On the Street

I used to think of myself as a street photographer, but sometimes I think I’ve got over it, or at least a certain perception of it. Back in the seventies and eighties there was perhaps a sense of adventure in going out with a camera and an empty mind on to the streets and shooting, perhaps feeling one was following in the footsteps of guys like Cartier-Bresson, Frank and Winogrand (very different though they were.) But now it too often seems to me pointless and lacking in intention, chasing a rather empty if occasionally highly graphic kind of imagery that has little to say.

Of course there is good street photography around. I admire the work of a number of people from the last decade or so, including friends of mine such as Sam Tanner, Paul Baldesare and the late Jim Barron, little of which is available on the web. More recently I commented here on a roll of film by  Sang Tan, and there is more of his fine photography in this tradition on his web site. Another interesting photographer in this tradition is Brian David Stevens, and he regularly posts work on his Drifting Camera blog. And although I seldom feel inclined to wade through the mountains of mediocrity that make up Flickr, you can come across something that has a freshness and originality there too.

Years ago I remember a photographer (it could have been Leonard Freed) talking about the work of Henry Cartier-Bresson, and referring to a whole section of his output as ‘waiters‘. These were pictures where the photographer had clearly seen the visual potential of a particular view and had then stood there and waited for the right person to come into the view and put themselves in the right place. It was an insight that greatly clarified for me the dissatisfaction that I felt with some of the master’s work, images that I frankly found rather boring but had not dared say so. The images of his that I loved, that struck me deeply, were those that were ‘taken on the run’, moments stolen from the flux.

The current 10th anniversary show at Photofusion in Brixton by members of the street photography web site inPublic isn’t a bad show, and there is plenty of good work. It’s worth a trip to Brixton for the panel by French-born Christophe Agou who now lives in New York, work from his Life below (1998-2001) on the New York subway which owes a little to  Walker Evans’s ‘Many are Called‘ but takes it to a very different and more personal level.

There are pictures in the show that amuse me, that intrigue me and a few that I wish I had taken, but there are also rather too many that – like HCB’s ‘waiters’ rather bore me, and too many that I feel I’ve seen too many times before.

And it did seem to me that relatively little on the wall was really new or at the boundaries of the tradition and rather too much that was safe and harking back (and at times more ‘pictorial’ than ‘street’.) Where, where were the enfants terrible pushing at the limits, exploring the new possibilities of the medium? By the time I reached the end of the show I was longing for some really bad photography just to liven things up.

Street photography as we know it of course owes a great debt to New York, from some of the pioneers around the Photo League in the 40s and 50s and a show that I would like to see is coming on shortly at the Met there, ‘Hipsters, Hustlers, and Handball Players: Leon Levinstein’s New York Photographs, 1950–1980′, work that remains considerably more radical than anything on show in Brixton. You can see some examples of his work at the Stephen Daiter Gallery site. The first photographer whose colour street photography moved me to think about its possibilities was another New Yorker, Joel Meyerowitz, who often roamed the city’s streets with Garry Winogrand, and you can see a good selection of Meyerowitz’s work on  iN-PublicBruce Gilden from Brooklyn is another great street photographer, with plenty of work on his Magnum pages.

I’m not always a fan of curators (not least because so many have proved so bad) but this would have been a rather better show had the pictures been selected by a suitable despot, preferably one with a proven record as a street photographer as well as a curator.  Street photography needs more edge.

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