Today on 2SER Breakfast, Lisa and Tess talked about a fabulous new exhibition at the Museum of Sydney called Street Photography, that looks at the popularity of commercial street photographers in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Today we’re all used to having a camera in our pockets – we can snap a photo whenever we like: when we’re all glammed up to party, or while we’re just walking down the street. Photographic technology has come a long, long way.
The first small, personal cameras were the box brownies developed by Kodak. These were slowly becoming affordable with the first couple of decades of the 20th century. But the majority of people didn’t have access to personal photographs except via posed, studio portraits. These were only taken on special occasions.
Then in the 1930s, along came the commercial street photographer, snapping photographs as people walked down the street. It was a revolutionary approach to capturing images of people: slightly invasive of personal space, but candid, natural.
This form of photography relied upon novelty and capturing the moment: People meeting friends, dashing for an appointment, out for a day shopping, the first day of a new job. A card with a number was thrust in people’s hands so they knew where to go to purchase a photo. Film was quickly processed to enable customers to pick up their photo the next day.
Probably few people in Sydney have escaped being ‘snapped’ by the street photographer. He frequents the busy thoroughfares at all times of the day and has become as well known as the policeman on beat duty …
– The Argus (Melbourne), 29 April 1937
Commercial street photography boomed in the 1930s and 1940s, and continued into the late 1950s, and then fell out of favour. While nearly every family would have probably had these types of photographs in family albums, the genre and art of the street photographer was largely forgotten.
The Museum of Sydney has revealed this Sydney moment in time with their new exhibition called Street Photography. There were few examples held in library collections, so they did a public call out for people to look in their family albums and were inundated with over 1500 photos.
Photos were taken in major streets, such as George Street, Hunter Street, Martin Place and Pitt Street. The photos show fashions in dress, shoes, hairstyles, across all ages, and the streetscapes behind are also really intriguing.
They reckon in its heyday – in the late 1930s – about 10,000 people in NSW were purchasing snapshots from commercial street photography companies every week.
The exhibition was the inspiration of photo-media artist Anne Zahalka, and her contemporary photographs of descendants of subjects in the original photos accompany and complement the exhibition. Anna Cossu has curated the exhibition, and had the extraordinary task of sifting through all the photographs sent in.
One of the most amazing finds were some rolls of unprocessed film. These uncensored photos reveal the work of the street photographer: how they framed shots, the number of shots they took, and how they moved along their patch in the street.
I’ve already seen the exhibition once, but I’ll be heading in there again – there are so many absorbing details in this evocative exhibition of a lost photographic genre providing a glimpse of everyday street life in Sydney. It’s a must for every city connoisseur.
It’s on until July, so there’s no excuse to miss it!
Head to the Sydney Living Museums website for further information about the exhibition and to read more about the history of street photography in Sydney:
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio