street photography: style & substance

Is street photography dead? Or has it reinvented itself, adeptly transformed in the hands of the Instagram-addicted, forever keeping visual pace of every momentary shift in the landscape, uploaded and preserved in the digital-forever.

The more I learn about photography’s history, the more conflicted I feel about referring to myself a so-called “street photographer.” I struggle to find meaning in adding to the glut of digital observations on Instagram. And yet I still post carefully selected shots. I admit I’m hyper-nostalgic for the work of mid-20th century street photographers like Garry Winogrand, Saul Leiter and Helen Levitt, and I’m sure fragments of their influence is visible in my work. I think street photography is reinventing itself on a daily basis with every Instagram post and in the hands of every kid who is deciding right this minute that they might be able to make poetry with their smartphone. In the words of Cartier-Bresson: “Poetry includes two elements which are suddenly in conflict — a spark between two elements.”[1]

in the vertical city

When I want to shoot “street”, I find myself turning to New York for inspiration. Long have I, to use Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted phrase, gone “botanizing on the asphalt” [2] and delighted at the so-called New York moments that present themselves with a regularity that simply doesn’t occur in other cities. And yet today, it’s a common refrain that New York does not offer the photographic opportunities that were a common occurrence back when the joint was dirty and fabulous. But I think its about knowing where to look. And more importantly, how to look.

I cannot separate the idea of “street photography” from the streets themselves. In her book “Wanderlust” Rebecca Solnit calls New York “emblematic — the capital of the twentieth century, as Paris had been of the nineteenth century.”[3] This seems to parallel the history of street photography, with Atget shooting pragmatically and exquisitely in 19th century Paris long before Cartier-Bresson opened his eyes to the decisive moment. The latter would visit and document New York alongside other great shooters like Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt and Walker Evans, all of whom supplied ample evidence of New York’s visual supremacy. And all laid the groundwork for the kind of street photography we feel nostalgic for, its very soul reflected in the vertical city’s ability to throw its population into the streets, the wealthy rubbing elbows with the working class, all dwarfed by its looming skyscrapers which still make one feel tiny and insignificant, thrust into concrete canyons that overwhelm the senses.

Nowhere else on earth has a population been so visible, so eclectic, and so easy to document. “New York, with…its famous toughness is a masculine city…Before World War II, Berenice Abbott roamed New York’s streets photographing buildings, and after it, Helen Levitt photographed children playing in the streets while Weegee photographed the underworld of fresh corpses on sidewalks and prostitutes in paddy wagons. One imagines them wandering purposefully like hunter-gatherers with the camera a sort of basket laden with the day’s spectacles, the photographers leaving us not their walks, as poets do, but the fruits of these walks.”[4] New York was, is and always will be a city of people who prefer to roam its sidewalks. The street culture is informed by time spent away from home in apartments too tiny to hold the big personalities of their inhabitants. New York invites its population to wander, to consume, to see and be seen, whether on the way to and from work or just drifting about. “Yet those who drift are not passive”[5] and nothing could be truer than the demonstrated behavior of New Yorkers on the streets. With them, we see the private in public as well as the purely performative aspect of their behavior. When New Yorkers cruise the streets, they unleash their vivid personalities as well as laying claim to the sidewalks. What more could a street photographer ask for?

New York street photography found some of its roots in The Photo League, active from 1936 until 1951. Most members were Jewish, and they were interested in documenting the immigrant experience from a socially responsible and objective viewpoint. Like flâneurs, these photographers mapped out the city, “disseminating a form of urban historical knowledge, imparting understanding about the city’s physical spaces and more importantly, offering an intimate portrait of its people.”[6] As a group, they are a great example of street photographers as ethnographers, beginning a preoccupation with photographing society’s “others.” We can see the insider / outsider paradigm manifesting itself within this group whose members included Lisette Model (not quite the lone female in the group but close). “We frequently assume authenticity and truth to be located on the inside (the truth of the subject), and at the same time, we routinely — culturally — locate and define objectivity… in conditions of exteriority, of non-implication.”[7]

Invariably, the street photographer is an outsider, willfully roaming the sidewalks and stalking his or her prey. That doesn’t sound very socially responsible, does it? But then, so much of street photography isn’t. Ethical considerations abound in the documenting of people on the street. Many street photographers think nothing of throwing a camera into the face of an unsuspecting passerby –aptly and aggressively demonstrated by photographer Bruce Gilden in the documentary “Everybody Street.” I found myself unnerved by Gilden’s technique of shooting, mostly because I also shoot people without their permission, due more my shyness and my willingness to recognize a moment passing too quickly. But in Gilden’s case, he seems more interested in generating images that have the air of extreme spectacle as opposed to thoughtful observation.

