Let’s look at the masters of street photography for inspiration.
Take the time to check out the work of each of these 17 famous photographers. It’s a great learning source, so look at the subject matter, the locations and how these photographers use them to tell a story.
17. Josef Koudelka
Josef Koudelka (10 January 1938 – present) is a Czech-French photographer. He started by photographing his own family with a 6×6 Bakelite camera, an Efekta.
He stopped a promising career in engineering to become a photographer in 1967. A year later, the Soviets invaded. Just two days after she returned from a project focused on Romanian Gypsies.
He saw and recorded the military forces crush the so-called Prague Spring. The images were then smuggled out of Prague, sent to Magnum and printed under the pen name P.P. for Prague Photographer.
These images became dramatic and international symbols. He earned the Robert Capa Gold Medal for photographs requiring exceptional courage, making him one of the most famous street photographers.
Following this, he focused on two main projects; Gypsies (1975) and Exile (1988). Nowadays, he shoots with a panoramic camera. These images are prolific in his publication Chaos (1999).
Looking at his images, you can see an emphasis on social and cultural rituals, such as death. He is able to capture the human spirit well, even when placed amidst dark landscapes.
16. Jill Freedman
Jill Freedman (19th October 1939 – present) was born in Pittsburgh and graduated from the university with a degree in Sociology in 1961.
Three years later, she arrived in New York City. She found work as a copywriter, teaching herself photography on the side. She used the works and teachings of André Kertész (no. 13) and W. Eugene Smith (no. 5).
It was the assassination of MLK that forced her to quit her job and move to Washington D.C. She lived in a shanty town, which she turned her camera towards.
From there, she documented the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus while living in a van. She followed these performers across the country.
Jill Freedman worked with Magnum Photos but didn’t become a member. She disliked the schmoozing needed for commissioned pieces. Instead, she turned her independent eye towards 42nd Street, Studio 54 and SoHo.
Andy Grunberg wrote in 1982 that “Indignation over injustice is the major key in [Freedman’s] work, admiration for life’s survivors the minor key”.
Her work was often underappreciated, yet she still remains one of the most important street photographers.
15. Lee Friedlander
Lee Friedlander (July 14, 1934 – present) is an American photographer. In the 60s and 70s, he set his eye on urban social landscapes. Many images focused on store-front reflections and frames within structures.
Eugène Atget, Robert Frank (no. 6), and Walker Evans (no. 9) influenced his earlier work. These other street photographers were the height of excellence during his life.
A Leica 35mm camera was his weapon of choice, pointing it towards all detached areas of urban life.
In 1967, he was part of John Szarkowski’s “New Documents” exhibition. His images sat alongside others from Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus (no. 10).
During this time, he worked as a photographer for magazines like Esquire and Sports Illustrated.
On top of this, he began to photograph the chaos on New York streets. Searching for moments that many referred to as the ‘snapshot aesthetic’.
14. Bruce Gilden
Bruce Gilden (October 16, 1946 – present) is an American street photographer, with a very specific style. He is best known for his candid and close-up images of people walking the streets.
He gets in close, often breaking people’s personal space. His use of flashgun lights the subject, while also eliciting an often shocked response.
He still shoots all over New York to this day, among other places.
So far, he has received the European Publishers Award for Photography and is a Guggenheim Fellow. Gilden is also a member of Magnum Photos and has been since 1998.
One of his main influences was the photographic film Blowup in 1968. He started by capturing people at Coney Island, New York’s carnival area.
From there, he continued to capture people on the streets. His fascination with the duality and double lives of the individuals he captures drives his to shoot.
You love him or hate him, but you can’t deny his popularity as one of the most important street photographers.
13. W. Eugene Smith
William Eugene Smith (December 30, 1918 – October 15, 1978) was an American photojournalist. His work took him all over, from Japan to Gabon.
He was “perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay“. This was a big step for linking the documentary and street photography worlds.
His 1948 series Country Doctor for Life magazine, recognized as the first extended editorial photo story.
