‘On the Street’ is the title of photographer Bill Cunningham’s long-running weekly column (and now web video series) in the Sunday style section of the New York Times. It was also the title of Amy Arbus’ photo column in the Village Voice throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Midway through the first decade of the new millennium, Scott Schuman began using it as a heading for his posts on The Sartorialist website, followed by a ‘…’, the name of the street in question and his featured image of a particular fashionable individual. ‘On the street’, in fact, has become a common shorthand for galleries of street style images across a variety of media, from newspapers, to magazines, to websites, narrowly edging out such other notable titles as ‘Seen on the Street’, ‘Street Scenes’, and ‘Street Smart’. It is a fairly logical title for a street style feature. Street style photography in its most straightforward definition is simply fashion photography taken ‘on the street’. Whereas editorials are shot in the studio, under conditions carefully controlled by a photographer, and runway shots are taken in the darkened, stage-lit dreamscapes of fashion shows, street style photographs are produced outside, among the uncontrollable, naturally lit elements of ‘the real world’. Street style photographers don’t want you to forget that. This is their stock in trade. Natural light. Real people. Real locations. Shot on ‘the street’.
‘The street’, for well over a hundred years in the western world who first covered it with concrete, has been a potent metaphor for that which exists in everyday reality (Polhemus 1994). ‘The man on the street’ is a frequent guest on local television news, a stand-in for all the other regular folks not currently present. ‘The word on the street’ is the stuff people are talking about, away from the glare of television studio lights, outside the hype of the political machine. And the clothes worn ‘on the street’ are those that have somehow slipped out the carefully guarded gates of the fashion in-crowd to become an in-demand item among the urban populace.
But what exactly gets to count as ‘the street’? And whose everyday reality does ‘the street’ represent? Are grand Parisian boulevards ‘the street?’ Are shopping malls in Dubai? Are Main Street, United States (where most Americans live) and 5th Avenue, New York (where Cunningham tends to shoot) equal in claiming rights to the title? Is 15th Street in Chelsea, just down the block from Milk Studios after a runway event during Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week ‘the street’? I hope so, because I have spotted numerous well-known street style photographers – including Schuman and Cunningham – shooting models, still in runway make-up, in front of open warehouse spaces and garages on that block. These shots later appear on their blogs and in their columns, labelled, of course, as ‘on the street’. Clearly, in these cases, the everyday reality that the street is meant to represent is not the everyday reality of most Americans.
In his 2014 op-ed for the popular Business of Fashion website, writer Max Berlinger asks the question on the minds of a lot of street style readers: ‘Whatever happened to the “street” in street style?’ (Berlinger 2014) ‘As interest in street style grows’, writes Berlinger, ‘there’s certainly no dearth of images featuring tony editors, buyers, and other fashion insiders captured at the world’s major fashion weeks. But there’s a pointed lack of inspiration in these pictures. Too often, they reflect a highly merchandised construct that merely reiterates the seasonal themes dictated, top-down, from the industry to consumers, at the expense of true personal style. Sometimes, they are even part of a premeditated marketing plan’. These images, suggests Berlinger, despite their constant presence on ‘street style’ websites, and despite their featured backdrops of sidewalks and asphalt, are not ‘street’ enough to be ‘street style’. They are decidedly short on grit. They disproportionately focus their lenses on the white, the well-heeled, and the well-groomed. They emphasize the coming season’s trends over the idiosyncrasies of individual style. To be ‘street’, as Berlinger, and many other fans of street style photography see it, photographs need to capture something ‘real’ that fashion editorial spreads systematically ignore or Photoshop over. They need to be ‘raw’ (Edwards 2001), ‘immediate’ (Bolter and Grusin 2000), still humming with the breath and pulse of lived experience. Somehow, stylized shots of Russian socialites escaping into Lincoln town cars after the DKNY show fail to fit the bill.
It is understandable for Berlinger and many other aficionados of street style photography to lament the loss of ‘the street’ in its most widely viewed imagery. Street style photography is just not what it used to be. Type ‘street style’ into an internet search engine these days and what comes up are highly professional images of editors, models, and industry insiders sauntering past a stream of blurred out photographers. Hipsters in Cape Town and Helsinki are buried pages in to search results. ‘Street style’, it seems, has come to mean more or less the exact opposite of what it meant just eight years before, when bloggers like Liisa Jokinen of Hel Looks and Yvan Rodic of Face Hunter were starting out, no longer the ‘authentic’ styles of ‘the street’ in cities off the fashion map (see Chapter 2) but an extension of fashion industry representation into picturesque pedestrian zones.
This chapter chronicles the visual, and conceptual, history of street style photography from one meaning to its near inverse. Using a range of street style images beginning with some of the earliest portrait work of photography as my examples, I interrogate the shifting meaning of ‘the street’ in street style photography and discuss what it tells us about street style’s function in the popular imagination and in the fashion press today. ‘The street’, I demonstrate, is a highly contested and contextual term, a space of symbolic contradiction. It should come as no surprise, then, that photography’s history of depicting ‘the street’ is as fraught as the very concept of it. From a voyage of discovery into unknown lands to an uncovering of all that is ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ in an age of artifice to a glamorous slideshow of the couture-wearing elite, street style photography has served multiple masters, and as it has done so, it has altered the conventions through which it depicts ‘the street’, from a simple, mood-creating backdrop to a kind of conceptual screen, separating a figure from its context. Nonetheless, in all of its guises, ‘the street’ has remained a central trope of street style photography. It tells the viewer as much about the image in question as what a model is wearing or how she is wearing it. It carries not just a mood, not just a set of signifiers conveying geographic information but much of the weight of an image’s meaning. The street, then, is a subject of street style photography, perhaps even the subject, a fluid, amorphous entity that accumulates meanings as it snowballs into fashion world ubiquity.
A wide variety of historians, literary critics, urban planners, and sociologists have argued that we owe the contemporary conception – and, indeed, the actual physical manifestation – of today’s metropolitan streets to the Paris of the mid-1800s. Beginning in 1853, under the authority of Napoleon III, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the Prefect of the Seine Department in France, carried out a massive programme of urban reconstruction that sought to replace the labyrinthine alleyways and crumbling infrastructure of old Paris with ‘broad straight thoroughfares’ (Benjamin 2002: 11). Haussmann was a child of the Enlightenment, a firm believer in the power of human ingenuity to engineer a more utopian society. He, like other urban planners of his day, based his model of the modern metropolis on the latest innovations in the natural sciences, and in particular, on ideas in medicine. Haussmann conceived of the city as a kind of living body, complete with a circulatory and respiratory system, one that needs to breathe and maintain movement in order to remain healthy. The roads, in Haussmann’s vision, were to become like arteries, the parks like lungs. Planners working under Haussmann ‘sought to make the city a place where people could move and breathe freely, a city of flowing arteries and veins through which people streamed like healthy blood corpuscles’ (Sennett 1996: 256). The streets became conduits of movement, conductors of flow. Their purpose was to facilitate motion. And they did exactly that. Carriages cut across the expanse of the city with an unfettered conviction only possible with a newly unobstructed roadway.
Pedestrians too meandered through the streets like cells through a vein. They engaged with a much broader portion of the city than they ever had before, strolling the avenues, lingering in the parks, window-shopping in the arcades. It was a new way of life, with its own uniform of top hats and overcoats, one befitting a newly industrialized Europe with a plethora of material goods to display and sell. So basic was the experience of moving through the city to contemporary life that it became necessary to establish a name for the expanding breed of wandering Parisian giving in to its consumerist charms. The poet Charles Baudelaire dubbed him ‘the flâneur’, and he granted him all the inflated, romanticized attributes of a modernist hero.
‘Paris created the type of the flâneur’, wrote Marxist literary critic Walter Benjamin in his posthumously published masterwork The Arcades Project. A flâneur, Benjamin explained, ‘is a walker in the city. He is a connoisseur of the street, someone with an appreciation for its drama that he expressed through his flânerie’ (Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 1994: 40). Not that he took much time to express that appreciation. The flâneur kept on moving, pulled by the irresistible currents of the street. The flâneur ‘takes on the features of the werewolf’, wrote Benjamin, ‘restlessly roaming a social wilderness’ (Benjamin 2002: 420). In Haussmann’s Paris, the flâneur took on a significant social role. He became the ‘observer of the marketplace’ (Benjamin 2002: 427), a ‘spy for the capitalists’, (Benjamin 2002: 427), a ‘detective’ (Benjamin 2002: 453) of modern life, doomed by the architecture of the city to ooze through its cobblestone corridors and pay witness to its consumerist spectacles.
Of course, not everyone had the time, luxury, or disposition to be a flâneur. It took a certain bohemian decadence and a certain bourgeois privilege. ‘The attitude of the flâneur’, wrote Benjamin is ‘the epitome of the political attitude of the middle classes during the Second Empire’ (Benjamin 2002: 420). Their brand of consumption occurred through observation. Their brand of participation consisted largely of seeing. This was the new experience of being idle and relatively rich. In Haussmann’s Paris the streets were a stage on which the drama of everyday life plays out (Sennett 1974), and the flâneur was there to witness it all, as both audience and critic (Benjamin 2002).