Street photographers are tireless drifters, participating in their own version of “the dérive…a technique for moving quickly through varied environments. It is a technique of transience, devoted to places themselves transient, like the passages (Walter) Benjamin was once so fond of.”[8] Benjamin’s “Arcades Project” is regularly cited in any discussion that involves walking and observing, making it fairly easy to conflate street photographers with ethnographers and flâneurs. “The figure of the flâneur has seduced us, and the romantic aura which surrounds him permeates our readings of street photography… (This figure) has proved so compelling to us… because he combines in himself the social scientist and the artist; that is, he transforms what he observes into art.”[9]

Martha Rosler, The Bowery in in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974–75)

subverting the spectacle

How ironic then that one of the most interesting street photography projects in New York was based upon the physical absence of its subject. Martha Rosler, in her work “The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems” (1974–5) created an act of underrepresentation that not only refused to show the victim (in this case, the classic Bowery bum, a lower Manhattan visual trope if ever there was one) but also refused the expectations of the viewer. “The usual pitiable subjects of documentary are reduced to a few traces… According to (Craig) Owens, Rosler ‘refused’ to picture those ‘twice victimized: first by society, and then by the photographer who presumes the right to speak on their behalf’’.”[10] Rosler calls into question the corruptible nature of street photography vis-à-vis the methodology of getting the picture. In essence, she sees all subjects as victims of the camera’s rapacious eye. In 1947, Cartier-Bresson transgressed to the most crude depiction of the “find a bum school of photography” and he did so in the Bowery, photographing a derelict lying in a stream of his own vomit. One can see how Rosler, a feminist, would happily repudiate this. “There is a strong, albeit contested, current within feminism which holds that speaking for others is arrogant, vain, unethical, and politically illegitimate.”[11] She made an outstanding document of street photography without showing a single person, which in New York is a radical choice of documentation. Her photos have the deadpan lack of aesthetic that owes much to Ed Ruscha (but without Ruscha’s sly winking). They conform to Susan Sontag’s description of the anti-aesthetic: “By flying low, artistically speaking, such pictures are thought to be less manipulative… Photographs that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful, as captions shouldn’t moralize. In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document. The photograph gives mixed signals. Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims What a spectacle!”[12]

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Bowery (1947)

I may be reaching, but Rosler accidently reminds me of Atget, whose slow shutter speeds rendered the streets of Paris empty of human traffic. Clearly her intention is different, but her pedestrian-free zone in the Bowery also points toward the permanence of its structures, something Atget would seek in Paris for purely aesthetic reasons. But Atget’s 8 x 10 camera would have gotten tripped over or nicked on the rough sidewalks of lower Manhattan. The rise of the Leica as the perfect hand held camera allowed the street photographer ultimate freedom in portability and quick feats of observation. The story of street photography is an exercise in technological determinism writ large.

Jamel Shabazz, Back in the Days (1975–1989)

styling the spectacle

Rosler’s Bowery series marks a transition between the street photography that arouses most of our feelings of nostalgia and the work that begins to confront us with a contemporary point of view, whether presented to us in a highly specific context or left to us to decode. In the early 1980’s, two prominent street photographers began to explore the dynamics of New York while maintaining a kind of delicate balance between being an insider and an outsider. Their photographs represent less of an intellectualized pursuit than the pursuit of expressive, personal style. I am speaking of Bill Cunningham and Jamel Shabazz. Both have worked in very different contexts and methodologies, but both were brilliant chroniclers of street fashion, Shabazz concentrating on the birth of the Hip-Hop scene in Brooklyn and Cunningham in his ongoing tenure as style photographer and commentator for the New York Times column “On the Street”. Both were creating work at the same time, except they would use very different parts of the city as their canvas. Cunningham stayed within the confines of Manhattan, anywhere his bike would take him. Shabazz concentrated his efforts in Flatbush. Their methodology stands in contrast: Cunningham shooting literally on the fly in classic street photographer lingua franca, jumping off his bike or waiting on street corners for the next extraordinary style peacock to stride by. Shabazz chose a more formal approach. He learned through trial and error (and danger) about the importance of asking: “I was criticized because people say my work is too posed but what it was with me was that I would ask, ‘With all due respect my name is Jamel Shabazz and may I take your photograph?’ … When I look at the smiles I see in my photographs, I know I created an atmosphere that made (my subjects) feel good. And it makes me feel good to know that I was able to do that.”[13]