He started his career as a local newspaper photographer. He moved to New York in 1938, where he joined the Newsweek team. They wanted him to work with large format photography, but he wouldn’t give up his 35mm Contax camera.
Despite this, he built a strong relationship with the editor. From here, he went to the Pacific theater during WWII. After that, to the UK, Spain and Africa, covering a range of stories.
He joined Magnum in 1955, and from there started a Jazz Loft Project. In the early 70’s, he documented Minamata and the disease created from industrial sewage.
As he was showing the world the effects of the local population by the Chisso Corporation’s factory, the employees attacked him.
This attempt to stop him from further documentation resulted in the loss of vision in one eye. He could no longer work due to his injuries.
It is often sad stories like these that help street photographers get the attention they deserve.
12. William Klein
William Klein (April 19, 1928 – present) is a huge name in the field of street photography. Even in his 90th year, he still photographs the neighborhood around him.
An American-born French photographer. He is most noted for his ironic approach to street, fashion photography, and photojournalism.
He uses an extensive range of unusual photography techniques to get his shots. His use of wide-angle and telephoto lenses, also using natural light and motion blur were just a few of these.
In 2012, he won the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award at the Sony World Photography Awards. In 1957, he won the Prix Nader from the Royal Photographic Society.
He is considered, alongside Robert Frank (No. 6 ) to be among the best of street photographers and fathers of the field.
11. Daidō Moriyama
Daidō Moriyama (October 10, 1938) is a Japanese photographer based in Tokyo, Japan. He is most famous for his images depicting the breakdown of traditional values in post-war Japan.
Before he moved to Tokyo, he studied photography under the Japanese architectural photography master Takeji Iwamiya. In 1961 he left to assist Eikoh Hosoe.
His first series of images, titled Nippon gekijō shashinchō showed the darker sides of urban life. From there, he went on to show how life was changing in industrial areas.
Moriyama’s style developed alongside Provoke Magazine, one he collaborated with in 1969. His images were ‘are, bure and bokeh‘ which meant ‘grainy, rough and out-of-focus’.
He cites William Klein (No. 12) as one of his most important influences. Using him as inspiration helped Moriyama gain the reputation as one of the best street photographers.
10. Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus (March 14, 1923 – July 26, 1971) was an American photographer who focused on marginalized people. Her attention was on transgender people and circus performers, such as dwarves and giants.
She began her career in the commercial world. From photographing items in a department store to creating studio images of models.
She was quickly dissatisfied with this role and moved on to street photography. She worked on assignment for Vogue, among others. Her work drew inspiration from Richard Avedon and Weegee.
Her work was shown in 1967 alongside Lee Friedlander (no. 15) and Garry Winogrand (would be no. 18). In her time, she gained some recognition and renown, before her suicide four years later.
9. Walker Evans
Walker Evans (November 3, 1903 – April 10, 1975) is another photojournalist and street photographer based in the USA. Like many photographers of his generation, his career started with the Farm Security Administration.
Here, just like Dorothea Lange and Gordan parks, his job was to capture the Great Depression. He did this using a huge 8×10 large format view camera.
Walker once said that his goal as a photographer was to take “literate, authoritative, transcendent” images. Like Doisneau, he also cites Eugène Atget as one of his influences.
Walker’s first taste of street photography came when on assignment in Cuba. His photographs documented street life, the presence of police, beggars and dockworkers in rags.
He continued to explore photography with a series on the New York Subway and another on Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.‘s offices and partners.
This helped him earn a place on the best street photographers list.
Elliott Erwitt (26 July 1928) was a street photographer who captured scenes in black and white film. He is famous for his candid documentary and often absurd images of everyday life.
He started off as a photographer’s assistant for the US Army in the 1950s, while stationed in France and Germany. His influences were Edward Steichen, Robert Capa and Roy Stryker.
It was the latter who first employed Erwitt to work on a photography project for the Standard Oil Company. As he worked on this, he created freelance works and then becoming a Magnum member.
One area he spent much of his time were capturing dogs. So much so, they have been the subject for five of his published books.
From looking at other images of his, you’ll see that pets and animals enter his frame just as much as people do. These ironic and often comical images make him one of the best street photographers out there.
