THE SURREAL THEATRICAL: STREET PHOTOGRAPHY ON BROADWAY, LOS ANGELES
By David Blumenkrantz, MFA, Visual Communication
This paper attempts to frame a photographic documentary within the context of street photography history and philosophy. Working simultaneously in both Art and Journalism departments poses unique challenges. A major theme that my photography addresses is the issue of representation: there are inherent tensions between the imperative realism of Reportage (including the myth of objectivity) and the shifting, sometimes idiosyncratic tendencies of photography as Art, where the deconstruction of the traditional narrative rules the postmodern day. This project underscores the historical role that street photography has played in finding middle ground between the two. Progress was serialized digitally through the use of a blog and website, and culminated with the production of two self-published books and a photography exhibition at Gary Leonard's Take My Picture Gallery.
Introduction: Broadway’s Historic Theater District
“What makes a photograph surreal is its irrefutable pathos as a message from time past, and the concreteness of its intimations about social class.”
*Susan Sontag, On Photography (54)
Since late 2006, I’ve been taking photographs of a six-block stretch of Broadway between 3rd and 9th streets in downtown Los Angeles, the home of a series of monumental theaters that during the first decades of the twentieth-century defined a glorious era in the city’s history. Residents far and wide came by car and street trolley to catch movies at ornate theaters such as the Globe, Orpheum and Million Dollar, and shop at large department stores. The film industry gradually moved it’s center to Hollywood, and The Historic Theater District was abandoned after World War II by the middle classes and original commercial interests. In recent decades it has become a rundown stretch of partially or completely abandoned office spaces and sweatshops overlooking a retail, wholesale and informal-sector marketplace. A veritable repository of cultural iconography, Broadway is eclectically diverse, yet remains steeped in traditional urban pathos. Once proud buildings with elaborately chiseled artifices stand as defiant monuments to the urban decay that has left many of them hollowed shells. Jewelry, electronics and clothing shops tend to the needs of a multi-cultural working class. Well-worn sidewalks are swept with straw brooms, as metal security doors are raised and lowered each dusk and dawn. The music that blares out of the shops reminds pedestrians that Spanish is the dominant language on the street, but the businesspeople and vendors are representative of all of the city’s many cultures. With a fairly large concentration of homeless and disabled people, and its share of street hustlers and drunks mixed in among the baby-strollers, bicycle cops, small newsstands and ice cream carts, Broadway’s environment resembles cities in what is sometimes called the developing world.
For a photographer with an eye for detail, an affinity for the ebb and flow of urban street life, and a genuine interest in people, this is fertile ground. All moods and dispositions are there to record. It can be boisterous; it can also seem desolate, even banal. The general atmosphere is one of economic neglect and decline, but change is in the air. Perceptible improvements on the face of the district are gradually taking place. City officials, businesspeople and representatives of various concerned parties have started a movement called Bringing Back Broadway. Their goal is to return Broadway to a position of prominence as a cultural and economic center. As wonderful as this will be for the image and economic well being of Los Angeles, all of this proposed development will likely and inevitably bring about the displacement of people that currently fill the sidewalks, or rent street level shops. The trolley cars will be back, and a new class of folks will stroll well-lit avenues, frequenting swanky restaurants and trendy boutiques. Success hinges on many factors, none more crucial than the theaters themselves, some of which feature the most dramatic architecture and interior design found in Los Angeles. They are the draw that will drive development. Of the eleven historic theaters located between 3rd and 9th streets, only one, The Orpheum, is fully operational. Another is in use as a Spanish-language church, while two others are used sparingly as movie houses and concert halls as they undergo renovations. Others are being used as warehouses for retail outlets that open from the sidewalk under marquis that are either neglected or have been refashioned into advertisements. In the meantime, abandoned office spaces, gutted and dusty, are being renovated into pricey lofts and condos. The turquoise art-deco style Eastern Building, where condominiums are selling for as high as $1.9 million, stands incongruously at Broadway and 9th streets. Looking like something out of 1920s Manhattan, the Eastern Building is both a reminder of the glorious past and a harbinger of the neighborhood’s projected renewed glory. The huge, drab building next door, originally a Macy’s, is now a place where workers toil in dozens of sweatshops above an indoor swap meet. A woman working as a tailor in a shop facing the street told me with certainty that since the development began security in the area has improved. Ed. note: as of January 2015, much of the gentrification has been accomplished, rendering many of the images (shops, vendors, pedestrians) as artifacts of a bygone era, or one that is gradually disappearing.
