Sidewalk Superstars

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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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The first great “street photographer” was the Frenchman Eugène Atget, who was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of his images feature Parisian vistas, with no people present. An inscribed and stamped example of his 1912 image Boulevard de Strasbourg (Corsets), showcasing a storefront crowded with headless mannequins displaying the stock-in-trade, sold for $509,000, more than triple its high estimate, in a December auction at Sotheby’s New York. Atget also photographed people on the street—and indeed, the auction record for his work depicts an elderly organ grinder and a young girl. Shot circa 1898 to 1899 and sold at Christie’s New York in 2010 for $686,500, Joueur d’Orgue (Organ Player) would not strictly count as street photography by modern standards because the technological limits of his equipment required his subjects to pose, and hold their pose, for the length of the exposure. “They were well aware of Atget and his camera,” says Howard Greenberg, founder of the eponymous New York photography gallery that handles Atget and many other street masters. “It’s very different from walking the street and taking candid photography as you move along.”

Truly candid photographs were not common until the early to mid 20th century, when technology reduced the size of the camera and increased the film speed.

Cartier-Bresson, the godfather of modern street photography,began shooting in the 1930s and for years relied on a Leica rangefinder. “Cartier-Bresson was really the first to incorporate the life of the street,” Greenberg says. “He called it the ‘decisive moment’ when all the elements came before him, including the people. In the beginning, it was primarily Cartier-Bresson and everybody learned from him.”

Walker Evans never called himself a street photographer, but his explorations of urban life and the New York subways are worthy examples of the form. Between 1938 and 1941, he photographed unwitting subway riders with a camera he concealed in his coat. Greenberg notes that Evans subway pictures have become scarcer in recent years and are climbing in price. One of them, a picture of a grim-faced blonde with a 7th Avenue Local sign over her head, and which was once part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection, sold for $40,000 against a $15,000 high estimate at Phillips New York in October. Robert Frank, the professional outsider, often turned his camera to the streets for pointed commentaries on American life. His mid-1950s image South Carolina (Charleston), of an African-American woman standing on a sidewalk and holding a white infant, commanded $497,000 against a $200,000 high estimate at Sotheby’s in December.

The form was pushed forward in the 1960s and 1970s by Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, and Lee Friedlander. Winogrand and Friedlander created broader and more complex compositions, while Meyerowitz embraced color photography when color was suspect—serious photographers stuck with black and white. Friedlander and Winogrand became great friends while treading the streets of New York, and while their work shares a number of similarities, each remains distinct.

“Friedlander, for whom the phrase ‘social landscape’ was coined, he was lookng for something different,” says Frish Brandt, executive director of the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, who represents Friedlander and the estate of Winogrand, who died in 1984. “Winogrand was interested in some sort of chaos, messing with the right angles of the photograph. It’s as if he had a sense for the centrifugal energy of the photograph, and he wanted to get as far from order as he could and still have the picture hold together.” In December, a new record was set for Winogrand when Women Are Beautiful, a limited-edition portfolio of silver gelatin prints that were shot in the 1960s and 1970s and printed in 1981, sold for $125,000 at Sotheby’s New York.

Meyerowitz, who quit his art director job after working alongside Robert Frank on a 1962 assignment, explored color in his 1979 book Cape Light, an ethereal collection of pictures taken on Cape Cod, Mass. Camel Coat Couple in Street Steam, New York City, 1975, a Meyerowitz image of a man and woman with their backs to the camera who are crossing a busy street and disappearing into the billowing whiteness, fetched $23,750 at Phillips New York in April 2014, almost double its high estimate. Meyerowitz, 77, has mentored generations of contemporary street photographers, among them Melanie Einzig, who moved from Minnesota to New York in 1990, and Gus Powell, a native of the city.

Einzig’s contributions include the beguiling Spring Corner, New York City, 2000, a slice-of-life picture of a black-and-tan dog, a couple embracing, a slumping man shuffling along, and a man with a cockatoo riding on his shoulder. She captured the image on an Olympus Stylus point-and-shoot camera when she was walking home, spotted the man with the bird, and followed him.

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She chose to shoot at an angle for several reasons, which she explained in an e-mail: “1. Because I like to do that. 2. It is a way to get everything you want in the frame. 3. It creates triangles in the rectangular frame which is dynamic for the eye. It is possible to tilt too far and it becomes uncomfortable to look at it. Winogrand loosened that up for us by showing us that the horizon line does not have to be straight to make a good photo.”

