When any street photographer gets on her hands and knees to pray in the morning, she points in one direction – New York City. There sometimes seems to be just as many photographers roaming the streets of the City as there are hotdog vendors or lost tourists. But why? One might think the infamous characters living in Los Angeles or the historic architecture of a city like Boston or Philadelphia might attract street photographers in droves, and one would be right; where there is a city, there are photographers out on the streets. But New York City stands out as the Mecca-metropolis of public photography. The legacy of New York has kept it in the forefront of the street photography scene since the very beginning.
Photography was still a relatively new medium in 1893 when Alfred Stieglitz was carrying his 4x5 camera through the streets of New York City. Stieglitz, the lodestar of modern photography at the time, raised up everyday street scenes as fine art, bucking the painterly tradition many photographers saw as the only true artistic photographic style. Stieglitz and his circle, from Paul Strand to Lewis Hine, made the street scene an acceptable and powerful form of art through exhibitions at Stieglitz’s gallery 291 and his photo publication Camera Work. Stieglitz made New York the first home of street photography, beginning a legacy that draws photographers even today.
Sparked by the work of Stieglitz, a whole school of photography grew out of New York City streets – the New York school of photography was the driving force of documentary photography in America from the early 1930’s to the late 1960’s. One of the earliest followers of the New York school, Weegee cemented his spot as a street photography legend photographing breaking news on the streets of New York with iconic hard flash and equally heavy subject matter. Diane Arbus would borrow from Weegee’s style in the 60’s, as she toured New York making portraits of the lesser-seen population. Around the same time, Bruce Davidson brought the aesthetics of New York street photographers into use with longer form stories in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, following the plight of young New York City gang members and the residents of East Harlem. Breaking from earlier street photography conventions, the controversial Bruce Gilden used his “smell the street” style to capture the gritty characters and grimy situations of Manhattan and Coney Island in the 80’s and 90’s. His wide angle lens, hand-held strobe, and abrupt demeanor might not make Gilden the most pleasant photographer to meet on the street, but his photographs have undoubtedly become part of the New York street photographer mythos. And the legend continues today, as hundreds of street pictures are posted every day to social media, sending the streets of New York all over the world in seconds. Work from the likes of New York Street Photography Collective, through the power of the Internet, might be doing more to spread the legacy of street photography in NYC than any prior movement. New York will not soon lose its title as the street photographer’s Mecca, and the metaphor might only grow truer with time.
This is not meant to be an all-encompassing history of street photography in New York City. Rather, it is a look at some of the reasons why New York City is my first thought when I hear “street photography.” The accompanying photographs, taken by me in July 2017, are also not meant to emulate any photographer mentioned above. I simply wanted to try my hand at capturing street scenes in the place where capturing street scenes was invented and perfected.