Exploring Street Photography, part five, the backstory

(And the work of four innovative photographers you may not know)


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Fifth arrondissement, Paris, Charles Marville

Charles Marville

Meanwhile in Paris, Napoleon 3rd had a vision for the city in which the streets would be a glorious stage and Parisiennes strolling the boulevards would be the actors. In 1853 he employed Baron Hausmann to renovate Paris. This involved tearing down old buildings, cutting 80 kms of new avenues through the city, laying the foundations of four grand parks and installing 20,000 gas lamps.

Which photographer springs to mind from this era? Eugene Atget. An enigmatic character who never showed at a Salon, worked in obscurity for most of his life until being discovered by the Surrealists who published a few of his images a year before he died.

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Paris streets, Atget / Marville 

But the person I want to highlight is Charles Marville, described in the magnificent book, ‘Bystander, A History of Street Photography’, link below. He was the official photographer to the Louvre employed by the City of Paris to record the rebuilding works in 1862. Apart from the more academic histories of photography, Marville has been something of a mystery. Partly because documents that would shed light on his biography were thought to have disappeared in a fire that consumed the Paris city hall in 1871.

He shot in the same locations in (arguably) a very similar style to Atget, around two decades earlier. There are notable similarities in composition and cropping. He was better known during his lifetime as a photographer and recorded both the old narrow streets and the new broad boulevards. As Luc Sante writes in the New Yorker, ‘His exquisitely nuanced and lavishly detailed views of the alleys and impasses of the Cité anticipate Atget so completely you’d occasionally swear they were the same person.’

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Paris shop window, Atget / Marville

Yet today because he made the street interesting, it is Atget who is often honoured as being the virtual ‘Father of Street’. Possibly due to the fact that  after his death Berenice Abbott and Julien Levy bought many of his glass plates/prints and subsequently exhibited his work in New York. As ever, art is subject to fickle fashion and finance.



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Chinatown, “The smell of the place—it was a mixture of the scent of sandalwood and exotic herbs…”

Arnold Genthe

German born Arnold Genthe, a professor of Philology was definitely not overlooked. At the end of his career he had taken portraits of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John D. Rockefeller, Greta Garbo, Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan and many others.

However it is the early part of his career that interests us. He taught himself photography after emigrating to San Francisco in 1895 and became a leading figure in the ‘art’ movement decrying the traditional posed style of photography. Dorothea Lange started her career as his studio assistant. Using a small Zeiss camera he became fascinated with the Chinese Community. “The smell of the place—it was a mixture of the scent of sandalwood and exotic herbs, the sickly sweetness of opium smoke, the fumes of incense and roast pork … and in the air, always the sound of temple gongs…”

Whether for security or the subject’s reluctance to be photographed he hid his camera under his coat and was one of the early pioneers of genuinely candid street photography. His photographs are some of the very few to survive the earthquake of 1906.



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‘A good joke’ by Alfred Stieglitz, Bellagio, Italy 1887

It wouldn’t be right to leave this era without showing one of the most celebrated photographs of the period, by the legendary Alfred Stieglitz. It was amongst the first of more than 150 prizes he would go on to win in his career. This image came top in a UK Amateur Photographer magazine competition in 1887. So accustomed were people to staged images that it won because the judges cited it as the only spontaneous work in the competition. Stieglitz went on to be remembered for many photographic achievements, amongst them the quote, “George Eastman put photographs in people’s wallets, Alfred Stieglitz put them on museum walls”.

The Backstory

The period between 1880 – 1900 is a particularly important part of the backstory. Wet collodion was replaced by gelatin, firstly on glass plates and then by celluloid on roll film. Professionals started using small folding view cameras. Kodak introduced a hand held camera pre-loaded with roll film and followed that with the Brownie in 1900. The consumer market was born.

At the turn of the century social changes as far apart as railroads and urban transformation had shaped photography. Cultural change moved subject matter from the exalted to the everday. Technology had enabled it to move from posed to candid, from waist level to eye level, from professional to mass market. The powerful symbols of the motor car, the skyscaper, mass production and high speed printing presses enabling photo essays, announced the dawn of the machine age. With it, the vitality of the street became a theatre, a backdrop for a new genre of photography.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this three part voyage of discovery as much as I did in writing it.

Olaf Willoughby

Note: in researching material for the Street Photography workshops I teach with Eileen McCarney Muldoon, I became fascinated with the origins of this genre. I found one book particularly useful in providing authoritative, sensitive commentary. If you’d like to read more, I heartily recommend it.


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