From the first decade of the twentieth century, improved plate sensitivity to low light conditions and shorter exposure times made it easier for photographers to take to the streets.
With its complexities and contradictions, offering both possibilities of wondrous progress and decline, redemption and ruin, the modern city has presented photographers with endless possibilities. In particular, America’s distinctive symbols of consumer culture—bill boards, advertising signs and highways—have been a well-explored subject in American photography since the 1930s.
In the post-war period, there was a reaction against such conformist and homogenous consumerism. The Beat Generation’s intense personal search for meaning in an increasingly alienating and complicated society, often represented by the road trip, became a theme in popular culture. The new wave of Abstract Expressionist painters in the 1950s also relied on first hand perception and direct experience, placing importance on process, subjectivity and striving for spontaneity.
Photographers took up these developments, establishing a genre which focused on urban subject matter and portraiture, pursued with a love of the ever-changing, exciting, energetic make-up of the street. It is an impetus best summed up by photographer Garry Winogrand, who observed that ‘when things move, I get interested’.