Visualizing the Social World: A Street Photography Digital Curation
Department of Communication, Culture, and Technology
CCTP 802: Art & Media Interfaced (Spring 2021)
Street photography "is a tradition that has been fertilized by an international conversation going back over seventy years," (Howarth and McLaren, p. 7, 2010). Since the early 20th century, street photographers, armed with 35mm cameras, Kodak #1s, and some with the Fallow field Facile "hand" camera (a camera concealed as a parcel), have been documenting daily public life in extraordinary ways. Early street photographers contributed much to dialogues on how to do street photography: a discussion that was substantially advanced by one of the most influential street photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) and his concept of "the decisive moment."
Discussing his book, The Decisive Moment (1952) in an interview with The Washington Post in 1957, reprinted in his obituary, Cartier-Bresson put his idea in layman's terms:
"Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. 'Oop! The Moment!' Once you miss it, it is gone forever" (Cartier-Bresson, 1957 cited in Bernstein, 2004).
Cartier-Bresson's method for street photography was widely accepted by other pioneers such as Walker Evans and Helen Levitt (Helen Levitt, 2018). This dialogic area of how to do street photography continued with notable contributions from Robert Frank, who's impactful work was denounced by critics as "sloppy," "drunken," and outright meaningless (Cheng, 2015); and Helen Levitt. Along the way, an even more interesting dialogue, and the subject of the curation, developed: the why behind street photography. Why should we do street photography? That is, what is the purpose of street photography? What is the reason? In this collection, I have included images that differ in several capacities. Some are posed, others are candid. Some focus on human subjects, others on objects or spaces. Photos may be portraits or full body; of individuals or groups, and so on. These variations compose the myriad approaches to how in street photography and consequently are able to focus more on the why. The concern is not which photos are more or less "effective" (if that even made sense), but rather why these photos were captured.
Some included artists (though they may not have considered themselves artists) were quite straightforward in their reasons for doing street photography. Dorothea Lange, for example, "had little interest in classifying her photographs as art: she made them to effect social change" (Dorothea Lange | MoMA, n.d.). Though less direct in the pursuit of social change, other photographers, like Paul Martin, Walker Evans, and Robert Frank demonstrated particular interest in photographing working class subjects.
The general concern with street photography, it seems, is the social world as it is; uncorrupted, spontaneous, and astoundingly unfair. Not "the social world as it can be cropped, framed, or poised" but as it is. Street photography attempts to capture on film not just the visible components of a moment, but the invisible social reality as well. The nuances that characterize fleeting encounters that are oh-so-hard to describe in words. The energy and spirit of a moment have to somehow make it through the camera lens. Walker Evans played a major role in this discussion of documenting the social world through his partnership with James Agee. Agee and Evans worked together to photograph and ethnographically document the experience of white share croppers in Depression-era Alabama. Agee's written narratives, paired with collections of poems, and outbursts and asides about the nature of documenting others, pair with Evans photographs in their book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) to demonstrate the types of stories and realities street photography can document, but also lay bare the implications of "studying" ones fellow humans.
This concern with others roots all the way back to the beginning of this discussion, to Cartier-Bresson; who asserted that his foundational concept of "the decisive moment" was characterized by photos that document "the human condition" (Cookman, 2008 p. 60). There seems to be a general intention to inspire empathy for photographed peoples and humankind in general. In his project, "The Americans," Robert Frank (a Swiss street photographer), examined American life from the point of view of an outsider. In Frank's work "the barriers of race and class are everywhere evident, as is the loneliness of American life, with its go-getter individualism carried sometimes to heartless extremes" (Cheng, 2015).
There is more to the quote at the opening of this passage than what I included. The whole thing reads: street photography "is a tradition that has been fertilized by an international conversation going back over seventy years, which, thanks to the internet, is now more vibrant than ever" (Howarth and McLaren, p. 7, 2010). What has the internet got to do with this discussion? For one, I wouldn't have any means of reproducing these images as you see them without internet technology. It could be argued that digital reproductions of gelatin silver paint prints fail to capture the essence of the original photo as it was developed, but I think there are some interesting affordances of the internet and digital technologies that enhance the experience of engaging with these photos. Look at Cartier-Bresson's photo of the woman identifying the Gestapo informant who betrayed her during the German occupation of France. The physical print is only 23.4 x 35 cm. The dozens of unique characters in the scene could be hard to focus on. Try zooming in on the photo. Take a moment with each face in the crowd to see how each individual reacts to the event. Zoom in on the informants stoic face and clenched fist. These images contain so much human-ness that the ability to focus in and look at the parts that make the whole enriches the entire experience.
Within the collection, I have scattered some quotes from featured photographers that allude to the philosophies underlying street photography. Street photography is hard to pin down as an art genre. Some use the term interchangeable with "photo-journalism," or "documentary photography," while others regard all three as different. What makes street photography, street photography, is the underlying spirit of the photographer. I encourage viewers to ponder the nature of such spirit once they reach each quote in the curation.
Bernstein, A. (2004). The Acknowledged Master of the Moment. The Washington Post.
Cartier-Bresson, H. (n.d.). The Decisive Moment. Texts and photographs by Cartier-
Bresson. Simon & Schuster.
Cartier-Bresson, H. (1937). Coronation of King George VI, London, May 12, 1937.
[Gelatin Silver Paint].
Cartier-Bresson, H. (1945). Dessau, Germany. [Gelatin Silver Paint].
Cartier-Bresson, H. (1963). Berlin Wall [Gelatin Silver Paint].
Cheng, D. (2015, January 7). Robert Frank in America. Artillery Magazine.
Cookman, C. (2008). Henri Cartier‐Bresson Reinterprets his Career. History of
Photography, 32(1), 59–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/03087290701723279
Department of Photographs. (2004). “Walker Evans (1903–1975).” In Heilbrunn
Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan.
Dorothea Lange | MoMA. (n.d.). The Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved May 1, 2021,
Evans, W. (1936a). Bud Fields and His Family, Hale County, Alabama.
Evans, W. (1936b). Roadside Stand Near Birmingham/Roadside Store Between
Tuscaloosa and Greensboro, Alabama.
Evans, W. (1938). Subway Passengers, New York City [Gelatin Silver Paint].
Frank, R. (1952). Couple/Paris.
Frank, R. (1955a). Main Street—Savannah, Georgia.
Frank, R. (1955b). Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1955.
Helen Levitt. (2018, January 31). International Center of Photography.
Henri Cartier-Bresson in Dessau. (2016, October 10). Huxley-Parlour Gallery.
Lange, D. (1933). White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco [Gelatin Silver Paint].
Lange, D. (1936). Plantation Overseer and His Field Hands, Mississippi Delta [Gelatin
Lange, D. (1937). Six Tenant Farmers without Farms, Hardeman County, Texas
[Gelatin Silver Paint].
Levitt, H. (1940a). New York [Gelatin Silver Paint].
Levitt, H. (1940b). Untitled [Gelatin Silver Paint].
Martin, P. (1890). The Flower Woman at Ludgate Hill Station [Gelatin Silver Paint].
Martin, P. (1893). Porter Carrying a Basket of Shrimps, Billingsgate [Gelatin Silver
Martin, P. (1896). Trafalgar Square on a Very Wet Night [Gelatin Silver Paint].
Paul Martin, photographer at Historic Camera. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2021, from
Szarkowski, J. (n.d.). Walker Evans | American photographer. Encyclopedia
Britannica. Retrieved April 30, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walker-Evans