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Beaumont Newhall in 'The History of Photography' has a chapter entitled 'Instant vision' that examines the technological changes and the personal visions of the photographers that led them to be interested in capturing the immediacy of life. This page examines how the advent of smaller cameras, improved optics and higher speed plates and films have allowed images to be captured with increasing veracity and as the size of the camera decreased so the photographer could blend into the background like Erich Salomon (1886-1944), and work unobserved.
1.   Early street photography
In 1850 Henry Mayhew's book 'London Labor and London Poor' was published - the book was an attempt at educating the middle and upper classes in Victorian England to social conditions of which they were largely oblivious. The illustrations for the book were based on Daguerreotypes that were taken under the supervision of Richard Beard (1802-1885) but were converted to wood engravings for publication because of the technical limitations of printing. As Naomi Rosenblaum pointed out in her 'A World History of Photography' the result of using wood engraving is that the characters are removed from their original surroundings by the use of 'sketchily indicated' backgrounds and this separates the viewer from the subject.
 
In 1859 Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) made a trip to Russia and took one inch square plates - including one of a street scene in Novogorod. Based upon this there was an early split in photographers between those who saw the need for the highest possible quality print and that necessitated bulky equipment and those that wanted to 'capture the moment' in a candid manner and that required portability and the need to be unobtrusive.
Street Life in London - John Thomson
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John Thomson
Covent Garden Flower Women 
1876-1877 (ca)
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John Thomson
Workers on the Silent Highway 
[Street Life in London] 
1877
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John Thomson
The Crawlers 
[Street Life in London] 
1877 (ca)
 
When in 1877 the book 'Street Life in London' was published it included 36 Woodburytypes, an early photographic process, by John Thomson (1837-1921) to accompany the texts by Adolphe Smith. In some of the photographs the person seems to have been carefully selected and their clothing and paraphernalia laid out to create a visually agreeable picture.
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Through the Nineteenth century there were a series of photographers with different viewpoints taking images for different purposes and with different social agendas. With the works of Richard Beard and John Thomson their photographs, or engravings based on them, had a overt or covert agenda of highlighting class differences and the ills of fast urbanization - in many ways these were the visual equivalent of what Charles Dickens was doing in his literature. At the same time other photographers such as Thomas Annan (1829-1887) was recording the older buildings of Glasgow, Scotland or Charles Marville (1816-1879) who recorded the roads of Paris that were going to be destroyed by Baron Georges-Eugčne Haussmann's redesign of Paris and Eugéne Atget (1857-1927) who preserved the architecture and changing streets. These photographers were preservationists seeking to record the immense changes taking place in the increasingly industrial cities - the people who inhabited the cities were rather like bit players in a far grander drama.
 
The photography with a social message that was seeking to record and hopefully improve the lot of the working classes and the poor was carried out by Waldemar Franz Herman Titzenthaler in Germany, John Galt (1863-1942) in his lantern slides for the London City Mission taken in the early 1900s, the street vendors of Paris taken by Eugéne Atget, and Jacob Riis (1849-1915) in the slums of New York.
 
Jacob Riis was born at Ribe in Denmark but became a reporter for 'The New York Herald' on the poverty ridden and squalid slums of New York. There was such a disparity of wealth and understanding that the prosperous had little contact other than servants and vendors with the lower classes and this meant that readers could not really understand the issues and the photographs he took were proof of the overcrowded conditions and grinding poverty. New York was jolted into action and social reform when the book 'How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York' was published in 1890 - here the barriers of distance and illustrative style were removed and the power of photography to further a social cause was ensured.
 
The Battle with the Slum 
  
Jacob A. Riis
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How the Other Half Lives 
  
Jacob A. Riis
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2.   Camera developments and street photography
The real step forward came at the end of the 19th century with the Block-Notes camera by L. Gaumont & Cie. a French camera maker. The camera was very small being only 1 1/4 x 2 1/3 x 3 1/2 when folded closed but it took a 4.5 x 6 cm glass plate. This was quite revolutionary as it allowed hobbyists such as Jacques-Henri Lartique (1894-1986) to carry the camera everywhere and that immediacy allowed for a totally different intimacy with the subject.
 
By the 1920s a number of portable cameras came out with fast lenses that were able to use lower level of available light. These allowed interiors to be taken without flash powder or the necessity of a tripod.
  • 1924: Ernox / Ermanox - Ernemann-Werke E.G.
  • 1924: Lunar - Hugo Meyer
  • 1924: Leica (film and different lenses)
  • 1932: Contax - Zeiss-Ikon (rangefinder and slit-image focusing)
The smaller camera with convenient rolls of film allowed photojournalists to capture non-posed views of events and famous people and Erich Salomon, Felix H. Man and Alfred Eisenstaedt excelled at this. But another effect was that it allowed photographers freedom to explore their personal visions of the world. It was this that allowed a continuing stream of remarkable individuals to preserve their own insights of the changing world about them. They did not concentrate on the pictorial aspects of the image but rather the strangeness of the everyday and this is a theme that is as vigorous today as it was in the 1920s.
European Street photography of the 1920‘s and 1930‘s
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Bill Brandt
Bermondsey Night 
1937, May
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Brassaď
La Bastoche 
1932 (ca)
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André Kertész
A Gentleman on the Quais, Paris 
1926
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André Kertész
Meudon, France 
1928
There was a movement of artists and intellectuals throughout Europe following the First World War and this led to a spread of ideas and photographic styles. André Kertész (Hungarian, 1894-1985) and Brassai (Hungarian, 1899-1984) moved to Paris and Bill Brandt (German, 1904-1983) moved to London. This is significant as they saw their adopted countries with the enquiring eyes of outsiders. They all took night photographs in the cities they had moved to and they seem to be amused observers rather than participants in the activities that take place. In 1933 Brassai's photographs were published in the book "Paris by Night" a project that Kertész had already turned down.
 
The 1928 photograph of Meudon by André Kertész is an extraordinary combination of activities, the train moving from right to left on the viaduct, the man with wrapped parcel crossing to the right, all happening seemingly at random. Hans-Michael Koetzle in his 2002 book "Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures - Volume 2" (Koln: Taschen) argues that all is not as it would first appear and the person with the parcel could be the German artist Willi Baumeister. Was part of this street photograph staged as with "The Kiss" by Robert Doisneau or was it a fortuitous accident?
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