Research Point – street photographers

This research proved quite interesting. I’m still not convinced that street photography will ever be my genre of choice, but it’s been interesting to see some of the diversity of the work in this field. My research was mainly from Photography The Whole Story (Hacking, 2012), I have also use links saved into my Evernote which are listed within the text.

Helen Levitt was a US photographer under the WPA scheme. Born in 1913 she met Henri Cartier Bresson and is regarded as being similar in approach. She photographed New York children at play, often using a right-angled view finder so she could work unobtrusively. And yet her work is so much more than that description implies. She switched from black and white to colour in the 1960s and her images sing of the moment and its colour. She shows what she sees, and I can’t quite believe I haven’t encountered her work before now. There’s a gentleness in her work that very much appeals to me.

Joel Meyerowitz – a very technically accomplished photographer born in 1938 and still working. I came across his work briefly in the Foundation course, then just now when looking at Aftermath photography and his photographs of Ground Zero. He also switched from black and white to colour, making the delicate Cape Light work in 1978 with its lovely palette of muted coastal tones, sparse composition and a large absence of people.

Paul Graham is a British photographer who like Helen Levitt was new to me, though I had saved an article about him into my Evernote. Inspired by the traditions of the Great American Road Trip, he photographed the Great North Road, taking two years to do it and sleeping in the back of his Mini. As BBC photographer Phil Coomes said, his photographs aren’t designed to amuse or to shock. They simply observe and encourage us to look harder for the meaning. He worked in colour with large/medium format cameras. The work is incredibly considered and I would love to have a look at the book and also see more of his work.

Joel Sternfeld is a US photographer. He photographs the normal, the everyday and the banal.  Like the “new topographic” photographers, he records man’s interaction with the landscape (as opposed to Ansel Adam’s majestic natural unspoiled landscapes). Of the work I looked at, I was most taken by his record of a disused high-level railway line (as part of a community project to secure regeneration), and by his quiet portraits taken at a climate change conference. These latter show how individual delegates responded to the issues under discussion. The photographs are presented with text. I like very much that he is an artist with an agenda, he believes and understands both the power of photography and the limits of photography to help effect change in our world.

Martin Parr is a British photographer, born 1952. His colour work is characterised by its vibrancy, its saturation and the use of ring flash to get even more light. I have mixed feelings about his work, sometimes it feels without compassion but for no good reason. Other times, such as the work in Unseen City, it is full of affection for those depicted. He’s particularly well known for his work with food. His work at the beach shows ice cream on faces, doughnuts, trays of chips and so on his work for Unseen City shows banquets. I think on the whole what he is saying is interesting and relevant. I’m not sure about how he’s saying it thought. Other people whose work reminds me of Martin Parr are Dougie Wallace and Anna Fox’s Resort series.

One photographer that I would like to include here is Hans Eijkelboom. He’s made amazing typographies of the clothes that we all wear, how we all behave. I watched his video The Street & Modern Life at the Strange and Familiar Exhibition and was mesmerised by the sheer volume of carefully made work and the detail with which he had, effectively, choreographed his work. He shows so well how we are all the same, but different, which is a concept I love. We can see how warehouses full of identical clothes translate into streets full of similarly dressed people. Imagine if he had made this work perhaps twenty years ago, forty years ago, 100 years ago? The video can be seen here. I am delighted by the way he uses pairs of people to transition from one theme to the next, almost like passing a relay baton. The film was made over several months at the Bullring in Birmingham.

Consider what difference colour makes to a genre that was predominantly black and white.

For me, it brings the work to life, it allows me to contextualise it within my world and my life. Much black and white photography belongs so definitely to the past and in a way that can present a barrier to understanding it in a modern context. There is sometimes still a tendency to view black and white images more as “art” whereas colour is more careless, more snapshot.

Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism?

I didn’t spot it, no, but it’s definitely gone by the 60s. Though sometimes I think William Egglestone’s work is a bit surreal.

How is irony used to comment on Britishness or American values?

I immediately thought of Robert Frank’s The Americans – Parade, with a spectator obscured by the national flag; Navy Recruiting Station, Post Office, with the recruiter’s feet up on a desk in an empty room; Political rally Chicago, where a musician standing beneath the flag is all but hidden by the bell of his horn. There’s also irony/humour in the sequencing of images, for example “Christ died for our sins” on a dark black car is followed by couples in swimwear canoodling  happily in front of their cars (Public Park – Ann Arbor Michigan). Some of this humour depends upon a tension/conflict between text and other elements of the image whereas some does not require text, we can tell all we need from the elements of the photograph.


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