Haussmann’s Paris, then, set the conditions for the modern experience of the city, one that sociologist Richard Sennett has depicted as individualistic and, above all, optic. ‘Individual bodies moving through urban space’, writes Sennett, ‘gradually became detached from the space in which they moved and from the people the space contained. As space became devalued through motion, individuals gradually lost a sense of sharing a fate with others’ (Sennett 1996: 256). Other people were there to be observed rather than engaged, consumed as they moved past like the flickering images on a movie screen. Along with flânerie, then, Haussmann’s Paris gave birth to another popular urban pastime: people watching. ‘In the course of the development of modern urban individualism, the individual fell silent in the city. The street, the café, the department store, the railroad, bus, and underground became places of the gaze rather than scenes of discourse’ (Sennett 1996: 358).
Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that the Haussmannization of Paris occurred in short order after the invention of the camera. Both Haussmann and Daguerre, whose early model daguerreotype paved the way to the camera, held the conviction of a modernist revolutionary. Both were out to change the world. Both believed in the power of technology to fundamentally recreate the experience of reality. The camera and the modern city developed, in a sense, in tandem, the one feverishly documenting the rapid growth of the other. The camera was the natural tool of the modern metropolis, a co-conspirator. It testified to the grand project of modernity in a way that the roaming eyes of flâneurs never could. It cemented into place a vision defined by its ephemerality.
The earliest photographers shared with Haussmann a distinctly modern optimism about the ability of humankind to apprehend a clear picture of how the world works and use that picture to create a blueprint for the future. Both the camera and the city were tools of the modernist project. Both served the ends of scientists and reformers. ‘The photographer’, wrote Susan Sontag in her now canonical essay titled, quite succinctly, On Photography, ‘is a supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear’ (Sontag 1973: 42). He has, that is, something of the disposition of the flâneur, only his project is more concrete than the flâneur’s, turning that which is witnessed into that which can be owned, analysed, and manipulated. To photograph, claimed Sontag, is ‘to appropriate that thing photographed’ (Sontag 1973: 2), to turn it into a ‘museum object’ (Barthes 1981: 12). And when, by extension, one photographs a person, he turns that person too into a museum object, one ‘that can be symbolically possessed’ (Sontag 1973: 14), put on display, examined and scrutinized. The history of photography is thus the history of symbolic possession.
Anthropology has played no small roll in advancing this history of symbolic possession. Its own history is inextricably intertwined with that of photography, as it is with the larger projects of colonialism and modernity. As Pinney (2011), Edwards (2001), and Grimshaw (2001) have each noted, the invention of the medium of photography took place at the same historical moment as the establishment of the discipline of anthropology, just as photography took place at the same historical moment as the modernization of the city. This is no accident. The two media follow similar logics, maintain similar ends, indeed were created with similar purposes in mind.
Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre announced the invention of his direct positive photographic process in 1839 declaring that ‘everyone, with the aid of the DAGUERROTYPE [sic], will make a view of his castle or country-house; people will form collections of all kinds, which will be the more precious because art cannot imitate their accuracy and perfection of detail’ (Daguerre 1980: 12). The same year Fox Talbott independently announced his own process of ‘photographic drawing’, which fixes into being that which the camera obscura merely illuminated. Both early predecessors of the camera were designed to dramatically slow down the distorting effects of time. They made it possible to freeze a moment of light and thereby gain mastery over it. They made it possible to analyse that which hurls past us without abating.
The Aboriginal Protection Society, meanwhile, was founded in 1837 followed by the American Ethnological Society in 1842 and the Ethnological Society of London in 1843. All three saw themselves as ventures designed to protect the rights and sovereignty of indigenous people subject to colonial rule. But each also saw themselves as agents of what would later be termed ‘salvage anthropology’, the efforts to preserve and protect varieties of life that the reach of the colonial empire had doomed to disappear. Photography and anthropology sought to preserve forever those human ventures once subject to the ruthless vicissitudes of time. They captured for the sake of personal, and scientific, preservation.
It is no wonder, then, that proponents of both anthropology and photography saw themselves first and foremost as crusaders for ‘truth’. They advocated an ‘ethics of seeing’ (Sontag 1973: 3) that equated such seeing with the knowing of a fundamental reality. Photography, it was argued, could not lie. It recorded the light of a moment of time. It presented a ‘raw history’ of events, ‘empirical, evidential inscriptions’ (Edwards 2001).
But, of course, such an account failed to take note of all of the subjective choices behind producing a photographic image. ‘Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality’, wrote Sontag, ‘they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience’ (Sontag 1973: 6). They select apertures and shutter speeds that produce distinct visual effects. They frame a subject within an image in such a way that lends itself to certain aesthetic determinations. They choose where to depict a subject and with what materials visible in the background. And, of course, they choose which subjects are worthy of being captured on film in the first place, selectively weeding out whatever subjects, objects, or inconvenient realities do not fit their conception.
For early anthropologists there was one subject worthy of capture above all others, one subject thought uniquely equipped to encapsulate the scientific interests of the discipline – the human body. It was the human body, notes anthropologist Christopher Pinney ‘that constituted the proper terrain for study and for many, anthropology was little more than a form of comparative anatomy’ (Pinney 2011: 15). Anthropologists studied the physiognomy of people around the world. They compared skull sizes and body proportions, gleaned ‘information’ about human universals and differences based on morphology. So when early anthropological field expeditions set out, they often set out with one goal above all others: to capture on film the diversity of human bodies for careful anthropological scrutiny. Anthropologists brought cameras with them into the field in the very earliest days of the discipline. Their mission: to document as visual specimens the myriad morphologies that made up the subjects of the empire. And ‘specimens’ is the right word. Despite a common rhetoric of humanism, anthropology’s early photos are fundamentally reductive and objectifying, casting the world’s innumerable peoples into the passive role of objects for analysis. Many of these photos remain in museum collections to this day.
Of course, to serve as adequate specimens, photographs had to appear impartial. One could not compare apples to oranges, landscapes to portraits. If anthropological field photos were to take on the weight of evidence, then they must be presented as evidence, as uniform as possible in their depiction. Other social scientists must be able to replicate such photos in other settings. They must be instilled with the same sort of specificity that defines laboratory protocols.
There were a number of efforts to create the appropriate criteria for anthropological photography. Pinney discusses one such effort at length, a paper on ‘Photography for Anthropologists’ by one Maurice Vidal Portman (1861–1935), a British officer stationed in the Andamans in the late nineteenth century. Portman, explains Pinney, was above all concerned with clarity. ‘All aesthetics’, he wrote, ‘are to be avoided’ (cited in Pinney 2011: 41). He continues: ‘For ethnology, accuracy is what is required. Delicate lighting and picturesque photography are not wanted: all you have to see is that the general lighting is correct, and that no awkward placing of weapons or limbs hide important objects’ (Portman, as cited in Pinney 2011: 41). ‘A dull grey or drab background’, he goes on to say – as if anticipating the rationale of fashion photographer Irving Penn decades later – ‘is best’ (Portman, as cited in Pinney 2011: 42).
Edwards (2001) recounts another early effort to establish criteria for proper anthropological photography by Thomas Henry Huxley, a Darwinian biologist who initiated ‘a project to produce a photographic record of the races of the British Empire’ in 1869 (Edwards 2001: 131). Like Portman, Huxley sought to establish a ‘visualizing discourse’ (Edwards 2001: 132) that ‘sought images uncontaminated by interpretation, aesthetic inference, or fantasy’ (Datson and Galison, cited in Edwards 2001: 132–133). To do so, he advocated a strict set of guidelines that ‘contained instructions for the precise placing of the body in front of the camera for a somatic visual mapping’ (Edwards 2001: 133). The goal was in part anthropometry, the ‘science’ of taking measures of the relative size of the individuals depicted with the hope of determining something meaningful from their proportions. Anthropometry, in turn, became a mechanism of colonial justification, amassing ‘evidence’ of Europeans’ perceived ‘racial superiority’. Subjects, thus, were ideally naked and placed before a background grid. They faced the camera, arms at their side, or stood in profile, no expressions on their faces, no distracting visual information preventing a careful scientific analysis. There was no context presented in the images Huxley or his adherents produced and no activities. ‘These photographs’, writes Edwards, ‘are the most overtly and oppressively scientific, dehumanizing, producing a passive object of study’ (Edwards 2001: 139).
In practice, few of the photos produced by the fieldworkers under Huxley managed to strictly adhere to his guidelines. They remained more an ideal than a reality. Many indigenous people – unsurprisingly – objected to being photographed naked. Others refused to stand just so. Others still displayed distress, discomfort, and assorted unsanctioned visual expressions of emotion that compromised the ‘integrity’ of the images. But criteria were established that would have an impact on social documentation for decades to come: good, scientific images present their subjects in as straightforward and unfussy of a manner as possible, arms at their sides, facing directly to the camera or in perfect profile, all external parts of the body visible, and featured in entirety from head to toe. Innumerable early anthropological photos adhere to this formula, though the obsession with nakedness gradually passed out of fashion. Many anthropologists began including clothing as a critical piece of data worthy of being captured in its own right – tangible, material evidence of culture at work. A subject, arms at his side, would stand in the middle of the camera frame, a minimum of space above and below him (Figures 1.3 and 1.4), a blank expression on his face.
