From summer 2001 to spring 2002, phootgrapher Simon Høgsberg (link possibly via the excellent photography weblog Consumptive) camped out at Marble Arch in London and took pictures of pedestrians as they walked by. The photos themselves vary in quality, but there’s something wonderful about the project of making art based on everyday people. It’s vaguely reminiscient of Daniel Meadows’ "Photobus" work, a series of free portraits he took in England in 1973 and again (with many of the same participants) in 1998. It’s even more reminiscent of some of the work at the Hirschhorn’s current "Open Cities" street photography exhibit, particularly the work of Beat Streuli and (especially) Philip-Lorca diCorcia‘s wonderfully cinematic street photography. DiCorcia sets up cameras and lights to be triggered automatically by an electric eye; the lights are arranged in the three-point system of key light, fill light, and back light. The idea itself isn’t terribly interesting, perhaps, but the effect — photos of random passersby taken with no artistic intervention other than the frame selection come out as though they were movie stills — is impressive. The Hirschhorn’s exhibit is named after Rosellini’s Rome, Open City, the Roberto Rossellini film that birthed the Italian neo-realist movement. The exhibit’s conceit is that artists like Robert Frank and William Klein took advantage of the 35mm camera (Leicas were first manufactured in the Americas in 1952) to start taking claustrophobic, energic photos of American urban scenes. Klein’s vision of a fevered New York, collected in Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels in 1956, have a jittery energy that seems to reflect too much coffee and too many pills; it’s not at all hard to believe that this photography, now famous and hugely influential, was dismissed at the time. My urge to compare it with Weegee the Great‘s work is almost certainly a reflection of my fondness for Weegee and the coincidence of the two men’s work in New York, because Weegee’s work clearly grows out of the tradition of newspaper photography, observing a scene without being a part of it, where Klein is wholly uninterested in merely reporting, even if he was inspired by the Daily News‘ Inquiring Photographer.
As with most art photography styles, street photography had a number of its features picked up by fashion photographers (the Hirschhorn juxtaposes Nigel Henderson‘s shots of the East End of the ‘50s with Terence Donovan‘s witty spy movie fashion shots) and then into more self-referential, mannered work. Susan Meiselas‘ photojournalism of Latin American revolution and Raghubir Singh‘s explosively colorful photographs of India are clearly drawing on the tradition of street photography, but what is one to make of Catherine Opie’s pictures of American emptiness or Nikki S. Lee’s performance art/photography work? The pamphlet handed out at the Hirschhorn door reads:
[Lee] studies various communities and then alters her appearance and behavor to conform to that of the chosen group, which are documented in cheap snapshots taken by whoever happens to be around. Comibining anthropology with performance, and art photography with the amateur snapshot, Lee demonstrates just how wide-open street photography has become.
I think the Tourist Project is terribly amusing, but if Lee and Nobuyoshi Araki don’t seem to fit alongside Klein, Gary Winogrand, and Daido Moriyama. Weegee and Gordon Parks might not fit the bill, but why not throw in a few photos by someone like Teenie Harris? I suspect it’s because rather than imagining the American city or riffing on the American city, Harris was simply photographing the American city. Neo-realism is not realism, after all; with the exception of Meiselas’ photojournalism, the photography in the "Open City" exhibit (even when it’s brilliant, as Klein’s work is) says more about tastes in the photography world and about the artists themselves than it does about the cities they lived in.