Home Photography Ideas The History of Street Photography | Famous Street Photographers

The History of Street Photography | Famous Street Photographers

9 min read

When you hear the term street photography it doesn’t literally mean photographs that were taken on the street.

It certainly includes them, but it also refers to the idea of candid photography that is taken in just about any public setting, such as beaches, parks, shopping malls, parades, rallies, and entertainment and sporting events etc.


The History of Street Photography Ideas
Photo by Instant Vantage


Some of the world’s most famous photos were taken in public places as they capture a moment in time that can be seen as poignant and/or telling a story in a single photograph.

But, while many of them can be seen as historical, they’re also considered to be works of art.

The idea behind street photography often includes people going about their everyday life and it also include scenes that are rare and appear to be out of the norm. Street photographers usually use techniques such as shadows, innocuous juxtapositions, reflective surfaces, and clean geometric arrangements to produce images that convey strong narrative senses regarding the human condition.

Just about anything goes in street photography because the scenes aren’t staged.

They depict real life people and events no matter how common or uncommon they may appear to be.

Thanks to street photography we’ve been able to view a variety of street cultures around the globe. Many of the most recognizable and famous street shots were taken from the late 1800s to about the mid 1970s. Street photography became more popular when small, portable cameras were introduced and it should see a revival now due to the newer and smaller inconspicuous cameras.

Historians generally agree that the street photography ideas was born in the cosmopolitan city of Paris, France and it actually helped form the famous location.


Eugene Atget


While many people tried their hand at it, Parisian Eugene Atget is known as the first person to make it popular due to his interesting images. Atget carried his camera around the city streets between approximately 1890 and 1920 and proved that everyday structures and happenings in Paris could indeed be regarded as photo worthy.

However, Atget generally focused on architecture when he started out.


John Thomson


In a way, this could be compared to travel photography and it was seen as an ideal platform in which to promote his hometown. But while Atget gets a lot of credit for promoting street photography, we mustn’t forget the contributions to it by a Scotsman named John Thomson, who took to the streets before Atget did. Thomson focused more on the gritty side of public places and their everyday happenings.


Henry Cartier-Bresson


Another famous street photographer was Henri Cartier-Bresson. He was one of the first to focus his photography on people and their actions and reactions. He wanted to capture a scene at the ideal moment, not a second before or a second after. He was so good at his craft due to his anticipation and timing.

On the other side of the Atlantic, American ideas of street photography more or less began in the mid 1900s with the New York School of Photography.

However, while the name may suggest otherwise, this wasn’t a formal school, it was basically a group of New York City-based photographers who shared the same interests.


Robert Frank


Robert Frank was one of those passionate about photography and he was interested in capturing images of different cultures. He published a well known book called ‘The Americans’ and his images were sometimes out of focus and quite raw as he wasn’t too concerned with photography “protocol.” Because of his technique, many mainstream photographers rejected his work.

Just about any type of portable camera can be used for street photography these days.

Since photographers don’t always have the time to focus on a specific scene they use a method known as zone focusing. This allows them to focus on a certain distance instead of an object or person and anything within that range will be in focus. They commonly use wide angle lenses since they increase the depth of field.

Once the camera is in focus, you can then take the shots without lifting the camera up to your eye – a technique known as “shooting from the hip.”

Street photography is often compared to documentary photography as they’re similar in some ways.

The main difference is that documentary photography specifically sets out to record historic moments while street photography can also capture them, but often does so unknowingly. Many street photos are amusing while documentary shots evoke more intense emotions from the viewer.

The main objective of street photography is to capture situations as they unfold with subjects who are typically unaware they’re being photographed.

What’s Next?

We hope you enjoyed the history of street photography. Now that you’re finished reading, leave a comment below telling us which part was your favorite and share any experiences you’ve had taking street photography.

Then, check out our related posts to learn even more ways to improve your photography.


  1. […] To capture strong street shots you need to pay attention to principles such as composition, perspective, balance, etc. In recent posts, we also shared an Introduction to Street Photography and The History of Street Photography. […]

  2. […] Discover the real history of street photography and how it got formed. Also find out which famous street photographers helped start this photography trend. http://www.freedigitalphotographytutorials.com/beginner/the-history-of-street-photography-famous-str… […]

  3. […] The History of Street Photography | Famous Street Photographers – a brief background on the interesting artform of candid street photography is explored and explained in this post.  This is a great article that illuminates a little light onto the practice, sure to give an added sense of dimension to those who both enjoy the artform as well as practice it. […]

  4. Tom lavery

    April 23, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Terrific stuff i really enjoyed your articles it definitely got me motivated . Thanks

  5. […] sure to also check out our other street photography articles: Introduction to Street Photography, The History of Street Photography and Street Photography Techniques and Tips for Captivating […]

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