The New York School of Photography is identified by American art curator Jane Livingston as a loosely defined group of photographers who lived and worked in New York City during the period 1936-63 and whilst not formally committing themselves to any group or belief “shared a number of influences, aesthetic assumptions, subjects, and stylistic earmarks”. The movement reflected the vibrant energy and spirit of post-war New York City.

Livingston writes that their work was marked by humanism, a tough-minded style, photojournalistic techniques the influence of film noir and the photographers Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, and Henri Cartier-Bresson; and that it avoided “the anecdotal descriptiveness of most photojournalism” and the egoism of American action painting, and indeed that it was remarkably little influenced by contemporary painting or graphic design (even though a number of its exponents had direct experience of these). She defines the key exponents of the movement as; Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Alexey Brodovitch, Ted Croner, Bruce Davidson, Don Donaghy, Louis Faurer, Robert Frank, Sid Grossman, William Klein, Saul Leiter, Leon Levinstein, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, David Vestal, and Weegee. 

It is not clear whether the notion of a New York School of Photography has been universally accepted in the art world; American art historian Max Kozloff, for example, appears to avoid the term in his detailed exhibition text for the Jewish Museum’s 2002 exhibition New York: Capital of Photography, despite the inclusion of a number of the photographers Livingston selected. As for those who use the term, Evan Sklar says “Critics and curators still debate exactly who and what constituted what is often referred to as the New York School of Photography, which is associated with serious-minded images produced in the decades after World War II by a small band of photographers whose subject was nominally the city itself.”

Notwithstanding a conclusive definition, this diverse range of artists shared a common interest in capturing the essence of New York City and its inhabitants. These photographers sought to express the raw energy, complexity, and diversity of urban life through their work. One of the defining characteristics of the New York School of Photography was its emphasis on street photography. Photographers took to the city’s streets, documenting the everyday moments and interactions of its residents. This approach allowed them to capture candid and unposed scenes, revealing the human drama and social dynamics unfolding in the city - sharing a keen eye for composition and the ability to capture the decisive moment. They often employed innovative techniques such as using small, handheld cameras and high-speed film to capture fleeting moments with precision and spontaneity. Their images showcased a sense of immediacy and intimacy, drawing viewers into the heart of the city.

One of the most influential figures associated with the New York School of Photography was Robert Frank. His groundbreaking book “The Americans,” published in 1958, captured the essence of post-war America and its contradictions. Frank’s photographs depicted a diverse range of people and settings, encompassing both the optimism and disillusionment of the era. His work demonstrated a deep understanding of the human condition and the ability to convey complex emotions through visual storytelling.

Another prominent photographer of the New York School was Diane Arbus. Her portraits of people on the fringes of society challenged conventional notions of beauty and normalcy. Arbus sought to explore the complexities and contradictions of human existence, capturing a sense of vulnerability, isolation, and otherness in her subjects. Her work pushed the boundaries of portraiture and expanded the possibilities of photography as a medium for social commentary.

The New York School of Photography had a profound impact on the development of photography as an art form. It challenged the prevailing norms of photography at the time, which often prioritized technical perfection and idealized representations. These photographers on the other hand embraced imperfections, spontaneity, and the rawness of life, opening up new avenues for artistic expression. Their influence extended beyond the immediate practitioners, with the emphasis on capturing the human experience and the energy of the city resonating with subsequent generations of photographers. It paved the way for street photography to become a recognized and respected genre, inspiring countless photographers to explore the urban landscape and its inhabitants.