Street life: family through the eyes of a stranger

Fleeting moment: my great grandfather, Alexander Cruden captured by an unknown photographer.

On the street: my great grandfather, Alexander Cruden. Kirkcaldy High Street, probably in the 1940s. Captured by an unknown photographer.

Growing up, I remember seeing quite a few photos from the 1940s and 50s of various relatives walking down the street. At the time I wondered about the mechanics of taking such photos. When I’m out with people, I hardly ever manage to get a  photo of them walking towards me. If I think to take a shot at all, by the time I’ve organised it, they are ahead of me and I get their backs.

It was only recently I realised (DOH!) that these images were taken by professional street photographers.

They are interesting for all sorts of reasons. Because the photographer is a stranger, I think people behave differently. In the shot above of my great grandfather, he almost looks as if he is deliberately avoiding looking at the camera. This shot below – of my grandmother Susan Elder – suggests even more firmly that she is averting her gaze.

Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. Kirkcaldy High Street. circa 1940s.

Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. Kirkcaldy High Street. circa 1940s. Shot captured by an unknown street photographer.

Street photography not only captures people fairly spontaneously, but in an environment that is not their own. They are out in public, wearing their public faces and giving very public performances.Many of us don’t like having our photo taken, so when it happens in public and can’t be avoided, we experience a moment of “slippage” where it can be difficult to maintain our public persona in the face of such intrusion into our private space.

Street photography can also provide a wealth of period detail; we can often date the image by the cars and fashions, while buildings and landmarks provide locational clues.

I like this shot of my mother with her sister and cousin rushing to get to the cinema on a Saturday afternoon. My mother, the eldest, looks grimly determined; the younger girls, slightly anxious and distressed. The movement inherent in their bodies contrasts with the women in the background, who seem to be taking a leisurely stroll around the shops.

mum sandra and cousin going to movies c 1949

Elizabeth Ramsay (centre) with her younger sister Sandra  (left) and cousin Margaret Cruden (right). Kirkcaldy High Street, probably late 1940’s. Captured by unknown street photographer.

In this later shot, my mum and and other sister are more relaxed,  smiling shyly for the photographer. The girls are dressed in summer clothing, in contrast to the older women behind them wrapped up in coats.

Margaret and Elizabeth Ramsay, Kirkcaldy High Street, probably early 1950s. Captured by unknown street photographer.

Margaret and Elizabeth Ramsay, Kirkcaldy High Street, probably early 1950s. Captured by unknown street photographer.

The photo below is a mystery to me. The young man on the right is my great grand uncle, Stewart Cameron Cruden (younger brother of my great grandfather, above). The older woman behind him is his mother Isabella Wallace. I have no idea who the other two people are, or when and where the photograph was taken. This is the only picture I have of my uncle, who died in 1942 aboard a ship serving in the Arctic Convoys, and I would love to know more about it. Sadly, I’m not sure there is anyone left to ask.

Strolling ... Stewart Cruden and his mother with an unknown (to me) couple

Strolling … Stewart Cruden and his mother with an unknown (to me) couple. Date, place and photographer unknown.

My attempts at street photography are, as I’ve said, usually notable only for their dullness. This one however, of the Big T and the boy-child while we were on holiday in England, does kinda make up for the others.

The boy-child and the Big T, Cambridge, England. Reminds me of a shot from a 1950s monster movie. Photo: Su Leslie 2006.

The boy-child and the Big T, Cambridge, England. Reminds me of a shot from a 1950s monster movie. Photo: Su Leslie 2006.

This post was written for the Daily Post Weekly Photography Challenge. Here are some other bloggers’ views of street life:

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

Allen Street, Tombstone, Arizona

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life II

Street Life: Children Sparring at Lions Fountain

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life (in Holland, Michigan)

weekly photo challenge: street life

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

WPC – Signs of Street Life Non-sense

52 thoughts on “Street life: family through the eyes of a stranger

    • Thank you. You’re right; street photos show us a whole new dimension to our family – especially as the alternative for many in those days was the posed studio portrait. I think the distinction between candid and posed is a but more blurred now.

