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Contemporary Street Photography

In this post I take a brief tour of contemporary street photography and consider the difference colour has made to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white; look at the shift away from the influence of surrealism; and consider the use of irony to comment on cultural values.

Source: In-public.com, by Joel Meyerowitz
Source: In-public.com, by Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz (b 1938) is considered to be one of the pioneers in the use of the colour in the genre. While he was influenced by the black and white work of Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson (Westerbeck Jr C), he explains that he did not even think about whether to use colour film or black and white. “The world was in colour. It was just so obvious to me. I had no idea people were snobbish about colour. To me, black and white just seemed back there, historical.” (O’Hagan S). I think a significant aspect of the surreal quality of black and white street photographs lies in the fact that they have no colour and that is not how we consciously see the world. Meyerowitz’s work is full of the light, colour and structural patterns of NYC. Many of the images feature saturated blocks of colour, perhaps echoing the bright-lights of the advertising hoards.  The work also makes use of irony; for example in an image of a besuited man who has tripped and lies on his back on the edge of the road, we do not expect to see a workman stepping over the man as if he were a piece of litter. This element adds irony to what would otherwise just be an unfortunate event – New Yorkers too busy with their own business to help the businessman.

Source: MoMa.com, by Helen Levitt
Source: moma.com, by Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt (1913 – 2009) was, like Meyerowitz a New York based photographer. Looking at her online collection of work at MoMa it is apparent that even when colour photography had been established, she still chose to work often in black and white. This is a contrast to Meyerowitz’s contemporary work, which seems to be entirely in colour. However, Johnson tells us that the first decade of Levitt’s colour work (slides) was stolen and never recovered; so perhaps the balance between colour and black and white images maybe have been different if this had not happened. Levitt’s use of colour is far more subdued that Meyerowitz’s, as are her subjects – she seems more concerned with the quieter moments of everyday life than the chaos of the city. I did not see the use of irony in her work, which has a gentle lyrical quality rather than a brash, poking approach.

Source: moma.com, by Joel Sternfield
Source: moma.com, by Joel Sternfield

Joel Sternfield (b 1944) was also a pioneer of the use of colour photography outside of advertising. His images make a subtle, understated use of colour and often capture the banal – there is nothing of Cartier-Bresson’s coming together of geometry in a decisive moment to make images that are compelling through their lines and shapes. The use of colour, however, adds another dimension that too draws us to the images.

Source: bbc.com, by Paul Graham
Source: bbc.com, by Paul Graham

Coombes in his BBC article explains that Paul Graham was one of a small group of British photographers fighting against the predominance of black and white documentary photography in the 1970s. One has to look hard into this image of a roundabout in Belfast to understand what it is about (and perhaps it doesn’t lend itself well to the small screen). There is a soldier running across the scene; Graham is showing us something that we might miss, a reflection on the UK’s surveillance society. In his image, bus converted to café, there is a strong sense of irony – a mode of public transport has been converted into a road-side café in a lay-by. There are political connotations here, with the state and availability of public transport in the UK continually under debate. This is a very British topic, and I suspect the irony would not be appreciated for those living outside that context.

I would guess that Cartier-Bresson would not consider the Graham’s roundabout worthy of photographing – it does not present any of the virtues of composition and symmetry that were important to him. The photograph works at a different level, it is not so much concerned with aesthetics.

Source: martinparr.com, by Martin Parr
Source: martinparr.com, by Martin Parr

Martin Parr is a British photographer who shares a generous amount of information about his work and himself on his own website. His admission to Magnum was controversial amongst some existing members, including Cartier-Bresson; Parr tells the story:

Henri came to my Small World opening in Paris in 1995 and said I was from another planet! I always cherish this remark, and wrote back, I know what you mean, but why shoot the messenger?

Parr was inspired by Meyerowitz to make the change to colour photography and, like Meyerowitz, uses bright, saturated colours. He also now uses digital photography rather than colour film, explaining that his use of flash enables him to capture the same colour brightness. His photography is based around projects of everyday topics that interest him; The Last Resort is a reflection, often brutal, on the state of British seaside resorts that have fallen into a state of disrepair as air-travel to warmer climates became more affordable, leaving only those less fortunate behind. With Parr’s vivid use of colours, we do not expect to see holiday-makers surrounded by litter and decay, but rather something more promotional. There is something ironic in the use of bright colours to show low-class subjects in decaying surroundings.

There has been a strong shift in street photography from the capturing of a moment to create an aesthetically pleasing photo, towards one of social and political commentary. I can understand why Cartier-Bresson and Martin Parr would have clashed – they indeed are from ‘different planets’.


Coombes P (2011).BBC [online]. Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-13133461

Howarth S and McLaren S (2010). Street photography now. Paperback ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

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Johnson M (1992). Helen Levitt. Originally published in the American Camera & Darkroom magazine, in 1992. Available from: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/helen-levitt.html [accessed 17.10.15]

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MoMa – Helen Levitt [online]. Available from: http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/3520 [accessed 17.10.15]

O’Hagan S (2012). The Guardian [online]. Joel Meyerowitz: ‘brilliant mistakes … amazing accidents’. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/nov/11/joel-meyerowitz-taking-my-time-interview [accessed 17.10.15]

Parr M (2008). The Last Resort. 2013 Edition, UK, Fourth Printing.

Westerbeck Jr C (1981). Joel Meyerowitz photographer [documentary]. Nimble Thimble Productions Inc. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDSGWy1CU78 [accessed 17.10.15]


Agee J (1946). Text from James Agee’s forward to A Way of Seeing. Available from: http://www.masters-of-photography.com/L/levitt/levitt_articles2.html [accessed 17.10.15]

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O’Hagan S (2011). The Guardian [online]. Paul Graham: ‘The photography I most respect pulls something out of the ether’. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/apr/11/paul-graham-interview-whitechapel-ohagan

Jun P (2012). It was here photography [blog]. Visual Irony. Available from: http://itwasherephotography.com/blog/visual-irony/ [accessed 17.10.15]

The Telegraphy (2004) [online]. Ordinary lives, extraordinary photographs. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3615454/Ordinary-lives-extraordinary-photographs.html [accessed 18.10.15]


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