Discovering art in plain sight
Street photography has fallen out of favor in art circles, but the tradition is kept alive by dedicated shooters.
NEW YORK — 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.
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?"
Ms. Einzig's photographs combine social conscience with artistic expression. "I'm trying to work out who we are as Americans, and how we display ourselves in public," she says, "I feel a responsibility to make historical documents."
Einzig notes that workshops she conducts attract amateur photographers of all backgrounds. "There are a lot of young people [who] really want to do street photography," she says. Could the pendulum swing back to embrace the street ethos? "I'd like to think so," says Einzig. "I think people are hungry to feel that connection."
Both Westerbeck and Ms. Tucker see threats to street photography, however. Journals and book publishers that provide outlets for such work are diminishing.
More onerous are post-9/11 restrictions that have placed limits on photographing in public settings. Tucker has received e-mails from professionals detained by authorities for photographing bridges and elevated trains. "There are places where photographing people on the street may become illegal," observes Westerbeck.
"I would miss [street photography] if it disappeared," says Tucker. "I would desperately miss it if there were no more men and women engaging in the world as it exists. It'd be like reading only fiction."
It's hard to think of a more prolific career in photography than Lee Friedlander's. The retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art spans 49 years and contains nearly 500 black-and-white images. It's an impressive display of his work ethic, one that's matched by the sustained quality of the pictures.
Exhibition organizer and MoMA chief photography curator Peter Galassi has left nothing out, following his subject across the American landscape and to far corners of the globe. Beginning on the sidewalks of New York, Friedlander roamed large cities and small towns, aiming his lens at factory workers, monuments, suburban tracts, vacant lots, cherry trees, and cactus flowers. His "Letters from the People" is a moving primer of letters and numbers, words and sentences harvested from billboards, posters, and graffiti. The show contains intimate pictures of friends and family, and no artist since Rembrandt has been as adamant about self-portraits, and none more inventive.
Friedlander found his mature style in the early 1960s, before he was 30. He has been remarkably consistent throughout his career. Various pictorial strategies - weird reflections, clipped figures, sardonic juxtapositions - appear throughout the exhibition. Even as he repeated himself, Friedlander, like a great blues musician, grew more expressive.
He came to prominence with a satirical, deadpan brand of street photography, pictures that were about nothing and everything, like dispatches from an outsider who can't tell what's important from what's trivial. This early work was leavened by a visual whimsy (a sense of humor that later disappeared). A businessman in front of a high wall doesn't notice the comic-book question mark over his head; a mini-skirted woman behind a glass door can't see the Diner's Club decal positioned like a fig leaf; a cloud shaped like three scoops of ice cream balances on a traffic sign.
The show also offers a new series of densely beautiful tree photographs, tight crisscross views of branches, bark, leaves, and needles, shot in bright light so that everything's in focus.
The resulting images are as flat and tangled as Jackson Pollock paintings, and more complex - Abstract Expressionist nature studies. After a half-century, Friedlander still has the power to astonish the eye.
1899 At 42, former actor Eugene Atget begins photographing turn-of-the-century Paris. His work, rescued from oblivion in 1925, continues to influence photographers today.
1916 Paul Strand produces a series of candid street portraits, including "Blind Woman," and exhibits them as art photography in New York.
1925 The Leica, the first practical 35- mm camera, introduced in Germany.
1938 "American Photographs," Walker Evans's groundbreaking exhibition and book, is presented by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1947 Magnum Photo Agency, which went on to support many street photographers' careers, is founded.
1952 "The Decisive Moment" by Henri Cartier-Bresson is published in France.
1959 Swiss photographer Robert Frank's book "The Americans" is published in US to critical controversy.
1967 Exhibition "New Documents" at MoMA features work by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand.