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Contemporary Street Photography

In this post I take a brief tour of contemporary street photography and consider the difference colour has made to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white; look at the shift away from the influence of surrealism; and consider the use of irony to comment on cultural values.

Source: In-public.com, by Joel Meyerowitz
Source: In-public.com, by Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz (b 1938) is considered to be one of the pioneers in the use of the colour in the genre. While he was influenced by the black and white work of Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson (Westerbeck Jr C), he explains that he did not even think about whether to use colour film or black and white. “The world was in colour. It was just so obvious to me. I had no idea people were snobbish about colour. To me, black and white just seemed back there, historical.” (O’Hagan S). I think a significant aspect of the surreal quality of black and white street photographs lies in the fact that they have no colour and that is not how we consciously see the world. Meyerowitz’s work is full of the light, colour and structural patterns of NYC. Many of the images feature saturated blocks of colour, perhaps echoing the bright-lights of the advertising hoards.  The work also makes use of irony; for example in an image of a besuited man who has tripped and lies on his back on the edge of the road, we do not expect to see a workman stepping over the man as if he were a piece of litter. This element adds irony to what would otherwise just be an unfortunate event – New Yorkers too busy with their own business to help the businessman.

Source: MoMa.com, by Helen Levitt
Source: moma.com, by Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt (1913 – 2009) was, like Meyerowitz a New York based photographer. Looking at her online collection of work at MoMa it is apparent that even when colour photography had been established, she still chose to work often in black and white. This is a contrast to Meyerowitz’s contemporary work, which seems to be entirely in colour. However, Johnson tells us that the first decade of Levitt’s colour work (slides) was stolen and never recovered; so perhaps the balance between colour and black and white images maybe have been different if this had not happened. Levitt’s use of colour is far more subdued that Meyerowitz’s, as are her subjects – she seems more concerned with the quieter moments of everyday life than the chaos of the city. I did not see the use of irony in her work, which has a gentle lyrical quality rather than a brash, poking approach.

Source: moma.com, by Joel Sternfield
Source: moma.com, by Joel Sternfield

Joel Sternfield (b 1944) was also a pioneer of the use of colour photography outside of advertising. His images make a subtle, understated use of colour and often capture the banal – there is nothing of Cartier-Bresson’s coming together of geometry in a decisive moment to make images that are compelling through their lines and shapes. The use of colour, however, adds another dimension that too draws us to the images.

Source: bbc.com, by Paul Graham
Source: bbc.com, by Paul Graham

Coombes in his BBC article explains that Paul Graham was one of a small group of British photographers fighting against the predominance of black and white documentary photography in the 1970s. One has to look hard into this image of a roundabout in Belfast to understand what it is about (and perhaps it doesn’t lend itself well to the small screen). There is a soldier running across the scene; Graham is showing us something that we might miss, a reflection on the UK’s surveillance society. In his image, bus converted to café, there is a strong sense of irony – a mode of public transport has been converted into a road-side café in a lay-by. There are political connotations here, with the state and availability of public transport in the UK continually under debate. This is a very British topic, and I suspect the irony would not be appreciated for those living outside that context.

I would guess that Cartier-Bresson would not consider the Graham’s roundabout worthy of photographing – it does not present any of the virtues of composition and symmetry that were important to him. The photograph works at a different level, it is not so much concerned with aesthetics.

Source: martinparr.com, by Martin Parr
Source: martinparr.com, by Martin Parr

Martin Parr is a British photographer who shares a generous amount of information about his work and himself on his own website. His admission to Magnum was controversial amongst some existing members, including Cartier-Bresson; Parr tells the story:

Henri came to my Small World opening in Paris in 1995 and said I was from another planet! I always cherish this remark, and wrote back, I know what you mean, but why shoot the messenger?

Parr was inspired by Meyerowitz to make the change to colour photography and, like Meyerowitz, uses bright, saturated colours. He also now uses digital photography rather than colour film, explaining that his use of flash enables him to capture the same colour brightness. His photography is based around projects of everyday topics that interest him; The Last Resort is a reflection, often brutal, on the state of British seaside resorts that have fallen into a state of disrepair as air-travel to warmer climates became more affordable, leaving only those less fortunate behind. With Parr’s vivid use of colours, we do not expect to see holiday-makers surrounded by litter and decay, but rather something more promotional. There is something ironic in the use of bright colours to show low-class subjects in decaying surroundings.

There has been a strong shift in street photography from the capturing of a moment to create an aesthetically pleasing photo, towards one of social and political commentary. I can understand why Cartier-Bresson and Martin Parr would have clashed – they indeed are from ‘different planets’.