Sound familiar? To the reader of street style blogs it should. The same conventions survive on them today. Their subjects stand the same way, display the same inscrutable gaze. And the message is simple, if misleading: ‘here is a person, just how they were, without any tampering from me’. Looking at early anthropological photographs today, the most striking thing about them to me is how much they resemble contemporary street style photographs, both in composition and sensibility. And this is because street style is the natural progeny of anthropological photography. It has inherited its aesthetics, its photographic conventions, and its visual preoccupation with ‘the real’.
Of course, street style photographers do not tend to cite early anthropological fieldwork photos as sources of inspiration. Most are not particularly familiar with the genre, and even if they were, few are likely to find the comparison flattering. These early anthropological photos are steeped in a colonial-era project of classifying and disciplining that reads as problematic today, if not outright racist. But street style photographers do trace their lineage back to photographers who themselves derived a good deal of influence from this early anthropological work. The most famous of these – and the three that street style photographers cite by name most often as influences – are August Sander, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Irving Penn, three very different figures within photographic history, operating within different genres of photography. I will consider each of these photographers in the coming sections, along with their respective genres of photography, and their influence on street style photography. But first, a bit of context is in order.
The lens of photography was turned to ‘the street’ almost immediately upon coming into being. It was a natural transition – an extension of the same logic of classification and control that characterized early anthropology. ‘Photographers at the beginning of the medium’s history’, write Westerbeck and Meyerowitz in their comprehensive history of street photography, Bystander, ‘sought mostly humble people as subjects’ (Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 1994: 71). Fox Talbott, one of the inventors of camera technology, himself produced pictures largely of ‘various rustics who worked on his estate’ (Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 1994: 71). Charles Nègre, who took up the camera in 1850, photographed ‘colorful street types’ like peddlers and musicians (Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 1994: 71). For many, photography was an artist’s pursuit – an extension of the romantic quest to capture something meaningful about everyday life and attest to the colour and variety of urban dwellers. But for others, it served a more pragmatic end, exposing ruptures in the modernist project that still needed to be attended to.
Cultural theorist Dick Hebdige notes that some of the first subjects to capture the attention of the lens were children and adolescents, especially those poor children occupying the slums of France and the UK, whose stubborn penury stood in the way of urban planners’ dreams of a smooth modernization. ‘During the mid-nineteenth century’, writes Hebdige, ‘when intrepid social explorers began to venture into the “unknown continents”, the “jungles” and the “Africas” – this was the phraseology used at the time – of Manchester and the slums of East London, special attention was drawn to the wretched mental and physical condition of the young “nomads” and “street urchins” ’(Hebdige 1988: 20). Social documentarians treated the slums of Europe to the same combination of critical gaze and aesthetic fascination that anthropologists had lent to distant locales. Both the urban poor of Europe and the ‘primitives’ of the colonies were viewed, at times, as obstacles to modernization and at times as nostalgic leftovers from a previous era. In either case, they needed to be captured on film. This preoccupation with urban youth would continue for decades to come within social documentary photography, becoming more and more pronounced in the post-war period and featuring more and more extreme examples of ‘problematic’ youth display, peaking in the 1960s with images of mods and rockers, hippies and skinheads, and lending visual credence to the ‘moral panic’ (Hebdige 1988) of the older generations about ‘the kids these days’. Social documentary and photojournalistic photography of young people in London, New York, and other European and US cities both enhanced popular fears of ‘youth gone wild’ and gave commentators the tools they needed to categorize and classify such youth and hence gain some kind of control over the threat they supposedly represented. Critical to this modernist project of photographic documentation was the careful classification of urban dwellers according to class, variety, and type.
August Sander (1876–1964) was one such social documentary photographer engaged in a modernist project of enhancing social scientific understanding through capturing contemporary urban (and some rural) dwellers on film (or, more accurately, glass plates). After a stint working in a photo studio in Linz, Austria, in the early 1900s, he did most of his work in his native Germany, during a moment of major social upheaval and historical change. Sander wanted to document that change through the faces of the people who were undergoing it. His best-known series, People of the 20th Century, began in earnest in 1910 and continued throughout the duration of his life, producing the book Face of Our Time – a sort of preview of the larger project, and thousands of negatives, many of which would be published posthumously. People of the 20th Century was an ambitious attempt to document the variety of socio-economic classes and professional categories in the Germany of his time through individual – and some group – portraits, shot in work places and at homes and labelled, typically, with only the profession or social status of the subject in question. In Face of Our Time the place the image was taken was also often mentioned. In his posthumously published work, however, his images were labelled with the date but typically not the place. In either case, the emphasis was on social category or professional type. ‘Production engineer’ reads an undated print of a moustachioed man in a three-piece suit, eyes fixed directly on the camera lens. ‘Pastrycook’, reads another, of a bald, plump man in a chef’s coat with a metal bowl in front of him, facing directly forward in a kitchen. ‘The teacher, 1910’, reads a third of a bearded, bespectacled man, standing at the edge of a street and turned in three quarters profile towards the photographer. The expression on each man’s face is stern, his posture firm and immobile. These are formal portraits shot in informal settings, sociological specimens from the streets and back roads of Germany. Sander’s photos are a mixture of bust and full body portraits, and although they are shot in situ, there is nothing whatsoever spontaneous about them. Like anthropological field portraits, they are endowed with a heady seriousness testifying to the scientific importance of what they depict.
And yet, his photos conceal as much as they reveal about a person, masking their idiosyncrasies behind formalistic conventions. They strip each individual of personality, reducing him to a body and a set of clothes. Each photograph becomes a representative sample of an entire class, group, or profession of people, as if it were capable of summarizing the complex set of characteristics of each. The names of the subjects didn’t matter to Sander’s project, and he didn’t mention them within his work. They were, after all, interchangeable. Instead, the people in his photos are meant to serve as ‘ideal types’ (Weber 1978), individual exemplars of universal categories. In this, writes novelist, essayist, and doctor Alfred Döblin in his introduction to Face of Our Time, Sander placed himself firmly in the camp of the ‘realists’, who believed that generalities and universals ‘were actually real and existent’ (Döblin 1994: 7). They were not just constructs of social theory but something ‘out there’ to be observed and documented.
The subjects in Sanders’ photographs represent a type more than a person. Hence the ritually enacted realism of their conventions: their stern expressions, their formal poses. Sander’s work could easily appear in a museum display next to ‘Fulani herdsman’ or ‘Asmat headhunter’. ‘Interior decorator, Berlin 1929’ the caption beneath one photograph reads, as if that were all there was to know about the man depicted in it. And yet these images too, like anthropological field photos, contain much of the sensibility of the contemporary street style photograph, the emphasis on expressionless faces and firm postures, and the convention of formal portraiture in situ. Street style photographers continue to borrow many of Sanders’ conventions for depicting ‘the real’, even if they have jettisoned his notion of reality.
But they also borrow another concept from Sander and other social documentarians of his time: the idea that reality is in fact to be found, out there ‘on the street’. The street, in Sander’s work, is the background imagery that places his subjects in a social and historical context. It lends legitimacy to his work. It testifies to Sanders’ ‘being there’ and experiencing for himself. It is the stock source of his image’s perceived reality.
Eugène Atget (1857–1927), like August Sander, was committed to documenting everyday life on the streets of his city, in this case Paris, France. He was fascinated by the ordinary comings and goings – the ceaseless activities of street life. His work features the street in nearly every frame, sometimes serving as a backdrop to his portraits, sometimes as a landscape full of buildings and stalls and sometimes as a study of abstract shapes and lines. But if Sander’s mission was to categorize and classify the myriad denizens of the contemporary city who occupy the street, Atget’s was more altruistic – to preserve.
Like a salvage anthropologist, Atget wanted to document the old world of Paris – its architecture and its alleyways, its bustling mercantile exchange, its quaint peasantry and colourful characters – before it disappeared into the chasm opened up by modernization. Atget was a pioneer of a genre that would later come to be known as ‘street photography’. He spent his days as a proper flâneur, wandering the streets, taking in their charms, seeking out the perfect combination of elements for his artfully composed photographs. Though working with a large format camera, like Sander and every previous generation of photographer, Atget sought to capture those aspects of everyday life that zoomed past us too quickly to be noticed. He stopped pedestrians in their tracks, posed ‘authentic’ street scenes, then hurried to the back of his camera to get the long-exposure shot his camera necessitated. His photos were thus a hybrid of the candid and the staged. Though posed, they were meant to appear natural, ‘real’ – no stilted portraits for scientific scrutiny and no stubborn preoccupation with uniformity.
Street photographers like Atget had a different conception of ‘the real’ than social documentarians like Sander. If Sander was a ‘realist’, believing in the universality of types, then Atget was something of a ‘nominalist’ (Döblin 1994: 7), subscribing to the absolute specificity of individual people, places, and scenes. Paris was Paris. No other city could stand in its place. No other photographer, anywhere else in the world, could get the images that Atget was getting there at that time. Both Sander and Atget sought to get at that kernel of truth, buried somewhere beneath the surface of our ordinary experience, but they differed in their conception of truth – ‘the nature of that underlying something that black-and-white is able to penetrate’ (Scott 2007: 59). The documentary photographer seeks to capture ‘the human condition’. He seeks ‘truth’ with a capital ‘T’. The street photographer is after something more slippery and elusive, an immediate and experiential truth, captured in the accidental encounter between photographer and subject. His is a poetic truth, a romantic truth, and it is a truth one finds not in sociology textbooks but in direct, subjective interaction with life ‘on the street’.