Powell, long drawn to the sight of construction workers on ladders and scaffolds, included Putti II in The Lonely Ones, a series he shot between 2005 and 2014 that will be published as a book this fall by J&L Books. The photograph depicts eight workers in shadow on a jungle gym–like structure against a backdrop of leafy trees, tall buildings, and a richly blue, cloudless sky. “It’s more than guys on a scaffold,” he says. “It’s a little bit of surrealism, but it’s very simple stuff. It’s a bunch of guys trying to get stuff done, but it looked a bit more special that day.” Equally spectacular is Massage, from his 1999–2007 series Lunch Pictures, showing a red-haired woman in a blue suit massaging the neck of a balding man. Both are seated on a park bench and, as with Putti II, their faces are not visible. “I would take the picture from the other side if that was interesting to me. I’m interested in gesture and feeling,” he says. “For me, that is my Doisneau Kiss.”

Powell is referring to French photographer Robert Doisneau’s Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville (The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville), a popular black and white of a young couple in a passionate embrace on a busy Paris street. Massage was not staged. But decades after The Kiss was shot, Doisneau revealed that he had come across a couple kissing and had asked them to repeat the scene for his camera. 

Such manipulations don’t sit well with Gibson. As he wrote in his 2014 book, The Street Photographer’s Manual, “Street photography’s core value is that it is never set up; this aspect is ‘non-negotiable’ because the guiding spirit of street photography is that it is real.” Gibson understands that his outlook is not universal. “I’m a bit of a purist,” he says. “I’ve been criticized for saying exactly that. But I feel very strongly about that bit. If it’s set up, it’s not street photography.”

That hard line would exclude photographers who seemingly belong to the canon. Brassaï, Weegee, and Diane Arbus would fail to make the cut, as would Doisneau. While agreeing with Gibson, Brandt sticks up for worthy exceptions to the rules, such as The Kiss.

“If you asked a random sample of people, they would say it is street photography. Does it matter any less that it is posed?” she says. “That’s the beauty of art. We don’t need to know, necessarily.”

Photography resonates with contemporary audiences partly because the medium is always changing. Technologies blossom and wither, and two recent arrivals, smartphones and social media, are promising to remake street photography. But so far, they are merely that—promising. Gibson, Einzig, and Powell typically carry a camera when they venture out. They also own smartphones, but none of them rank the device as a true camera. Einzig speaks for all three when she explains, “I don’t take the photo function that seriously—mostly just to post on Facebook, send to a friend, or photograph a wine label. I know you can probably make good work with these, but I just haven’t been taken by it yet.”

As for social media, the only notable street photography star it has minted began shooting in the 1950s. Vivian Maier meandered through Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and many other places around the world, capturing wonderful pictures when she was away from her day job as a nanny. Little is known about her training or her opinions on her work; she left undeveloped a fair portion of the 100,000-plus pictures that she took. She died in 2009, the same year John Maloof, a Chicago historian, posted a group of Maier pictures on Flickr, and things exploded from there.

Maloof had stumbled across Maier when he purchased a box of negatives at a Chicago auction house for around $400, hoping they would be relevant to a book on local history that he was writing. When it was clear he had something far better, he became Maier’s champion. Greenberg, who now represents her, says, “She’s as classic a street photographer as you can imagine.”

With smartphones and social media making street photographers of us all, the real innovation will be figuring out how to manage the flood spraying from the fire hose. “What remains to be seen is how we judge the truly successful,” Brandt says. “What criteria will we use? It changed in the past. It probably will in the future.”

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A Show for Every Street

This spring, the aisles of the annual Association of International Photography Art Dealers show in New York aipad.com will be alive with street photography from around the world. The 35th edition of the fair, taking place from April 16 to 19 at the Park Avenue Armory, will draw 89 national and international exhibitors, among them Howard Greenberg Gallery of New York, which intends to bring examples by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Joel Meyerowitz, André Kertész, and Vivian Maier.

Taka Ishi Gallery of Tokyo will feature the works of Katsumi Watanabe, who made the Shinjuku section of the Japanese metropolis his happy hunting grounds in the 1960s and 1970s, capturing portraits of gangsters, drag queens, and bar hostesses. Keith de Lellis Gallery of New York will have mid-20th-century photos by Dutch street photographers, including a delightful untitled black and white by Joan van der Keuken of a couple dancing in the street while life goes on around them. Gitterman Gallery of New York will have Garry Winogrand’s brooding 1957 picture Victor Riesel, Labor Racketeer Foe, and Throckmorton Fine Art of New York will showcase street photography by Cuban-born Mario Algaze, shot in Cuba and Peru from 1999 to 2002.

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