Snapping up street photography

Street photography can be traced back to Cartier-Bresson. Now mobile phones, digital cameras and photo-sharing websites are contributing to an explosion of the genre, says Hermione Hoby

Gus Powell was a street photographer before he even knew it. As a kid growing up in New York he used to “walk all over the place and bring home trash — you know, a crushed hubcap that looked like a hat that I thought was cool … all kinds of stuff”.

Powell, now 36, still walks all over the place but instead of collecting interesting rubbish he makes pictures. The two things, it emerges, are almost one and the same process. He explains that when he was a teenager “the camera became a way to carry even more back from the street without having to carry it home and my mum get mad at me”. He smiles. It’s a very bright day in New York and, as we navigate the lunch-hour throng rushing along the pavements of Broadway, he talks about the pleasure of his work. His fingers rest on the camera around his neck all the while.

“We’re all just cruising by, completely invested in what we’ve left behind and where we’re heading, but there are so many little quotidian delights that I think are worth pausing and looking at. I’m trying to get a fingerhold on these moments. Being able to grab your arms really wide around a bunch of things and try and hold them and organise them, that’s exciting to me.”

We walk on for a moment, then he stops.

“This guy sitting here is nice,” he says, nodding towards a man in a red T-shirt sitting on a fire hydrant. “And you know he’s probably not going to go anywhere, so you can wait and see if something else comes. If somebody came round this corner wearing the same red as him … ” Then, like some small miracle, a woman rounds the corner in a red cape and on the second that the two figures become parallel, Powell’s shutter snaps. I’m speechless but he simply says: “The city’s so generous. You have a sense of what you want and you have some patience, and it comes.”

We walk through SoHo and then north into Washington Square Park, where a man is exuberantly playing Here Comes the Sun on an upright piano among the pigeons. It’s a delightful sight and I turn to Powell expectantly.

“It’s pretty great,” he admits. “This isn’t the picture, though. The picture is when he’s pushing that thing along the sidewalk amid some other moment — that’s the kind of thing where you might take a note.”

More and more people are, like Powell, seizing cameras and “taking notes” on the streets around them. For some, street photography simply means any photo taken outside, but for most, the term comes with a set of values — of candour, spontaneity and the hope of capturing something extraordinary within the ordinary.

“It really is having a moment,” says Grace Pattison, head of programming for the London Street Photography Festival, which will take place in July. “It’s been there since the beginning of photography but it’s never had the recognition it deserves and the momentum has just been building. It’s kind of exploding now.”

Louise Clements, the artistic director of Format, an international festival in Derby that this year is dedicated to street photography and is showcasing the work of newcomers such as Rawiya, an all-women collective of Middle Eastern photographers, and veterans such as the British photographer Brian Griffin and the Americans Joel Meyerowitz and Orville Robertson, says: “Nearly everybody has a camera on their mobile phone now — that’s really enabled us to tap into that empathy for streetgenerated images.”

That empathy has been boosted by the advent of relatively cheap digital cameras, and the way that photo-sharing sites such as Flickr allow people around the world to publish and discuss their images. Technology, then, has afforded the medium for this renaissance but it was also technology that began it: the genre was effectively born in Paris in the early 1930s when the first Leica rangefinders became available. These were the first to support rolls of film rather than plates, allowing photographers to carry them with them as they walked. Among these photographers was Henri Cartier-Bresson, godfather of the genre, who credited the Leica 35mm rangefinder with affording him “the velvet hand and the hawk’s eye”. He spoke about “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event”, a notion that subsequently seized street photographers in 1970s New York. They included Meyerowitz, who, appropriately enough, met his fellow street photographer Garry Winogrand on the street. “The two of us worked together,” Meyerowitz explained last week. “We discovered the language of street photography together and began to look at those leaders to educate us.”

By 1994 Meyerowitz was ready to do some educating of his own: he co-wrote Bystander: A History of Street Photography with Colin Westerbeck. Clements calls the book the genre’s bible. Nick Turpin has his career to thank for it: he was working as a photojournalist when he saw a review copy on the picture desk. “I ‘borrowed’ it,” he says, “and read it from cover to cover. I was just so inspired by this work. It made me realise this was probably the hardest kind of photography there was. I left The Independent newspaper, where I had a staff job, so I could pursue street photography. A lot of people told me I was stupid.”