Street photography, then, is in many ways the opposite of social documentary photography. It is spontaneous and impressionistic. It is aesthetic rather than scientific. It is candid rather than posed. Or at least it takes pains to appear to be. Street photographers value the happy accident, the meaningful juxtaposition, the richly contradictory elements that compose everyday life. They seek out complexity and instil their images with the urgency of the here and the now.
But this is not to say that street photography is haphazard. Anything but. Though street photography in theory can refer to a wide range of photographic styles, in practice it has had a more specific and more constrictive meaning. For the last three quarters of a century, one photographer’s conception of street photography has pulled more weight than any other’s in establishing the definitions, and setting the standards – the conventions to both flaunt and flout – that street photographers hold to this day. That conception belonged to Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004). Part of the generation of Parisian street photographers after Atget, Cartier-Bresson was a resident of post-Haussmann Paris. He was no longer so hung up on cultural preservation and no longer constrained by the technical limitations of large-format photography. He was free instead to simply wander and encounter, which he did for large portions of his day, exploring neighbourhoods of Paris outside of his immediate purview. Cartier-Bresson was the flâneur extraordinaire, an extreme exemplar of Baudelaire’s nineteenth century ideal. Though he worked as a professional photographer, shooting for private clients, newspapers, and magazines, and founded the prestigious photojournalist collective Magnum Photos, Cartier-Bresson considered himself an ‘amateur’, photographing what he wanted and whom he wanted simply for the love of it.
Cartier-Bresson’s tool of choice was a 35 mm Leica rangefinder camera, now considered the gold standard for street photographers everywhere. The Leica was light and portable. It was nearly silent when it captured its images. A street photographer like Cartier-Bresson could take it with him wherever he went, wield it like a concealed weapon, pulling it out at a moment’s notice to capture an image of a subject before that subject could even react to its presence. For Cartier-Bresson, then, ‘candid’ had a very particular meaning. It occurred spontaneously, without his intervention, ideally formulated without even its subject’s knowledge. And it arranged itself organically into a semiotic deposition on truth. It was the job of the photographer to notice ‘meaningful’ moments when they occurred and to react to them as quickly and reflexively as possible. A good photographer could sense them in formation, setting his camera to capture them well before they happened. And when they did happen, he would act swiftly, decisively, capture his subject in a way that laid bare its essential nature, then move on to something else.
‘One must seize the moment before it passes’, wrote Cartier-Bresson in his treatise on the art of photography, ‘the fleeting gesture, the evanescent smile …’ (Cartier Bresson, as cited in Westerbeck and Meyerowitz 1994: 157). Cartier-Bresson would dub this preliminary instant of embryonic photographic meaning-making ‘the decisive moment’, and he would live his life continually seeking it.
Cartier-Bresson had some very specific ideas about the proper protocol for capturing the decisive moment. ‘All his pictures were unposed, he never used flash (he considered it “impolite – like coming to a concert with a pistol in your hand”) and he rarely cropped his images in the darkroom’ (Howarth and McClaren 2010: 12). Photographs, as far as Cartier-Bresson was concerned, were made primarily in camera and in the lived chaos of the street. And then, they were to be left alone. Many street photographers continue to follow Cartier-Bresson’s photographic protocol as if it were biblical law. Others have found their own protocols to adhere to. But very few disregard Cartier-Bresson’s imperatives altogether. For Cartier-Bresson and his ilk, the ‘truth is out there’, on the street, flickering past in embryonic moments that only the most attentive and skilful cameraman can capture. And the street, as such photographers conceived of it, is a stand-in for the urban real. It is the gritty, immediate reality of city life.
In street photography, then, ‘the street’ is an absolutely critical element, both as a visual backdrop and as an accompanying idea, present even in the absence of its explicit depiction. If the street of Haussmann was an artery of the city, the street of Mayhew an ulcer in its gut, and the street of Sander a dispassionate amalgam of social reality, the street of Atget, Cartier-Bresson, and scores of other street photographers since them, was a kind of religion. They didn’t invent this religion. It had been around since at least Baudelaire and likely well before him, but they were among its biggest devotees. The street, for them, ‘was experienced as the medium in which the totality of modern material and spiritual forces could meet, clash, interfuse, and work out their ultimate meanings and fates’ (Berman 1982: 316). This, Marxist critic Marshall Berman reminds us, ‘was what Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus has in mind in his cryptic suggestion that God was out there, in the “shout of the streets” ’ (Berman 1982: 316–317).
This quasi-religious conception of the street is alive today in dozens of Instagram accounts devoted to ‘urban exploration’. It is present in those innumerable tourist selfies shot in the midst of the hustle and bustle of midtown Manhattan. And it is present in the work of contemporary street style photographers, wandering the hippest neighbourhoods of their hometowns in search of visual specimens to attest to their own conception of cool. Street style photographers employ the photographic conventions of Sander and Huxley while espousing the attitude and sensibility of Atget and Cartier-Bresson. Theirs is a medium of social documentary portrait photography built on the chance encounter with the city.
The fashion industry is no stranger to the street photographer’s religion of the street. At times it appears to share it, at times simply to plunder its aesthetic riches. Some of street photography’s biggest names, including Brassaï, Robert Frank, and Henri Cartier-Bresson himself, have contributed images to fashion magazines (Hall-Duncan 1979: 12), and they have thus helped shape fashion imagery in a significant way. A variety of fashion photographers, working squarely within the industry have also employed street photography’s low-tech, stripped down conventions as part of their practice. Street photography’s influence is evident in the work of such contemporary editorial photographers as Corrine Day, Jürgen Teller, and Terry Richardson, who shoot their images in ways that emphasize the flaws and quirks of the people they photograph. Street photography’s appeal, and indeed the appeal of these niche fashion photographers, lies in its contrast with most fashion photography – a genre that is more ‘hyper-real’ than realist, flaunting its own falseness as if it were a prized knock-off handbag.
An early proponent of bringing elements of ‘the street’ into fashion photography was Irving Penn, the celebrated photographer probably best known for his work in US and French Vogue. Penn was above all a portrait photographer, as interested in the people wearing the clothes as the clothes themselves. His shots, whether of glamorous models, iconic stars, or chimney sweeps in working-class London, quite knowingly borrowed the conventions of realist portraiture used by August Sander and the emphasis on ‘just plain folks’ evident in the work of Atget and Cartier-Bresson. He used natural light whenever possible and coached his models to don expressionless faces and stern, rigid postures that emphasized the seriousness of the task at hand. His series entitled ‘Small Trades’ took an even more direct inspiration from Sander. Featuring ‘ordinary people’ in London, Paris, and New York shot in their work clothes in the studios provided for Penn by Vogue, the images border on homage. They feature some of the same titles and many of the same occupations as those in Sander’s work. And yet, there are some startling differences in what, and how, they represent.
For one, in order to shoot his subjects, Penn removed them from the context of their home and work place. He ‘transferred his sitters to the neutral territory of the studio, demonstrating that his interest was not in the environmental portrait but in the psychological portrait’ (Heckert and Lacoste 2009: 15). He used a muddled grey continuous backdrop for each subject that, in a sense, placed each on equal footing. ‘I preferred’, said Penn of this practice, ‘the limited task of dealing only with the person himself, away from the accidentals of his daily life; simply in his own clothes and adornments, isolated in my studio. From himself alone I would distill the image I wanted and the cold light of day would put it onto film’ (Penn, as cited in Heckert and Lacoste 2009: 15). Notice that Penn, like Sander, believed in the ability of his images to capture intact something of the reality of the person he photographed. He believed in the ability of the camera to penetrate beneath veneer. But he did not share Sander’s conception of what lies beneath that veneer. For Sander, ‘a realist’ as Döblin brands him, reality is comprised of universal types observable in the world around us. But for Penn, the individual is what matters. He both subscribes to and defies symbolic representation. He is a member of a group but an individual member with his own unique scars and memories. In Penn’s work lies an emergent individualism clearly evident in later street style photography. For him, individual differences are not accidental variation from a universal type; they are the defining features of a person.
In no small part because of Penn, ‘the street’ in high fashion photography was transformed from a space of danger and indifference into a space of intrigue, where upmarket fashionistas could go slumming in search of ‘real life’. Representations of fashion ‘on the street’, claim fashion scholars Agnès Rocamora and Alistair O’Neill, can be ‘charted across the twentieth-century history of the fashion media’ (Rocamora and O’Neill 2008: 186). As far back as 1926, photographers like Edward Steichen, also working for US Vogue, were attempting to recreate the look of the street within their studios as a dynamic setting for their models, a space their on-the-town socialites passed through on their way to the opera, the restaurant, or the theatre. Just a touch of grime was the perfect offset to the glamorous gown. A girl, after all, has to go out when she looks this good.
And yet the street in these images is nowhere that any respectable person, and in particular, respectable woman, would want to linger. In these early fashion images, Rocamora and O’Neill note, the street remains the masculinized space of the urban flâneur, whose gaze, from behind the camera lens, captures the woman of class just as she passes through his field of vision.
It is not until the 1960s that fashion’s relationship with the street began to markedly change. The 1960s, a number of fashion historians have argued, marks a critical turning point in the history of fashion. This is when fashion stopped seeing itself as the exclusive sartorial service of the aristocracy and began to reimagine itself as the cutting edge of popular style. The birth of the counterculture, the protests against the Vietnam war, and the changing consciousness brought about by the civil rights movement collaborated to produce a marked shift in fashion’s emphasis. Designers like Yves Saint-Laurent and Mary Quant aligned themselves with protesters, artists, and bohemians in a grand project of redefining the visual world. They began to look to the youth subcultures of urban centres like East London and Downtown New York for inspiration for their designs. Youth subcultures leant their power to shock and inspire to the cutting edge couture making their runway debuts at Fashion Week. By the 1970s, traces of punk, mod, and hippie were everywhere on the runways. Fashion, which had for decades been imagined as the exclusive domain of the urban elite, ‘trickling down’ to the masses once the jet-setters were done with it, was now seen as ‘bubbling up’ from the streets (Aspelund 2009; Polhemus 1994). The street was being reimagined, not as the opposite of fashion, the place the fashionable fear to tread but as a laboratory of fashion, a bubbling cauldron of sartorial creativity. The industry saw the streets through an ‘almost organic’ metaphor (Rocamora and O’Neill 2008: 191). This is where fashion gurgled up out of the crevices of the earth like some primordial ooze. The street was pure, dumb fashion potentiality before being shaped by the artful hands of an Alexander McQueen into something chic and sophisticated. It is no wonder, then, that fashion photographers began to turn to the street, like intrepid war correspondents reporting from the hot zones of fashion. ‘Coolhunting’ and ‘trend forecasting’ became a mainstream practice of the industry. And it is precisely here where ‘street style photography’, as we know it today, first enters into the picture.
Bill Cunningham is a decidedly likable choice for ‘the original street style photographer’, and his status as such goes nearly unquestioned in the blogosphere today. He is famously unpretentious and unassuming, wears a generic blue raincoat to some of the most upscale and exclusive of events (see Figure 1.8). He seems to stand apart from fashion, and yet in New York his very presence signals fashionability. Cunningham represents to many New Yorkers a different era of fashion journalism, an era when ‘fashion still mattered’, and only the chosen few were invited to its dazzling events. Until recently, he shot exclusively with a film camera in a crowd of digital ones. He still laughs giddily when he gets a good image, peppers his speech with antiquated superlatives like ‘marvellous’ and ‘magnificent’, and seems to take genuine delight in his job. Not that he doesn’t work hard. Cunningham hits the pavement of New York nearly every day – rain, snow, sleet, or shine – shooting the street style action on 57th Street and 5th Avenue. And then, when the sun goes down, he works the party circuit, photographing openings and soirees, the jet set of the Upper East Side. He seems to be nearly always working, and when he is working, he is quiet, focused, smiles politely at the people around him but never stays still long enough for a real conversation. I should know. I have tried more than once to engage him in one.
Cunningham’s weekly Sunday column in the style section of the New York Times is the longest-running street-style feature of any publication. ‘On the Street’ began in earnest in 1978 with shots of Greta Garbo in a nutria coat, passing ‘practically unnoticed’ on Fifth Avenue (Collins 2009). Cunningham, by the way, noticed the coat, not the movie star. He only figured out who she was later. Since then, Cunningham has photographed many of New York’s most recognizable faces, alongside thousands of unknown pedestrians whose outfits just happened to catch his eye. There is something almost democratic about Cunningham’s column. But ‘almost’ is the key word here. In theory, anyone could show up in ‘On the Street’, just so long as they happen to be dressed in this season’s fashions and be in the right part of New York at the right moment in time.
In ‘On the Street’, every subject seems to get equal treatment, positioned almost haphazardly on the page to illustrate a particular theme or trend. ‘Bag Ladies’, a headline might contend, emphasizing the large, clunky bags preferred by the society ladies of the moment. ‘Underalls’, another might say, revealing the resurgence of a long-dormant staple of work attire. In either case, Cunningham’s work is a street-level documentation of changes in fashion as they occur. As such, a 2011 documentary entitled Bill Cunningham New York rightly described Cunningham as a ‘cultural anthropologist’ of style, a continuous presence on the streets of New York, who has forged himself into one of fashion’s greatest authorities as well as one of its least likely icons. He is a ‘connoisseur of the street’, as Benjamin described, a ‘spy for the capitalists’ (Benjamin 2002: 427). But for Cunningham ‘the street’ is a fairly constricted place – that narrow stretch of 5th Avenue between Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton.
There can be little doubt that Bill Cunningham has played a sizable role in making street style photography what it is today, lending it credibility, building its audience, and paving the way for such street style stalwarts of the digital age as Scott Schuman and Tommy Ton. In imitation of ‘On the Street’, columns documenting everyday fashion popped up in newspapers throughout the major cities of the United States and Europe in the early to mid-1980s. Magazines began their own street style sections, although they didn’t call them that yet, and tuning in to see what ‘real people’ are wearing in the metropolitan centres became a national pastime of the casually fashion-conscious.
But crediting Cunningham with inventing the genre is a stretch. Images similar to his, as I have already documented in this chapter, appeared in street and social documentary photography for decades before 1978. Nor has his style of image-making been particularly influential among the street style photographers working today. Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist, got himself into some hot water when he admitted as much to the ‘industry bible’ Women’s Wear Daily in 2012.
‘You know, I hate to say it’, Schuman told reporter Bambina Wise, ‘I’m sure everyone thinks he’s a lovable guy, and I’m sure he is. We’ve never had a conversation. The only conversation we’ve ever had is when I’m trying to shoot someone and he says, ‘Hey, get out’. The only influence he’s had on me is that I want to be doing that when I’m 80. That’s the only thing. I want to be on the bike, I want to be doing that at 80. His photographs, I think they’re nice, they’re just a totally different style from me. I don’t think they’re bad, really just a different style. He’s really reportage, shoot, snap, he’s just going, going, going …’ (quoted in Wise 2012).
Schuman got considerable flack for saying so – the blogosphere momentarily erupting in a chorus of critical comments – but he was merely stating what was already commonly known among street style photographers: Cunningham as an idea has been quite influential but Cunningham as a photographer, maybe not so much. Cunningham, after all, takes snapshots, quick candids taken without the permission of his subjects and without careful attention to composition and aesthetics. For a reporter like him, those elements are beside the point. They get in the way of a cold hard record of ‘just the facts’. But they are not beside the point for most other street style photographers working today. Those photographers adhere to a strict set of conventions, immediately recognizable as belonging to a distinctive genre of social documentary realist portraiture. And there is one source, contemporaneous with Cunningham, that was much more influential than he was in disseminating this convention within fashion circles, even if it is less commonly cited as such by the fashion press today. That source was UK alternative fashion and lifestyle magazine i-D.
Terry Jones, the founder of i-D Magazine, left UK Vogue after a five-year stint as their Art Director between 1972 and 1977. Vogue, he was beginning to think, was like a dinosaur in a Chanel dress. They had little of the edginess and ferocity that he could feel fuming up out of the streets of London, and little interest in cultivating it. The late ‘70s was a moment of economic recession in the UK. Working-class kids were growing disillusioned with the great promise of the capitalist economy and turning to some rather extreme forms of leisure instead (Clarke et al. 1976; Hebdige 1979). This was the golden age of punk rock, that groundswell of youth revolt that produced some of the most iconoclastic street fashions the world had yet seen: safety pins through cheeks, Mohawks elevated to the sky, Vivienne Westwood deconstructed school-girl uniforms reconfigured through the sensibility of BDSM. And yet at Vogue it remained business as usual.
Jones had recently met with the photographer Steve Johnston at Vogue House in London. Johnston, fresh out of art school, entered his office ‘with dyed hair and a ripped jacket, held together with safety pins, worn over a graffitied shirt’ (Jones 2000b: 23) and told him he had some pictures to show him. Johnston was shooting head-to-toe shots of punks, teds, and other subcultural types on a white wall he’d staked out across from the fire station on the King’s Road (see Figures 1.9 and 1.10). They were ‘one-click-per-person’ (Jones 2000b: 23) images, nothing fancy, shot on a Nikon F2 camera with a 50 mm normal lens on Kodak Tri-X 400 speed film. Inspired, Johnston told me, by Irving Penn and August Sander, along with an assortment of American and French street photographers, they featured head-to-toe images of assorted young people, blank expressions on their faces, posed with arms at their side, hair touching the top of the image, feet touching the bottom. Johnston had something of an aversion to excess space. He wanted his images to look like mug shots, cagey and blunt. Jones took immediate interest. Vogue did not. As far as Jones was concerned, this was a much clearer representation of the style zeitgeist than was visible on the pages of high-end fashion magazines like the one he worked for. So when Jones left Vogue to start his own project, Johnston was one of the first people he thought to contact.
