CAN Research 1.2 Contemporary street photography


Do some research into contemporary street photography. Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Graham, Joel Sterfeld and Martin Parr are some good names to start with, but you may be able to find further examples for yourself.

  • What difference does colour make it to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white?
  • Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?
  • How is irony used to comment on Britishness or American values?

Vivian Cherry (1920-2019)

Vivian Cherry. Game of Lynching, East Harlem, 1947

I’m always fascinated by peoples’ career paths. How does a young woman born to Russian immigrants in 1920 New York become one of the first female street photographers and with work now in permanent collections at MoMA, the Smithsonian, the National Portrait Gallery?

In Cherry’s case her dancing career was temporarily thwarted by a knee injury. Seeing a sign outside a printers saying ‘Darkroom Help Wanted! – No Experience Necessary!’ she applied and got a job as a darkroom assistant. Interestingly she notes that vacancies were available because so many American men had been conscripted.

Joining the Photo League Collective in 1947 and being influenced by the Beat Movement, she rejected the idea that photographs should look like paintings. Her candid realistic style depicted life on the streets of New York. She admired the work of Helen Levitt, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand and Fons Iannelli. (Woodward, 2018)

William Eggleston (1939)

William Eggleston. Untitled 1970-3 (Eggleston, 1970)

This colour is the colour of nothing. It’s just ordinary life… but at the time you have to understand if you were a serious photographer you had to be working in black-and-white.

(Parr, 2009)

William Eggleston is an eccentric, aristocratic photographer born (and still living) in Memphis, Tennessee. In a 2009 interview given to the Imagine programme on BBC his wife recalls him asking a friend what he can photograph as everything in Memphis is so ugly. His friend replied ‘well photograph the ugly stuff’. I think Eggleston took this advice to heart; shooting banal, everyday life in America ever since.

But his claim to fame is his pioneering work in colour photography. , The Tate calls him the ‘Godfather of colour photography’. (Tate, 2014)

Helen Levitt (1913-2009)

Helen Levitt. New York 1940. (Levitt, 1940)

Born in New York in 1913 to middle-class parents, Helen Levitt dropped out of high school and took employment at a commercial portrait photographer. Not interested in portrait photography and influenced by the Photo League Collective (as was Vivian Cherry) she began making photographs in the streets of New York. She used a right-angled viewfinder to obtain close surreptitious of her unsuspecting subjects. She was fortunate to count James Agee, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson amongst her close friends. (Rosenheim, 2014)

Working in black and white between 1938 and 1945 she stopped photography to persure a career as a film maker and editor. She returned to photography in the late 1950s working at that time in colour.

Levitt had a solo show at Moma in 1943.

What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was black and white?

Documentary and street photography was historically, for obvious technical reasons, exclusively shot in black and white.  Even after the invention of colour photography it was not widely used for these genres; colour being reserved for less serious photography.

Documentary was distinguished from advertising and commercial editorial photography, which all used colour, by being monochrome. (Bate, 2009).

Things changed however following the MoMA exhibition championed by John Szarkowski who said in his MoMA ‘William Eggleston’s Guide’:

These photographers (including Eggleston) work not as if colour were a separate problem to be resolved in isolation, “but rather as though the world itself existed in colour, as though the blue and the sky were one thing,” (Szarkowski, 1976)

Black and white photography came to be seen as more traditional, artistic and removed from reality.  Whereas colour was seen as more contemporary, accurate and more fully representative of the subject matter.  Indeed to work now in black and white is to make an artistic choice, as Liz Wells says:

To work in black and white now is to make a deliberate aesthetic statement autumn reference work from the past in a particular way (Wells, 2015)


Bate, D. (2009). Photography. Oxford: Berg, p.63.

Eggleston, W. (1970). Untitled. [online] Tate. Available at: [Accessed 30 Jul. 2019].

Levitt, H. (1940). Helen Levitt, 1940. [online] MoMA. Available at: [Accessed 30 Jul. 2019].

Parr, M. (2009). The Colourful Mr Eggleston. [online] Imagine. Available at: [Accessed 30 Jul. 2019].

Rosenheim, J. (2014). Helen Levitt: In the street. [online] YouTube. Available at: [Accessed 6 Aug. 2019].

Szarkowski, J. (1976) COLOR PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM EGGLESTON AT THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART. (1976). [ebook] New York: MoMA. Available at: [Accessed 30 Sep. 2019].

Tate. (2014). TateShots: William Eggleston. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Jul. 2019].

Wells, L. (2015). Photography. 5th ed. London: Routledge, p.129.

Woodward, D. (2018). Meet Vivian Cherry. [online] AnOther. Available at: [Accessed 30 Jul. 2019].

Get In Touch

Send me an email and I'll get back to you asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search