“Voyeurism and its attendant sadism is at the heart of the documentary narrative, which depends on the power of the gaze to construct meanings . . . Furthermore, the two terms—documentary, narrative—remain at odds with each other. Insisting on a particularity of vision and a polemic, yet requiring the conventions of plot and structure, reportage is a ‘bastard’ genre.”
* Paula Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented (51)
Robert Adams wrote that although most artists work out of a sense of obligation to themselves, they tend to believe that by doing so they will also fulfill their obligations to others. He was referring to Paul Strand’s Time in New England project of the 1940’s, which Adams described as a very “personal and altruistic” body of work, undertaken by Strand due in part to his reaction to an America that was “in danger of dying from within.” (Adams 77) Over time, I’ve come to view the Historic Theater District of Los Angeles as a place that is simultaneously dying and being reborn. In a word, evolving, in a direction that serves capitalist concerns at the expense of the immigrant class that currently dominates the streetscape. It’s doubtful I would have undertaken this project without the impetus of earning the MFA, hence my priority at the outset was, with unintended irony, just the opposite of Strand’s—to fulfill my obligation to others first. As the project unfolded, a sense of responsibility to interpret and represent the environment for both others and myself took hold.
This kind of photography unavoidably raises questions of class consciousness, and the notion that photographic documentarians (artists with cameras) are supertourists, satisfying their various curiosities. Much of my motivation for dealing with these issues comes from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book that works as both manifesto and crucible. Pontificated in relentlessly personal fashion by James Agee and illustrated with a sublime static patience by Walker Evans and his view camera, Famous Men reactively questioned standard notions of representation, suggesting that academic, editorial and Artworld theories lack resonance to those unconcerned with the strictures of pedagogy and any prevailing paradigmatic zeitgeist. Agee desperately believed that neither Art nor Journalism could do justice to hard cold fact; his diatribes lacked any pretense of subtlety. The notion that reportage could be so questioning of itself and its audience has been associated with the birth pangs of postmodernism, and seems to me to be a legitimate, however (as it is written) flawed approach to self-expressive narrative work.
So it was with a requisite dose of uncertainty that I set about photographing life on Broadway. Those who were interested in what I was doing generally accepted the notion of a vernacular folk art, not entirely removed from the snapshot aesthetic they were most familiar with in their own experiences with photography. I found this to be more palatable than citing Robert Frank’s dictum “it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph,” a dispassionate sentiment that I’ve lost some admiration for as I reconsider the collaborative aspects of photographing in public spaces.
Seeking a definition
Walking the streets with a camera is an attractive sport with a long rich history that defies easy categorization. In the most general sense, street photography might best be described as an exploration of urban life, with equal attention paid to human and environmental elements. It can be undertaken as a solitary, virtually anonymous venture, or one in which the photographer becomes known, and perhaps accepted as a temporary presence, as I have done on Broadway.
During frequent visits to Broadway, my attention was torn between several competing areas of fascination. Along with the dramatic architecture and urban pathos, there are the people, whose faces and posture reveal everything and nothing at once, and whose activities are alternately exciting, mysterious or banal. To interpret all this visual stimuli, I draw on a variety of influences that manifest themselves unconsciously—I never find myself thinking about “style” while shooting. It is in the editing stage that my derivative tendencies are revealed: echoes of the Straight Photography of Paul Strand and the surrealism of Manual Alvarez Bravo; the intellectualized artistry of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the poetic lyricism of Helen Levitt; the dispassionately static, vernacular leanings of Evans and the concern for the underdog exemplified by Lewis Hine; the environmental portraiture of Diane Arbus, August Sander and Bruce Davidson; and finally the prolific, scattershot anonymity of Garry Winogrand, and his iconoclastic alter-ego Robert Frank. All of these artists, and others not mentioned here inform my approach to the Broadway project. Each explored the medium of photography as part of a personal journey to discover a visual language for interpreting the world around them. Each of them sought their own answers to questions posed not only in this paper, but in all photographic work: How do form and content coexist within the structure of a photographic narrative? My goal for this thesis project has been to find where I (and the subjects of my photographs) fall on the sliding scale of interpretation and perception. The photographs themselves—viewed apart from my political thoughts-- cannot suggest whether Broadway St. will be a more or less interesting, or a better or worse place ten or twenty years from now. They are simply documents, forming an incomplete and subjectively drawn composite sketch of the way it is now.