The first issue of i-D was basically a glorified fanzine. Oriented in landscape rather than portrait mode, it was held together with staples, and it featured an assortment of interspersed text and images cut up and reassembled in the style of a punk rock concert flier. Johnston’s photographs were front and centre, featuring only a smidgen of text running up the side, explaining, in the subject’s own words, what they were wearing, where they got it, and how much it cost. Jones dubbed these photographs ‘straight ups’, and they became a regular feature of the magazine. They remain so to this day.
i-D, claimed journalist Dylan Jones, was ‘essentially an exercise in social documentation; a catalogue of photographs of “real” people wearing “real” clothes’ (Jones 2000a: 9). While other fashion magazines featured looks put together by professionals from within the fashion industry, i-D focused on the creativity of individuals outside of that industry (Lifter 2013: 177). That doesn’t mean they featured any ol’ person they stumbled upon. Their taste was more particular: punk, club kids, new romantics, the subcultural types left out of mainstream fashion representation. ‘Straight ups’, as far as editor Terry Jones were concerned, were the best way to capture the ‘immediacy’ and atmosphere of what was going on in the clubs and on the streets. There was nothing precious about these photos. They had no studio lighting. They were not artfully shot. In fact, for the first several issues, Jones insisted that the photographers shooting for him only use two frames per person (Jones 2000a: 10). Johnston himself preferred to shoot only one. The idea was to thwart the photographer’s efforts towards perfectionism, making the image about the subject depicted, rather than the talent of its depicter. And it saved a little bit of money on film besides. Johnston, after all, never made any money off his images for i-D. He lived off of welfare while pursuing his artistic passions. As a consequence, notes Dylan Jones, ‘the contact sheets became works of art in themselves, a sort of sartorial police file’ (Jones 2000a: 10).
The straight up, almost immediately, became a thing. The Face, another UK magazine launched just a few months before i-D, began its own straight up series shortly after. A variety of other magazines quickly followed suit. Within a couple of years, the straight up had become ‘a staple of fashion journalism from the British Independent on Sunday to the French Jalouse or the aptly titled Japanese Street’ (Rocamora and O’Neill 2008: 188). By 1985, The Guardian newspaper had declared i-D, The Face, and an assortment of similar magazines, ‘the first authentic and original commercial style to make the big time since the 1960s’ (Thompson 1985). ‘They are street’, they declared, ‘And the word is style’ (Thompson 1985).
And yet despite the common equation of the straight up with the style of the street, it is curious, looking back at these images now, how absent the streets themselves are from them. In imitation of the dull grey backdrop preferred by Irving Penn, straight ups, as envisioned by Johnston, are almost uniformly shot in front of blank walls. In fact, Johnston’s photos are almost all shot in front of the same wall, across from the fire station on the King’s Road. Johnston only shot somewhere else, he told me, when there was a car parked in front of it. The background in these photos, then, is intentionally non-descript. They could have been shot anywhere. The street is present in them only as an idea, a site of authentic, grass-roots creativity. The street is that great wellspring of inspiration from which Yves Saint-Laurent got his ideas and where Hood by Air gets theirs today. It is the untidy, uncontrollable version of fashion, outside the sphere of the industry.
Or at least, that’s what it was for a while. As the convention of straight ups disseminated throughout the fashion media, its grit began to gradually wear off, so that by the time it reached Main Street USA, the ‘street’ in its images bore little semblance to the street of i-D. Flowing blonde locks supplanted stiff green Mohawks, casual dresses took the place of black leather bondage gear. The ‘regular’ people of the straight up, that is, became more and more ‘regular’. The street of street style, it seemed, had been tamed.
Of course, the term ‘street style’ itself had yet to enter into the vernacular of fashion. Magazines like i-D and The Face sometimes described themselves as ‘street fashion’ or simply ‘street’, but there are few instances of the term ‘street style’ appearing in newspapers and magazines until 1994. That is when anthropologist and photographer Ted Polhemus put together the photographic exhibition and accompanying book Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. For Polhemus, ‘street style’ was not simply whatever people happened to be wearing in their ordinary lives at some particular moment in time. That was too pedestrian. That was too boring. No: street style, as for Steve Johnston before him, was the style of ‘the street’ in an older more romantic sense of the term. It was mod, punk, and goth. It was skinhead, rudeboy, headbanger, and hip hopper. It was those ‘tribal styles’ (Maffesoli 1995; Polhemus 1994) of the modern metropolis that had been capturing the public imagination since first documented by photojournalists in the 1850s. Street style was the kind of style featured on tourist postcards of Piccadilly Circus. It was the kind of style teenagers temporarily adopted in order to scare their parents, the kind of style newspapers documented with headlines like ‘the youth menace’ and ‘riot in the streets’. And it was the kind of style that appeared in i-D and The Face from its earliest days. Street style, in other words, referred to those ‘spectacular’ youth subcultures (Clarke et al. 1976; Hebdige 1979) occupying the ‘urban jungles’ and ‘unknown continents’ of working-class UK (Hebdige 1988: 20) and downtown New York. Street style was, once again, imagined to be everything mainstream fashion was not.
The black-clad youth featured in the images shown at the Streetstyle exhibit were full of piss and vinegar, flair and sass. They challenged the camera with defiant glares, raised middle fingers, ratted their hair to impossible heights. No wonder young people like these had sparked so many ‘moral panics’ (Clarke et al. 1976; Hebdige 1988) in the 1960s and 1970s, when newspapers routinely published pictures of greasers and teds, mods and rockers, and reported alarming stories of their drug binges and public rivalries. No wonder they made the ‘squares’ and ‘suits’ of the high streets and businesses districts so uncomfortable, flaunting their liberty spikes and tattoos, their conspicuous leisure (Willis 1977) and dangerous recreations. And no wonder they had fascinated UK sociologists and cultural theorists for decades. Street style in this depiction was a threat to the bourgeois status quo, an act of ‘semiotic guerilla warfare’ (Eco 1972; Hebdige 1979) against the UK and US establishment. To the Marxists of the ivory towers, there was something uplifting about such street style images. Street style read as an undergrowth of rebellion, which, given the right nutrients and cultivation, could very well bloom into something bigger. Documenting street style was thus one of the primary occupations of UK cultural studies throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Polhemus’ exhibition helped inject new life into street style photography – for a time. It regained some of the edge it had lost in its transition into the fashion mainstream. It took on a newfound sense of menace. And it reinvigorated its importance to the fashion world. The magazine headlines of the mid-1990s are rife with references to street style. ‘Street Style Dances on Couture’s Grave’, proclaims The Australian in 1996. ‘High End Designers Would Starve Without the Style and Spirit of Urban Youth’, declares The Washington Post in 1998. The styles of the street walk the expanse of the runway. Goth, mod, punk, and that favourite fashion punching bag of the popular press, ‘heroin chic’, infused into the looks of nearly every designer label at some point in the 1990s.
And yet, by the end of the decade, street style had once again lost its fangs. The spectacular looks of the street gave way to the mundane everyday trends of the sidewalk. ‘Street Style in the Nineties’, declared The Independent in 1998, ‘is Less about Shock, More about Blending in.’ The fashion press, throughout the 1990s appeared to maintain two simultaneous conceptions of the street: (1) as the creative stomping ground of fashion outsiders and (2) as the all-too pedestrian zone of the humdrum everyday.
By the end of the 1990s, street style photography was an established part of the fashion industry, a regular feature in the Sunday style sections of newspapers and a brief detour from the fantasy worlds of magazines towards the end of each issue. It had also gotten decidedly dull. Gone were the days of leather-clad youth with defiant pouts leaning against whitewashed walls. Gone was the sense of menace and mayhem visible at Ted Polhemus’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Street style was people ‘just like you and me’ – assuming, of course, that ‘you’ and ‘me’ are white, upper middle-class urbanites with pant sizes somewhere between 0 and 8. Street style may have been more ecumenical than most fashion editorials, but it was hardly exhaustive in its inclusiveness.
Enter NYLON Magazine. In 1999, Madonna Badger, Mark Blackwell, model Helena Christensen, and the husband and wife team of Marvin and Jaclynn Jarrett launched the Gen Y-targeted glossy with the intention of bringing the street-savvy sensibility of alternative lifestyle magazines like i-D and The Face into a more contemporary, and accessible, package. ‘One of the major reasons NYLON launched in 1999’, wrote Eviana Hartman in her introduction to STREET: The NYLON Book of Global Style, ‘was because other magazines were missing an important point: Fashion doesn’t exist in a bubble. To us, it’s not only for rich people, models, and the type of people who slavishly adhere to runway trends; we see it as a living, breathing reflection of cultural and social currents, of what’s going on in music, art, and on the sidewalks of the communities we live in’ (Hartman 2006: 08). Street style was a big part of NYLON’s mission. Their 2006 collection of street style images, STREET, documented the hip, young populations of New York, London, Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, Melbourne, and Copenhagen in classic, straight-up format: bearded bohemians with cigarettes dangling from their mouths lingered in doorways. Denim-clad waifs feigned indifference to the camera while faux-walking down cobblestone alleys. The images are sharp and simple. The styles depicted are edgy and cool. The subjects are ethnically and culturally diverse, if not exactly expansive in age range or body size. NYLON was committed to the sentiment of Polhemus that ‘style trickles up, not just down’ (Hartman 2006: 8), and they set about to document it on sidewalks throughout the industrialized world. In the pages of NYLON we can see the beginnings of an ethos that would become commonplace in the style blogosphere just a few years later, a sense of global interconnection, where the kids in Copenhagen are paying careful attention to what’s going on in the streets of Melbourne. Street style had become an international buffet table (see Polhemus 1996), a little bit from here, a little bit from there. The days of tribal affiliation to some clearly demarcated subcultural type were over. These days, as NYLON Editor-in-Chief Marvin Scott Jarrett put it, it’s all about ‘what an individual mixes together to create a visible expression of their own personality’ (Jarrett 2006: 6). In his Arcades Project, Benjamin described the streets as ‘the dwelling place of the collective’ (Benjamin 2002: 423), but on the pages of NYLON it was more like the mobile home of the quirky, cosmopolitan individual.
