For many photographers, the street is the best indicator of the civil condition of society. The photographs in this room were all taken between the two world wars, a time of social upheaval. Friedrich Seidenstücker’s precise documentation of men at work and August Sander’s encyclopedic categorisation of people by their occupation can both be seen as reflecting Germany’s attempt to understand itself, following the trauma of war and economic collapse.
Influenced by Surrealism, several photographers in this room captured life on the street with an eye for the uncanny. Henri Cartier-Bresson travelled widely and the images shown here are from Mexico, Spain and Germany. His photograph of a man sleeping on the street in Spain was taken at almost the same time as Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s corpse of a man killed during a sugar-mill strike. These unsparing images, both taken at close range, depict ordinary people literally reduced to the gutter. Hungarian photographer Brassaï wandered for hours through Paris at night, photographing empty streets and parks, dance halls, cafes, bars and the motley selection of people who roamed the dimly lit streets alongside him.
During this period, professional street photographers began to offer their services to the public. As well as keeping makeshift studios, they accosted passers-by in front of well-lit urban scenery, hoping that their startled models would agree to purchase their portraits. Today they have disappeared in the West, but still remain in many parts of the world.