Young Student Secretly Photographs People with Hidden Spy Cam in the 1890s

carl stormer hidden camera street photography

These days, when it's so easy to sneak a hidden photo with your phone, we can forget just how unusual candid photography was during the 19th century. With technological limitation, our first photographs are mainly seated posed images that somehow give the impression that everyone in the 1800s was elegant and composed. But, thanks to one clever Norwegian student, we have a hidden glimpse of life in the 1890s.

Carl Størmer (1874-1957) was a young student of mathematics when he purchased his first hidden camera. It was so small that the lens fit through the buttonhole in his vest with a cord that led down to his pocket, allowing him to secretly snap away. In his biography for the Fellows of the Royal Society, he revealed it was actually a secret crush that led him toward photography. “When he was a young man at Oslo University he fell in love with a lady whom he did not know and with whom he was too bashful to become acquainted,” writes his biographer. “Wishing at least to have a picture of her, he decided that this was possible only by taking a photograph of her himself, without her knowing.”

And while the love affair came to nothing, Størmer continued capturing images of people on Karl Johansgate, the main street in Oslo, over the course of his studies from 1893 to 1897. The results are close to 500 secret images that show a wide range of people in a casual, relaxed state. Working like a paparazzo, Størmer would greet his subjects and then snap away as they approached. Friendly salutations and suspicious glances play out across his work, serving as some of the first examples of street photography.

Størmer would go on to have a successful career as a mathematician and physicist, teaching at the University of Oslo for 43 years. He was known for closely studying the Aurora Borealis and never left behind his photography roots. He wrote texts on astrophotography for amateurs and even arranged an exhibition of his street photography when he was approaching his 70s.

As a 19-year-old university student, Carl Størmer used a hidden camera to photograph life in Oslo, Norway from 1893 to 1897.

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Carl Størmer Street Photography 1800s
The candid photographs, taken with a spy camera, are some of the earliest forms of street photography.

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h/t: [Bored Panda]

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Mathew Brady, the Story of the Man Who Photographed the Civil War

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Guy Bourdin’s Early Unpublished Photos from the Streets of 1950s Paris

Rare Images Depicting American Life in the 19th Century

Jacob Riis: The Photographer Who Showed “How the Other Half Lives” in 1890s NYC

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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