In his essay Private Lives in Public Places: The Ethics of Street Photography, A.D. Coleman traces the history of the genre back to its earliest incarnations, when the intent of practitioners such as Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis and Eugene Atget was “primarily informational and representational.” (Coleman 159) Susan Sontag posited that the earliest photographs that could be described as “surreal” are street photographs taken as early as the 1850s. (la Grange 38) Photography history is filled with practitioners who dabbled in the genre of street photography, many of whom who were better known for something else. Alfred Steiglitz, Jacque-Henri Latrigue, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott and others head the roll call of photographers who have at one time or another chosen the streets and public spaces as their annex.
In 1981, Joel Meyerowitz offered a definition of street photography as “central to the issue of photography . . . 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.” (Coleman 160) My position is that while street photography is essentially and most famously an elastic, spontaneous art form, it has incorporated-- in very important and successful fashion-- other genres, notably environmental portraiture, but also the static imagery of landscape and still life. Ultimately Meyerowitz is correct—street photography is central to the medium’s potential, with literal, abstract and surreal interpretations of reality.
Static v. Lyrical: Two sides of the same street
"In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, the product of instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it."
*Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (32)
In the introductory essay to Helen Levitt’s A Way of Seeing, her gritty yet sentimental paean to 1940’s New York street life, James Agee drew an important distinction between what he called lyrical and static styles of photography. Photographs characterized as static are “the richest in meditativeness, in mentality, in attentiveness to the wonder of material and objects . . .” (Agee 5) This approach is well-suited for the Parisian shop fronts of Atget and Brassai, the posed, frontal portraiture of Arbus and Sanders, or the contemplative churches, weathered signage and iconography of Walker Evans. On Broadway there are places where signs, paint and fencing from succeeding eras exist as layers of some yet to be undertaken urban anthropological study. While these scenarios make a fine backdrop for the human activity considered a hallmark of rapid-fire street photography, they are-- to the discerning and appreciative eye-- interesting enough to be perceived on their own, as examples of what Agee called the “cruel radiance of what is.” (Famous Men 11) Andrei Codrescu, in his essay for Evans’ book Signs proposed that “This is perhaps one of the unintended ironies of photography: the ephemeral and the enduring are indiscriminately preserved on film.” (Codrescu 56)
Conversely, Agee describes the “volatile” work of photographers such as Levitt and Cartier-Bresson (with whom she apprenticed) as “richest in emotion.” While both kinds of photography are at their best poetic, the static work “has a kind of Homeric or Tolstoyan nobility . . . whereas the best of the volatile work is nearly always lyrical.” (Agee 5) The lyrical approach is best suited to capture the hustle and bustle of street life, with its fleeting, ironic or coincidental juxtapositions, and the ebb and flow of human dramas, both momentous and banal. Agee contends that this “lyrical work is the simplest and most direct way of seeing the everyday world, the most nearly related to the elastic, casual, and subjective way in which we ordinarily look around us . . . as close to the pure spontaneity of true folk art as the artist, aware of himself as such, can come.” (Agee 5) He lauds (correctly in my opinion) Levitt’s best images as a “gentle and wholly unpretentious . . . major poetic work.” Levitt was able to recognize and capture on film moments of interaction between children at play or adults in conversation that seem entirely natural. Robert Frank would come along a decade later and photograph the off-moments in American life with a dark lyricism that inspired Jack Kerouac’s prosaic notion that “he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.” (Kerouac 9) To many though, the penultimate street photographer was Garry Winogrand, an obsessive artist, whose book The Man in the Crowd is a testament to the art of the stolen moment. Revolutionary in his use of the wide-angle lens and tilted horizons, Winogrand depicted street life as an environmental as well as human experience.
