Street photography has undergone a revolution
Some say that the first camera image ever to show a human being was a street photograph. Louis Daguerre was shooting a cityscape in Paris at the end of 1838 or the beginning of 1839. The tree-lined Boulevard du Temple follows the path of a demolished medieval city wall, now separating the 3rd and 11th arrondissements, and Daguerre needed many minutes of exposure to get the picture. So the urban hubbub on the street mostly disappeared from the final image, which recorded only immovable objects such as buildings and trees. The prime exception was an unidentified man, down in the lower left quadrant of the frame, himself immobile because he was getting his shoes shined at a street-side stand.
Street photography has undergone countess permutations since the camera's mid-19th century invention. Capturing people in public situations with the utmost candor is street photography's general goal, and the genre claims many of the finest, most revealing works in photographic history. Some from the 1960s — including Lee Friedlander's socially charged photograph of racial divisions in Jim Crow-era Texas, shown here — are on view in "Streetwise," an exhibition at San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts.
Since everyone with a cellphone tucked in pocket or purse today seems ready to start snapping away on its built-in digital camera, one might say we are all street photographers now. Even though issues of meaning and quality will always remain for individual images, that ubiquity means street photography as a distinctive formal genre is pretty much over.
The first big crack in its long tradition, however, can be traced to Los Angeles nearly 50 years ago — around the time Friedlander was photographing in Texas — and for a reason unique to life in postwar Southern California. I'll have a look at what happened in Sunday's Arts & Books section, which you can read by clicking here.
— Christopher Knight
Photo: Lee Friedlander, "Texas," 1965, silver gelatin; Credit: Museum of Photographic Arts.