Street photography is stepping into a thrilling new era.
David Gibson was walking along Shaftesbury Avenue in the London theater district when he spotted a group of preteen girls disembarking from a bus. They wore identical red dresses with sequined tops and polka-dot puffy sleeves and skirts, and red and white ribbons in their hair. He still does not know why the girls were there on a late February afternoon in 2008, but in truth, it does not matter. Like a true street photographer, Gibson reacted to what he saw. “They wandered to the back of the theater. I just followed them,” he says. He worked fast, taking almost two dozen color photos with his digital Canon 20D during the moment when the girls lined up and waited for the theater doors to open.
He dubbed the best shot London, 2008, a title that understates its excellence. In the instant that Gibson chose, the girls’ faces reveal every emotion racing through them: joy, playfulness, boredom, anxiousness, excitement, and perhaps the tiniest hint of stage fright. The No Parking sign above them adds a touch of wry humor. “When I took it, I knew it: It’s probably the photo that defines me,” says Gibson, 58. “Maybe it’s a reward for many years of wandering around.”
Street photography itself is having a great moment too, with a series of record-breaking sales at auction, noteworthy exhibits and documentary films, and new books such as Gibson’s The Street Photographer’s Manual. A retrospective on Garry Winogrand, the Bronx-born master of street photography, is on view in Spain after stints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Joel Meyerowitz, another New York legend, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the dawn of his career with a two-volume book, Taking My Time, and is the subject of yet another book, Joel Meyerowitz: Retrospective, released in February. Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary about a mid-20th-century street photographer whose work was discovered after her death, was nominated for an Academy Award this year. Humans of New York, a street photography project launched in 2010 that features portraits and stories about thousands of city dwellers, has delighted many as a blog and now a best-selling book. And smartphones and social media have democratized street photography like never before, placing the tools for shooting and sharing into countless new sets of hands.
From the beginning—which can be traced back to the undisputed gods of photography, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and André Kertész, to name three—a simple definition of this vital niche has been as elusive as the perfect shot. Many luminaries produced seminal images of urban life, with Exhibit A being Stieglitz’s moody 1893 picture Winter—Fifth Avenue, which shows the busy Manhattan street rutted with snow as a horse and buggy approach the camera. Street images by revered photographers such as Stieglitz garner the most serious money at auction, and in 2007, Sotheby’s London auctioned a mounted carbon print of Winter—Fifth Avenue for $381,000. Cartier-Bresson’s iconic Derrière la Gare Saint-Lazare, a 1932 Paris scene of a man leaping a puddle, his pose mirrored by a poster of a dancer in the background, fetched almost $600,000 at Christie’s Paris in 2011, a record for the artist. Kertész’s Meudon, a 1928 masterpiece of contradictory elements, sold for $420,000 in 2007 at Phillips de Pury (now known as Phillips).
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