Bystander: A History Of Street Photography Review: A Must-Read Book For Any Photographer

Street photography is a medium that’s always evolving. A medium with multiple meanings, interpretations and styles. Generations of photographers have come along and left their own unique mark. 

From Henri Cartier-Bresson to Saul Leiter, street photographers are a wonderful mix of contradictions and conundrums. But where did they get the inspiration from? How did street photography get its start and become something that every Instagrammer wants to put in their feed? 

Bystander: A History Of Street Photography, by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, has the answers. First published in 1994, this love letter to everything urban has been updated with new material and still remains an essential book for photographers.

Humble origins 

Bystander acts as an in-depth guide to the origins of urban photography, starting in the 19th century with the flaneurs, artists and wanderers of French society. This practice of observing everyday life and wanting to record scenes developed side by side with the creation of photographic technology.

From the streets of France to the thoroughfares of England and America, street photography spread at a steady pace, with every practitioner creating their own unique style. 

The authors explore the works of master photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Paul Strand, Brassai, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt and more. Every photographer has a dedicated section within the book, with a history of their life, photography techniques and motivations. 

It’s fascinating to read about the lives of colourful characters like Cartier-Bresson, whose ability to turn invisible while shooting his subjects is the stuff of superpowers. Then there was William Klein, who loved roaming New York to stick his camera in the faces of his subjects to provoke a reaction. 

Learning about the motivations behind each photographer’s style is just as important as studying their techniques. It helps the reader to understand what they were trying to say, what informed their work and how they were responsible for elevating the medium.

Works of art 

The book is also filled with a wide range of photos shot across multiple eras, highlighting history and changing environments. There’s a thorough analysis of many photos to indicate how each was captured and the equipment used. All the photos are works of art, timeless in quality, capturing microcosms of the societies they were shot in. 

I found reading Bystander to be useful for my own photography education. It’s important to understand the history of the medium and to appreciate the people who paved the way. 

The book is sure to give plenty of inspiration to anyone with an interest in taking pictures. Get your copy today.

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