Research Point

Research Point:

Research contemporary Street Photographers

There are many famous contemporary street photographers. Helen Levitt, who was born in 1913, was a very famous street photographer. She photographed the streets and people of New York. Her photos show people going about their daily tasks, people talking, children playing, just general life. But there is an element of surrealism to some of her photographs. She was also one of the first to photograph streets in colour. Joel Sternfeld is a famous American street photographer, who uses colour. One of his most famous images is of fireman buying a pumpkin at a farm market whilst there is a burning house in the background being put out by his colleagues. When first observing this photograph, you may look and think its terrible that a fireman abandons his post to buy a pumpkin but this is where Sternfeld proves that photographs can show a scene that could have two meanings. In actual fact the fire was a controlled exercises for the fire department and the fireman buying the pumpkin was on his break. Fred Herzog was one of the first photographers to do street photography in colour, using the kodachrome slide film. His photographs have provides a clear look into the cities and people of the time, with his photos being in colour, more detail is available. Rui Palha is a Lisbon born photographer who uses black and white to photograph streets in his area. He aims for his photographs to tell a story of the subject. Eric Kim is a another contemporary street photographer. He primarily shoots in colour but recently tried street photography in colour; he stated “Shooting color has also helped me see the world in a new and refreshing way” (Kim). He goes on to say that it shouldn’t be a choice of either or, both black and white images and colour have there advantages and are more suitable to certain areas.

What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly Black and White? 

Street Photography has always been primarily black and white. But the use of colour is increasing in popularity. Colour can emphasis features in a picture for example the time of year, with colour things such as autumn leaves are easily seen whereas in black and white it could be any season. Colour also allows the photographer to highlight certain parts of the images, and make them standout. For example a street scene with a Coca-Cola vending machine illuminated in red, this would standout, but in black and white it wouldn’t look as appropriate as it would in colour as everyone would recognize Coca-Cola by the red colouring. Other items such as clothing would standout in colour, in all colour could produce a more informative picture against the black and white norm. However black and white continues to be the norm for street photography. This could be down to tradition, as that’s what the original and famous street photographers used. But a black and white photograph has a way of showing emotion. Black and white photographs have a classic and simple feel to them; they draw the viewer’s attention and are less distracting than colour photographs. Some photographs are more appropriate in black and white, for example portraits in black and white have a artistic quality to them. Black and white photography has the benefit also of being able to hid certain technical faults, which would otherwise be very noticeable in colour. 

Can you spot the shift way from the influence of surrealism? 

Surrealism has been used in photography for over a century. The images convey anything from dreams to hallucination. It questions the boundaries between the irrational and the real. But with photography there are limitation to be able to show surrealism. Lee Miller and Man Ray were one of the first to overcome this limitation, and were able to convey surrealism with ease in their photographs. Surrealism became apparent in photography after the First World War, in an attempt to free people from the restrictions of the time. Some have argued that surrealism in photography started much earlier, one such person is Susan Sontag who believe that surrealism in photographs begin as early as the 1850s. Surreal photographs can vary, but in general there are certain characteristics that can be seen in surreal images. These included blur, intense texture, increased sharpness, increased contrast or colour, composites, illusions, primitive, or even a movement frozen. Surrealism in street photography can be found in the early beginnings of surrealism in art. Famous street photographs such as Lewis Hine, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and Manual Alvarez Bravo had a surrealist quality to their photographs. Manual Alvarez Bravo was asked by Andre Breton, who had invented surrealism to provide an image for an exhibition cover. Alvarez Bravo produced a number of surrealist images in his lifetime. There was a shift away from surrealism in street photography after the Second World War, but I do not think it has completely finished. There are still photographers today who try to capture the surreal on the streets. One such photographer is Natan Dvir, who uses billboards and the street below them to create his surreal images.


How is Irony used to comment on British-ness or American values? 

Irony is a common theme in photography, and it can especially be seen in street photography. The definition of irony is ‘a situation in which something which was intended to have a particular result has the opposite or a very different result’. Irony in photography can be used to remark on American values. For example in a photograph taken by Margaret Bourke-White in 1937, there is a billboard stating that the World’s highest standing of living was found in America, and That there is no way like the American way. The billboard features an image of a ‘typical’ American family, with two parents, two children and a dog. But in front of the billboard is a line of African Americas; this photo was taken after a flood caused devastation in Ohio. These people had probably lost their homes, and were queuing for help.

American Way

Irony is also used to comment on Britishness. For example Matt Stuart, tries to convey irony in his street photography. The image here shows a businessman, who has just brought a copy of FHM and is putting it in his bag. This is not what you would normally see or think of when you think of a British businessman. Irony can have several effects in photography.


Atget Photography. Helen Levitt. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 22nd of October 2015].

Iconic Photos. Joel Sternfeld; McLean, Virginia; December 1978. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 26th of October 2015].

Magazine. (2013) Fred Herzog: Street Photography. NGC Magazine. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 27th of October 2015].

Kim, E. (2011) Interview with Rui Palha, Black and White Street Photographer Extraordinaire from Lisbon. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 21st of October 2015].

Kim, E. (2012). 7 Things I Have Learned About Shooting Street Photography in Color. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 22nd of October 2015].

Leica Liker. Photograph. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 21st of October 2015].

Editorial Today. History of Surreal Photography. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 23rd of October 2015].

Suler, J. Surreal Photography. [Online] Available from: [Accessed from: 24th of October 2015].

Blumenkrantz, D. The Surreal Theatrical: Street Photography on Broadway, Los Angeles. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 24th of October 2015].

Britannica. Manuel Alvarez Bravo. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 26th of October 2015].

Dvir, N. Natan Dvir. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 27th of October 2015].

Cambridge Dictionaries. Irony. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 28th of October 2015].

Time. (2014) Behind the Picture: ‘The American Way’ and the Flood of ’37. Time Magazine. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 29th of October 2015].

Stuart, M. (2011) Matt Stuart’s Street Photography. [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 29th October 2015].


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