Sidewalk Photographers


Lois and Frances shopping downtown

Candid Photography
A while back I found an old photo of my mother-in-law, Lois and her sister Frances, taken as they walked along a sidewalk, probably in downtown Wichita in about 1950. Even though I had found the picture some time ago, it was only recently that I realized how the photo came to be.

The picture was most likely taken by a "Sidewalk photographer." These were men who hung around in a downtown area and took candid photos of people as they walked along on a sidewalk. I remember seeing these guys when I was a little boy; I must have been three or four years old. My mother and I were photographed by a sidewalk photographer a couple of times. The man who took our picture handed my mother a card and told her she could buy copies of the photo at a particular photo studio or department store. I don't remember my mother ever following through and buying any of the street pictures.

During the first decades of the 20th century most people didn't own a camera. So, they would have family photos taken at photography studios. Unfortunately,during the Great Depression, photography studios lost a lot of business as people quit paying for studio photographs. Some enterprising photographer decided to go out on the street to take candid pictures of people to try to drive business to the studio. It seems that the job of sidewalk photographer continued through the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, most people had camera's of their own making the need for a photographer unnecessary to take snapshots of the family. So, that is how I think the picture of Lois and Frances came to be.

Maury at 4+ years old

Posed photography
Some sidewalk photographers would pose people before taking their picture. A sidewalk photographer that posed his subjects happened to be walking through the neighborhood where I lived – it was a pony photographer. On a beautiful spring day, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of my house when I saw a man in the distance walking toward me. He had a pony walking next to him while over the man’s shoulder was a big camera mounted on a tripod. He would stop at each house and go up to the front door. The man would leave his pony on the sidewalk as he talked to the people inside. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I was getting excited as the man and his pony got closer to me.

Finally, the man reached where I was standing and asked, “Would you like to pet the pony.” I could hardly wait to see what a real live pony felt like as I reached out to run my hand along the side of its neck. The man went up to my front door and asked my mother if he could take a picture of me on his pony. She said that it would be okay.

The man set his camera up on its tripod and began pulling things out of the pony’s saddlebags. Out came some chaps and a bright-red bandana along with a cowboy hat that had been tied to the side of the saddle. It didn’t take long for the man to dress me like a cowboy and help me up on the pony. I was very excited to be so high up off the ground on top of a real pony.

As can be seen in the photo, it is clear that I’m having a lot of fun. However, the pony looks as if it is very tired. It only took a few minutes until the photo shoot was over and the man and his pony continued on down the block looking for more children to thrill. It seemed like forever before the man returned a couple of weeks later, without his pony. He was distributing the finished pictures and getting paid an amount that seems like a small sum of money today. This wouldn’t be the last time I would see the pony-man. He would appear every couple of years walking through the neighborhood. By that time, I was more interested in riding my bicycle.

Check out some examples of sidewalk photos on Pinterest


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