A History of Street Photography, by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz. Bulfinch Press, 1994, by Dick Doughty
Considering the influence “street photography” has had on the many ways photography and photographers have been thought of since the medium’s invention, it is surprising—and some-what disappointing—that a book such as Bystander was not written until now.
Westerbeck and Meyerowitz have come out with their formidable compendium staking out a significant historical territory. The book is a product of several years of discussions during the span of their decade-long friendship—theirs has proved a fruitful collaboration. Westerbeck took the lead on text and Meyerowitz guided illustration selection: It is refreshing to see working photographers so intimately involved in the construction of photographic history.
On first impression, Bystander comes as a validation of the bunch that many photographers, either working or dabbling in "street shooting," have always had that they were operating within a genre all its own. Until now, nobody had bothered to work out where it all began and ended, being, as Westerbeck writes, such a "diffuse, fragmented, intermittent one...a succession of influences and inheritances'' that has meant many things to many people at many different times and places.
The authors make it clear "street photography" is to be understood at face value. It is photographs made in public places, often urban thoroughfares, of ordinary people who are usually—but not always—unaware of the camera. Hence the title, Bystander —one who is also at times variously voyeur, witness, critic, romantic and even assailant.
The "Bystanders" are mostly well-known photographers. This is not, the authors argue, the place for archeology but rather for documenting the interconnections among those who have had the most obvious influences on the tradition. The chrono-biographical taxonomy that gives the book its ordering principle is thus without surprises. There are four "eras' to street photography, each presided over by one man: Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans and Robert Frank. A host of others presage, follow, diverge, synthesize, revive, elaborate and punctuate.
The streets they have photographed are overwhelmingly those of Paris and New York. Ranging from Victorians lugging collodion plates on their way to distant colonies, Bill Brandt recording his own London, and a single representative photo by Raghubir Singh to the chapter-length discussion of Harry Callahan and what Westerbeck dubs "the Chicago School" in the end everything photographed outside Paris and New York appears like souvenirs of historical day trips. "Paris has been...an occasion to which photographers have risen," Westerbeck writes; later Meyerowitz explains that among New York street photographers—at least the ones he hung with—that "really Fifth Avenue had the pulse of life...[where| the mix was best," and the possibility of another city is implicitly inconceivable. For better or worse, it is the images from this narrow slice of streets, with brief forays into some hinterlands and crucial influences from others (Hungary, Germany, Britain roost significantly) that makes up photography's contribution to our collective memory of urban life in this century.
But within the constraints of their framework, Westerbeck and Meyerowitzdeliver a wealth of insight through carefully selected images and well-crafted words. The book opens with a sequence of twenty photographs called "Overture" framed by a conversation between the authors that also, in its full-length form, closes the book. Thus these comments literally frame the volume.
Westerbeck: I remember Garry and the rest of you often calling pictures "tough" or "beautiful." Why was "tough" such a key word for you?
Meyerowitz: "Tough" meant it was an uncompromising image, something that came from your gut, out of instinct, raw, of the moment, something tint couldn't he described in any other way. So it was TOUGH. Tough to like, tough to see, tough to make, tough to understand, the tougher they were the more beautiful they became. It was our language.
The authors approached their study of street photography itself in much the same warm, exuberant terms. They wade into it less as critics seeking larger cultural meaning and more as aficionados seeking to tell everyone else just why they have such a good time in this field. The result is pleasantly infectious without losing intellectual force.
At the end of the book, however, it becomes clear that Meyerowitz’s particular brand of effusiveness stems from his own experiences in a small group of 1960s and 1970s American, New York-based photographers, all of whom had the dedication and good fortune to become well-recognized within the field. All naturally drew on the full scope of the street tradition, with an emphasis on the branch that started with Jacob Riis and Weegee, and later manifested in William Klein and Robert Frank. Within Westerbeck’s text it quickly becomes clear Meyerowitz is not speaking for most of the photographers of the nineteenth century as well as a host of gentler practitioners—Lartigue and Doisneau come to mind—for whom "toughness" was not part of their visual vocabulary.
