The street snapshot craze

A new exhibition opening at the Museum of Sydney in December explores the heyday of this once popular but now forgotten genre of photography.

Picture this: you and a friend are walking down a city footpath amid the lunchtime crowd. Suddenly a smiling man in a suit and tie with camera in hand steps forward and offers you a card. It reads: Your photograph has just been taken. You put it in your pocket or purse and continue on your way. The encounter is over in an instant; the photographer has slipped back into the stream of passers‑by and set his sights on his next mark. The following day, eager to see your picture, you hand over your card at a photo kiosk and peer through a magnifying glass at your image on the proof sheet. Satisfied, you order a copy, or maybe two – one for you and one for your friend.

Street photographers were a familiar part of central Sydney life from the 1930s to the late 1950s. Armed with small portable cameras and positioned in key places around the city, they photographed hundreds of pedestrians each day, foisting themselves into people’s paths to try to capture a sale. Emerging at a time when personal cameras were rare, these inexpensive black-and-white postcard-sized photos were hugely popular, and quickly became a lucrative business. At the height of the craze, in the mid-1930s, over 10,000 people in NSW were buying photos from street photography companies every week.

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

Unlike studio photography, where people formally ‘sit’ for their portrait, street photographers often caught their subjects unaware, mid-stride as they went about their day. See yourself ‘as others see you’, urged a card from one company. The public loved it – and as pedestrians and photographers became more comfortable with each other, people increasingly posed for their ‘candid’ photos. As their numbers swelled, street photographers came to be seen as a nuisance: people complained about footpaths blocked by those posing, while others objected to being pestered in the streets and their photograph taken without permission.

People are easy to pick after a while. You watch their faces. If they smile – shoot.

– Street photographer Pearl Day, Sunday Telegraph, 12 July 1942

However, it was the photographers’ cards that landed them in trouble with the city council. While taking photographs on the streets wasn’t against the law, the handing out of cards and the littering caused when the public discarded them was. Between 1928 and 1941 there were over 2200 prosecutions of street photographers for breaches of a by-law against handing out tickets.

The snappers

Usually engaged by one of the many firms who developed and sold the prints – including Leicagraph Co, Smiling Snaps and Mac’s Photo Service – street photographers were provided with a camera and a day’s supply of film. One photographer working outside a bank on George Street during the 1940s took 500 snaps each day between 10am and 4pm.

Although companies advertised that negatives were kept ‘indefinitely’, very few original films survive – most were discarded when firms went out of business. Remarkably, a roll of film shot in 1940 by Ted Waight, a street snapper for Leicagraph Co, has survived along with 127 rolls of film taken by Ikon Studio in 1950. A selection of these images, reproduced for the exhibition, offers a rare insight into how the photographers worked and the public’s unpredictable response to them.

City of a million faces

Turn the pages of old photo albums or dig around in a shoebox of black-and-white family snaps and you’re likely to come across at least one street photograph, the photographic firm’s name stamped on the back. With the street photography phenomenon spanning several decades, the number of these images could be in the millions – a vast private archive of people from all walks of life, and an incredible record of Sydney.

A public call-out by Sydney Living Museums has brought to light a wonderful selection of these photos, with over 1500 images contributed by people from far and wide, including many from SLM members. Featured in the exhibition are over 250 digitised and enlarged images that collectively give a glimpse into the everyday life of the city during the Depression, World War II and postwar years.

These images recall a time when people dressed up in their Sunday best to ‘go to town’, the women in hats and gloves and the men in suits. They show us the war years when servicemen and -women were a common sight on our streets, and the optimistic faces of postwar immigrants exploring their new city. Each a memento of a day spent in the city, these images reveal who we were, the changing fashions and social mores. Captured in the background are glimpses of Sydney’s architecture, from the still-recognisable locations of Martin Place, Circular Quay and Hyde Park to signs advertising long-gone shops and popular landmarks such as Repin’s and Sargents cafes.

This extraordinary record of Sydney and its people is presented alongside a new series of works by artist Anne Zahalka. Responding to the images that echo her own memories of Sydney, Zahalka has restaged nine of the original images, with descendants (and in two cases, the original subjects) photographed in similar locations to where their parents or grandparents once stood.

Thank you to our members and the public for the overwhelming response to our call-out for photos, which is now closed.

Do you recognise yourself or someone you know in these photos?  

Let us know via streetphotos@slm.com.au

  • Piece of black and white photographic film showing pedestrians.
  • Black and white photo of interior of arcade with booth in centre.
  • Yellow printed ticket with number to top right, with information about how to collect photo.
  • Black and white photo of little girl in hat with doll.
  • Ticket printed in red ink advertising photography services.
  • Black and white photo of two women in coats in street setting.
  • Two young women in coats in urban mall setting.

About the author

Head and shoulders portrait of woman set against brick wall.

Anna Cossu

Curator

Inspired by wonderful and slightly eccentric history teachers and after her own foray as a teacher, Anna found herself drawn to the world of museums.