in the outlying neighbourhoods, those peripheral districts that his lens recorded, constituted the natural theatre for violent death, for melodrama, and they were so inseparable from such matters that Louis Feuillade [the creator of the serial film version of the Fantômas crime stories which were popular in France] and his disciples – at a time when studio expenses were what was skimped on – employed them as settings for their serials.”[viii]

For the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, Atget’s photographs resembled scenes of actual crime rather than theatrical imaginings.[ix] Perhaps the truth of the street and its dramas lays somewhere between fact and fiction, between true crime and theatrical imagination.

By the time the twentieth century had drawn to an end, the relation between image and street had become almost inseparable, in a number of related ways. Architecture was beginning to developed with design software that overlapped with imaging software; commercial signage was beginning to be integrated into the built environment as never before; the presence of surveillance cameras was becoming the norm; and with the advent of smartphones, citizens were beginning to carry and use cameras as partof their daily life.  To a significant extent, contemporary cities are designed as image, and to be imaged. Not surprisingly then, street photography in the twenty-first century often carries with it an awareness of this intensification.

The photography of Barbara Probst is exemplary in this regard. Working with multiple cameras, all synchronised to shoot at exactly the same moment, Probst stages small, dramatic situations in the street. The camera positions seem to allude to the all-seeing eye of surveillance, while the performative aspect of the work presents the street as a space of theatrical intervention. The synchronization of the cameras alerts us to the question of timing and the photographic instant, yet the planned nature of Probst’s photographs undercuts the idea that ‘real life’ is being arrested as it happens, evoking instead the edited points of view we experience in cinema or television drama.  The result is a hybrid blend of actuality and artifice, of documentary capture and enacted collaboration. It is a mode of photography perfectly suited to an expanded idea of the street as inhabited space and social stage.

What is striking about the contemporary streetscape is that its norms, both for picturing and for being, are now more contested than ever. While it is still perfectly valid to practice street photography in the classic mode that emerged in the 1920s, there are now so many ways, poetic and political, to work with a camera in the street. Even while much more of social life now takes place in virtual spaces online, the street retains a symbolic status at the heart of contemporary society. Indeed, it may well be the experience of the difference between virtual space and physical space that is alerting contemporary artists and citizens to the photographic potential of the street, and the need to reimagine it.

[i] Jeff Wall, ‘Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art’ in Anne Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, eds., Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965–75, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass / Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art 1995. p.252.

[ii] Siegfried Kracauer, ‘Photography’ 1927, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Oxford University Press, 1960, pp 72.

[iii] Christopher Isherwood, ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ (1939) in The Berlin Stories (New York, 1952).

[iv] Henri Cartier-Bresson, introductory essay in The Decisive Moment (New York 1952) p. 2.

[v] Newhall, Beaumont, Photography: A Short Critical History (New York, 1937), p. 89

[vi] I discuss this in my book Photography and Cinema, Reaktion Press, 2008.

[vii] Stephen Shore, ‘Photography and Architecture’ (1997) in Christy Lange et al, Stephen Shore, Phaidon Press, 2008, pp. 47-49.

[viii] Albert Valentin, ‘Eugène Atget (1857-1927)’ Christopher Phillips, ed., Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings 1913-1940, Aperture, 1989, originally published in Variétés (Brussels, December 1928).

[ix] Benjamin’s ‘Kleine Geschichte der Photographie’ [‘A Little History of Photography’] Die Literarische Welt, 18 and 25 September, 2 October. 1931.


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