"Look: phone, phone, phone – they’re all just looking at their phones.”
For a roving street photographer like Ronya Galka, capturing Londoners’ candid moments has got a lot harder since our social lives moved online. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; like the publishing and music industries, photography has been put through a spin cycle by the internet, and perhaps no genre has been more affected than street photography.
The act of surreptitiously snapping scenes of urban life is as old as photography itself, a natural extension of the flaneur persona, which attempts to chronicle the beauty in the every day. This is what drives Galka, a German living in London who enjoys our lax privacy laws: in the UK, anyone can be photographed without their permission as long as it’s in a public place.
“It’s one of the beauties of this country – I wouldn’t be able to do the same thing in Germany or France,” she says. “I basically walk around the city and look for things that resonate, that strike an emotion within me. The French have a nicer term for it, les emotions fortes, the strong emotions. The stuff we can all relate to; we see love, loss, solitude, loneliness, all of that is in a city, especially one as populated as London.”
France has some of the most restrictive privacy laws in the world, but perversely it’s a Frenchman who is often credited with starting the street photography movement. Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of the inevitability of the “decisive moment” and that’s what he set out to capture on the streets and in the bistros of Paris. Shooting in black and white on 35mm film, he died in 2004 at the age of 95, leaving behind a breathtaking portfolio of human social existence.
There’s a cheekier “disguised camera” tradition, too, that dates back even earlier. In the late 19th century, pioneers including Paul Martin would wander around British seaside towns with a camera smuggled inside his coat, capturing images of frolicking families. Over the Atlantic, Walker Evans made an entire series on the New York subway with a camera similarly strapped to his chest.
There may have been a lot more people snapping away in the background than once assumed. Vivian Maier, a nanny who died in 2009, became the unlikely subject of a documentary after an estate agent bid for a box of 30,000 of her negatives at auction. She’d been secretly cataloguing the less salubrious areas of Chicago since the 1920s, and the results were so impressive that the owner of London’s Beetles + Huxley Gallery described the discovery as “the equivalent of a wild card winning Wimbledon.”
Street photography flourished in the pre-war era, documenting the darkly-lit, smokey bars of the jazz scene, a happy marriage between two art forms that strived to popularise the daily lives of ordinary people. To this day, classical street photography is shot in black and white to emulate the Old Masters of that time. While many derided the arrival of colour in the 1960s, one man took it up with enthusiasm – Joel Meyerowitz, author of seminal book Cape of Light, and a continuing giant in the field who’s known for his observations of the Bronx.
With colour came a fresh avalanche of fashion photography, and of its sub-genre “street fashion” photography. We may be used to seeing fashionistas with artfully torn jeans posing nonchalantly against a brick wall on the pages of magazines, but it’s an aesthetic that evolved out of a tradition that sought to document the lives of ordinary people.
Most famously, Bill Cunningham, the legendary street fashion photographer for the New York Times, blended both styles as he captured the changing trends of NYC over a period of 40 years. He was so ubiquitous, zooming up and down Midtown on his bicycle, that he was designated a living landmark by the city in 2009. His death this summer at the age of 84 was mourned by the fashion world, not least by US Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who quipped, “We all get dressed for Bill.”
His passing felt like the end of an era, as street photography was entering a brave new digital world. Once a niche art form, it’s now the easiest way for fashion bloggers without a budget to illustrate the “looks” they’re championing. We’re all amateur photographers now, largely thanks to leaps in smartphone technology and the proliferation of photo-editing apps.
As she clicks her way through the streets surrounding St Paul’s Cathedral, lugging a hefty Canon DSLR, rather than a smartphone, Galka says she’s noticed a sea-change since she started shooting in 2008. “One of the big turning points was The Sartorialist,” she says, talking about Scott Schuman’s hugely popular street fashion blog.
“When he started taking pictures of people’s individual style in the street, it was all very candid, but after he got a massive following online and launched a few books, people with style started looking to be photographed. I see it now on a daily basis, which is actually a little off-putting. They see a camera around my neck and they almost get into position.”