References 

Coombes P (2011).BBC [online]. Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-13133461

Howarth S and McLaren S (2010). Street photography now. Paperback ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

In-public [website]. Available at: http://www.in-public.com [accessed 17.10.15]

Johnson M (1992). Helen Levitt. Originally published in the American Camera & Darkroom magazine, in 1992. Available from: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/helen-levitt.html [accessed 17.10.15]

Martin Parr [website]. Available at: http://www.martinparr.com [accessed 18.10.15]

MoMa – Helen Levitt [online]. Available from: http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/3520 [accessed 17.10.15]

O’Hagan S (2012). The Guardian [online]. Joel Meyerowitz: ‘brilliant mistakes … amazing accidents’. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/nov/11/joel-meyerowitz-taking-my-time-interview [accessed 17.10.15]

Parr M (2008). The Last Resort. 2013 Edition, UK, Fourth Printing.

Westerbeck Jr C (1981). Joel Meyerowitz photographer [documentary]. Nimble Thimble Productions Inc. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDSGWy1CU78 [accessed 17.10.15]

Bibliography

Agee J (1946). Text from James Agee’s forward to A Way of Seeing. Available from: http://www.masters-of-photography.com/L/levitt/levitt_articles2.html [accessed 17.10.15]

MoMa [online]. Joel Sternfield collection. Available from: http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/5656?=undefined&page=1 [accessed 18.10.15]

O’Hagan S (2011). The Guardian [online]. Paul Graham: ‘The photography I most respect pulls something out of the ether’. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/apr/11/paul-graham-interview-whitechapel-ohagan

Jun P (2012). It was here photography [blog]. Visual Irony. Available from: http://itwasherephotography.com/blog/visual-irony/ [accessed 17.10.15]

The Telegraphy (2004) [online]. Ordinary lives, extraordinary photographs. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3615454/Ordinary-lives-extraordinary-photographs.html [accessed 18.10.15]

 

Aftermath – 9/11

David Campany suggests that there are some ‘problems’ with ‘late photography’, that is photos taken after an event, rather than during and event (also known more precisely as ‘aftermath’ photography). His essay, Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’, explores these perceived problems in the context of Joel Meyerowitz’s work, Aftermath, which deals with the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Centre on September 11th, 2001.

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 09.25.14
Source: houkgallery.com, photo by Joel Meyerowitz

So, what are the problems that Campany perceives? I read the following aspects:

  1. Campany draws on the television programme, Reflections of Ground Zero, as scene-setting for the essay – commenting on its ritualistic melancholy and above all the ‘the contrast drawn between the complexity of the geopolitical situation and the simplicity of Meyerowitz’s camera and working method’. He states that ‘the photographs were being positioned as superior to the television programme in which they were presented’. This sets up Campany’s later comments on the relevance (or irrelevance) of photography in a multimedia age. Interestingly, I didn’t perceive that the TV programme proposed this view – it was dealing with Meyerowitz’s work in relation to 9/11 and his interaction with some of the people caught in the aftermath, not a comparison on the merits of the photography and televisual media.
  2. There is an eloquently description of aftermath photos as ‘not so much the trace of an event as the trace of the trace of an event’. Campany summarises this type of photography, saying, ‘it turns up late, wanders through the places where things have happened totting up the effects of the world’s activity. This is a kind of photograph that foregoes the representation of events in progress and so cedes them to other media.’ However, a recurring theme mentioned in the TV documentary was ‘the absence of people’ – from a building that was full of life and activity there was nothing. It was transformed in to a six acre grave yard. 10,000 body parts were found but only 800 identified. To me the event was still in progress – it didn’t stop with the fall of the towers, the aftermath was a continuation of the event; the poignant searching for survivors and bodies, the clearing of the ruins of biblical proportions. I feel Campany is off the mark in effectively dismissing ground zero as a non-event.
  3. I believe, but it is not entirely clear from the text, Campany then suggests that photograph’s special place in relation to memories does not deserve to be above contemporary video photojournalism. He points out that memories develop and change (inferring like a moving picture). He says, ‘In popular consciousness (as opposed to popular unconsciousness) the still image continues to be thought of as being more memorable than those that move. Yet if the frozen photograph seems memorable in the contemporary mediasphere it is probably because it says very little.’ But surely this exactly the reason why it has greater relevance to memory – our short-term memory can only hold around seven pieces of information at one time (http://psychology.about.com/od/memory/f/short-term-memory.htm), so we are quickly and hopelessly overwhelmed by a stream of moving images. This is the human condition, not ‘popular consciousness’. A still image allows us time to absorb and reflect on information – this is not a cultural trend.
  4. ‘Today it is very rare that photographs actually break the news. The newspaper constitutes only a second wave of interpreted information or commentary. Furthermore when ‘late photographs’ appear in the slower forms of the illustrated magazine or gallery exhibit they are at one further remove.’ This is  Campany’s suggestion for the reason in the trend towards aftermath photography. There is some truth in this but it is perhaps also a personal perspective of Campany as viewer of news. I am one of  the, I assume, many who take their news through online/mobile apps, which are still-image driven rather television or streamed images. So, much of the information on the recent Syrian refugee crisis, I have seen accompanied by photos (including the infamous drowned toddler on the Turkish beach). Perhaps a more likely reason that photographers (and the media in general) are not present as events unfold is the greater control and organisation by police, security and military sources over access to events. There is also the deliberate targeting of journalists in conflict zones, which didn’t seem to be a factor in the decades up to the 1970s, to which Campany refers to as photojournalism’s glory-days.
  5. Campany’s final concern about late photography is ‘in its apparent finitude and muteness it can leave us in permanent limbo, obliterating even the need for analysis and bolstering a kind of liberal melancholy that shuns political explanation like a vampire shuns garlic.’ I don’t understand why he singles out late-photography specifically as causing this kind of apathetic response to events. I would have thought a constant stream of over-whelming moving images is more likely to engender this kind of response – people spending huge chunks of their lives glued to TV screens, leaving little time for worthwhile activities. If anything, a still image (and it’s context) allows us time to reflect upon the information and decide upon a response – whereas with moving media we are quickly over-run by new information.