Art & Documentary: strange bedfellows
“The documentary tradition in photography is an expression of the deepest moral and artistic values of liberal democratic societies. Both in celebration and protest, it is photography which has carried the evaluative burden which high art had abandoned, and it has paid the price.”
* Roger Seamon (250)
“The key difference between documentary and fictive art is this: in documentary the referent is always essential, whereas in fiction it's only occasional.”
* Bruce Jackson, The Deceptive Anarchy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
A century ago, documentarian Lewis Hine identified the art of photography in its ability to interpret the everyday world. “He did not,” wrote Alan Trachtenberg, “mean ‘beauty’ or ‘personal expression.’ He meant how people live.” (Trachtenberg 240) The question as to whether documentary or photojournalism can or should be considered Art is a trivial diversion, meaningless to an understanding of what’s happening on Broadway Street today. Yet in any discussion of street photography and documentary, a distinction needs to be made between what I consider political or social art, and l’art pour l’art, which has historically divorced the intrinsic value of art from any moral or utilitarian function. Postmodern practitioners can reasonably argue that deconstructing the medium is in itself a social or political act. I am more concerned with visual messages that emphasize content over form, not only those that raise social and political awareness about issues and events, but also those that are understood and appreciated by common people unschooled in art history or theory. Manual Alvarez Bravo referred to this as popular art, or “art of the people . . . with less of the impersonal and intellectual characteristics that are the essence of the art of the schools.” (Bravo 7)
Street photography does well both as a folk art and an elitist art form. Coleman reminds us that street photographers have gradually “expanded the street as subject, transforming it from a reportorially oriented locus of social concern to the proscenium for a surreal theatrical centered around cultural symbols.” As the 20th Century progressed, “more and more photographers took to the streets with concerns that were not those of the reporter but rather those of the novelist and poet—a search for resonant contrasts, rich metaphors, and found dramatic scenarios.” (160) John Szarkowski, in the introduction to his 1967 New Documents exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art featuring the work of Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, wrote that this new generation of photographers had more personal aims, and had redirected documentary away from trying to make the world a better place. (la Grange 119) As Martha Rosler explains, this emphasis on self-expression played into the coffers of an historically conservative Artworld. “The elite . . . attaches most importance to the author of the image, isolating the images in galleries, museums and the art market. In doing so, it separates the elite’s understanding of the images from the common understanding. As a result debates about photography have shifted to the right and revolve around formal aesthetic considerations ignoring the content and political or ideological dimension of the images.” (119)
This is not to say that aesthetics are absent from photojournalism and documentary. As the likes of Mary Ellen Mark, W. Eugene Smith, Sebastiao Salgado and James Natchwey have consistently shown, reportage made in the fashion of art often gets the point across more effectively, if only because these images are visually seductive. There’s also a long history of human intervention that defies the public’s expectation of photographic truth, dating back to the moving around of dead bodies during the Civil War. Smith, most active during the heyday of the photo story and Life magazine, was particularly unconcerned about blurring the line, angering purists with occasional darkroom manipulations deemed unethical in the world of journalism. Walker Evans, who despite his protestations was thought to move objects around to enhance composition, spoke in his later years of this distinction between documentary and art for art’s sake. “Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. The term should be documentary style. An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never called a document, though it certainly can adopt that style.” (Katz 364)
Henri Cartier-Bresson, co-founder of the quintessentially independent photojournalism agency Magnum, is commonly thought of more as an artist than a reporter, though it has been written that his “attempts to expose social injustice with his camera were consistent with his revolt against the capitalist class, the perceived cause of that injustice.” (Cookman 10) Perhaps more than any other photographer, Cartier-Bresson epitomizes the potential of artistic reportage, and with his unique ability to find universal moments wherever he traveled, is held in the highest esteem among street photographers. In an essay written on Helen Levitt’s photographs of New York street life in the 1940s, art historian and critic Max Kozloff attempted to explain the genre’s unique positioning within this murky netherworld. "To walk the streets is to be confronted with a stupid abundance of confused, jostled and small incidents," Kozloff declared. "The photograph will fix any instance of it with a drastic particularity, wispy, random, and, therefore, perhaps trivial . . . How is the stuff of the image transmuted into a message?" (Kozloff 67)
Does the street photographer have responsibilities similar to those we normally assign the documentarian or photojournalist? When considering the lyrical, more spontaneous style of street photography, Kozloff sees the artist's concern with candid imagery overlapping the imperative of subjectivity we expect in photojournalism: "Underlying street photography is a naturalist argument that goes something like this: The value of the picture resides in its truthful observation. The value is jeopardized to the extent the photographer intervenes in the social circumstances, causing a rupture from what would naturally have happened . . ." (68)
At the same time, what separates street photographers from reporters is a disregard for the traditional narrative. I approach my work on Broadway unfettered by editorial constraints, allowing myself the freedom of totally subjective interpretation. As Kozloff explains, "If these street photographers certify that nothing more is seen or even meant than what is shown, they offer concrete findings without any journalistic pretext.” (69) This would seem to indicate that the street photographer is as concerned with self-expression as making social statements, running around with the fiercely independent creative lust of, well, an artist. Not so fast, Kozloff cautions. "The mobility of street photographers . . . does not necessarily lead them to the fictions of the art world, nor do the photographers seek legitimization there. They are in flight, rather, from the stereotypes of photography for hire. The freedom at issue is not so much to allow the photographer to be personal for the ego’s sake, but to use the ego to describe intimate and fortuitous realities not otherwise available." (68)
Robert Frank, The Americans and the Politics of Representation
“I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others—perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.”