      • Thanks so much, delighted you liked them! I need to learn the full story behind the dresses. All I know is that any feast day or celebration that takes place in Spain, and there are a lot, the woman and children take to the streets in droves sporting these amazing dresses, each one unique. It´s spectacular to see. However, on Saturday it was a rehearsal for the Fallas, a big celebration that takes place in Alicante at the end of May.

    • 🙂 I’ve always thought that deep down I must be Spanish. I’d love to live somewhere that celebrates so much, so often and in so much style. Great costumes, great food, wine, music … sounds like my idea of bliss. Cheers, Su

  1. Wonderful historical connection to this week’s theme. Made me curious about the process by which the photos of a street photographer made their way into your family’s hands. Perhaps much like the way photos taken at amusement park rides were printed and available for purchase before patrons left the park.

  2. Great post – I have some similar street photos of my Dad’s mother’s mother and some other unknown people! I am not sure if your photo of Stewart Cameron Cruden is showing on the post though? You mention it being below the text about him but there is only the more recent shot of the boy-child and the Big T! 🙂

  3. Intriguing – I’ve never heard of street photography. If the photographer is a stranger, how does the photo then get into the hands of the “photee”? I know it wasn’t a Polaroid, after all. I imagine the photographer stops his subject to get an address. But then the subject of your second photo, Susan Elder, looks like she wants none of it. Would she have stopped to exchange addresses? Does the photographer charge? I’m mystified. Tell me more.

    • You’ve got me thinking now! I always assumed that it was like at theme parks – where the photos are printed and put up and you buy one if you want it. The photos I have that I believe were taken in Kirkcaldy all have the same kind of number on the back (same typeface but different numbers). I assumed they came from the same studio. I’ve emailed my mum this morning to ask, so will let you know. Thanks for getting me thinking about this!

  4. Cool collection. I have a favorite photo of my great grandfather that was taken by a street photographer. They really do offer a different look into the lives of our family members. I love the last shot of your family – lots of personality in that photo!!

    • Thank you. I love all the background detail in the street shots, as well as the way they shed new light on family. 🙂

    • Thanks Raewyn. I love the street shots too; especially the shots of my mum who looks completely different in studio portraits surrounded by older sisters.

  5. Thank you for sharing this nostalgic array of photographs. When I was younger I too discovered the same kind of pictures you offer here. The clothing people wore, the vehicles they drove, the deceased relatives I would never meet were preserved forever in a picture. Some were black and white while a few were tin type images. In those days I discovered that black-and-white prints offered a more dramatic view of life back then.

    • Thank you Gerry. You’re right that these images do preserve memories of those we have never known. I love the way we can look at them and see so much of ourselves. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. 🙂

  6. This is a terrific post! What great shots of your family. You are so right about the historic detail … I adore your grandmother’s shoes! Oh, and I think that your own family street photo is a hoot.

    • Thanks Meghan. I was looking at her shoes when I posted it and thinking “I’d look good in those.” Not sure about the hat though! I love the hat that the young woman in the second to last picture is wearing. I have no idea who she was, but she had style! Don’t my boys just look so funny. I can’t remember why they were messing around like that; I do remember two young Japanese women looking quite bemused.

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  10. What I love about these old photo- any old photos- are the way the men and women dressed up to go out into public! Nowadays they wear shorts to the opera. (Well, ok, maybe not quite. But you get the idea!)

    • So true; I think my mum’s was the last generation that still wore hats, gloves, matching shoes and handbags. And I know someone who DID wear flip-flops to the opera. Is that what you would call sandals with a sole and a strap that goes between the big and second toe? We call them jandals in NZ.

      • Yes, flip flops. If you have no respect for yourself in the way your dress at least have some respect for those who will see you. I live outside of Las Vegas and you would not believe how the tourists- and locals- dress when they are here! I should take up street photography!

        • I probably would!!! Kiwis are notoriously casual dressers. You should take up street photography – it would be brilliant to contrast your images with the older ones when people were much more formal. 🙂

  11. A very enjoyable article and pictures of your family. I didn’t realize there were street photographers. Probably at most in the larger cities. I love photographing unknown people when I travel and do sometimes get those looks that tell me they a less than happy.

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