Being African American didn’t automatically grant Shabazz insider status, as he explained in the documentary “Everybody Street.” He negotiated entrance into the various hip-hop communities by using psychology to flatter the “alpha males” which facilitatated further access into their world. “I knew that I had to approach (the alpha male) first and I would compliment him and say, ‘You know what? I’m looking at you and I recognize power and strength. I can tell that you are a very powerful person.’ And he would say ‘You know what? I am’.” [14] The result was a striking depiction of urban style and substance. These young men and women are iconic and their faces show the pleasure at Shabazz’ recognition of that. And while he may sound shrewd in his tactics, I would argue that every street photographer has at their hands their own will as the ultimate maneuvering tool. Not that there is anything wrong with that, to quote Jerry Seinfeld. (Unless, of course, you are Martha Rosler.)

Bill Cunningham, doing what he did best: still from the documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” (2011)

On the other hand, I find very little evidence to suggest that Bill Cunningham showed any traces of duplicity. It was not his nature given that the most extraordinary quality he possessed was his humility. While both he and Shabazz straddled the boundaries between being insider and outsider, Cunningham had the advantage of being a recognizable figure on the street after years of shooting. He was able to insinuate himself within close proximity of his subject: one that would instantly recognize that they were being paid the ultimate NYC tribute: being framed by the lens of a man whose knowledge about fashion is the stuff of legend. Even Vogue’s Anna Wintour quivered at the thought of being ignored by him. And yet he remained an elusive figure until his death in 2016. He was an outlier, unwilling to ingratiate himself with his subjects or those he worked for. His ethical stance was venerable: when Women’s Wear Daily recontextualized his photographs of how women on the street reinterpret high fashion, the editors chose to change Cunningham’s supportive text into that of ridicule. He was horrified when the piece ran and left WWD immediately. He couldn’t bear that those he had photographed would be left with the impression he had set out to mock them.

One of his hallmarks, which continued to his final “On the Street” column was a delightful egalitarianism. He was no fan of consumerism and his own values made their way into the column. He was only interested in the expressive personal style of his subjects, not in clothing labels, celebrity or social class. His photographs are not highly aesthetic affairs: he documented the rituals of street fashion with an informed eye. He did not consider himself a good photographer, yet behind the lens, he was swift and vigilant. “We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love … and those being photographed to be unaware of the camera, ‘off guard.’ No sophisticated sense of what photography is or can be will ever weaken the satisfaction of a picture of an unexpected event seized in mid-action by an alert photographer.”[15] Cunningham’s genius was to observe the street with an astute regard for the decisive moment in style, something that his imitators (who are legion) cannot quite grasp.

Meanwhile, in 2001 Shabazz’ photobook “Back in the Days” was finally released, almost 20 years after he began shooting in Flatbush. It was quickly apparent that the looks his subjects adopted were laying the groundwork for a whole vocabulary of Hip-Hop style. But like Cunningham’s work, the shots were not about style for style’s sake but clothing worn as a signifier of individuality. “ ‘He did with pictures what rappers did with words,’ hip-hop historian Bill Adler has explained. ‘He made these folks visible the way rap made them audible. He took everyday people and turned them into icons. Nobody told him to do this. He just went out and struck gold.’ ”[16] His photographs document a scene in its infancy, long before it had commodified itself, as go the way of many subcultures. Feeling the influence of Gordon Parks, Shabazz makes claims for social awareness with his work. He is as an equal advocate for racial justice and for the self-expression of his subjects.

Cunningham’s “On the Street” column, “Easter Parade Galore” (April 10, 2015)

Once again, we see in the work of Cunningham and Shabazz an excellent example of the photographer as ethnographer. Both modern flâneurs in their “botanizing on the asphalt,” though not necessarily “aimless” in their search for subjects in the city. They both excelled at collecting everyday observations about street style, even if Shabazz’ method was more formal and directed. Cunningham was the ultimate collector of data: “Most of my pictures are never published. I just document things I think are important… I suppose, in a funny way, I’m a record keeper. More than a collector. I’m very aware of things not of value but of historical knowledge.”[17]

Cunningham and Shabazz have created work that has influenced more recent documents of style. Shoichi Aoki’s “Fruits” a photobook of Tokyo street fashion has a direct anticedant in “Back in the Days.” It focuses on Japanese youths’ obsessive mode of outrageous dressing in the Harajuku district with strike-a-pose photographs that are not unlike Shabazz’ (though not nearly as good). Here the focus is more on style as opposed to its cultural relevance, which is a weakness in “Fruits.”

