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Discovering art in plain sight

Street photography has fallen out of favor in art circles, but the tradition is kept alive by dedicated shooters.

By Timothy CahillCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 2005


Even poets, who toil at their art with little hope for material success, become more widely known upon receiving an honor such as the Pulitzer Prize. Yet despite having won nearly every important prize in his profession, photographer Ernesto Bazan remains all but anonymous outside the small circle of his colleagues and admirers.

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Nevertheless, the Italian photographer says he opens his eyes every morning with a passionate desire to head out into the world with his cameras.

Mr. Bazan is a street photographer, the heir to a genre that once defined photographic art. Such photographers use the theater of the street as their subject matter, transforming the pathos, tension, mystery, and inadvertent humor of real life into images of drama and insight into the human condition. The last great generation of street photographers rose to prominence in the 1960s, but over the past 25 years, the style has seen most of its prestige and influence drain away.

Two key figures of that '60s generation have been the subjects of major exhibitions in New York this year. A comprehensive examination of the work of Diane Arbus appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the spring, and just days after it ended, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened a 500-image retrospective of Lee Friedlander's career that continues through the summer. (See accompanying review.) The exhibitions offer an opportunity to reflect on changes in the art world, specifically on the status of street photographers.

Such photography, though related to photojournalism and documentary, is a distinct art form concerned less with events and appearances than with the poetic irony of public life. The practice is "one of the greatest traditions in [the medium]," says Colin Westerbeck, coauthor of "Bystander: A History of Street Photography," with photographer Joel Meyerowitz. Mr. Westerbeck paraphrases Ezra Pound's observation about poetry to define street photography: "It's news that stays news - these are pictures that continue to tell us about the culture long after the events they're involved with have faded."

Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, notes that "the vernacular world" is a continual source of inspiration. "It's rich and complex and unpredictable and pleasurable. Figuring out a way to apply your personal vision to what's out there - to carve out your own patterns - is the challenge of the street photographer."

The pantheon of past masters includes Eugene Atget, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Frank. Despite such a rich heritage, newcomers to the tradition are ignored by, or unwelcome in, museums, galleries, and auction houses today.

In their place is a spectrum of Post-Modernists who shun the old school. From Cindy Sherman's costumed self-portraits to Andreas Gursky's minimalist, digitally-manipulated landscapes to the self-conscious, surreal tableaux of Gregory Crewdson, cutting-edge photography now casts the artist in the role of director, staging pictures for the camera or creating them inside the computer.

Contemporary photography has become hot in the art market. In 1996, a complete set of Sherman's Film Stills series was purchased by MoMA for $1 million. One of Gursky's mural-sized color prints sold for more than $600,000 in 2002.

Meanwhile, Bazan's dramatic, soulful images have yet to attract a dealer, and most of his income is earned teaching workshops.

"Obscurity is the price we need to pay," says Bazan of himself and other street shooters in the current climate. He is unmoved by the work of most Post-Modernists. "In galleries today there's almost nothing worth seeing, it's all appearance. The photography doesn't go deep enough. It stays on the surface."

With street photography, he says, "You really have to show your soul, the way your eyes see the place. It's life - raw life. It's the most difficult genre of photography ... because we cannot stop the flow of life.

"The idea is to go out with just one camera and a few rolls and get into the flow and see if I can find something interesting. I want to feel connected to life. Empathy is essential."

Bazan divides his time between Brooklyn, N.Y., and Havana, Cuba, where he has spent several years applying his street-photography style to record the island's rural inhabitants. He calls his quarter-century career "a divine calling," buoyed by "sheer passion and love for photography."

"The greatest expectation is that [the work] will be a record of a unique time in history for future generations to say, 'Yes, it was like that,'" he says.

A sense of bearing witness also motivates New Yorker Melanie Einzig, who came to street photography after rejecting the intellectual detachment of Post-Modernism. As a graduate art student at New York University, she recalls, "it was so uncool to do anything like street photography." Once a professor criticized her street shots, asking dismissively, "Why do I care about these people?"