Streetwise

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 11.06.33“I believe that street photography is central to the issue of photography—that it is purely photographic, whereas the other genres, such as landscape and portrait photography, are a little more applied, more mixed in with the history of painting and other art forms.” – Joel Meyerowitz 

 One of my recent pastimes has been studying the motivation and techniques of street photographers – those urban man watchers par excellence – through the medium of documentary. The film Joel Meyerowitz 1981 Street Photography, is an excellent case in point. Meyerowitz is one of the greats in this realm (see the famously polysemous Paris photo above) – as he is also, indeed, in large-format landscape photography – and we see him in this rough-and-ready shoot standing on a New York street corner and brazenly photographing anything that catches his eye. He says at one point “It took me a long time to realise you could stand still” – a good point, since the street photographer has a choice between moving through the crowd or standing still and allowing the crowd to wash around him. In common with Vivian Maier (viz the wonderful recent documentary, Finding Vivian Maier), there is nothing furtive about the way he takes pictures – though some street photographers opt for a surreptitious approach. It is in-your-face, though so instantaneous that with a blink of the eye you could miss it. Sometimes, consequently, his subjects are entirely oblivious, while others play up to the attention in ways that can sometimes make a good photo.
 
As someone once said, when people see a photographer, they see the lens, not the person behind it – and their first thought is often about how they will appear. Indeed, producing a camera at a gathering – any gathering – immediately changes the human electricity, as if you are conferring an importance on the people present, and the moment, which wasn’t there before – and this despite the fact that today everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times.
 
Meyerowitz lives off the energy of the street, like a predator hovering over his prey and then swooping on it at the click of the shutter. Taking a photograph, in this respect, is a very concrete manifestation of what we call a “split-second decision”. He says: “Photography is a response that has to do with the momentary recognition of things. Suddenly you’re alive. A minute later there was nothing there. I just watched it evaporate. You look one moment and there’s everything, next moment it’s gone. Photography is very philosophical.” 
 
It’s also about being there. The hunter who stays at home is no hunter. The photographer who does not venture out, purposefully seeking subject-matter, is no photographer – unless his or her subject-matter happens to be at home. In the words of Jay Maisel, “If you’re out there, shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not there, you’ll only hear about it.” Diane Arbus concurs: “My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been”. She is the subject of the documentary Going Where I’ve Never Been: The Photography of Diane Arbus which takes us beyond the “freak show” clichés about her work into a mind that engaged fully with its subjects and their predicaments, while not – as one might have imagined – seeking shock tactics. Arbus again, “A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.”
 
Another in my miscellany of favourite documentaries about photographers would be The Many Lives of William Klein. Klein’s photographs of New York and Paris street life – not to mention his films – are the work of someone with a superbly whip-smart eye. Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank stand alongside him. The short film The Decisive Moment, narrated by Cartier-Bresson, is a good point of entry into the latter’s motivations and ways of seeing, particularly interesting for his thoughts on geometry. The short documentary Fire in The East is a suitable “beat” oriented introduction to Robert Frank. Though Klein also photographed in London and Tokyo, it is New York and Paris that are most associated with this strange art. Why is that?
 
Other revealing documentaries about individual photographers are Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye, Bill Cunningham’s New York, The Real Weegee and William Eggleston In The Real World. With a few exceptions, the photographs of the latter are the apotheosis of banality, that “Who would photograph that?” moment. While definitely the curator of a certain kind of Americana – a pale and hollow echo of David Lynch, less darkly potent – he is the living proof of what you can get away with in a culture that venerates and enshrines images, sometimes for the most arbitrary reasons. The fact that he was exhibited and praised at an early age by John Szarkowski, Photography Director at MOMA, conferred an academic stamp of approval on him that is, to say the least, questionable. A picture may speak a thousand words, but it helps if photographers are eloquent about their art. Eggleston is so affectedly inarticulate that he has to have subtitles, though what he actually says is so dull that it’s hardly worth reading them.
 
Nowhere more than in street photography does rapid decision-making, sheer chutzpah and a high-adrenaline scanning of all horizons for the visual quarry come into its own. Nothing is “set up”, ideally (and with notorious exceptions) – it is the raw vernacular, the potluck, the awkwardness, and hugely serendipitous nature of the enterprise that appeals, and its dependence not on technical wizardry but the alacrity of the human eye and brain, the instant response to the emotional energy of a given ephemeral vision. As Dorothea Lange said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera”. This too comes across in my pick of top street photography documentaries – the fact that photography fosters an extreme acuity of vision. He who hesitates is lost. As a predator will lose its prey if it hangs back an instant, so the moment is fugitive, there to be snapped up, a fraction of a second away from being lost forever. Hence, if you want to learn what a photographer fears losing, watch what they photograph…
 
Stieglitz: “Photography is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”
 
Despite Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, despite the vast democratisation of photography, this is still an incredibly elusive art – when it is an art, and not just a technology. What differentiates a bad photo from a good one? Robert Frank gets close to an answer when he says “When people look at my pictures, I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line lof a poem twice.” 
 
And to come full circle, Meyerowitz once again:
 
“What I think is so extraordinary about the photograph is that we have a piece of paper with this image adhered to it, etched on it, which interposes itself into the plane of time that we are actually in at that moment. Even if it comes from as far back as 150 years ago, or as recently as yesterday, or a minute before as a Polaroid color photograph, suddenly you bring it into your experience. You look at it, and all around the real world is humming, buzzing and moving, and yet in this little frame there is stillness that looks like the world. That connection, that collision, that interfacing, is one of the most astonishing things we can experience.” 
© 2020 Adrian Mathews