And no streets gave birth to quirkier or more cosmopolitan individuals than those of Tokyo, Japan. In the mid-to-late 1990s, Tokyo began capturing the fashion world’s attention as a place where western subcultures go to get turned into cartoons. Punk was still alive and well in Tokyo, even if re-imagined and re-tooled. As Jarrett put it, the kids of Tokyo dress like ‘they’re going on stage’ (Jarrett 2006: 6). Ripped-up school-girl uniforms were everywhere, liberty spikes were all the rage. Fashion photographers were beginning to take notice.
Self-trained fashion photographer Shoichi Aoki lived in London and Paris throughout most of 1980s and early 1990s. Inspired by the straight ups in i-D and The Face, he started his own street fashion magazine, STREET (not to be confused with NYLON’s book STREET), in order to document what he saw in these cities. At the time, he explains, he saw ‘an energy and a style’ there that he had never seen in Japan (personal communication, 2013). ‘Japan’, he told me, ‘was dominated by department store brands and there was no innovation from the consumer’. London and Paris seemed positively otherworldly in comparison. But when Aoki returned to Tokyo in the mid-1990s, he was taken aback by what he saw. ‘I saw something happening’, he put it succinctly, an explosion of styles so bold they bordered on satirical. The conservatism that had characterized Japanese style for decades was nowhere to be seen.
Aoki founded a new magazine, FRUiTS – and later TUNE – to capture those styles he was observing on the streets of Harajuku (see Figures 1.11, 1.12, and 1.13). He eventually compiled many of his images into a hardbound book of the same name that became an unlikely international hit. FRUiTS was a new variation on an old formula: an unusually clad teenager stands dispassionately in the centre of the frame with either a street or wall behind her, sometimes a sliver of a smile just slipping through. Arms rest at her side and her vision rests firmly on the lens of the camera. The kids of FRUiTS are visual specimens, photographic samplings of the crazy goings-on of the Harajuku streets. This was hardly revolutionary, but the single, Phaidon-published volume made street style elsewhere appear tame. It put the Brit-poppers in the back pages of NYLON to shame. When a new generation of self-taught photographers like Liisa Jokinen decided to get into the street style game in the mid-zeros, it was not NYLON or i-D they turned to for inspiration. It was Shoichi Aoki, testifying, once again, to the more subversive and expressive power of clothing.
It is impossible to fix a hard date to the advent of street style blogs as we know them today. Predecessors, like Mark Hunter’s L.A. party photography blog The Cobra Snake (thecobrasnake.com), stretch back to at least 2003. The Cool Hunter (thecoolhunter.net), which bills itself as ‘the world’s most read culture and design site’, launched in 2004. It posted occasional street style pictures as part of its larger coverage. In fact, Yvan Rodic contributed party pictures to The Cool Hunter prior to starting Face Hunter in 2006. Style Arena, which began its life as the ‘Tokyo Street Style’ section of the online Japanese lifestyle magazine Coromo.com, began in 2002. The first independent, dedicated street style blogs of the sort we know today began appearing in around 2005. Liisa Jokinen’s Hel Looks was likely not the first, though she doesn’t know of any street style blogs that came before hers (see Figure 1.14). I also have not been able to identify any. In any case, hers was among the earliest, if it was not in fact the earliest, started in July of 2005. It was followed, in fairly close succession, by Scott Schuman’s The Sartorialist in September of the same year. Both blogs took off nearly immediately, attracting tens of thousands of readers within the first months of their establishment. Their success is likely one reason for the efflorescence of street style blogs that followed closely on their heels. By the beginning of 2007, just a year and a half after Liisa Jokinen launched Hel Looks, there were already dozens of street style blogs, reporting on the latest looks walking the sidewalks of fashion capitals (and a few backwaters) from around the globe. In Berlin, Germany, there was Stil in Berlin (stilinberlin.de). In Gothenberg, Sweden, there was Pose and Click (poseandclick.blogspot.com). In Manila, The Philippines, there was Manila Style (mnlstyl.blogspot.com). In Tel Aviv (and Jerusalem), Israel, there was The Streets Walker (see Figure 1.15) (thestreetswalker.telavivian.com).
You already know the story of how these blogs came into being. It has been rehashed in more bestselling books, Wired Magazine articles, and online opinion pieces than I can possibly cite here. In the early aughts (or the ‘noughties’ as the British are inclined to call them), after the first wave of internet investor enthusiasm came crashing against the shores of actual profit capacity, the Silicon Valley began to reimagine itself as an agent of democratization (see Marwick 2013; Van Dijck 2013). They emphasized products based on user-generated content. They marketed interactivity. A revolution was brewing, the internet loyalists shouted from the rooftops of the Oracle Building, and you were going to be a part of it. This wasn’t just a gold mine, insisted Yahoo, YouTube, and dozens of fresh-faced startups. It was the dawn of a new era, ‘Web 2.0’, where every consumer is a producer and the old hierarchies of the media establishment are as outdated as an 8-track cassette player. New internet technologies, like social media websites and digital cameras, put the tools of cultural production and dissemination into the hands of more people than ever before. The ethos of Web 2.0 was a do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos (see Luvaas 2012).
‘Before [Web 2.0]’ Yvan Rodic of Face Hunter told Canada’s The Globe and Mail back in 2007, ‘people were inspiring designers, and then magazines were featuring peoples’ clothes, and finally people were inspired by magazines.’ The magazines asserted themselves as a critical mediator of style. They were gatekeepers, middlemen, watchers of ‘the street’ for the rest of us. ‘Now the process is more horizontal’, says Rodic. ‘People are inspiring people’ (Villett 2007: L8). By 2007, they no longer needed to turn to the pages of NYLON or STREET to see what was happening on the sidewalks of New York or Tokyo. They could simply go online, visit the blogs of amateur photographers the world over, and see for themselves.
Moreover, the people who documented style on their blogs in the early days of the street style blogosphere were largely self-appointed. These were self-trained photographers who had bypassed the traditional gate-keeping mechanisms of the fashion publishing industry to bring their images to tens of thousands of people directly. ‘I think it’s just a great thing’, Gunnar Hämmerle of the blog StyleClicker (started in 2006) told me. ‘You can reach like the whole world with your work. You don’t need any big investment or anything like that. You can just start something, and blog about something that you are passionate about.’ No more starting from the bottom and working your way up. No more ‘paying your dues’ as a thankless intern at a heartless magazine. If you want to blog, just blog already. That was the sentiment of the time.
Nearly all of these early street style blogs used the free blog platform of Blogger (blogspot.com), now owned by Google. Their URLs ended in the ‘.blogspot.com’ designation, and they had the homespun, relatively low-tech vibe of an internet craft project. These were the ‘zines’ of Web 2.0, low-to-no-cost ‘labours of love’ (see Duncombe 1997), put together by avid fashion fans for their own, and their readers’, amusement. There were no ads. There was no sponsored content. Very few of them even captioned their photos with information about brands or prices (Heffernan 2008: 22), a fairly standard practice today. The images featured were miniscule by today’s standards as well, usually no more than an inch and a half by two inches in size. They were almost hard to see, a consequence, no doubt of the dial-up connections most people were still using to access the internet. Larger image files would have slowed internet speeds to a grinding halt.
The format of these early blogs was the standard template supplied by Blogger: a stream of images in the middle of the page, links on the right or left-hand side. And boy did these blogs have links! They linked to their favourite blogs. They linked to other street style blogs. They linked to fashion websites and personal websites. The sense of blogger community was palpable in the very layout of early street style blogs. Bloggers commented on each other’s posts, promoted each other’s content, and supported each other’s practice. There was a feel-good ethos that permeated the blogosphere. Street style blogs displayed the communitarian logic of social media prior to social media even being a thing (see Van Dijck 2013). They were an enthusiastic enactment of the promise and logic of Web 2.0.
As for the images displayed on early street style blogs, they were a lowbrow, no-skill-required, contemporary rendition of the ‘straight up’. Their subjects stood on the street or in front of a wall, rendered as clearly and completely as possible. Nothing fancy. No bells and whistles. Nothing you couldn’t achieve with a bottom-of-the-line digital camera. The aesthetics of the street style blog were as democratic as the rhetoric that gave birth to them. Anyone with a digital camera could take pictures like this. The camera would practically take them for you.
There was a sense, navigating the street style blogosphere of 2006 and 2007, that street style blogs presented a true alternative to the fashion industry as usual. Here were ‘ordinary’ people taking pictures of ‘ordinary’ people. It wasn’t about the brands. It wasn’t about the trends. It was about the personal style of unique individuals. Street style bloggers, like Schuman and Jokinen, featured young and old, a variety of ethnicities and class groups. They didn’t emphasize the high-end to the exclusion of the affordable. They didn’t really care much for the trappings of the industry.
‘The street’ of early street style blogs was the imagined ‘public sphere’ (Habermas 2001) of a mid-twentieth century Marxist intellectual, a space of the commons made up of diverse, and often quirky, individuals. As broadband internet connections became more widely available worldwide and higher-end cameras became more affordable, the images on these sites got bigger, brighter, and more sophisticated, and the streets featured in the backgrounds retreated more and more into the backgrounds. Photographers like Gunnar Hämmerle (StyleClicker), Scott Schuman (The Sartorialist), Javi Obando (On the Corner), and Felicia Nitzsche (Dam Style) began experimenting with shallow depth of field in their photographs, making the streets behind their subjects fade into a dense field of blur. Between 2008 and 2014, that field of blur only got thicker.
