Street photographers walked past Wisconsin Avenue

From the 1930s to the early 1960s, the term “street photography” described the work of photographers who solicited strangers on the street to offer to take their pictures for a fee. Like most cities of the day, Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee was once home to street photographers. This type of photography captures and isolates brief, intriguing moments that are sometimes invisible to the naked eye.

Street photographers in the late 1930s became more apparent in busy city centers across the country. During the Great Depression, people barely had enough money to live on, let alone other luxuries like having a professional photograph taken. People had to find ways to survive hard times. Many photographers have had to leave their studio spaces and reinvent their profession.

Also known as “sidewalk photographers,” they walked down Wisconsin Avenue with waist-level box-type cameras and quickly handed out an envelope to customers as they passed. After taking a photo, the photographer gave the client a numbered ticket with instructions corresponding to the film image. The client mailed it back to order prints that could be picked up later for purchase.

Wisconsin Avenue photographers typically worked between the Milwaukee River and Sixth Street. They walked the avenue taking candid photos of single individuals, couples, families, groups and some who were unaware their photo was being taken.

Street photography experienced a resurgence in the 1940s during World War II. Service members on leave wanted their pictures taken in uniform to send to their families or to have a keepsake of their loved one to take home with them. Most people enjoyed having their picture taken, and when they spotted a street photographer, they tried to look laid back, oblivious, and unstaged. It also surprised a lot of people when they had their picture taken. Not knowing immediately what they looked like in the photo was part of the fun.

Stay up to date with today’s news

Subscribe to our free daily email newsletter to get the latest local news, dining, music, arts & entertainment and Milwaukee events delivered straight to your inbox every weekday, plus a bonus Week in Review email on Saturdays .

Street photographers photographed countless Milwaukeeans walking up and down Wisconsin Avenue during this time. Most didn’t buy the majority of the images. This left many unused tickets crowding downtown. Since the city could not weed out the “street photographers”, they suggested handing out smaller tickets and asked potential customers not to throw the ticket on the streets. The studios also sought out “Camera Girls” to take pictures and encouraged women to work for them.

There were only a few photography studios left in operation by the late 1950s. More people stayed home in the early years of television, rather than going to the movies. Also, suburban malls were in their infancy, which gave people less reason to shop downtown. Photographers thinned out and eventually disappeared as cameras became smaller and more affordable. Without these photographers, today we wouldn’t know all the moments that unfolded on Wisconsin Avenue. The imagery depicts people who once worked and enjoyed the sights and sounds across the country.

Adam Levin

Adam Levin is the administrator of the Old Milwaukee Facebook group and author of Fading Ads of Milwaukee.

Read more by Adam Levin

September 27, 2022