We’ve compiled a list of the greatest street photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries, featuring Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vivian Maier
Urban or street photography can be defined as taking spontaneous photographs in public spaces, using reality as raw material.
Although its greatest exponents did not emerge until the beginning of the 20th century, the origin of urban photography dates way back. Boulevard du Temple, a photograph taken from Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre's studio between 1838 and 1839, is considered the first example of urban photography, capturing a fragment of Parisian urban life.
From then on, techniques and equipment became more and more sophisticated. Many principles, such as Cartier-Bresson’s rules about no cropping, no double exposure, and no printing techniques that would impact the original image, were set aside.
However, some things remain unchanged. A street photographer must possess a sensibility and the ability to improvise–every time they go out, they find themselves confronted with an unpredictable reality that they must filter to find their story.
Gustavo Minas (@gustavominas), who teaches the Domestika course Introduction to Street Photography, captures photographs that embody the different qualities mentioned in the previous paragraph. His series Rodoviária, which won "The future of cities" category at Pictures of the Year LATAM, is a fine example.
In this post, Gustavo Minas shares a list of influential street photographers from the past who continue to inspire him.
Although he himself did not consider photography an art, French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927) is thought of as the founder of street photography. In the early 19th century, he documented the streets of Paris, intending to sell his images to painters for them to copy.
His work was rediscovered by the American photographer Berenice Abbott, who tried to use his same approach in New York during the 1920s. According to Gustavo Minas, studying Atget’s work is key to understanding how to "organize urban space in a photograph."
Hungarian photographer André Kertész (1894-1985) is viewed as one of the greats of this discipline. He spent most of his life between Paris and New York. His extremely innovative style ended up influencing the work of photographers such as Robert Capa and Cartier-Bresson, who claimed that "we all owe something to Kertész."
Once, when asked about his creative process, Kertész replied: "I simply walk around, observing the subject from different angles until the elements of the image arrange themselves and form a composition that I find pleasing to the eye." Put like that, he makes it sound easy!
French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) is the most influential street photographer of the 20th century. He covered various historical events, which he captured with geometric precision.
He also coined one of the most famous terms in photography, the "decisive moment," and founded Magnum Photos in 1947.
Robert Frank (1924-2019) is, after Bresson, probably the second most influential urban photographer of the last century. The Swiss photographer settled in the United States in the 1950s and produced The Americans, an iconic documentary project in which he explored the dark side of the American way of life.
He is almost the antithesis of Bresson: instead of creating balanced composition and taking perfectly exposed photographs, his images were underexposed, grainy, and wonky, yet still had a unique ability to transport us to the scene he had captured.
American photographer Vivian Maier (1926-2009) worked as a nanny for the majority of her life. She took photos on her days off, just for herself, and almost always using square format.
Her work was only discovered in 2007 after a real estate agent bought a box of negatives at an auction. Her contribution to photography was only recognized for the first time two years after she passed away when her work began to be studied and exhibited in international galleries. She became one of the great names of 20th-century street photography.
While American photographer Saul Leiter (1923-2013) is considered a pioneer of color photography, his work was not discovered until the end of his life, when Early Color was published in 2007.
His work is filled with reflections, textures, and a very personal color palette–the result of expired film. "He is a great inspiration for rainy days: for him, bad weather is good weather," says Gustavo Minas.
Another American photographer, Helen Levitt (1913-2009), was also a pioneer of urban color photography, although she also often shot in black and white. She mainly took photos in two New York neighborhoods: East Harlem and the Lower East Side.
In 1970, a large part of her collection was stolen from her apartment. What was left, plus a lot of her later work, has been compiled in the book Slide Show.
It’s impossible not to mention New York when discussing street photography. Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) is another big name who captured the streets of the Big Apple.
Winogrand was very interested in social issues and is considered one of the most important photographers of his generation. His black and white images often feature a slanted horizon–a technique he used to enable him to include as many elements as possible in the frame.
The award-winning photographer Joel Meyerowitz was born in 1938 in New York and is still active today. In the 1960s, he worked as a publicist. However, after seeing Robert Frank on a photo shoot, he decided to change his career and dedicate himself to street photography.
He started out shooting in black and white but soon switched to color. At a time when most professionals were reluctant to embrace color photography, Meyerowitz did not hesitate.
Martin Parr (1952) is a British photographer who began shooting in black and white in England in the 1970s, but soon embraced color photography and flash, which became his trademarks. His work captures the middle and upper classes through an ironic lens.
Did you enjoy this list? If you want to learn more about documentary photography, check out these Domestika courses.
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