*Robert Frank, 1958 (401)
When it comes to a discussion of the dichotomy between self-expression and reportage, Robert Frank’s enduring classic The Americans is a fine place to start. This was liberating: photographs made with a subjective eye, shedding the pretenses of journalistic objectivity and stylistic convention. Martha Rosler has written that Frank’s work reveals “leftwing anarchism.” (la Grange 119) Frank himself professed no such overtly political bent: “To produce an authentic contemporary document,” he once said, “the visual impact should be as such to nullify explanation.” (Sontag 111) Garry Winogrand would eventually take this attitude to its extreme, rejecting so aggressively all connections between himself and any shared public perception of his images that Rosler deemed his work rightwing anarchism, antithetical to Frank. (la Grange 119)
Frank took Walker Evans’ preoccupation with the iconography of an American vernacular to the cusp of postmodernism, turning jukeboxes, flags and politicians into symbols of what he interpreted to be a bland and faceless consumer culture. Often considered the progenitor of modern street photography, The Americans is commonly classified as documentary. Yet in the application for the Guggenheim Fellowship that would finance his travels, Frank’s alignment with his sponsor Walker Evans was clear, describing his work as “The making of a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present . . . but it is only partly documentary in nature: one of its aims is more artistic than the word documentary implies.” (Tucker 94)
Sontag believed that whether a photographer’s main concern is self-expression or truthful recording, they both assume that the medium shows us reality in a new way. Both approaches are based on the belief that reality is hidden; but there is a difference between Alfred Stieglitz’s “moment of equilibrium” (later refined by Cartier-Bresson into the Decisive Moment), and Frank’s “disequilibrium of the in-between moment.” (Sontag 121) Even while photographing familiar things, artists such as Frank and Winogrand sought a reality that is hidden and mysterious in some way. This obsession with catching reality off-guard turned the highly articulate, realist manifesto of Cartier-Bresson on its ear. The difference was as physical as it was visceral. Photography critic Anne Tucker writes “the force of these pictures in light of their spontaneity and innovation was, in the least, disturbing, and for many, unforgivably offensive.” (Tucker 96) Comparing the two artists, Joel Meyerowitz said, “Robert’s form is looser, more conversational, harder, dirtier, ruder. He had balletic grace in his approach to making photographs.” His work has also been described as “athletic, spontaneous and daring.” (96) In technical terms, this meant that Frank appeared disdainful of traditional rules of photographic composition, lighting and print quality. One curator found it significant that Frank “disregarded the dictum that a photographer should keep the light behind him, the foreground in focus, and the subject still.” (96) Others were vociferous in their condemnation: “If you dig out-of-focus pictures, intense and unnecessary grain, converging verticals, a total absence of normal composition, and a relaxed, snapshot quality, then Robert Frank is for you. If you don’t, you may find The Americans one of the most irritating photo books to make the scene.” (Nesterenko and Smith 568) In an era of American popular culture characterized by Father Knows Best, apple pie and nuclear bomb shelters, the subject matter was considered outrageous: “Frank’s book actually explores a very limited aspect of life in the United States, and it is the least attractive . . . his book is an attack on the United States.” (568)
Frank was unapologetic: “The view is personal, and therefore, various facets of American society and life have been ignored.” (Frank 400) Besides, he reminds us, “Criticism can also come out of love.” Robert Coles senses raw dignity, affection, surprise and perplexity more than any moral outrage in Frank’s “glimpses.” The Americans gave us what Coles insists was only “a particular bourgeois Swiss man’s” version of the United States of America. (Coles 228) Similarly, the documentary “narrative” that emerges in the editing stage of my work is in a sense arbitrary; it can only be my construction of Broadway, based on fleeting impressions, chance encounters and stolen moments.
