Visual Culture

10 Iconic Photographers Who Immortalized the City Streets

Alina Cohen
Oct 5, 2018 9:39PM

Street photographers remind us that history isn’t just composed of monumental events, celebrities, and politicians, but of people like us. They capture candid shots of individuals partaking in relatable, mundane activities: walking, talking, and gathering. Across race, class, and age, the myriad subjects of street photography offer a comprehensive study of what it’s like to live at a particular moment in time. Fashions and infrastructures change, but at the core of these photographers’ oeuvres is human emotion and ritual. The photographers listed below have documented people—for posterity—at their best, worst, and everywhere in between.

Eugène Atget (1857–1927)


Nostalgia fueled Eugène Atget’s portraits of Paris. In the mid-1800s, Georges-Eugène Haussmann led a campaign to modernize the city. As parks and wide boulevards replaced medieval architecture, Atget decided to preserve his surroundings on film. He documented a pharmacy interior, a bakery, hotels, the Tuileries Gardens, and the Notre-Dame, as well as the people who populated the nearby streets. In his images, Parisians gaze towards the sky to watch an eclipse, work as organ-grinders, stand in shadowed corners, and move like ghosts through a doorway. Atget was, ironically, savoring the past via a newfangled art form—photography was rapidly becoming more popular for commercial, industrial, and artistic purposes.

Atget’s greatest legacy, perhaps, is his influence on other artists. The Surrealists (particularly Man Ray) adored his hazy images; mid-century photographer Berenice Abbott championed his work; and Ansel Adamscalled it “perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art.”

Weegee (1899–1968)

Eastern European (from modern-day Ukraine)


America’s underbelly became Weegee’s greatest subject. Crime scenes, gawkers, and go-go dancers, captured late at night, define his oeuvre. Often considered a progenitor of tabloid journalism, Weegee (born Arthur Fellig) chased the sordid side of the nightly news. According to Steven Kasher Gallery, he was the “first private citizen to gain access to police radio transmits.” Upon hearing of a new crime on the airwaves, he’d take his equipment to the source of the turmoil and document it for his own audiences. (Weegee also inspired the 2014 film Nightcrawler, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a predatory cameraman.)

InWeegee’s pictures, wide-eyed children gape at a curiosity just outside the frame, a man gets ready for a mugshot, and police surround a fallen body. In his later career, Weegee distorted celebrity portraits—but still, he remained obsessed with spectacle and the grotesque.

Lisette Model (1901–1983)


Lisette Model’s pictures of colorful characters on Coney Island, the Lower East Side, and along the French Riviera preempted the work of her most famous student, Diane Arbus. Model wasn’t interested in capturing beauty, which she found boring. “But an ugly body can be fascinating,” she once said.

Born in Vienna, Model abandoned a career in music to become a photographer. One of her most famous subjects was a large woman in a black bathing suit. The “Coney Island Bather” crouches at the shoreline, the tide rippling just beneath her. A cross pendant hangs around her neck, and she smiles at someone or something just out of the frame. Joyful, and apparently at total ease with herself, the woman also looks strikingly contemporary: The ocean, her classic swimwear, and beachside happiness never go out of style.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004)


Henri Cartier-Bresson
Seville, Spain, 1933
A Gallery for Fine Photography

French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson produced indelible, romantic images of pre- and post-war Europe, as well as portraits of its greatest artists. He contributed to the mythmaking of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, and Niki de Saint Phalle as he captured them in their studios.

Yet he offered the same dignified glimpse of children walking Parisian streets and cavorting in Seville. A picnic on the bank of the Marne, shot in 1938 from behind the participants, becomes an ominous look at leisure at the outset of major continental conflict—a picture of privilege and innocence before German occupation. In 1944, Cartier-Bresson also photographed the liberation of Paris. It wasn’t the soldiers or world leaders who intrigued him, though—it was the masses on the streets.

Cartier-Bresson also influenced how photographers see the world. The Decisive Moment,a manual published in 1952, proposes an ideal instant in which all elements in the camera frame become formally perfect; the book’s concept is taught widely in photography programs today.

Vivian Maier (1926–2009)


Vivian Maier never set out to be a famous photographer. She worked as a nanny, photographing the streets of Chicago and New York City as a hobby. Her photographs often feature a shadowy voyeurism: In a reflection, she captured street walkers unaware; from behind, she photographed a woman taking a picture of two other women. Yet Maier also caught small moments of grace, such as a well-heeled man, cigarette between his lips, offering money to a panhandler.