Brassaï (born Gyula Halász; 9 September 1899 – 8 July 1984) was a Hungarian/French photographer who rose to international fame in the 20th century.
He was one of the numerous Hungarian artists who flourished in Paris between the World wars. His name is synonymous with strong, contrasted images of daily life.
His black and white street photography is both descriptive and even humorous. The streets were his canvas, where he found himself wandering through late at night.
He is a master of composition. This is something installed in him during his time studying painting and sculpture.
As far as street photographers go, Brassaï is one of the best.
6. Robert Frank
There was never a more prolific photographer than Robert Frank (November 9, 1924). From 1941, he worked as a commercial photographer in Zurich, Basel and Geneva.
In 1947, he worked as a fashion photographer in the US. He used his 35mm Leica, unconventional at the time. Between 1950 and 1959, he turned his attention to the street and photojournalism.
This is where he became most famous. The Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to travel the country, resulting in his most famous work: The Americans.
He worked closely with Walker Evans and became one of the world’s most famous street photographers. He supplemented his visuals with text, written straight onto the negatives and prints.
Robert Frank was one of the most prolific street photographers ever to walk the earth.
André Kertész (2 July 1894 – 28 September 1985) was a Hungarian photographer. He contributed avant-garde photographic compositions, never before seen or used.
In the early years of his career, his unorthodox camera angles and style produced very powerful street photography. His work and life took him from Hungary to France, and then finally to the USA.
Kertész never felt that he had gained the worldwide recognition he deserved. Today, many considered him one of the seminal figures of photojournalism.
For me, and living in his home country, I see how important he is to street photographers and the field in general.
4. Vivian Maier
Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) made the headlines when her work was accidentally discovered after her death.
Every one of her 200,000 negatives sat in huge suitcases, found by a photographer who bought them at auction. Since then, people around the globe can’t stop talking about her.
She was prolific in capturing street photography. Her main position was that of a nanny, keeping her photography as a hobby. She kept her passion secret her entire life.
Thanks to the finder of her hundreds of thousands of negatives, her work has exhibited across the globe.
A documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, was created to try and find more information about this secret photographer. Since the documentary, the finder of the images has encountered many legal disputes.
Controversy aside, she remains one of the most famous female street photographers.
Robert Doisneau (14 April 1912 – 1 April 1994) was a French street photographer. He captured the streets of Paris during the 1930s. He was a master of humanist photography, albeit, sometimes with a little humor.
Alongside Henri Cartier-Bresson, he was a pioneer of photojournalism. Something that street photography connects with well.
Doisneau was known for his modest, playful, and iconic images. They show amusing juxtapositions, mingling social classes, and eccentrics in contemporary Paris.
His influences include Atget, Kertesz, and Bresson, and he sits at the top of the photography food chain with them. For me, Doisneau is one of the all time great street photographers.
2. Saul Leiter
Saul Leiter (December 3, 1923 – November 26, 2013) was an American photographer and painter. This helps us understand his unique composition, subject matter and use of color.
His early work in the 40s and 50s were considered an important contribution to photography. So important, in fact, it started the New York School of Photography.
This loosely defined group of photographers included William Klein, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank, all on our list.
It was W. Eugene Smith, number 13, that encouraged Leiter to pursue photography. He started with black and white and quickly moved to color in 1948. In this, he became a pioneer.
He spent the majority of his career documenting his East Village neighborhood through photography. For style and content, Leiter is a street photographers inspiration.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2004) was a French humanist photographer. He was considered a master of candid photography.
He was an early user of 35 mm cameras and film. At the time, most other photographers used large or medium format cameras.
Many consider his one of the most famous photographers ever. He pioneered the genre of street photography, capturing powerful moments.
His view on photography created a book, describing the decisive moment. To him, this occurs when the visual and psychological elements of people in a real-life scene spontaneously and briefly come together in perfect resonance.
Bresson is at the forefront of the field, making him an inspiration to all street photographers, past and present.
And there you have them, 17 most famous street photographers to inspire you.