Big fashion brands have started to take notice, too. Where once street and fashion photography occupied distinct territories, the boundaries are beginning to blur. Online retailers – such as Mr Porter and ASOS – are prolific at promoting their products on social media, andmany long-established brands are also pushing backstage, street style fashion. Beyond the atmospheric action shots of Olympic athletes on Nike’s Instagram feed are grittier examples of everyday exercise; models doing sit ups on park benches, or catching their breath in urban underpasses.
Burberry posts shots of its celebrity ambassadors wearing its clothes while stepping out of taxis and breezing out of hotels, and posts Polaroids of its models sitting moodily atop rusted oil cans. There was much consternation this year when Burberry hired Brooklyn Beckham to shoot its Burberry Brit campaign over infinitely more experienced photographers. There’s no doubt his young, growing social media following had a lot to do with it, but, whether he realises it or not, his aesthetic borrows heavily from the street style of the old Masters – especially his black and white urban portraits – only this time, the shoots are live-streamed on Snapchat.
So popular is this aesthetic with brands that Stuart Tingini, a Bethnal Green-based street style photographer, uses it to pay the rent. His bread-and-butter work is photographing models against Shoreditch’s graffiti’d walls for agencies who view the street style “look” as an essential component in a model’s portfolio.
While fashionistas “peacocking” outside catwalk shows is nothing new, it’s now cultivated by the couture houses. “There’s a massive effort by all the major brands to photograph not only what’s happening on the runway, but what’s happening before and after the show, too,” says Tingini. “I think everyone watches fashion shows, looks at the outfits and thinks ‘no one would wear that.’
"But it looks crazier because it’s on these beautiful models, under bright lights with all these photographers surrounding them. When it’s photographed outside, people go, ‘Oh, you can walk down the street wearing that, that’s cool.’ I think it’s clever, it’s showing their clothes off in a more normal setting.”
To some, brands’ adoption of street style photography is a democratisation of fashion, but to others it’s seen as a dilution of the artform to which it owes a great debt.
Galka, for example, describes her Instagram as a “necessary evil” to promote her work. “It has a negative impact on the art of photography because it’s so disposable. You can see it when you look at people on the bus consuming images on Instagram. It’s a very quick scroll through, then it’s forgotten. Photography is a lasting memory preserved, a moment stretched out to an eternity.”
While she takes pride in the fact she doesn’t choose her subjects to maximise Instagram “likes”, there’s a whole generation of snappers who hone and edit their photography especially for the platform. In some cases, if a picture fails to meet a quota of “likes”, it’s banished from the feed, often leaving behind the most inoffensive, heavily-treated cityscapes.
Tingini’s mindset, on the other hand, is much more business-like. Focusing on posed street fashion photography, he says social media “absolutely” informs the content of his work. “People always say, ‘why don’t you photograph men?’
"Believe me, I try...When I post a guy on my Facebook page, it doesn’t matter how good he looks, the views are significantly fewer than if I posted a woman. I think ladies just like to see what other ladies are wearing, and that’s why female fashion bloggers are doing so well.”
Primarily, he likes “taking beautiful pictures of beautiful people” but he looks out for colour, used as a catch-all term for personality, diversity and individuality. Many of his chosen models have bright hair, bright clothes and three have since been signed up to modelling agencies.
Perusing the cafes of Shoreditch, Soho and Brixton, he also accidentally picks out fashion bloggers, which he says is to their mutual benefit. “I took a photograph of one blogger and found she had 106,000 followers. So if I take a photograph of her and put it on my page, that’ll bring 106,000 people to look at my work.”
Galka says she prefers Tumblr and promoting her work in real life through Street Photography International, a collective she set up with three other artists. They collaborate, share their work and give workshops and lectures around the world on urban photography and its posed commercial equivalent.
Many up-and-coming photographers contact her for advice and she’s discovered a “heartbreaking” common theme: “The question they ask is, ‘I want to have 50,000 followers, can you tell me how to get there?’. Not, ‘How can I learn the craft?’ Then there are people who ask me what filters I use – I say ‘That’s not important, it’s all about training your eye to see what’s around you and being quick enough to capture those moments’.
“It’s like how everyone wants to be on X Factor even though they don’t know how to sing. It shouldn’t be about being Insta-famous or having 100,000 followers, but to many people, it is.”
Only time will tell whether this new Instagram-happy generation will become future Old Masters, or whether social media risks diluting this artform beyond all recognition.