The models on Adam Katz Sinding’s popular, New York-based street-style blog Le 21ème (www.le-21eme.com) – launched in Seattle in 2007 – often look like they are about to step into – or are just stepping out of – the void. Shot at fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan, Paris, and beyond or on the occasional weekend excursion through the streets of Manhattan, Sinding’s candid high-fashion portraits are characteristically opaque. Their subjects, shrouded in couture, stand at the forefront of the image, their visage in crystal clarity, while the background fades into a dense, shadowy blur (see Figures 1.16 and 1.18). Sometimes their subjects’ backs are turned to us, the frame of the image cutting off at the waist. Sometimes we see only their torsos or legs, moving detached from the body towards some unseen destination. Other times there is merely a floating head, decapitated from the surrounding scene and situated dead centre in the frame. Cheekbones and shadows dominate the image. The lines of long, lycra-clad legs cut across the length of the frame. There is an aura of mystery to many of Sinding’s photographs, both in terms of the subjects they depict and the settings in which they are shot. They share a stark, wintery colour palette, an austere composition that meshes well with the fashion labels Sinding ‘allows’ to advertise on his site: H. Lorenzo, Vertice London, GrayMarket, merchants of billowy black garments that both cling to and drape off of the body. His photographs are as much about what we don’t see as what we do, but what we do see is ethereal and hazy – like streetlights through the fogged up windows of a speeding car.
There is a consistency in mood and sentiment that makes Sinding’s photos immediately recognizable as his. Nonetheless, his shooting style bears similarity to a number of the top-name street style bloggers of the second decade of the new millennium: H.B. Nam (streetfsn.com), Youngjun Koo (koo.im), Tommy Ton (Jakandjil.com), Michael Dumler (onabbottkinney.com), and Nabile Quenum (jaiperdumaveste.com) among them. Each of these photographers has gradually moved away from the street style standard of the straight up towards more dynamic, candid images of various fashion insiders in motion. Sometimes their shots emphasize the details of a garment. Sometimes they focus on the interaction between multiple subjects or the clash of colour palettes and prints. Other times they are a simple homage to a gesture: an inhalation of a cigarette, a lean against a guardrail, a glance at a smart phone, an exhausted sigh from a model, fresh off the runway (see Figures 1.19 and 1.20). Ton and Nam seem to particularly delight in the odd juxtaposition and the accidentally humorous scenario: two men walking at the same pace out of a show at Pitti Uomo, nearly identical jeans adorning their legs, their blazers blowing in the wind at the same precise angle; a couple of editors sizing each other up as they stroll past each other in the Tuileries in Paris, apparently noticing the similarities in what each are wearing; a woman in a stark red dress whose colour just happens to perfectly match the image on a billboard behind her. Many of these photographers, that is, have taken a page out of the Cartier-Bresson handbook. Their work is less about clothing per se than it is about ‘decisive moments’, those fleeting gestures and haphazard compositions that have long been the domain of street photography. There is often a subtle commentary embedded in this work, even an occasional critique, as when a photographer catches an image of a dolled up style star strolling indifferently past a panhandler (see Figure 1.17).
There can be little doubt that this new breed of street style photographer has moved away from the domain of ‘the everyman’ into the glossier, glitzier world of the fashion industry. They capture fewer and fewer of those ‘ordinary’ but cool denizens of the metropolis that were the stock in trade of NYLON and i-D. They show little concern for equitable representation. The new breed of street style photographer has focused her lens decisively in the direction of the ‘style star’ (see Chapter 6), a by-product of the street style blogosphere, which has created an internal hierarchy among choice of subjects.
But in another sense, this same set of street style photographers has helped put ‘the street’ back into ‘street style’ photography. This is not ‘the street’ Max Berlinger bemoaned the loss of in his op-ed for Business of Fashion. It is not the street of social documentary photography, the street that stands in as a metaphor for a base-level reality. And it is not the street of Ted Polhemus’s exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a fantasy of youth menace in the minds of the suburban bourgeoisie. This is the street of the poetic moment, the street of romantic possibility, of happy accident. This is the street, that is, of street photography. Anything that doesn’t fit that conception dissolves into a field of lens blur.
The years 2009 and 2010 saw the entrance of a substantial number of new street style blogs into the fashion blogosphere. Competition increased among bloggers – an issue that grew only more acute as more and more bloggers found inroads into the industry, selling their photos to magazines and commercial websites. More blogging platforms, like WordPress, TypePad, and Tumblr, gave bloggers more options for configuring their blogs and greater upload and download speeds, provided by the broadband and satellite internet connections that were rapidly replacing dial-up, meant bloggers could post vastly larger images at a far greater resolution. Newer, more sophisticated digital cameras saturated the market, and their lowering price points made them affordable to a broader range of people. Quite predictably, as the number of bloggers increased and the professionalism of their work became more pronounced, the communitarian vibe of the early days of Web 2.0 began to decrease. Bloggers were becoming less of a network of impassioned amateurs than a field of dynamic competitors.
In hindsight, one of the first signs that the street style blogosphere was changing occurred all the way back in 2007, when Style.com, the glossy website created by fashion magazine goliath Condé Nast, paid Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist, to shoot editors and buyers outside the fashion week events in Milan and Paris. Street style had entered into new terrain. Though Schuman had shot at fashion weeks previously, it was a small part of his larger street style practice, which primarily revolved around combing the streets of Lower Manhattan. When Style.com got involved, fashion week style became a substantially bigger component of his street style portfolio. Soon Schuman was shooting for Style.com regularly, traveling from fashion week to fashion week, until he landed a monthly feature in the men’s fashion publication GQ, also owned by Condé Nast. Budding street style photographer Tommy Ton, already shooting outside fashion weeks himself, and amassing a significant following for his blog Jak & Jil, stepped in to fill Schuman’s Style.com shoes. That same year, 2009, Schuman released his first book, sharing the name of his blog, through Penguin Books. It did well, and Schuman released a follow up book in 2012. Both books featured a range of subjects, from Lower East side skateboarders to noted menswear designers. But the obvious stars of the book, and the ones who got the most attention, were industry insiders – whether unknown editors or celebrated menswear tailors. Schuman’s work made street style stars out of hard-working industry folks, who had once kept a relatively low profile.
The message to the street style blogosphere was clear: If you want to be a big deal, get the fashion industry to pay attention to you, and get magazines to buy your work, start shooting outside runway events. Make your subjects people with influence within the industry. Numerous photographers heeded the call, from Phil Oh of Street Peeper to Tamu McPherson of All the Pretty Birds. By 2012, many street style photographers were shooting fashion weeks as their primary venues (Yarhi 2012: WP6). The sidewalks outside fashion shows were crowded with photographers, whom Mary Fellowes of UK Vogue dubbed ‘bloggerazzi’ (Safe 2012: 12). And they were also crowded with other fashion bloggers and wannabe style stars, hoping to be shot by up-and-coming street style bloggers. ‘Bloggers and photographers’, wrote David Yi for The New York Times ‘camp[ed] around [the fashion week main venue of] Lincoln Center’ (Yi 2012: 4), scouting for style, shooting the latest looks before they hit the stores. Yvan Rodic summed up this change when he told Rohaizatul Azhar of The Straits Times, ‘[Street style] used to be a romantic idea – you walk around the streets and find a stylish subject by chance. And it can take days before you get to shoot someone. These days, it’s more like speed dating. You just need to camp outside some Fashion Week venue; everyone wants to be photographed’ (Azhar 2013).
‘Street style’ in much of the blogosphere today has become a synonym for ‘street fashion’, perhaps even, suggests Sinding of Le 21ème, ‘off-runway fashion’. ‘Street’ is still an important conceptual element of these bloggers’ work, but the question remains: Just what is ‘the street’ of street style today? Is it the concrete runway? The circus outside fashion shows (see Chapter 6)? Is it the chance encounter between a famous model and a wannabe-famous blogger? Is it the faint promise of ground-level authenticity buried beneath the artifice of the fashion industry? Or is it just another form of artifice, contrived to hock ready-to-wear to a growing online audience?
These are not mutually exclusive categories, and I would suggest that ‘street’ now means ‘all of the above’. The tensions between the historically accumulated meanings of ‘the street’, documented in this chapter, are all still evident in street style photography. None has become truly dominant over the others, and none has completely erased the others as it gains salience. What we see in street style photography, instead, is an ongoing struggle between contradictory and overlapping meanings: the street as a space of movement and flow, a place to see and be seen; the street as an ordinary pedestrian reality, and a hard scientific ‘fact’; the street as a romantic ideal, a bubbling cauldron of creativity; the street as the last vestige of authenticity in a commodified culture; and the street as the stage on which that very commodified culture performs some of its most ostentatious displays. The ‘street’ of ‘street style photography’, that is, is no static thing. It doesn’t just stand there posing like an aspiring street style star waiting to be photographed by Sinding or Schuman. It is continually made and remade through the practice of photography. The next few chapters explore that practice in greater depth, beginning with a survey of street style bloggers from around the world who helped make street style – intentionally or not – into a fashion industry phenomenon. I will then move on to recount my own experience of becoming a street style blogger.