Research point – Street

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.

Photographers

Helen Levitt

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.

Joel Meyerowitz

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)

source: erickimphotography.com

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)

Paul Graham

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.

Bruce Gilden

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.

Strange And Familiar: Britain As Revealed By International Photographers, Curated By Martin Parr

Joel Sternfeld

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)

joel-sternfeld-pumpkin

source: erickimphotography.com

Martin Parr

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.

(Weski 2014)

Research questions

Colour

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.

Surrealism

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.

References

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].

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Study Visit -Deutsche Börse and Roger Mayne at the Photographers Gallery

This was my first OCA study visit and an opportunity to meet coursemates and a tutor face-to-face. Robert Enoch and 15 students from all levels visited the Photographers Gallery to view the Roger Mayne retrospective and the shortlist for this year’s Deutsche Börse  Photography Foundation Prize.

However, first we had a peer-review and criticism session. Most of us had brought some work to show, most of it assignment work or ‘serious’ documentary. I was a bit embarrassed to be the only one with a personal project (EYV work is with assessors, and I haven’t started serious photography for C&N yet) of a more pictorial type. However, they were kind enough to say nice things about my ‘back garden macro’ project and offer some names of photographers worth researching.

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Deutsche Börse shortlist

Sophie Calle

Calle is a conceptual artist and photographer, nominated for a piece of work involving a postcard set – which is not best suited to a gallery environment. The work on display is another project ‘My mother, my cat, my father, in that order’ reacting to the deaths of her parents and her cat over a short period. It is presented as a set of photographs or objects, each juxtaposed against a piece of writing. This was the display that appealed least to my coursemates, but I found some resonance as the loss of my own parents is recent enough to have empathy.

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Awoiska van der Molen

Van der Molen makes large monochrome abstracted landscapes. Displayed without titles or indication of location, interpretation is left very much to the viewer. For instance, the darker image below is solid black and dark grey, with two white ‘scratches’. My first impression was of a volcano with narrow lava channels; on a second viewing I think I see light-trails on distant mountain roads.

With the dark and rather contrasty printing, my overall impression was of sombre, or even sinister thoughts.

It must be said that the lighting in the particular gallery (a mix of window light and spot lighting) is not ideal for viewing large semi-gloss images as it was impossible to get away from reflected highlights, as seen in the first image above.

Dana Lixenberg

Lixenberg’s project ‘Imperial Courts 1993-2015’ follows from a 1992 assignment to Los Angeles to document the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. She revisited one housing project in 1993 and made numerous further visits between 2008 and 2015, building a relationship with the community and following the lives of its residents over an extended period.

There is some ‘urban landscape’ but the majority of the images are large-format informal environmental portraits. It is interesting to view the different attitudes and body language between the male and female subjects, and to speculate on how much that was influenced by having a female photographer. The student discussion was inconclusive but this is a topic that I may revisit in a future posting.

If our group were the Deutsche Börse judges, this would be the winning project.

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Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs

This is the story of a 50,000km ‘road trip’ from Switzerland to Mongolia via Russia and various ‘Stans. Onorato and Krebs recorded the journey on a variety of analogue media including 16mm movie and 5×4 large-format film. The result is shown in a darkened room with movie and slide projectors running simultaneously.

Of the things that I saw on this visit, this is the display that spoke least to me and I dismissed it as a exercise in presentation style rather than content.

Roger Mayne retrospective

The other major exhibition at the Gallery is a retrospective of Roger Mayne’s images of street life in the 1950s and early 1960s. The majority were taken in and around South Street, North Kensington but there are also some from the Raleigh factory in Nottingham (1964) and the (then) new Park Hill estate in Sheffield (1961-65). The high-contrast monochrome style and the post-war background are similar to what the trio of Bailey, Donovan and Duffy would be doing in fashion photography a few years later. I also found some images evoking the spirit of the cartoonist Giles.

Many of the street photographs show children in unstructured play, in environments that would make a health-and-safety officer blench. This led to at least one discussion between coursemates on the topic of how children’s play is depicted then and now. Will a future historian look at the current photographic record and ask ‘Where are all the children?’. The answer is twofold, many of them are indoors in front of a computer screen but, also, photographers are afraid to take candids of children for fear of modern attitudes to ‘child protection’ (see conversation in Howarth and McLaren 2011, 236-237)

Martin Parr

As an unexpected bonus, the print sales space in the basement had a small exhibition of some of Martin Parr’s early monochrome work (he moved exclusively to colour in 1986). The quirky observation and humour were, clearly, with him from the start.

Reference

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. (2011). Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson.