The Origins of Street Photography
What exactly is street photography
and when did it begin?
Was it the 1950’s or
was it the 1930’s? Did it have
anything to do with the
invention of the 35mm? The
roots of street photography extend
back the 1400’s when painters
became interested in daily
scenes. Lets have a look into
the source pool to see what
we discover in the works of
John Singer Sargent.
An “American” in Venice
I never understood why art historians refer to John Singer Sargent as an American artist. The painter was born to American parents in Florence Italy in the year 1856. There was hardly anything American about the painter. It only adds to the confusion that he appears in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sargent was raised with a household of maids from France, Spain, Italy, Germany and England. Subsequently, he spoke five languages. He never received formal education, only tutors. Aside from his gift for languages he dazzled Parisian and Londoner crowds with his social graces and prodigious piano and guitar playing and paintings. In short, he was a gentleman of Europe, and a truly cosmopolitan artist.
You Think Your Mom is Crazy?
This past weekend my girlfriend and I were reflecting on the mix of parenting we received as children. Parenting is a tough business and our parents have their quirks. But none of our experiences hold a candle to the weirdness of Mrs. Sargent. Mary Newbold Singer Sargent was a self professed “sickly lady” who needed to retreat to Europe. Once she was free of America her maladies seemed to vanish. Every time her recovery appeared permanent, her husband wanted to board the next ship back to the US. To curb this tendency, Mrs. Sargent gave birth five times between 1856 and 1870. A pregnant lady was unfit for a ocean voyage.
Mrs. Sargent was desperate to never set foot in the United States again, but did not express anti-American sentiments. She was perfectly fine with America, just as long as she could live in Europe. Her illnesses, unfortunately manifested themselves most acutely in the children, not herself. Two of her daughters and one son died before the age of five, one after being dropped by a nurse. Sargent and his surviving sister Violet lived full, happy lives. She died at eighty five in Florence in 1870. Needless to say the surviving children were given profound attention by their odd, but endearing mother. In total Sargent only spent eight years of his life on American soil, which is why his American attribution feels misplaced.
What Is Street Photography?
As far as I can understand it, Street Photography is a misunderstood term. It is used by publishers, search engines, and flickr groups to talk about a new style of picture making that is in effect a few hundred years old. It is a half breed between travel, cultural, human condition, documentary, portraiture, and fine art photography with a conceptual twist. This ensures that almost any time the term is being cast like a net over a set of pictures, the images are either being grossly under estimated or elevated to the status of a genre worthy of a name, when in truth they are just a collection of snap shots. As Capa warned Cartier-Bresson, titles should be avoided because they lead to pigeon holes. Once the fad is over, you don‘t want to have a label tattooed on your back.
In truth, we could consider the Egyptian hieroglyphs proto-Street Photography since they show the working slave conditions of the Pharaohs from a time before Christ. But if we want to get into the source material for most of the street photography in the world we have to look back to characters like John Singer Sargent and his years in Venice. There are plenty of earlier European examples, which I will cover in future articles, but for now I would like to focus on Sargent because I enjoy his work and life in Venice.
Is the Street Random?
Internet discussions seem to revolve around the idea that Street Photography is a collection of random scenes, ordinary items, and everyday moments that would normally be considered meaningless. And truthfully most of the editorial world still considers them meaningless. Its rare, if ever, that an editorial photographer would advertise themselves as a “Street Photographer” because most editors don’t hire street photographers. It is more of a pastime for enthusiasts and for professionals it is the “artistic side,” not often included in their normal workflow of client deadlines. But then again, most editorial work ends up in the waste basket anyway, so we must be careful how we measure the success of a image or business card heading. Editors are not the be all and end all of photography.
But maybe if we were to approach Street Photography like Sargent, we may find different results. In the two stints which he lived in Venice (1880 & 1882) I hardly imagine he would have described his work or subject matter as mundane, ordinary, or random. In order to sit down at an easel and invest the time a painting requires, we imagine that Sargent must have thought pretty highly of his activities. Otherwise he would have been better off grabbing a Spritz and enjoying some cicchetti in a piazza.
