A1: preparation – street portraits

As part of the preparations for assignment 1, The Non Familiar, I looked at the work of photographers working with street portraits and their methods, with the intention of using street portraiture for the assignment.

Roswell Angier refers to to the work of Harry Callahan (1912-1999) in the 1950s, influenced by Walker Evans’s subway work. Angier explains that the work featured anonymous females, shot with a telephone lens, allowing more precise framing that was possible with Evan’s work shot with a hidden camera. Nonetheless, both photographers were working covertly, in a way that is not consistent with the assignment’s brief.

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Source: moma.org, by Harry Callahan

Mark Cohen is another photographer referenced by Angier as working with street portraiture, but literally shooting from the hip and not asking for permission. The Guardian explains, ‘Mark Cohen has spent decades doing hit-and-run street photography in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. His pictures are always taken from waist-height, so he can keep his wits about him – and he’s taken 800,000 shots he’s never even seen.’ This is perhaps an exaggeration for the purposes of a catchy first sentence to the article, but nonetheless it says something about Cohen’s practice.

Source: guardian.co.uk, by Mark Cohen

An excellent reference book for contemporary street photography (including some portraiture) is Street Photography Now, which explores 48 different artists. But this comes up short with artists working with street portraits, instead focusing mainly on happenstance. I suspect that some of these artists have taken street portraits, with permission, it just happens to be coincidental to the intention of their work, rather than the main purpose – it therefore doesn’t get mentioned.

In an earlier post, I looked at the work of Diane Arbus (see here), whose street portraits are with permission even if focused on ‘freaks’. An observation was Arbus’ comment about her subjects, ‘I’m extremely likeable with them. I think I’m kind of two-faced.’ This duplicity does not sit comfortably, but it is of course also possible to be nice and genuinely interested in strangers when approaching them for photographs.

In contrast to Arbus, Helen Levitt (1913-2009) had a humanist outlook on street photography. Though she reportedly used a right-angled view finder to allow her to capture moments surreptitiously (Telfair).

Helen Levitt
source: lensculture.com, by Helen Levitt

It seems that most street photographers prefer to work with unsuspecting subjects, rather than ask permission for portraits. Understandable for a genre based on showing the extraordinary within banal street scenes; the aim is often to show what is happening in the natural course of events, rather than intervening.

There is a doubt however in my mind that in the pursuit of the ‘decisive moment’ concept some of these photographers may have been reluctant to admit that some of their images were set up, or at least that permission was asked.


Angier, R. (2015). Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography (Required Reading Range) [Kindle iOS version]

Arbus, D. and Israel, M. eds. 2012. Diane Arbus: An aperture monograph: Fortieth-Anniversary edition. United States: Aperture.

Erik Kim [blog]. 7 Lessons Helen Levitt Has Taught Me About Street Photography. Available from: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/06/06/7-lessons-helen-levitt-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ [accessed 27.7.16]

The Guardian [online]. Mark Cohen: the photographer who literally shoots from the hip. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/photography-blog/2013/oct/22/mark-cohen-photographer-exhibition-paris [accessed 27.7.16]

MoMA [online]. Harry Callahan. Available from: http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/924?=undefined&page=1&direction= [accessed 27.7.16]

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. 2011. Street photography now. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Telfair Museums [online]. Helen Levitt in the street. Available from: http://www.telfair.org/helen-levitt-in-the-street/ [accessed 27.7.16]

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