Street photography certainly doesn’t pay. “It’s been incredibly relevant — part of the documentary tradition,” Turpin says, “but you don’t really hang it on your wall.” As a result, it’s not driven by galleries and print sales in the way that most other photography is. Now, though, there is a proliferation of virtual walls to hang it on and plenty of established and respected photographers who have only published their work online. Although some photo-graphers, including Powell, shoot in film, most have embraced digital. The internet has allowed photographers to bypass traditional gatekeepers such as publishers and gallerists.

“Ten years ago nobody talked about street photography,” Turpin says. “It really wasn’t a subject. Bystander was all about the past, the Sixties and the Seventies, and I thought: ‘Why isn’t there anybody working like this now?’ And of course there was.”

Having tracked them down, he set up iN-PUBLiC, a website dedicated to a network of street photographers, including Powell, across the world. “By showing a gallery of all of them in a single place, it reinforced this definition of street photo-graphy,” Turpin says. “Now it has really become a big thing.”

That was confirmed with the publication last year of Street Photography Now, a Bystander for the 21st century. To its publisher’s shock, the first print run sold out in three weeks. Sophie Howarth, who co-wrote the book with the photographer Stephen McLaren, says: “Now everyone is a photographer there’s an increased appetite for this kind of work. It taps into the observer in all of us.”

She, too, enthuses about the encouragement that online forums offer. “The kind of support that people are giving each other online has really blown me away,” she says. “Now there is real peer-led coaching, and professionals and amateurs are rubbing shoulders in ways they didn’t before.”

Robertson, a Jamaican-born New Yorker who has been taking dynamic black-and-white street photographs for more than 30 years, is delighted by this development. “It’s amazing in terms of my street photography being seen by people who never would have had the chance to see me. There’s a very, very active community of street photographers and that’s been a real revelation.”

The most influential of these is Hardcore Street Photography, a community on Flickr. With more than 40,000 members, it’s one of the site’s biggest groups.

“There are virulent debates that go on there about the nuances of Cartier- Bresson versus [Robert] Frank or [Bruce] Gilden versus Meyerowitz,” Clements says. “It’s a very lively genre.”

Howarth says: “We’re seeing work from parts of the world that were not represented before. We associate street photo-graphy with the really busy sidewalk of a first-world country but then what does it look like in countries where there aren’t really streets, where people don’t chitchat and gossip, or where there are no women on the streets?”

Some of those questions may be answered by Rawiya, which officially launched at Format festival. Its name means “she who tells the story” in Arabic. As the founding member, Beirut-born Dalia Khamissy, explains: “We wanted to tell the stories of the regions where we live in our way. We want to break the stereotypes that there are on the region.”

At the moment she is concentrating on the aftermath of war in Lebanon, which includes work on the thousands of people who were victims of enforced disappearance. Such work can be dangerous. The Iranian photographer Mehraneh Atashi, a recipient of Format’s Paul Hill EXPOSURE Award, was detained for her images of Tehran last year. It’s a painful paradox that we’re able to look at her revealing, poignant images but she is unable to talk about them for fear of being imprisoned again.

British photographers have had their own, albeit far less dramatic, battles with authorities. Last year they triumphed when Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, anti-terrorism legislation that allows police to stop and question people photographing in public, was overturned. That doesn’t nec-essarily mean that subjects here or elsewhere are amenable, though. In a forthcoming film about the renowned New York Times street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, there’s a scene in which he snaps two girls walking down the street. He’s at least 15ft away, but they spot him. “Don’t f***ing take a picture of me!” one shouts. “I’ll break that camera over your head!” the other screams.

Cunningham is positively meek compared with many street photographers. Bruce Gilden’s portraits are, for example, taken in his unsuspecting subjects’ faces and it’s this intrusiveness that makes the images so arresting. Meyerowitz recently suggested that this method is becoming more difficult. “Back in the Sixties and Seventies,” the 73-year-old said, “people didn’t pay attention to photographers. We were invisible and so there was a kind of soft, sweet spot in the world that you could occupy. Now when you raise your camera everyone’s eyes dart to you.”