Stealing Images: How Low Can You Go?
“The assumption that you waive your rights to control of your own image and declare yourself to be free camera fodder by stepping out of your front door is an arrogance on the part of photographers; it has no clear, absolute, and inarguable legal basis.”
* A.D. Coleman (165)
There are times when interpersonal engagement with one’s subjects is essential to street photography. Other situations call for a discreet anonymity, ala Frank. In either case, the onus is on the photographer to go about his business without offending the sensibilities of those who find themselves in the crossfire. Bill Jay presents evidence that the stereotype of the “photographer as aggressor” perpetuated in movies and literature can be attributed to a well-documented “willingness, and even desire, to violate any and all social conventions of good behavior in order to take a picture.” (Jay 8) Jay recounts a colorful history of public resistance to photography, dating back to the advent of dry plates and instant exposures. “The Camera Epidemic,” A New York Times feature story from 1884, likened the snapshot craze to an outbreak of cholera. “No one can walk down the street or sit down in the woods . . . without a dozen or fifteen cameras trained on them by ‘camera lunatics’ . . .” (10) The Chicago Tribune editorialized in favor of violence to protect citizens against the “insult and arrogance” of people with cameras in public places, while in England a vigilante group was formed “for the purpose of thrashing the cads with cameras.” (12)
Photography is essentially an aggressive act. The specter of exploitation hangs over every documentary project like an ethical crucible. Sontag’s blunt assertions, “To photograph someone is to violate them,” and “There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera” refer most pointedly to the photographer who raises his camera to a stranger without seeking permission. (Sontag 14) Not all street photographers are arrogant in this regard, though it’s also true that those who try to surreptitiously steal images from unsuspecting pedestrians do so more out of a desire for a candid look than out of any philanthropic motive. Many of the images in The Americans were furtively made, and Frank’s method of shooting in a discreet manner was not unprecedented or extreme. Photographers working in public spaces have always been fascinated with the notion of capturing purely candid moments and expressions. Walker Evans’ subway portraits from 1938-1941 were made with a camera hidden in his jacket, rigged with a lengthy shutter release cable. Paul Strand’s 1915 Blind Woman, an image that was instrumental in ushering in the era of Straight Photography while putting to pasture the Photo Secessionist pictorialism of Alfred Steiglitz, was made with a camera equipped with a false lens. Strand never questioned the morality of this technique. (Tomkins 19) Was her blindness an opportunity for a sublime statement on the nature of photographic seeing? Personally, I tried a right-angle device for a day on Broadway, but felt too guilty to continue with it for long.
Forgoing such trickery, the alternative is the technique of surveying the horizon and suddenly bringing the camera to eye level at the last second, hoping to freeze either the decisive or in-between moment without giving the subjects time to react to the camera. One imagines that artists such as Frank, Cartier-Bresson and especially Winogrand were particularly adept at this method of unpremeditated image capture. Less unethical than using a trick lens or hidden camera, this technique still leaves one open to derision or even retaliation. A fellow street photographer recently shared the horror story of being physically assaulted and verbally abused while photographing a mixed-race tourist couple in Hollywood. I’ve been fortunate in this regard—the worst experience I’ve endured thus far on Broadway occurred as I stole a quick image of an elderly Japanese woman, who immediately confronted me in an agitated state, following me for about half a block, stomping one foot to show her displeasure. That I couldn’t tell whether she was in fact deranged or just angry did little to assuage my guilt at having offended her with my presumptuous act.
