Boulevard du Temple, the first pair of photographs of the streets, was taken by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1838 or 1839. As Daguerre was experimenting in his studio in Paris, trying to find the ideal “fixer” that would leave a permanent imprint, he took his camera obscura, looked through his window at the famous Boulevard du Temple thoroughfare, and captured the streets. This became the first photograph of a human figure on the streets – with the almost immobile leg and the shoes which were being polished properly imprinted and the moving body blurred in the long exposure. He took another one of the almost empty streets, after an interval of few hours. This pair of photographs that were developed using mercury fumes and permanently fixed with sodium thiosulphate became the world’s first set of photographs of the street. Fortunately, the pair was among the 25 and odd photographs that survived the fire which destroyed his studio and the rest of his Daguerreotypes.
Thereon, many have tried to bring about the technical sophistication required to record human figures and objects in motion. Charles Nègre’s “Chimney-Sweeps Walking”, an albumen print taken on the Quai Bourbon, Paris in 1851 is the first successful photograph to register people in the movement. After this technical advancement, there has been no looking back and many masters like Eugene Atget, John Thomson, Berenice Abbott have strived to make streets worthy subjects of photography. It was Paul Martin from the UK who first started taking photographs with a disguised camera. In Britain, a social research organization called Mass-Observation was founded in 1937 to record the uneventful, everyday life in the streets and these often disguised recordings/photographs served the agenda of monitoring the mass reaction to historical moments. In one instance, over 200 “observers” recorded people’s reaction on the streets on a single day (May 12, 1937). The act received worldwide criticism as an invasion of privacy.
But, after this, the everyday life in the streets became “eventful”, so to say. Crowds and their imminent chaos became subjects of interest in art and literature. Flânerie, a term originally coined to describe a wanderer with no purpose, was likened to the connoisseur of the streets who is believed to play a major sociological, anthropological and historical role. When photography became a tool for this urban spectator, a new genre now known as street photography gained momentum. The street photographer is expected to capture the soul of humanity, which is generously generalized to be ever vibrant and thriving. The lifestyles of people caught in unaware random moments were considered to be intense and emotional. Seen through the distant lens, even mundane sufferings are beautiful and artful. As Susan Sontag posits, ‘the photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world “picturesque”.’
Legally, these days, developed countries struggle to achieve a balance between the right to privacy and freedom of expression, and it has become illegal to photograph without the consent of one who is being photographed. Often decided case by case, the law in Canada, EU, Germany, etc., upholds the privacy of the undoubting bypasser and basically, the photographer does not have publication rights without getting permission from everybody in the frame. In Hungary, street photography is illegal and in Japan, it is a prerequisite to get permission from every single person in the frame, before taking the photograph. In France, where street photography took root, it is nowadays practiced as an art form only under “certain” circumstances. However, none of the ethical concerns seemed to stop photographers from exploring the ever-attractive streets. Especially, photographers from developed nations continue to visit and stalk the developing countries of Asia and Africa.
In the 50s, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the pioneer of the idea of the decisive moment, became the singular force whose tireless efforts and poetic works in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, made street photography reach newer heights, a point from where there has been no return. His influences have been so deep and strong, that successive generations of young photographers followed the same style, often without any forethought or premeditation. Achieving the perfect composition that comprises a precisely timed organization of forms, subjects and movement became the mantra for many succeeding photographers. He was particularly noted for his photographs of pre-independent India. He was also known for using disguised cameras to make his photographs.
Not surprisingly, Indian photographers were greatly impressed by his “popular” style and followed suit, stalking the streets. Like master, like students; and it is only natural for knowledge to be transpired across cultures in this manner. Only that this popular aesthetics of street photography has been considered déclassé in the postmodern context, and the questions around its ethics remain unresolved. Sadly, even now the most celebrated photographs of India are street photographs and there is a continuing market for this genre of photographs at the International platforms. Especially, there is a demand for works that resemble the celebrated masters’ original works, and available for a price far lesser than the original. It actually purports the machinations of the collectors’/agents’ need to keep the market value of this genre of works.