The criticism of Sargent’s Venetian work was not all favorable. The set of Venetian images was considered by some to be random and disappointing. They maintain a strange parallel to much of street photography’s criticism. This is an important thing to understand as a photographer. Often on this blog or while teaching I use the terms Artist and Photographer interchangeably. Each group, while choosing a different medium is often engaged in parallel discussions. One of which surrounds the idea of dealing with criticism. Sargent’s paintings from Venice were met with some negative feedback like:
“…leads us into obscure squares and dark streets
where only a single ray of light falls. The women
of Venice, with their messy hair and ragged
clothes are no descendants of Titian’s beauties. Why
go to Italy if its only to gather impressions like these?”
— Arthur Baignères, 1883
The critic seems to be saying, “What’s the big deal with painting a bunch of ratty girls wandering around the streets of Venice?” I believe Monsieur Baignéres was terribly mistaken. Sargent’s Venetian scenes reveal the life inside of Venice’s great palazzi, while they outline the path an artist must take in search of a subject. Great images hardly fall into artists laps. They need to search for them like an archeologist hunting for ruins. There is only so much factual evidence that can make us dig. Part of the process is feeling our way through subject matter until the bell tower (campanile) of art becomes audible.
(Quote from “John Singer Sargent” by Patricia Hills in association with the Whitney Museum of Art)
Venice as a Muse
Anyone who has travelled to Venice knows that it is not an easy place to photograph. The pictures we see tend to fulfill every cliché of gondolas and churches imaginable. Why would such a picturesque city be difficult to photograph? Well for starters, Venetians are hard to find. Many of the great houses like Ca’ Rezzonico, where Sargent kept a studio, are now empty. Many Venetians have left the city. At the moment, the population of Venice is at its lowest since the last time the Black Plague swept through the city. There are less than 60,000 locals still living in Venice proper. So finding scenes of actual Venetian life is a challenge. Anyone can walk up to Piazza San Marco or the Accademia and snap a picture, but as we look at Sargent’s images, we see the impulse to discover the real Venice behind the heavy doorways of these urban castles.
Sargent spent his days in the back streets of Dorsoduro, though he did take an apartment in Piazza San Marco for a time. Outside of central Venice, the streets are not overrun with tourists groups descending from cruise ships wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts. If one thing angers a Venetian more than anything, it is tourists who arrive to their city under dressed. Venice has been a tourist wonder since before Sargent, so in that case nothing has changed about the city. But that did not stop Sargent from exploring the interiors and the streets on his own. We notice in many of his paintings that the characters repeat. This implies that there is a routine to the city, which is easy enough to understand. Most of us have routines of sorts. But it also tells us that Sargent made friends with locals.
Una Bella Ragazza
One Venetian he was particularly fond of was Gigia Viani. His depictions of her feel so faithful that we might recognize her if we saw her walking with her crimson shawl. Now as the budding street photographer might already understand, if you follow someone on the street it is considered stalking. It is liable to get you in a lot of trouble. But if you make friends with a local, your time wandering the streets is just a matter of hanging out.
Sargent used his resources and language skills wisely. Completely fluent in Italian, he painted scenes that were quintessentially Venetian. As we venture through a city, all scenes are not equal. There are some scenes which define a city and other scenes that read more like visual static. Sargent excelled at depicting scenes which would not be found outside of Venice. The hints of architecture or light are undeniably Venetian.
When we look at the progression of his Bead Stringers we can watch Sargent distill the activities from a work environment to a sort of lounge. His early paintings, were of an activity, namely the women weaving beaded cloth. This seams like a logical place for a painter to start. He chose a typical Venetian product (Beaded Fabric) and painted the women at work. The entire arrangement is very literal, but would have given him an excuse to hang around a space for a longer period of time. He gives us a little tip embedded in the canvases. If you want to see an aspect of life, propose it to your subjects as a piece of art. It allows you to linger, without them feeling put off. Hardly anyone likes being stared at, but if you are making work, usually you can linger for as long as you would like.