Street Photography and the Snapshot Aesthetic
In a 1992 essay titled “Post-Photography,” Geoffrey Batchen drew an analogy between the historical relationship of painting and photography (the former haunting the latter) and the role of photography in the age of digital imaging (now it is photography that is doing the haunting). Post-photography adherents “draw a distinction between photography as a direct inscription of a referent . . . and the photographic as a practice dependent on the recirculation of existing codes and images.” (Batchen 109) In simpler terms, Photography’s death is inevitable, as the public’s faith in its truth telling abilities are gradually diminished by the increasing ease and ubiquity of digital manipulation. Writing in 1994, Timothy Druckrey argued that as a formal and self-reflective model of expression, photography could “no longer serve the symbolic imperatives of this culture.” (Druckrey 4) Druckery was essentially saying that the medium had evolved into something beyond what it was originally intended to do.
The veracity of these theories is undermined by the good work still being done by photographers who haven’t gotten the memo. Well into the twenty-first century, there are still two branches of photographic practice that we expect to serve unaltered, representational purposes. The first are the realist, or journalistic forms: reportage and documentary. The second is that veritable cockroach of the medium, the humble yet inexhaustible family snapshot, or vernacular photography, classified as such by collectors, and coveted for its random innocence. Each of these genres serves societal functions that are indispensable hence their prospects for continued survival seem assured. There are several important areas where these two branches intertwine with one another.
The general public, while growing understandably skeptical in the age of digital manipulation, still looks for unaltered reality in news and documentary photography. There is for example a mixture of outrage and bemusement when it is revealed that an image of an Iranian missile launch has been doctored to include an extra projectile. The historical contract between the visual media and the public is still in place. A.D. Coleman calls this "responsive" photography: "The viewers' engagement with these images usually involves a conscious interaction with the photographer's sensibility. However, the photographer is still presumed not to interfere with the actual event." (Directorial Mode 484) When we look at photographs of people engaged in everyday activities in public spaces, the same expectation is there. Similarly, vernacular photography is almost entirely based on this notion of honest representation. I would venture that it is for this reason that it remains the medium’s most democratic and functional genre. Sontag wrote that in an industrialized world where the nuclear family was becoming increasingly rare, the photo album functioned as a surrogate for the extended family. This remains true today, even as the traditional family photo album is in turn supplanted by the dissemination of images through electronic and digital means in an increasingly computer-dependent world.
Street photography, with its slices of life and frozen moments ironic and banal, sought out and arbitrary, incorporates vernacular qualities. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Walker Evans paid great attention to what he called an American Vernacular, highlighting the iconographic signs and symbols that defined a culture. In Evans' photographs, much of which can be considered street photography, the mundane moment and object are given center stage, just as they often are in the family photo album. Lyrical street photography, particularly since The Americans, readily forgives violations of standard conventions of composition and lighting. These same anti-compositional qualities define the snapshot aesthetic, undoubtedly an important factor in the emergence of vernacular photography as a collectable art form. Likewise, an attractive feature of vernacular photography -- the odd mixture of anonymity and sameness that holds our fascination —is also a key element in street photography. D. J. Waldie, in an essay written for the book published to accompany the Getty Museum's "Close To Home: An American Album" exhibition of found snapshots, presented his belief that these images "are just uncanny: an American-brand surreality of domesticated weirdness plucked by the disembodied wit of modernity from the chaos of images we've made of ourselves." (Waldie 13) With the small caveat of changing the adjective to undomesticated, the same could easily have been written of the best street photography. The main difference is small but significant—photographers in the street generally avoid social interaction, so as not to disrupt the natural flow of events. I often adhere to this myself, self-consciously taking the fly-on-the-wall approach, channeling, yin-yang, both Frank and Winogrand. Still I find there are times when I do want to engage people socially, when I want them to know I am seeking some sort of approval, however tacit, to photograph them, or when it seems that a straightforward environmental portrait is the best form of representation.