Ari Seth Cohen’s “Advanced Style” is also a direct descendant of “Back in the Days.” It feels much more thoughtful than “Fruits” as it includes a storytelling component which gives Cohen’s photographs of senior New Yorkers in fantastic clothes a rich sense of context. I believe it is the contextual observations that have allowed Cohen to venture out from the blog he started in 2008 to creating both a photobook (2012) and a documentary (2014) about his much loved seniors. Praise for “Advanced Style” revolves around Cohen’s ethnographic observation on ageing and identity. Perhaps Cohen is not only a descendant of Shabazz but also of the New York Photo League. His representation and dialogue conforms well to Linda Alcoff’s definition of “speaking with” rather than “speaking for” the seniors he profiles.[18]

Ari Seth Cohen “Advanced Style” (2013)

Shabazz remains to this day a hard act to follow. But then so is Cunningham, whose technique and viewpoint have been oft imitated, alas few style bloggers attempt to create typologies that are as incisive as his. In fact, given the glut of street style photography, the form has become reduced to banality. Whether it is the fault of the low hanging fruit of the cult of the individual or the proliferation of style-devoted Instagram accounts, the fact remains: when people wear what is trending as opposed to what makes them individual, there is little that is interesting to document. The average style shooter doesn’t have the gift of nuanced vision that Cunningham had. He was without peer, the only game in town when it came to documenting street style with absolute authority. He was one of the very few to keep street photography viable in New York City in the 21st century. I wish he could have lived forever.

conclusion

While today’s New York has commodified itself into a posh playground for the elite, the streets still retain some of the eclecticism that always made the city a vibrant place for street photography. It is not the New York that Garry Winogrand shot. Nor is it the New York that Martha Rosler shot. And yet I think it is still possible to alert oneself to the visual possibilities it offers. Street photographers working today would do themselves a favor to simply observe the practical exercises prescribed by pataphysician Georges Perec in his 1974 essay “The Street:”

Observe the street, from time to time, with some concern for system perhaps.

Apply Yourself. Take your time.

Note down the place… the time… the date… the weather…

Note down what you can see.

Anything worthy of note going on.

Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note?

Is there anything that strikes you?

Nothing strikes you. You don’t know how to see.

You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly….

Carry on.[19]

The act of observation holds the key to great street photography. The act of exploration unlocks it. The city streets are always available for us to shoot. And there is never any better time than the present to go botanizing on the asphalt.

Stephanie Power

[1] Colin Westerbeck & Joel Meyerowitz, Bystander: A History of Street Photography, (New York: Bulfinch Press, 1994), 159

[2] Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire” In Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (London: Verso Books, 1983), 36.

[3] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 189–90

[4] Ibid. 189–90

[5] Vincent Kaufmann “The Poetics of the Dérive” in “The Everyday” ed. Stephen Johnstone (Cambridge: Documents in Contemporary Art, The MIT Press, 2008), 96

[6] Beth S. Wenger “Mapping the City: A Response to Deborah Dash Moore’s ‘On City Streets’” In Contemporary Jewry, Volume 28, Issue 1. (Netherlands: Springer, December 2008), 111

[7] Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Inside/Out//1994,” In The Everyday, ed. Stephen Johnstone (Cambridge: Documents in Contemporary Art, The MIT Press, 2008), 196

[8] Vincent Kaufmann “The Poetics of the Dérive” In The Everyday, ed. Stephen Johnstone (Cambridge: Documents in Contemporary Art, The MIT Press, 2008), 96

[9] Judith L. Goldstein “The Flâneur, the Street Photographer and Ethnographic Practice” In Contemporary Jewry, Volume 28, Issue 1. (Netherlands: Springer, December 2008), 122–23

[10] Steve Edwards “Inadequate Descriptions.” In Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. (London: Afterall Books, 2012), 7

[11] Linda Alcoff “The Problem of Speaking for Others” In Cultural Critique. Winter. (NC: Oxford University Press, 1991) 23

[12] Susan Sontag. Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 19, 56

[13] Jamel Shabazz in “Everybody Street” directed by Cheryl Dunn, An Alldayeveryday Film, 2013

[14] ibid.

[15] Susan Sontag. Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 39

[16] Caroline Stanley “Jamal Shabazz Street Snaps of 80’s Brooklyn” Flavorwire, 19 December, 2011

[17] Bill Cunningham, “Bill on Bill,” New York Times, 27 October 2002

[18] Linda Alcoff “The Problem of Speaking for Others” In Cultural Critique. Winter. (NC: Oxford University Press, 1991), 23

[19] George Perec “The Street // 1974” In The Everyday, ed. Stephen Johnstone (Cambridge: Documents in Contemporary Art, (The MIT Press, 2008), 105.

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