The choice of photograph immediately following this introductory text is equally instructive regarding the authors' approach. Cartier-Bresson's photograph of a Seville street uses two boys as bookends to contain an intricate, rhythmic, multi-planar, angular composition balanced, Kandinsky-like, upon a single circle that is deftly echoed by both a sewer cap and a half-arch in the deep background. From the photographer known best for his aphorism "the decisive moment,"' this is, in terms of its human subjects, an entirely ordinary moment. The figures are forms, apparitions, presences lending motion and humanity to the stony street. The "decisive moment" is in the street itself brought to life for the image through light and him, a moment revealed by the photographer's subtractive process of selection that here is not unlike a sculptors removal of just enough material to leave a finished, polished, coherent statement. It is a "tough" image not in its subject matter but in its form, first in its angularity and its anonymity, and thenmore importantly in its aesthetic as a finished photographic print demanding a knowledge of modernism for full appreciation.
The photograph ending this section, also by Cartier-Bresson, is a brilliantly edited counterpoint: the famous image of a blurred figure of a man a hour to step into a puddle, his heel caught the instant before it touches the glassy water, his movement echoed by a dancer silhouetted on a poster in the background. Here is the leap of faith that instantaneity requires, the devil-may-care attitude of the roving street photographer as well as the whimsy, joy and magic the medium offers to both practitioner and viewer.
Inside, each of the books four sections opens with a similar sequence of photographs. The images are not all well-known ones, thus giving insight into the breadth and depth of the tradition. Appearing in pairs and groups across pages, they are edited to complement each other with formal, tonal, gestural and geographic connections so smooth they vary between the revelatory and the coy. So presented, each image becomes newly contextualized by referents lying within the tradition itself—other street photographs that until now had little to no bearing on each others' meanings or intents. One wishes for brief insight from the authors into the thought guiding this editing.
Westerbeck’s lengthy text rewards close reading. He writes as a well-versed, insider (he is currently associate curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago) and both authors received support through extensive discussions with the photographers themselves, historians and estate curators. The one notable exception is Robert Frank, who, alone among the photographers cited, did nor permit reproduction of his photographs and thus now, as when he first published The Americans, remains one of the only photographers in this genre consistently capable of dodging his viewers' expectations and even eliciting anger.
That this book was so long in the making pays off in the wealth of information that consistently illuminates motives and crosscurrents among photographers. Westerbeck studied these images meticulously and synthesized history and biography superbly. For example, early street portraits by photographers such as Samuel Bourne and John Thomson are read not as prototypes of "real" street-photographs-to-come, but as advancements in their own right fraught with the tension between the photographers' technically-based frustrations at their inability to produce truly candid images and their simultaneous acquiescence to values of the time that led them to "order the world [in photographs] the way his audience wanted.”Likewise, Atget is read in light of his subversion of the standards prevailing for architectural photography at the rime as well as his contacts with surrealists. Cartier-Bresson's post-war work is explored through nearly four pages elaborating his adoption of several facets of Zen practices. Like Cartier-Bresson, William Klein and Robert Frank receive chapters of their own. Throughout, Westerbeck pays attention to the institutions that photographers built as well as the institutions that built photographers' careers. It is to the book's credit that the pre-modernist era receives no less attention than those etas that followed, either in length or in significances ascribed.
Only at the end, in the chapter titled "Still Going," does this illumination falter. This chapter rakes the form of a conversation between Westerbeck and Meyerowitz, and the result is clubby and narrow, its subjects ate almost exclusively Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlandcr and Meyerowitz himself. The insights into working methods, attitudes and the intricate social and professional inter-relationships among these photographers are interesting in a talk-show kind of way, but in the end they illuminate a self-declared in-crowd more than they do the genre itself. To wind up such a rich book, published in 1994, with work whose heyday was the late 1970s seems a shame. How street photography is being interpreted by young photographers of the 1980s and 1990s who operate in vastly changed photo markets, technology and cultural values would have made a far stronger closing to this otherwise immensely valuable survey.
Dick Doughty is an editor, freelance photojournalist and author of GAZA: Legacy of Occupation—A Photographer’s Journey. He lives in Houston.