When real-estate developer–turned–artist John Maloof purchased a trove of Maier’s negatives at a Chicago auction in 2007, he embarked on a mission to make her a household name. Maloof’s documentary, Finding Vivian Maier (2013), delved into the life of the woman herself, bringing the artist out of her own shadows. Many of her biographical details are still unknown—fitting, perhaps, for a woman who made such mysterious, haunting images.

Garry Winogrand (1928–1984)


Garry Winogrand
World's Fair, New York City, 1964
Jackson Fine Art

Garry Winogrand didn’t approve of the term “street photographer.” “It’s a stupid term,” he once told a reporter. “I don’t think it tells you anything about a photographer or work.” Yet the photographer’s most iconic images are black-and-white shots of people conversing, waiting, kissing, and walking in New York, Los Angeles, and other distinctly American sites. One famous image, Dealey Plaza, Dallas (1964), depicts a group standing near Dealey Plaza, holding photographs and ostensibly discussing the particulars of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Winogrand’s images often appear at a tilt. Bodies jut sideways in his frames, reminding viewers that although they’re looking at documentation of reality, it’s with a significant creative slant.

Bill Cunningham (1929–2016)


Bill Cunningham became a local legend as he photographed fashion for the New York Times for nearly 40 years. His weekly column, “On the Street,” compiled pictures of his favorite outfits and details from the city streets.

“I realized that you didn’t know anything unless you photographed the shows and the street, to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy,” he once wrote in the Times, describing how he developed his practice. “I realized that the street was the missing ingredient.”

Cunningham also shot galas, fashion weeks, and other high-profile events. But he remained on the fringe of the societies he documented, wearing an unassuming blue jacket with khaki pants, riding a bicycle, and refusing industry perks, like parties, and even ripping up his own checks. “Money’s the cheapest thing,” he once explained. “Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”

Shomei Tomatsu (1930–2012)


As a teenager, Shomei Tomatsu lay awake as the Allies bombed his hometown of Nagoya, Japan. World War II, and its immediate aftermath, deeply affected the photographer. The American occupation, Surrealism, protest, and sexual liberation all entered Tomatsu’s visual language as he photographed American soldiers along Okinawa streets, wounded Japanese citizens, and prostitutes in Tokyo.

“Tomatsu makes us aware of the difficulty of seeing and of understanding what we see,” writes Juan Vicente Aliaga in the new book Shomei Tomatsu, published by Fundación MAPFRE. “Apart from people and their actions, there are also objects, things, which are prolongations of individual people.” Indeed, a picture of an actress is also about the flag that hangs above her head, while one of a man and a woman on a Tokyo subway also focuses on the window and whatever lies, unseen, outside their car.

Joel Meyerowitz (b. 1938)


Joel Meyerowitz dared to work in color photography when the fine-art world still only approved of black and white. Inspired by Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, Meyerowitz captured the mid-century urban milieu. Humor, contrast, and human foible imbue his aesthetic—he finds a corner on New York’s Fifth Avenue where everyone is wearing a camel coat, a woman in a bright-green dress in front of a deep-red building, and four women preening on a city stoop.

Meyerowitz’s work also took a darker turn when he turned his lens toward the destruction following September 11, 2001. His frames depict rubble, firefighters, cranes, and smoke. A grand tragedy of emptiness and soot plays out across this series.

Susan Meiselas (b. 1948)


Seventies style—feathery hair, high-waisted shorts, knee-high socks, plaid skirts—becomes a minor character in Susan Meiselas’s series “Prince Street Girls,” which she began in the middle of the decade. The real stars, however, are the female friends, family members, and neighbors she photographed in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. In front of walk-ups, on the subway, and in an urban playground, Meiselas focused on the collegiality and budding sexuality of local girls and women. (The series is an affectionate ode to her own home: The photographer herself was living on Mott Street.)

Meiselas shot “Prince Street Girls” after a series on carnival strippers. Yet her movement toward mundane daily ritual didn’t last long. In 1978, she flew to Nicaragua to begin one of her best-known bodies of work, which captured figures from the country’s Sandinista revolution and daily life in impoverished, inequitable streets.

Alina Cohen