Three views of a secret

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To the uninitiated,  street photography (SP) might seem a hap hazard activity pursued by camera toting odd balls looking to sneak shots of random strangers. While there is certainly no prohibition on odd balls using cameras, the serious street photographer is likely up to something much more structured and possibly even quite profound.

So just what is it these hard core street photographers are up to?

I’ll briefly consider three possible answers. These serve to illustrate that SP can be so much more than walking about snapping random images.

As you might guess from reading this, I’ve been taking stock of my own street photography lately and this post summarises some of my thinking and the classic work I have been revisiting.

First, SP can take the form of a documentary project. The raison d’être of the images being to construct a narrative about a person, group or place. It’s defining characteristic is that priority is given to saying something significant about a contemporary social issue. This approach of telling another’s story has resulted in some of the most important contributions to the street photography canon (if we can speak of such a thing).

Image of Times Square, NYC

New York 2012, © John Meehan

For example, Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York project (1935-39) portrayed a city undergoing a dramatic transformation. Returning to New York from an eight year stay in Paris, Abbott found New York in 1929 much changed due to a boom in skyscraper constrcution. She persuaded the Federal Art Project to fund her efforts to document the changes (including equipment, materials, assistants and travel costs). Moved by the example of Eugene Atget’s efforts to preserve old Paris on film, she sought to do likewise for New York. At the same time she was excited by the visual dynamism of the modern skyscrapers under construction and photographed them at dramatic angles by day and night. The project was a new and fresh approach to architecture photography due to her avant-garde visual sensibility (developed while she was part of the circle of artists around Man Ray and the Surrealists in Paris in the 1920s).

[Examples of Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York images: here]

A more famous example, Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) is a critical portrait of 1950s America and a critical reflection on photography itself. Comprising 83 images -drawn from 27000 exposures made in 1955-56 – Frank’s vision in The Americans is, in part, a critical reaction to Edward Steichen’s thematically organised The Family of Man show (shown at MoMA in January 1955). His imagery, rough, rule breaking and (deliberately) careless, is a provocative challenge to the  conventional imagery of Steichen’s hugely successful show. More profoundly, it’s coarseness parallels his critique of 1950s America. Frank’s America is shown to be at odds with the mythical ‘American Dream’ in its tolerance of poverty and discrimination. The New York Times art critic Peter Schjeldahl described The Americans as “one of the basic American masterpieces in any medium”.

[Examples of images from Robert Frank’s The Americans: here]

Secondly, rather than the ‘grand narrative’ documentary approach of Robert Frank many street photographers opt for a more focused sociological approach by concentrating on specific facets of society specific to their milieu.  Typically, this might involve a focus on clothing fashions, ritualistic behaviours, or lifestyles. The aim of this approach is to hold a mirror up to reality so that we become more aware of the humour, ridiculousness, absurdity, irrationality, bizarreness, or some other taken for granted fearure of the subject.

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Liverpool, 2016, © John Meehan

Leading British exponents of this approach include Martin Parr (b.1952) and Tony Ray Jones (1941-1972). The younger Parr acknowledges a heavy debt to the work of Ray-Jones (though they never met). The two photographers share an interest in social class and ritualistic behaviours. However, where Parr’s acerbic eye and flash lit, heavily saturated, colour images seem to ridicule many of his subjects, Ray-Jones has a gently mocking gaze with more compassion. Parr’s kitsch style draws attention to itself almost at the expense of the subject, whereas Ray-Jones’s style – sophisticated and educated as he was in technical matters – is less self-conscious and more in service to the subject.

[Examples of Martin Parr’s and Tony Ray Jones’s work here and here respectively]

Thirdly, some photographers engage with SP as a way of dealing with their own personal issues of identity and belonging. Rather than holding a mirror up to reality, these photographers are holding themselves up to the mirror of reality. Their photography is a way to make sense of themselves, and their lives, by exploring the lives of others. This is photography as psychology rather than ethnography.

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Liverpool, 2016, © John Meehan

This more personal, introspective approach is about sensemaking. Rather than giving priority to the subject, such photography is about the subjectivity of the image maker. The person behind the camera, and what they think about what is photographed, is the real subject. John Szarkowski, then head of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), introduced this approach to the world in a 1967 exhibition entitled New Documents. One of his wall labels for the show – featuring Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander – stated:

“In the past decade a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.”

One immediately thinks of Diane Arbus (1923-71) in relation to this approach. Her photography of marginalised groups, and their unconventional lifestyles, seems to reflect her own difficulties reconciling herself to the conventionality and affluence of her Jewish New York family background and her own restless nature. Her struggle involved bouts of depression and, ultimately, her suicide at the age of 48.

