International Photography Hall of Fame's 'Decisive Moments: 20th Century Street Photography' Traces Evolution of Street Photo Style

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Journalism photography seeks to capture and record specific newsworthy events, whereas street photography is more concerned with everyday personal observation and documenting the human condition. The way in which a photographer frames the picture and the timing of the shot—at a particularly crucial or poignant moment—becomes part of his or her art.

In “Decisive Moments: 20th Century Street Photography,” currently showing at the International Photography Hall of Fame, prints from St. Louis collectors document the progression of street photography from its birth in early 20th century Paris by Eugene Atget right up to today’s images captured by photographers like Anna Kuperberg and her images of the children of St. Louis’ south side.

Bruce Davidson, The Dwarf (with cigarettes and flowers) 1958

Bruce Davidson, The Dwarf (with cigarettes and flowers) 1958
Courtesy IPHF

As Paris neighborhoods were being razed by construction of Haussman’s Grands Boulevards—where the city’s dense, asymmetrical and crooked medieval alleyways were being dissected by the long, wide and straight boulevards we identify with Paris today—Eugene Atget raced to document the old Paris that was quickly disappearing with his large format camera. Photography equipment was changing too, and as cameras began to get smaller and more portable (and as the French city was becoming the art capital of the world), photographers—now artists such as Cartier Bresson, André Kertesz and Brassaii—took to the streets, not to capture vanishing architecture, but the people who lived and breathed around it.

There were American photographers in Paris during those years as well. Artists like Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans and Helen Levitt brought the movement back to the States, and a loosely-knit group of artists began documenting American life, which in turn influenced a generation of American street photographers, a legacy that continues today. “Decisive Moments” bears witness through the lenses of the masters to the unfolding of the 20th century.

Marc Riboud, Eiffel Tower Painter, 1953.

Marc Riboud, Eiffel Tower Painter, 1953.
Courtesy IPHF

There is much to commend the exhibit, and many of the images will remain with the viewer long after leaving the building. In “Streets of Vanishing Paris 1897-1927,” Marc Riboud’s photo of a man high above the streets of Paris as he paints the Eiffel Tower is graceful and almost balletic. With his legs placed carefully on girders, he administers a dab of paint while a stub of a cigarette protrudes from his mouth. The cityscape of Paris is visible in the distance. It resembles a still from a Buster Keaton movie, blurring the line between art and real life.

Henri Cartier- Bresson, Boy Carrying a Wine Bottle, (Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954)

Henri Cartier- Bresson, Boy Carrying a Wine Bottle, (Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954)
Courtesy IPHF

Or Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photo of a young Parisian boy carrying two bottles of wine on the street. He is so proud he has been given this important and adult duty that his pride shines from his face and is revealed in the way he comports himself. He is no longer a boy but officially a little man. A young girl looking on admiringly in the background also seems shocked that the boy has been given this task. If you look closely, there is something to suggest at that very moment she has fallen in what her little heart can only call love. It’s a singularly joyous scene, all captured in a fraction of a second.

Much work by St. Louis nationally recognized photographers is on display too. Susan Stang’s “Chasing Serendipity,” features a series of photographs shot with an odd toy digital camera, features many iconic sites revealing a sequence of continual visual and cultural connections. A photo of the Statue of Liberty is not about the statue itself, but the back of a man’s head as he too holds a camera up to snap a picture. The Leaning Tower of Pisa serves only as a backdrop to a bizarre gesture a woman makes to a man also making the gesture, though only his hands are visible. The leaning tower is only a location; the real attraction is the wonderful quirkiness of humanity.

Anna Kuperberg, "Children of St. Louis's South Side" series, 1992-2002

Anna Kuperberg, “Children of St. Louis’s South Side” series, 1992-2002
Courtesy IPHF

Anna Kuperberg, in “South Side, St. Louis, 1992-2004,” documents her fascination with the children of the city’s south side, which she and her camera have explored since she arrived in St. Louis. Her work captures their lives with excruciating honesty. In one, a white child sits on a black woman’s lap as the woman combs the child’s hair. In another, three young boys test manliness as they compare their arm muscles. It’s a scene that almost every male who has ever lived has played out in their own youth. The black and white images are executed with a sort of loving brutality, harkening back to depression era photos and images of share croppers. There are full lives here—friendships, families, and youthful innocence played out in a geographically contained world—that tell us that people are people and most of all, they are resilient.

These are just a few examples of the rich imagery contained in “Decisive Moments: 20th Century Street Photography.” The unusually rich exhibit runs through April 27. For more information, visit the International Photography Hall of Fame.

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