10 Iconic Photographers Who Immortalized the City Streets
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)
Atget’s greatest legacy, perhaps, is his influence on other artists. The called it “perhaps the earliest expression of true photographic art.”
Eastern European (from modern-day Ukraine)
America’s underbelly became 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
“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,
“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)
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
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 is a Staff Writer at Artsy.