Penthouse & pavement: Images from the inner cities

A new exhibition at Tate Modern focuses on photographs taken in buzzing cities, with a cosmopolitan cast of hipsters and hucksters, businessmen, beauties and criminals. As John Walsh reports, it all adds up to a fascinating lesson in modern urban history
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The do-gooding heroine of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film Amélie discovers a public photo-booth in a train station. Under its metal floor, she finds first one, then a dozen, then a score of self-snapped portraits that have been discarded, apparently in disgust. Why? Because they're too ugly, too posed, too starkly truthful, too plain wrong as a visual record of the person sitting on the little red stool and putting in the money.

Photo-Me booths are a potent metaphor of self-definition. They're mini-me versions of a professional photographic studio. They're reality-check machines where men or women in the street can sit behind a curtain, arrange their features into a celebrity pout, then marvel at the horrible outcome. They turn passers-by into poseurs; turn the "natural" everyday self into the fake, or masked persona.

We have grown up to believe a simple dichotomy: that the street is good, because it is authentic, it's cinéma-vérité, the corridor of real life, where a picture of an everyday event can stand a symbol for what's happening in the history of our time. The studio, by contrast, is bad, inauthentic, a factory of artifice, a crucible of managed light and dark, where human faces are adjusted into a factitious beauty that has nothing to do with the everyday world, or history or reality. But think, for a moment, of the fashion photographers, from the 1960s onwards, who snapped Jean Shrimpton or Penelope Tree on building sites or bombed-out houses, to exploit their rugged connection with "reality".

The tension between these indoor and outdoor arenas of art is the subject of a new exhibition called Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography, opening next week at London's Tate Modern. Its explicit aim is to "bring out the contrast between the photos taken in the carefully orchestrated studio, and images captured in the changing and uncontrollable street, while highlighting the crossovers between the genres and their influence on each other." To this end, the curators have signed up a stellar throng of the world's greatest portraitists, from Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, through Cecil Beaton and Henri Cartier-Bresson, to current stars such as Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans.

In 350 prints, the exhibition looks at a series of transformations. It reveals how snatched moments of street life sometimes aspire to the look of belle-epoque painting. Alfred Steiglitz's dramatic shot of walkers in the tree-lined boulevards of Paris, and the isolation of one woman carrying a bundle, may be curtly titled "A Snapshot, Paris 1911", but seems to have been composed as elaborately as a Caillebotte painting. Lee Miller's exquisite shot of the ex-PM of Hungary facing a firing squad in 1946 has a grave beauty reminiscent of Goya.

We're also shown street scenes which are far from "innocent" snaps of unsuspecting humanity going about its ordinary business. In Weegee's "Their First Murder, 9 October 1941", a group of 13 excitable New Yorkers jostle for a good look at a homicide scene; but some of them are aware of Weegee's camera and are wondering how their faces will look in the newspapers. In a second, the point of the occasion has become, not the dead man, but their chaotic response to him. They are now the ones in the limelight, just as much as is Norman Parkinson's white-gloved model Wenda, surrounded by shrieky neon glowing in the darkness of Times Square in 1949.

The studio shots form an eclectic gallery. Lee To Sang uses backdrops of shocking artificiality to emphasise the essential fakeness of his family portraits. Erwin Blumenfeld, in "City Lights", poses his subject in turquoise chiffon against an idealised shot of Manhattan skyscraper lights, consciously ignoring the real thing just outside his window. Andres Serrano invited down-and-out men, in their hoodies and scarves and deadened eyes, to sit before the studio lights: a nice instance of living, breathing street-life being brought into the studio to pose.

Perhaps the most interesting pictures are those which suggest a half-way state between the two. In 2006, Francis Alys made "Sleepers", a study of people (and animals) sleeping in public. Crashed-out beggars, tired students, tucked-up itinerants – Alys photographed them fast asleep, in a way that might seem to intrude on their privacy. But who has privacy in the street? And how have people contrived to transform a piece of the outside world into their private space? Pieter Hugo's now-famous series "The Hyena and Other Men", shot in Nigeria in 2007, pictured members of a tribe with their alarming menagerie of pet hyenas. We see "Abdullahi Mohammed with Mainasara", a tremendously edgy, menacing portrait of man and feral nature.

The last few decades have brought two innovations that pull the studio and the street into curious harmony. One is the rise of the intrusive paparazzi, whose hounding of celebrities in public forces people to adopt strange, I'm-not-here poses: witness Ron Galella's snap of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow writhing with reluctance to be "captured" in a Manhattan taxi. The other is the CCTV camera, which makes unconscious, and mostly unwilling, subjects of us all. In a clever sequence, Juergen Teller photographs some of his professional models, as they arrive at his front door en route to his studio camera. Neither in the street nor the studio, they're caught in innocent non-poses. Is this what the "real" girls look like, out in the real world, shorn of their model egos? Or is it yet another look, constructed for the everyday cameras? Do we all, now, go around with a private photographic studio inside our heads?

Street & Studio is at Tate Modern, London SE1, 22 May to 31 Aug. See for details