Jean-François Cléroux | Flâneur & Lens Creative
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Exploring the Question: What is Street Photography? Part 01 – History of Street Photography

The issue with Street Photography is that it is many things to many people. It has varying degrees of uncertainty in its definitions based on the over abundance of bad definitions you can garner off the web. Part of this confusion comes from the ‘history’ of Street Photography. When was the genre started? Is any image that includes a street, ‘Street Photography?’ Or, does it need to have people? Or, is there more to it than that?

Making matters worse is that many people look at Street Photography, not as a ‘genre’, but rather as a ‘way’, a ‘mindset’ as it were. When you approach Street Photography as a mindset, things change drastically. A part of this mindset group is pushing away from Street Photography as a ‘genre.’ This causes further confusion. So, where do we start?

It would seem logical to start with the history of Street Photography except for the fact that historically, no one knows when Street Photography started? As some would suggest it started with the very first photo ever taken, “View from Window at LeGras” (1827) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765 – 1833); others would suggest it started with the very first capture of a person on the Streets with the famous “Boulevard du Temple” (1839) by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre (1787 – 1851).

Both, depending on your definition, are incorrect examples. Interestingly, many of those that attribute Street Photography as a ‘mindset’ also attribute either (or both) of these images as the first Street Photography images ever taken. And, again, this is plainly wrong.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce - View from the Window at Le Gras,

In looking at either of these images we need to look at ‘intent’. The intent of both of these images, and expected results, were not Street Photography, and neither were they photographed with the mindset of Street Photography. In Niépce’s image he had never accomplished getting a successful image. He was not a photographer doing photography, he was a scientist experimenting with capturing anything. He succeeded and created the now oldest image ever made “View from Window at LeGras.” His intent, was to capture something, anything, in the emulsion on his pewter plate. As his large camera was in his research lab, or studio as it was called, he aimed it out the window where the sun was bright. He knew he needed a lot of light. He knew and understood that the image would require an extremely long exposure. No notes have been found on the exact length of time, but it is proposed to be around eight hours. Note also that as a ‘subject’, he photographed rooftops which could be considered Urban Landscapes, but if you consider Street Photography to be a mindset, Niepce’s mindset was not set on Urban Landscape or Street Photography but rather on the Scientific Research and capturing something, ANYTHING.

If it is the Street Photographers purpose to capture ANYTHING, then yes, I suppose we are ALL Street Photographers.

Boulevard du Temple by Daguerre

In Daguerre’s example, he also, was experimenting with his new image capturing process, the Daguerrotype. He also knew that he required long exposures and he assumed he would not capture any people, horses, or carts. And, much like Niepce’s image, it was convenient for him to just point it out the window. He did manage to capture ‘the Street’ but again, his intention was to capture something well. He knew he was going to capture something as he had already done experimental images and he was refining his process. With the second image he took on this particular day he lucked out. A pedestrian gentleman had stopped to get a shoe shine from a street vendor. Because his legs and shoes were stationary for an extended period, his legs were captured, and because of lack of movement they were reasonably sharp and the rest of his body was blurred as the gentleman had moved his upper torso around for the exposure. Again, all for scientific purposes. He had not yet set his mind to ‘art’ or even to Street Photography at this time. Not with exposures of 20 to 30 minutes that it took to properly expose Daguerreotypes in those days.

Anyone that argues that this is Street Photography, including all those that propose it is a mindset, are reducing Street Photography to the simple notion that Street Photography must include a person, on the street. That is all that was accomplished here. Its an ultra long exposure of many people on a street but again the intent, was to capture a scene, so that it could be analyzed afterwards to see how successful the final image was in the way of chemicals used, tonal range, exposure, sharpness and so on. A success no doubt, but NOT street photography by any definition.

So, if these are NOT street photography? Then what images are? What are the first ever ‘intended’ street photographs ever taken? There are several thoughts on this. In Part 02, we’ll examine the works of Charles Nègre and a few others before we move on to other definitions.

See you on the defining streets!

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