10 Photographers Who Captured the Soul of New York City

Brimming with energy and power, New York City inspires in a way that few other cities do. From the towering skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan to the piers of Coney Island, the landscape of the city is as dynamic as the myriad people who inhabit it. If the metropolis occupies a special place in the collective American imagination, it no doubt owes a debt to the photographers whose images captured the architecture, the humanity, and the unceasing swirl of life that animates the nation’s largest city. Of those artists, we’ve selected 10 of our favorites.


Alfred Stieglitz

Stieglitz is widely credited as being among the first to imbue photography with artistic clout in America at the turn of the 20th century. His photographic work focused on defining the new medium’s particular capabilities and aesthetics, especially as cameras became more portable. Stieglitz’s experimentations with photography while living in New York resulted in some of the most iconic images of the city. They captured, with intriguing composition and stark clarity, a place in the throes of transition, as skyscrapers towered over street trolleys pulled by horses. 


Berenice Abbott

Employed by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, Abbott focused less on the social, bustling aspects of the metropolis and more on the built fabric of the city. In high-contrast, black-and-white images, she approached buildings almost as though she were taking portraits of human subjects.


Alfred Eisenstaedt

Eisenstaedt, one of Life Magazine’s first staff photographers in New York, pioneered a photojournalistic practice that hinged on intimate connections with his subjects. He documented a city bursting at the seams with modernity and grappling with new social dynamics that would emerge during his career. Through his images, he immortalized the energy of World War II-era and post-war New York, creating famous images, such as one of a soldier kissing a nurse on V-J Day in Times Square.


Weegee

Rumored to have slept fully clothed next to a police radio, and equipped at all times with the supplies necessary to photograph (stowed in the trunk of his car), Weegee exemplified the energy and ingenuity of the city he photographed. Known for images of crime scenes, where he often arrived as the first photographic responder, he captured the grimy underbelly of early- to mid-20th-century New York. 


Diane Arbus

Arbus pointed her lens at the strange and uncanny characters that populated New York, from upper Manhattan all the way out to Coney Island. Masterful at capturing charged moments full of narrative potential and drama, Arbus put the individual at the heart of her work, and portrayed the city as a space for self-expression.


Elliott Erwitt

Erwitt began his career by taking freelance photography jobs while still serving in the U.S. Army during the 1950s, later becoming the president of Magnum Photos in the 1960s. An expert at composition, his photographs of New York are among the most impactful and humanizing of his oeuvre. Erwitt’s ability to empathize with his subjects resulted in works that capture the intimate humor and complex dynamics of a New York street.


Helen Levitt

Levitt possessed an unmatched talent for chronicling the bustling street life of poorer neighborhoods, such as the Lower East Side and East Harlem. Cutting her teeth as an artist in the socially conscious environment of the 1930s and ’40s, Levitt’s work emphasized both formal composition and the city’s singular pathos that presented itself before her lens.


Garry Winogrand

Winogrand traveled throughout the United States with camera in hand, but it was his photographs of New York in the 1960s and ’70s that were perhaps the most definitive in contributing to the aesthetics of street photography. These images captured the complex social nuances of the metropolis, revealing Winograd’s own sensitivity to the lives of his subjects, as well as their interactions with the built environment. 


Nan Goldin

Through the diaristic, snapshot-style photography she helped to pioneer, Goldin captured her circle of friends, lovers, and acquaintances with an incredible intimacy. Rising to prominence in the 1980s, Goldin arguably documented the last of pre-gentrified downtown Manhattan, where her subjects expressed themselves freely—whether creatively or sexually—but also where they suffered. Images of friends coping with drug addiction and AIDS are especially poignant.  


William Klein

Klein burst onto the scene in 1956, when he published a “pseudo-ethnographic” photographic study of New York. A native of the city, he had been away from the States for five years and was able to approach his subjects as if studying their culture from afar, but with the know-how of a local. Through blurry, grainy, and energetic shots, Klein documented the gritty exuberance of mid-century New York. While based in Paris, he returns to New York occasionally, most recently training his lens on the vibrant ethnic diversity of Coney Island and Brighton Beach (as well as other locales in Brooklyn).

—Jake Brodsky