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BOOK REVIEW: STREET PHOTOGRAPHY NOW

 

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 5 JULY 2011 — In their new book, Street Photography Now (Thames & Hudson, 204 pages), co-authors Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren offer a visual survey of current practitioners of the art of spontaneous photography. The accompanying text is particularly strong for books of this type, which can all too often seem more about giving gravitas to coffee tables than to advancing the understanding of an art form.

The authors appear to define their terms literally. Although street photography is probably more often called documentary photography (or at the very least, subsumed within its definition), the works chosen by the authors are mainly depictions of urban scenes, made outdoors. That brings a kind of unity, even though the photographers represented in the book are from all over the world, as are the scenes they record and interpret. Also contributing to a common look is that the photographs selected by the authors are, to use a slippery word, hip. As the authors explain their philosophy, "A great street photograph must elicit more than a quick glance and moment of recognition from the viewer. A sense of mystery and intrigue should remain, and what is withheld is often as important as what is revealed." That is not quite accurate for all such work, but it does well describe the pieces selected for the book.


Paul Russell: Charity, Bournemouth, 2006
From Street Photography Now
Photo: Courtesy of Thames & Hudson

Many of the photographers represented in the book have picked up the scent from staged photography and moved into a kind of abstraction — giving the enigmatic quality to their work that the authors say they prize. That is particularly evident in the images of the Danish photographer Nils Jorgensen of his adopted city, London — a place that is normally quite difficult to photograph because Londoners will go out of their way not to show emotion in public. You can also see it in the images of Swiss-born Frederic Lezmi — color photographs of Eastern Europe and the Near East that don’t quite reveal what they are about at first glance.

Classic street photography doctrine holds that photographs should be seen in monochrome. There are good reasons for that. The main aesthetic reason is that black and white, by its abstraction of the polychrome world, helps turn the image into something more than reportage. The Shanghai photographer Ying Tang presents classic black and white images in the tradition of the great European street photographers of the last century. Bruce Gilden is given space to channel the spirits of two departed American predecessors, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus, in several pugnacious black and white images of New York City and one of a pair of Japanese gangsters. Ironically, it is the two yakuza who show nuance of expression. The ugliness of most of the New Yorkers is stark, but it is easier to show the carnival of the street than it is to show its poetry. Conversely, and to be fair, when humanity inhabits neutral ground, it can offer up dull subjects to the photographer.


Polly Braden: Night Walk, Xiamen, China 2007
From Street Photography Now
Photo: Courtesy of Thames & Hudson

A Sunday in the park with the gentle middle class can produce interesting photography, but strong images will more likely emerge from time spent with factory workers and miners (ask the Brazilian master Sebastião Salgado) or socialites and their escorts (just trust me on that).

The primary aesthetic reason why color is so hard to use is that the uncontrollable nature of the subject makes delivering the work in color particularly challenging. (The secret, for those photographers willing to give it a try: use a restricted palate; colors make the image strong when there are not too many of them.) Because major alterations in Photoshop — the staged photograph’s best friend — would be like cheating, the street photographer has to accept the colors that he is given, and colors in real urban life rarely cooperate the way that they need to in order to create a visual unity. Knowing that makes the color work of the English photographer Paul Russell all the more impressive: his images of English coastal resorts are built upon a strong but skillfully spare use of color. The distinguished New York photographer Joel Meyerowitz takes a similar approach to color, with equally good results, with images as diverse as a photograph of the discovery of bodies in the wreckage of The World Trade Center after 9/11 to two detached and somewhat distant views of ordinary life in the city.


Maciej Dakowicz: 23:42, Pink Hat, Cardiff, 2006
From Street Photography Now
Photo: Courtesy of Thames & Hudson

In one of their expositive intermezzos, the authors theorize about why Paris and New York were long considered "the urban centres of street photography." They conclude that was in part because"[b]oth cities exuded confidence" and because "[t]heir city centres were stylishly designed." Close, but not totally correct. The reason that Paris and New York are still the best places to work as a street photographer is because New Yorkers and Parisians are not afraid to tell you their personal stories in their faces and gestures.

From a mixture of urban discontent, a touch of style, a bit of grit and the occasional whiff of chic is a street photographer’s heaven born.

That is because, in the end, street photography is about people — not the conjured-up people who live in worlds of the photographer’s imagination but authentic people who populate authentic places. If all that is not the groundwork for a great and sustainable art, nothing is.

Street Photography Now
By Sophie Howarth  and Stephen McLaren

Hardcover: 240 pages
Thames & Hudson (October 2010)
ISBN-10: 0500543933
ISBN-13: 978-0500543931
$45.00

Alan Behr is co-head of the Art Law Practice at Alston & Bird LLP.  A member of the American Society of Media Photographers, his most recent exhibition of photographs was Naked at the Ball, at Leica Gallery in New York City.

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