Late-photography suffers the same flaw as other photography as documentary, no-more, no-less; that is its message can be complete changed depending upon the situation in which it is viewed. For example, Meyerowitz’s photos could be viewed as celebratory by Muslim extremists. Campany refers to the context problem, saying:

It is not that a photograph naturally ‘says a thousand words’, rather that a thousand words can be said about it. This is why television and film tend to use the still image only for contrived and highly rhetorical moments of pathos, tension and melancholy.

And, this is exactly the value of the still image over the moving image – we have time to absorb, reflect and discuss. To not be in a rush for at least a short time.

References

Campany D (2003) [website]. Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. Available from: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [accessed 10.10.15]

Reflections of Ground Zero (2002) [Television]. Teresa Smith. UK. ITN Factual. Available from Youtube: https://youtu.be/A8hN-aNWWBE [accessed 10.10.15]

Bibliography

Edwynn Houk Gallery [online]. Joel Meyerowitz
Aftermath. Available from: http://www.houkgallery.com/exhibitions/2011-09-10_joel-meyerowitz/ [accessed 10.10.15]

Conrad P (2006). The Guardian [Online] 9/11: the aftermath. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/aug/27/photography.september11 [accessed 10.10.15]

Joel Meyerowitz

In my continuing exploration of modern street photographers, here I look a the work of Joel Meyerowitz (1938).

Source: In-Public
Source: In-Public

Meyerowitz’s work departs from the traditional black and white format for street photography, used by his contemporary Garry Winogrand and the photographers Westerbeck’s documentary tells us influenced him, Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson. The documentary is one hour long and provides a fascinating insight into the thinking of Meyerowitz on photography as well as showing him in action on the streets.

Meyerowitz talks at length at his approach to street photography and how it evolved over his career as he moved from black and white to colour. His street photographs are mainly from the busy streets of New York City and his approach to photographing did not involve a plan of particular subjects, but just seeing what came up from day-to-day and following his instincts. As the city is so busy, perhaps the unplanned approach works well in his environment.

Looking at the images on the In-public gallery and the documentary, I think a number of things make Meyerowitz’s work exceptional:

  • He successfully incorporates the use of colour into images that are captured in an instant on the streets, adding another dimension to the traditional black and white format of this type of photography. However, he appears to use processing techniques similar to black and white images to achieve high-contrast photos with significant areas of shade that draw the eye into the main subjects.
  • In common with other great street photographers, he captures images close up that show the events of every day life, with an unexpected twist provided through contrasts of different elements (for example, people in paper hats, or extremes of dark and light clothing in passers-by).
  • The linking theme of New York City throughout the photos gives them the feeling of a diary of city life.
  • His subjects mostly appear completely unaware that they are being photographed, which reveals a less aggressive approach to street-craft than that of Garry Winogrand. Though because of this, I feel less involvement in the photographs than in those of Winogrand.

Above all, Meyerowitz’s work has convinced me how colour can be used effectively in the genre of street photography.

References

In-Public (website). Joel Meyerowitz Gallery. Available from: http://www.in-public.com/JoelMeyerowitz/gallery/53 [accessed 28.7.15]

Westerbeck Jr C (1981). Joel Meyerowitz photographer [documentary]. Nimble Thimble Productions Inc. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDSGWy1CU78 [accessed 29.7.15]