Like the vernacular snapshots that have been recontextualized as Art, both the environmental portraits and the surreptitious candids serve two purposes. Not only do they become part of a visual narrative being constructed, but they are also appreciated as the type of photography their subjects are most comfortable with. People on Broadway sometimes question my motives. Upon hearing an explanation of the project, most allow me to continue, especially when I promise to bring them a copy of their image. As the months passed, the distribution of photographs to people on Broadway became an increasingly important part of the process. There were days when I walked the entire length of six blocks with a bundle of 4x6 prints in my camera bag, looking for familiar faces. In doing so, I risked losing the psychological distance street photographers use as a buffer, but the trade-off was worth it. Upon receiving their photographs, the reactions are always positive. Whether it's an ice cream vendor, a security guard, a homeless alcoholic, or the salesgirl in a jewelry store, everyone seemed to consider these photographs in much the same manner they might look at a snapshot taken by a friend or family member. Simply put, they embrace the photographs as part of a record of their existence, the way they are now, and the way they will always appear in that image. A simple and perhaps comforting trust in the Myth of Photographic Truth.
Conclusions and Inconclusions
The human condition has been the subject of many artists, and was the focus of the original avant-garde movement in Europe, when Gustave Courbet’s unorthodox choices posed a direct challenge to the social and political status quo. Courbet’s peasants appeared to have serious thoughts of their own, independent of class. His characters were thus harder to read, a rejection of the academy’s view of the poor as being easily dominated and sanitized. Not coincidentally, this new realism emerged just after the birth of photography, which with its mechanical and scientific elements was uniquely suited to carry this burden forward. Lewis Hine’s photographs of working men and child laborers were primarily about people’s lives. What followed in the realm of documentary and photojournalism was a utilitarian realization of Paul Strand’s Straight Photography: a way of seeing with a social conscience. Strand, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson were among the first photographers to blend this social consciousness with overtly artistic self-expression. Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, with their self-conscious denials that social meaning is necessary for an appreciation of images taken in public spaces, left street photography where it is today—an amorphous genre existing somewhere between Documentary and Art. Is it then safe, or wise, or even necessary to conclude that out of this self-consciousness artists turn the expressive desire inward (to elevate the medium) rather than confront the hard choices that realist imagery poses?
An extended documentary project like this is a form of Public Art, a social, and political act. Even if the photographer is not talking to people, he/she is negotiating space with them. Very often the photographer-subject dynamic is manifested in the form of unspoken communication. In early August, I discovered that Julio the shoeshine man had been told to move from his position outside the seldom-used Palace Theater. This is where I had always found him, hard at work with his polish and brushes, while assuming his self-appointed role as security man for the historic site. I recalled a sunny Saturday morning weeks earlier when I had found the Palace doors open, and against Julio’s protestations, went inside to look around. When I came out he berated me angrily. Now stationed a few blocks south, he didn’t try to disguise his displeasure. “Pinche police,” he snarled, complaining that there was not nearly as much business in his new spot. They were renovating, and he had been swept aside—one small human casualty in the Broadway upgrade. There’s no photograph in my collection to capture Julio’s feelings—I couldn’t bring myself to raise the camera to my eye while he was venting his anger. For the narrative-conscious reporter, images such as this are tangible in their absence. Winogrand said it was impossible to miss a photograph. Photographs not taken never existed. To my way of thinking, sometimes the best photographs are the ones not taken, intentionally or otherwise. I’ve been warned that too many portraits or images of old signs and buildings become redundant. Yet there’s no logical breaking-off point, save for exhaustion or boredom. My fascination with Broadway has been fueled with the passion that the prolific Winogrand must have felt; that in the streets, there are endless opportunities for interesting photography. It’s an important distinction— the stopping point that would make itself known as the journalistic narrative reached a logical conclusion is less defined for the self-expressive act.
In the end, the photographs themselves are mere reflections of today’s Broadway, and the reason I have felt compelled to make them stems not just from some cathartic voyeurism, but equally from a desire to preserve the status quo, at least mimetically and for posterity. The gentrification of this beautifully sad Historic Theater District is an event of urban planning akin to social Darwinism; it may take ten years before the gentrification process reaches some conclusion. By then, it will likely retain little of the current flavor: “If they change, we too will change,” the owner of a retail clothing shop insisted confidently one afternoon while shuffling through a large stack of prints I was carrying. All things being equal, I was as impressed and interested in his opinion of the photographs as I am with members of the Artworld intelligentsia. Both are deserving of my attention and respect. After all, it was his world I was reflecting back to him, as seen through my eyes and lens.
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