Before Bill Cunningham: Two Undiscovered 19th- and 20th-Century Street-Style Photographers

Predating digital cameras and the street-style boom by many decades, John Thomson and Vivian Maier documented urban street fashion.

From left: "Untitled, 1953" by Vivian Maier and "Recruiting Sergeants at Westminster" by John Thomson.

The #menswear community is already well-versed in the work of the usual street-style suspects like Tommy Ton, Scott Schuman, or, at the most "old school," Bill Cunningham. But staking out street corners and snapping chic subjects is a tradition that dates back to the mid 1800s, when photographer John Thomson roamed London shooting everyone from dapper gents to chimney sweeps—and captured street life in the Far East. He's famous for shooting flower girls wrapped in wool shawls toting wicker baskets in front of Covent Garden, dapper sergeants with brass-button waistcoats at Westminster, even nursing mothers in full skirts and white aprons.

But unlike contemporary photographers like Schuman or Ton—who often snap their subjects mid-stride, presumably en-route to some fabulous locale—Thomson's images required a degree of staging due to the cumbersome equipment of the time (heavy cameras and fragile, glass-plate negatives). And yet, his images feel surprisingly spontaneous.

In 2007, another nearly ancient street-style photographer was discovered when filmmaker John Maloof scooped up piles of dusty negatives at a thrift auction in Chicago. The images—which documented daily life and the high-flying style seen on the streets of New York City and Chicago in the mid 20th century—belonged to Vivian Maier, a nanny who stashed her work in a secret storage locker and is the subject of Maloof's new documentary, Finding Vivian Maier (out in September).

Unlike Thomson, whose carefully staged scenes have the look and feel of newspaper photos, Maier's work anticipates the subtle, cinematic quality that emanates from modern day blogs. For example, she shot a well-dressed woman in a wide sunhat glancing up while she lights her cigarette, and a handsome man standing in Central Park advancing the film in his own camera.

Click through for some of the more intriguing photos by Thomson and Maier.

"Undated, Chicago, IL" by Vivian Maier

Photographs by Vivian Maier and John Thomson.
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