Street photography—spontaneous images of everyday life captured in public places—blossomed in New York City during the first half of the 20th century. This young genre of photography was heir to the slightly earlier tradition of urban realism in painting and printmaking, as seen in the complementary exhibition Ashcan School Prints and the American City, 1900–1940, on view in the James and Hanna Bartlett Prints and Drawings Gallery from July 17 to December 26, 2021. Both movements turned to depictions of the everyday activities of urban dwellers to explore the radical demographic, social, and economic shifts then transforming the city.
Entertainments abounded in the form of films, theaters, carnivals, and the attractions at Coney Island. Store windows and movie posters offered tempting visions of abundance and sophisticated elegance. But those were dreams rather than realities for most residents, especially immigrants from Europe, Puerto Rico, and Latin American countries, and Black Americans participating in the Great Migration. Crowded into tiny apartments, families turned stoops, sidewalks, parks, and beaches into their living rooms.
Street photographers were voyeurs, capturing private moments occurring in public spaces. Some had noble motives. Images by members of the Photo League, which included Walter Rosenblum, Lisette Model, and Leon Levinstein, testify to the amusements and struggles of the common man and woman. Walker Evans and Helen Levitt made their pictures in this exhibition as personal artworks. Louis Faurer and Lloyd Ullberg worked for magazines. In this show, there are several examples of work by photographers such as James Van Der Zee, Roy DeCarava, Arnold Genthe, and Ralph Steiner who collaborated with their subjects to produce enduring portraits.
Whether created for an assignment, as a personal expression, or to advocate for societal change, the images in this show—drawn entirely from the museum’s collection—provide a time machine that allows us to experience a slice of life in New York City almost a century ago.