[Examples of Diane Arbus’s work here]

A less well known example is the Philadelphia photographer Dave Heath (1931-2016). Abandoned by both parents by age four, Heath spent the next twelve years in an orphanage. He was a sensitive, intellectually inclined, child. He discovered the power of photography through Ralph Crane’s photo essay, ‘Bad Boy’s Story: An Unhappy Child Learns to Live at Peace with the World’, (about fostering) in the May 1947 edition of Life magazine.

After serving in the army (1953-55) during the Korean War, Heath began photographing the streets of Philadelphia before moving to New York in 1957 where he spent the next thirteen years photographing those streets. Heath was part of a thriving New York art scene. Robert Frank and W. Eugene Smith were among his friends.  Smith taught Heath many of his own printing techniques and Heath would go on to print images for Frank’s exhibition – joint with Harry Callahan – at MoMA in 1962. He was artistically successful in his own right with many exhibitions, including at The Art Institute of Chicago (1961), a group show at MoMA (1963) and George Eastman House (1964). He largely gave up street photography when he moved to Toronto to take up a teaching position in 1970 but returned to it in the years before his death (in 2016).

Heath’s great street project was entitled A Dialogue with Solitude and formed the basis of his exhibitions noted above and a 1966 publication.  As the aforementioned title suggests, Heath’s work is characterised by themes of alienation, loneliness, loss, love and belonging. His photography directly addresses his own inner struggles to come to terms with his childhood abandonment and consequent lifelong search for communion.

[Examples of Dave Heath’s work from Dialogue with Solitude: New York Times]

Street photography has low barriers to entry, and can be fun, trivial and lighthearted.  However,  we shouldn’t mistake it’s easy accessibility and ubiquity for a lack more serious possibilities.

The three approaches to SP above illustrate that those odd balls (like me) snapping seemingly random images on our city’s streets may actually be engaged in something quite profound. They could just be producing work that is not only personally important to them, but may well prove to be a profound contribution to photography as a whole.

Text and images © John Meehan 2016
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11 thoughts on “Three views of a secret

  1. John, first of all, congratulations for being recognized by WordPress as one of the important photo blogs of 2016. i couldn’t agree more with their choice; it is well deserved & i hope it brings you more traffic, your advice is useful & the delivery shows your trustworthiness; i personally think this is one of the best blogs i have come across & i have made the effort to rummage out some great blogs.
    i am desperate to branch into more meaningful street photography, by which i mean photographing people, which is proving a problem for me: i can’t get around to having the confidence to ask people. it seems so daft that i can’t broach this gap,
    i want to document the lives of the farmers & workmen on the island i live on, to show their aesthetic & societal value, but i cease up when it comes to asking them. my Korean isn’t immaculate but i know how to ask them for a photo & can make small talk, this isn’t my concern, it is the difference between what it means to me & what it means to them. for me it is an artistic ambition, for them it is some privileged, white foreigner with a piece of equipment which has no practical value & moreover a piece of equipment they could never afford. why should they?
    i wonder if you could give me any advice.
    great article, i have all the links open & i am going to have a look see now.

    • Daniel, If I may, what would be the worst thing that could happen if you ask someone to take their portrait? Usually nothing. They will not hit you. If you ask a question, throwing in a compliment as well, however small, you might find a “yes” as an answer. At worst, a “no”. If that should happen, move on. I photograph many a person with a small camera. I cover up the logo to make it nondescript. If your camera has a wifi option and an app is available as well for your phone, send them an image via email. If no access to a computer, I would suggest a Polaroid or a Fuji instant printer. Print out an image right there to give them. You’d be surprised how appreciative it would be received.

    • Hi Dan,

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoy the blog.

      I would echo Keith’s points (a good friend) – he’s a very experienced NYC street photographer so he really knows what he’s talking about. To remove the expensive camera issue I also put black tape all over it so it looks less valuable. I frequently ask to take photos and rarely do people say no. I have never had a bad experience ever.

      I honestly think you are placing a barrier before yourself by assuming people will interpret the situation as you suggest (rich foreigner, etc.). A little conversation usually serves to dissolve any such preconceptions people may have about you. I generally find asking people about their lives and what they are doing and then asking if you might take a few pictures to record what you have seen works fine. The key is to act with integrity and be genuinely interested rather than just manipulate people. People are smart, they can tell the difference.

      Best, John

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