A one-legged man rollerblading through midtown Manhattan. A giggling toddler with pigtails. A young couple who got engaged only an hour before having their picture taken.
These images—all from the wildly popular blog Humans of New York—are fascinating. They incite conversation and make us think twice about our own lives. And street photography, the visual cousin of the human interest story and grittier friend of the fashion editorial, has taken the web by storm. But what is it that makes it so appealing?
Who’s photographing us.
Although the genre remains loosely defined, street photography as it is popularly understood is thought to have originated in the 1950s and 60s. Photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gary Winogrand, and Robert Frank pioneered the artistic approach and sought to capture unvarnished images of everyday life and the momentum of their cities. Their output ranged from candid shots of children and working class adults to unedited images of celebrities and society matrons.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, fashion became both more accessible and more intertwined with class, serving as a social marker. It became an indicator for photographers documenting the currents of change in their environments. One well-known example is Bill Cunningham. After publishing his first photos in the 1960s, the photographer has since spent decades chronicling the costumes and trends of New York City for TheNew York Times Style section, both on street corners and at society events.
Still, some would credit photographer Scott Schuman, better known as “The Sartorialist,” with jump-starting the current craze for street photography and street style. Schuman founded his blog in 2005 with the idea of creating a dialogue about how fashion intersected with daily life, photographing real people in New York and abroad whose style he found particularly striking. Today, his website can receive over 14 million views in a month and has netted him commissions and collaborations ranging from Vogue to Burberry to Crate & Barrel.
Who we’re wearing.
While “traditional” street photography evokes the unpredictability of being captured on film, sites like The Sartorialist tend to walk a fine line between appearing both relatable and out of reach—often tending toward the latter. Most street style photographers claim that their blogs are meant to be inspirational, a celebration of self-expression and personal style. But of late, the barriers to entering the street-style canon are rather high—and rather deadening.
Refinery29 published a flowchart entitled "Oh Snap! Our Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Shot by The Sartorialist." One of the first questions in the guide is “Are you model pretty?” quickly followed by “Do you own expensive accessories?” Evidently, creativity and personal style are no longer what make an average pedestrian interesting enough to be documented. Moving away from the original focus on the individual, advertising and product placement have begun to intrude into the once freewheeling world of street-style photography, reinforcing existing power structures and narrowing the boundaries of beauty.
Followers have started to notice the change. As one Sartorialist commenter complained, “Street style went from ‘work with what you got’ to ‘go buy these shoes, that bag, that jacket, because you may get pictured.’ The fashion industry has tightened its grip around the consumer’s throat, so hard that at times every picture, every image . . . feels like a walking billboard.”
Although many street-style blogs continue to pique our interest in new aesthetic ideals (or at least inspire us to try to look our best), what began as a celebration of uniqueness may by now be responsible for turning creativity into consumerism.
Who we are.
Still, the most compelling street photography is arguably not fashion-based at all.
"[Street] photographers speak to the profoundly democratic impulse to acknowledge that we all have a place,” writer Alex Kotlowitz states in an article about Vivian Maier, “—that our stories matter." Maier was a nanny and closet street photographer in mid-century Chicago. Her more than 150,000 photos of urban life in mid-century America were discovered posthumously in 2007 and are now the focus of documentary and gallery exhibitions around the world.
Today’s most talked-about photographer on the “street beat” is Brandon Stanton, founder of the hugely popular website Humans of New York in 2010. Today, he has amassed more than six thousand street portraits, most with a short story or caption derived from brief interviews of his subjects. His Facebook page alone has some 9.3 million followers, and the book derived from his website spent twenty-one weeks on The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list, many of those at number one. He was recently tapped by the United Nations to promote their Millennium Development goals, sent to take the same “real-life” photographs in countries around the globe.
Many of Stanton’s admirers—established critics and intrigued web visitors alike—note with amazement that his photographs expose the humanity of his subjects, as though to do so is something all too rare in daily life. But in many ways, street photography’s most gripping attribute is how it can serve as homage to the infinite varieties of being and awaken us to the beauty in everyday life. Whether through portraits of lonely adults or cheerful snaps of children dressed in their mismatched finest, photographers like Stanton lend credence to the notion that those parts of life regularly deemed unremarkable are expressions of the universal human condition. Subjects chosen at random both celebrate idiosyncrasy and highlight our shared experience, reminding us that even those we would normally ignore are complex and worthy of wonder.
Scrolling through HONY or The Sartorialist, we all secretly wish that Stanton or Schuman would snap a photo of us. We all want to be seen, but more importantly we want to know that we matter.
As the philosopher Roger Scruton notes, “The judgment of beauty demands an act of attention.” In an increasingly disconnected society—one in which people are more likely to look at their phone than at a stranger—confronting a viewer with an aestheticized image of the commonplace can draw us back into each other’s company.