INNER-ENVIRONS OF THE STREET PHOTOGRAPHER
Susan Sontag relates the shifts in perception concerning the role of the photographer in the early part of the 20th century, stating, “By the 1920s the photographer had become a modern hero, like the aviator and the anthropologist—without necessarily having to leave home.” Yet the street photographer of the 1950s and 1960s is a more complex beast—not quite moral arbiter or social advocate or photojournalist—rather the street photographer owned a personality planted firmly in the murk of ambiguity.
Julien Levy characterized seminal street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work as “amoral photography, equivocal, ambivalent, anti-plastic, accidental photography.”
We can appreciate, in this sense, Maier’s tenderness and empathy evident in her portraits of children and minorities,
and at the same time her somewhat menacing, voyeuristic presence, as the encroaching shadow of her hat confronts a sleeping sunbather in rollers on a beach towel, for example.
Or the craggy lady in cat-eye glasses, face aghast at Maier’s brazen documentation, with Diary of a Housewife emblazoned on the placard behind her.
This and other images of Maier’s photo subjects jolted into the self-awareness that they are in fact photographic subjects seem reminiscent of the obviously irritated expressions of the couple on the hill in Robert Frank’s iconic photograph San Francisco, 1956:
Frank remarked on this photograph—his “favorite photograph of all”—“It is an invasion of people in their private lives and they were just looking at the view. So was I.”
Conversation between Colin Westerbeck, associate curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Joel Meyerowitz, master street photographer:
Westerbeck: Winogrand seemed to be happiest when he confronted a wall of humanity surging down the street. He threw himself into it.
Meyerowitz: Yes! It’s like going into the sea and letting the waves break over you. You feel the power of the sea. On the street each successive wave brings a whole new cast of characters. You take wave after wave. You bathe in it…
The nature of street photography, with its emphasis on informality, speed, randomness and anonymity perhaps created an open invitation for the fleetingness and anonymity of street photographers themselves. Eloquently stated by Colin Westerbeck, “The evanescence of the image might be thought of as reflecting the anonymity of the photographer himself.”
Clive Scott remarks that the “staccato, jotted style” of the street photograph reflects the very walking patterns of street life. Not only did Maier learn English from the movies; it also seems fitting that Maier, with her abiding love for the cinema, produced street photography specifically—its blurs, speed, repetition and serial images are so much a part of the movie aesthetic.
THE EVOLUTION OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
Cinema further influences contemporary photographers such as Jeff Wall. In an interview with Els Barents, Wall discusses cinema as a “performing picture”, commenting, “I think that cinematography is aesthetically more developed than the more spontaneous photographic aesthetic, the one identified with Cartier-Bresson, for example. The reliance on immediate spontaneity thins out the image, reduces the level at which the permanent dialectic between essence and appearance operates in it.” One can witness Wall’s staged “decisive moment” in works such as Mimic and Milk.
Jeff Wall, Milk
Michael Fried cites two other artists who have envisioned again the medium of street photography—Beat Streuli
Beat Streuli, Bruxelles Midi
and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who implemented a novel use of flashlights and camera/radio signals on the street to highlight certain passersby—his own sort of “theatrical lighting.”
Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Los Angeles
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Please visit our blog site again soon; next week, I will feature an interview with John Maloof, the marvelous excavator of the Maier treasure trove!
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The staff at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. seeks to fully understand the arts in their particular cultural contexts and to analyze relationships between various artistic mediums and genres; in this way we can broaden our expertise as art appraisers. We are located just steps from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center; please do give us a ring to set up an appointment for a verbal evaluation of your most prized works of art.
Researched and written by Jessica Savitz
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Foot notes/Works cited:
Brougher, Kerry. Jeff Wall. Los Angeles; The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1997.
Ferguson, Russell. Open City: Street Photographs Since 1950, New York: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2001.
Fried, Michael. Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Meyerowitz, Joel and Westerbeck, Colin. Bystanders: A History of Street Photography. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
Scott, Clive. Street Photography from Atget to Cartier-Bresson. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: The Noonday Press, 1973, 89-90.
John Maloof, from his blog: http://www.vivianmaier.blogspot.com/
 All Vivian Maier images from John Maloof’s blog http://www.vivianmaier.blogspot.com/
 Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: The Noonday Press, 1973, 89-90.
 Ferguson, Russell. Open City: Street Photographs Since 1950, New York: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2001, 10.
 Meyerowitz, Joel and Westerbeck, Colin. Bystanders: A History of Street Photography. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994. Preface, conversation.
 Meyerowitz 35.
 Scott, Clive. Street Photography from Atget to Cartier-Bresson. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007, 3.
 Brougher, Kerry. Jeff Wall. Los Angeles; The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1997, 35-6.
 Fried, Michael. Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before. New Haven: Yale University Press, 252-254.