Street photography is remarkably difficult to define. While much of it takes place on the street, a flick through Howarth and McLaren (2011) shows ‘street’ images taken in parks, on beaches and at an airfield. Most ‘street’ images are about people, but where does that leave Melanie Einzig’s ‘Teletransport’ (ibid, p60) or Matt Stuart’s peacock skip (ibid p188 and back cover). According to Richard Bram, ‘Good street photography is like good pornography; you can’t really describe it but you know it when you see it’ (ibid p234). The masters of the genre make it look easy, so there are an awful lot of people out there clicking away at random and claiming to be ‘street photographers’. (‘Readers’ Wives’ rather than Playboy, perhaps). The street images that I most enjoy have an element of humour, mystery or recognition.
Helen Levitt (1913-2009) was a New York street photographer, active from 1938. Influenced by Cartier-Bresson and a friend of Walker Evans, she started in the monochrome tradition, mainly photographing children playing, but moved into dye-transfer colour through the 1960s to the ’80s. Her style is very much ‘street theatre’ and her observation and use of colour enhance the images from that period.
I have already encountered Meyerowitz once in this blog, with his haunting images of Ground Zero that David Campany considered too beautiful.
Meyerowitz began shooting monochrome street photography in the 1960s, adopted colour ‘permanently’ in 1972 (4 years before Eggleston’s MoMA exhibition) and uses both 35mm (Leica) and 8×10 large-format cameras for street, portrait and landscape work (Wikipedia 2017-1). He is very clear about his reasons for shooting colour; in addition to being slower and more contemplative (25ASA as opposed to 1000ASA which was how he rated his mono film) he sees it as a way of capturing a wider sense of the experiences of real life (Kim n.d.-2)
A color photograph gives you a chance to study and remember how things look and feel in color. It enables you to have feelings along the full wavelength of the spectrum, to retrieve emotions that were perhaps bred in you from infancy—from the warmth and pinkness of your mother’s breast, the loving brown of you puppy’s face, and the friendly yellow of your pudding. Color is always part of experience. Grass is green, not gray; flesh is color, not gray. Black and white is a very cultivated response. (Meyerowitz, quoted by Kim)
Graham is described by Wikipedia (2017-2) as an English fine-art and documentary photographer, and has a string of awards and images to his name. However, I either don’t like or don’t understand his work (paulgrahamarchive.com 2017) which appears, to me, to fall into the ‘random clicking’ category.
Gilden is another photographer whose street images I cannot like. His style is up close and aggressive, often adding flash. The images exhibited at the ‘Strange and Familiar’ exhibition last year (picture below) are grotesque and those chosen by Howarth and McLaren (2011, 54-59) are , with one exception (p55), distorting or ill-composed, stripping the subject of dignity without adding any story.
Sternfeld is another photographer who moved from 35mm to fine-art 8×10 large format. He is now better known for documentary and landscape work, but started as a street photographer. (Kim n.d.-1). Many of his images have elements of story and of mystery – he likes to leave them open to interpretation. For instance the image below (one of his best known) shows a firefighter buying pumpkins from a farm stall while his colleagues tackle a blaze. The apparent dereliction of duty would be explained if Sternfeld had told us that this was a training exercise not a real emergency, but that would make the image more ‘ordinary’.
Sternfeld takes the view that it is OK for a viewer to place his own interpretation on an image; after all, the photographer has already done so:
Photography has always been capable of manipulation. Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame… There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored (Sternfeld quoted by Kim)
I learned to appreciate street photography through a growing appreciation of Martin Parr (which may explain my expectations of the genre). Parr is a street and documentary photographer who has worked exclusively in colour since 1986. His characteristic style has highly saturated colour and often uses flash to inject a sense of unreality and put the viewer off balance.
I would describe Parr as an amateur social anthropologist with an eye for detail and a sharp sense of humour. His images, whether of people or of still-life details always tell a story and often produce a stab of recognition. As the Magnum Photos profile puts it:
Martin Parr sensitises our subconscious – and once we’ve seen his photographs, we keep on discovering these images over and over again in our daily lives and recognising ourselves within them. The humour in these photographs makes us laugh at ourselves, with a sense of recognition and release.
Colour become part of documentary photography since the pioneers or the early 1970s. Meyerowitz, in particular (quoted above), is emphatic about its importance to the overall experience. It is now the majority format, as seen by flicking through Howarth & McLaren (2011) for instance.
Monochrome street photography is generally high-contrast and uses fast films (often uprated) to freeze movement and, incidentally, to inject a sense of gritty realism. The images are about shapes and geometry. Colour images (even when highly saturated, such as Parr’s) seem to be gentler and more contemplative. Both styles have their adherents and uses. There are images, such as HCB’s ‘Behind the Gare St Lazare’ that would not work in colour and others, such as Matt Stuart’s peacock skip, for which it is essential.
The question asked is “Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?”. The problem I have is that I have not spotted the connection with surrealism at all. I understand surrealism as an art movement ‘purporting to express the subconscious mind by images etc. in sequences or associations such as may occur in dreams’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary). This appears, to me, to be the antithesis of street photography which is based on a close observation of reality.
Irony and national values
It is a national stereotype (and caricature) that irony is part of the British national character and pretty much unknown in America. For one example, see Odone (2001). As with most stereotypes, it is based on just enough truth to be impossible to debunk, but is nowhere near a universal truth.
There does appear to be a difference between British and American street photography, with the American version being more serious and ‘in your face’ (literally in the case of Bruce Gilden) and the British more satirical or ironic (Martin Parr). However, there are counter-examples such as Sternfeld’s pumpkin-buying firefighter.
F56.net. (n.d.). Helen Levitt. [online] Available at: http://www.f56.net/English/artists/helen-levitt/information/information.html [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].
Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. (2011). Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson.
Kim, E. (n.d.). 6 Lessons Joel Sternfeld Has Taught Me About Street Photography. [online] Eric Kim. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/02/14/6-lessons-joel-sternfeld-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].
Kim, E. (n.d.). 12 Lessons Joel Meyerowitz Has Taught Me About Street Photography. [online] Eric Kim. Available at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/01/22/12-lessons-joel-meyerowitz-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/ [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].
Luhring Augustine. (2017). Joel Sternfeld – Artists. [online] Available at: http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfeld/a-exhibitions [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].
Odone, C. (2001). Comment: Anne Robinson has exposed America’s irony deficiency. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2001/apr/22/comment.observercomment [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].
Paulgrahamarchive.com. (2017). Paul Graham Photography Archive. [online] Available at: http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].
The Telegraph. (2009). Obituary – Helen Levitt. [online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/art-obituaries/5209410/Helen-Levitt.html [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].
Weski, T. (2014). Martin Parr Profile. [online] magnumphotos.com. Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_9_VForm&ERID=24KL5357TF [Accessed 22 Mar. 2017].
Wikipedia. (2017). Joel Meyerowitz. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Meyerowitz [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].
Wikipedia. (2017). Paul Graham (photographer). [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Graham_(photographer) [Accessed 21 Mar. 2017].