Where he starts with the first Venetian Bead Stringer’s, we are given a scene with all the indicators of what is to come in the later works. The interior is typically dark, as is common with many Venetian homes. Skylights were not very prevalent in Sargent’s time. We can recognize the bright sun in the background windows. These same exteriors would be blown out if we were to make a photograph. Inside the high wood beamed ceilings look no different today. The advantage Sargent had was the women were still manufacturing goods in the city. Nowadays a majority of the tourists goods are imported which is a shame. Though there are a number of Venetian establishments making goods again.
The women, huddled around the table, would be a street photographers dream. They are so distracted they hardly even notice each other. This is not a functioning factory, but merely the activities of women who would rather be elsewhere. As Sargent explores this further, the bead making transitions from being the primary activity to a background support.
As Sargent passes through the second Bead Stringer painting titled Venetian Interior, we see work happening along a back wall, but the main characters are hanging out on the left side of the canvas. The same blown out light trickles along the floor of the dark hall. But Sargent is shifting from depicting accurate working life to the casual languor which Venice is famous for.
When we arrive at the Venetian Interior which includes Gigia Viani, all work has drawn to a close. Gigia and a companion walk down the hallway, sliced by a line of bright light on the floor. She is mid step and reminds us more of the Cartier-Bresson tradition of the walking figure than of Titian (Titziano, for the Italian) reclining Venus. Here we see Sargent playing all the games of street photography without any of the pretenses of a formal painting. But…But….do not let the casual nature of the image deceive you. This is a highly designed work of art.
The figure placement is the stuff that Cartier-Bresson dreamt of as a young Surrealist photographer. If we start from the back of the painting and walk forward we see the far figure on the balcony gazes to the right. As we move clockwise we see Gigia looking to the right but her body moves to the left. The third, unknown figure looks to the left. Her gaze continues the clockwise motion of the work until BANG the last lazy figure brings us back to Gigia. There is NOTHING accidental about the placement of these figures. And while they are not engaged in anything more than walking, Sargent is trying to show us how to see social activity Venetian style.
All the while, he plays with light, adjusting the exterior brightness to the reflected light inside. His figures each hold a considerable amount of reflected light to read against the dark backdrops. He also subdues the colors leaving us with just a taste of yellow orange in the lights and subdued grays for the balance of the images.
Sargent’s Day Job
As Sargent was wrapping up his second stay in Venice he needed to delay the departure. He was working on a large canvas called Italian Girl with Fan (forse si chima “La ragazza col ventaglio”) for submission to the Salon in Paris. Even Sargent had a bit of a day job. Portraiture was his primary means of income and the most highly regarded type of painting for competition. For the subject he chose to depict his friend (and I hope for his sake, lover) Gigia Viani. The image reads like a full length street portrait of a girl stopped for a moment. Her toe carries all of the vertical strength of the image while her parted lips seem to be seconds from speaking.
We see all of the marks of the Venetian Interiors, except he is focused on only Gigia. Her body is punctuated by a rich crimson shawl which echoes her lips and eyes. The wall is a warm yellow gray that supports the brightness of her clothing. If she is the Venetian woman in rags that Baignéres complained of, I would see every reason in the world to go to Venice. She is absolutely captivating.
Packing the Bags
As Sargent wrapped up his second stay in Venice he concluded a body of work that predates the effort of every street photographer in history. His images show that the rapid production of images was not something that needed a camera. It was an artistic impulse that was no way linked to technology. People are generally curious about one another. Some of them are capable enough with their art to pass that curiosity through layers of paint for generations to come.
When I listen to photographic critiques and lectures, I hear most often that photographers talk of other photographers. The conversation is too narrow and often excludes important artistic figures in the development of image making. Even if the photographers who inspire us were not artists, if you trace the genealogy of art backwards it all reaches a point where painting was the inspiration. This is not because painting has any superiority to other mediums, but it was and probably still is one of the most widely practiced artistic forms in human history.
Our efforts as street photographers or photographers in general, are not new or original. We have, as I see it, a cultural obligation to understand our visual roots and pass artistic lessons to the next generation. When we do this, it is imperative to point out that photography is merely the last ten keys on the artist’s piano. The other eighty six are owned by 45,000 years of hand made artistic heritage. And without a proper context the efforts of any artist are in vein.