The current popularity for street photo-graphy has stirred interest in Meyerowitz’s work and that of others who began photographing decades before Flickr and the rest. There have been fresh discoveries, too, such as the work of Vivian Maier, a nanny who left behind about 100,000 unseen negatives of Chicago street images when she died in 2009. When her pictures were discovered, people began “unearthing references”, Clements says, “to contextualise her and make sense of the enormity of the discovery: who she’s as good as, who she’s better than.” This in turn stoked interest in contemporaries of hers such as the New Yorker Helen Levitt, who also died in 2009.

Turpin calls street photography “sort of Chaplinesque — it’s tragic and humorous at the same time, just like our experiences in life”. But he also thinks that “the pictures we take on Oxford Street are as important as pictures made in Tahrir Square. They’re all different sides of the same coin. I actually think street photographers are serving an important social purpose.”

For some, though, it’s simply a matter of pleasure. “I can’t do anything else,” Robertson says. “It’s deep within my heart, my brain; I can’t stop doing it. It’s just a way for me to see the world. There’s no conscious effort at style; it’s just the way I see things.”

That candour and directness are a huge part of the medium’s appeal. “You have this rectangle and a shutter button, and those are the two tools you make street photographs with,” Turpin says. “No lighting, no styling, no models, no filters: nothing to hide behind, you can do it or you can’t, there’s no bullshit. And I think in the conceptual art world there’s a great deal of … ” he pauses meaningfully, “… talk.”

Turpin also cites “the whole Photoshop thing, where everything is manipulated like crazy — I think people are reacting against that”.

But the proliferation of street images also raises the question of quality. Everyone can be a street photographer but, according to Griffin, few can be good street photographers. “There are more images of technical competence than we’ve ever experienced before, but to be superior to the great masters of the past? We might find one or two in the next 50 years, maybe.”

So what makes a great street photograph? Griffin, with an air of finality, answers: “It’s when it constitutes a new way of seeing.” For Turpin, that is exemplified in Meyerowitz’s 1967 photograph The Fallen Man, of a suited Parisian on the ground at a Métro entrance, seemingly having a fit. “It looks like this little tragedy is part of a much wider, citywide event,” he says. “All the traffic has stopped. The other thing I love about it is there’s probably 25 or 30 people in that picture but none of them is going to help that guy. They’re fascinated by him and concerned, but they’re also revulsed by this failure of health. They look unreal these pictures but they all are real. It’s intoxicating really.”

Clements echoes that sentiment: “When you take a still moment from everyday life,it transforms the everyday; you reflect on your place in the world with a new mind. The philosophy of street photography is almost Zen-like; becoming part of the crowd and observing it with a new perspective. It’s you in the moment transposing and composing with life.”

Back in the midst of Manhattan life, Powell is coming to the end of his walk when the street throws up one of those “quotidian delights” that he talked about. A very short man in an immaculate suit turns a corner, hurrying towards us with an enormous transparent ringbinder resting open on his palms, empty. He’s gazing down at it disconsolately as he walks, so absorbed in whatever thought he’s having that he doesn’t even notice Powell scrabble to capture it. He misses and the man is gone. Powell smiles and shrugs. “Those little moments of beatitude. I love them.”

Format International Photography Festival Right Here Right Now: Exposures from the Public Realm runs until April 3 in venues across Derby and beyond; formatfestival.com

Photographers from the Format International Photography Festival pick their favourite image

Nick Turpin Street Scene, Artemare, 2010
“This image was taken in a small village in southeast France and comes from my current project, The French. I am exploring modern France as a street photographer, arriving in new villages, towns and cities. I am particularly fond of this image of the young boy with the flag, because it has such beautiful echoes of the past and references France’s history of revolution. The vigour and passion with which this young boy was waving the flag reminded me of Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix. The family had just found the faded flag, dating from the Second World War in their attic, along with the army tunic he is wearing.”

Martin Kollar From the series European Parliament
“The pictures I usually take are an attempt to capture the space in which reality is in conflict with desires and dreams, where the comedy and tragedy of everyday life meet and intertwine. I am willing to keep this space open to various interpretations and to search for a balance between the explicit and implicit, between what is and what ideally should be. The realm of daily rituals, gestures and behaviours, which give the world order and stability, is one I find fascinating. All these things give the timeless world certain dramaturgy. A beginning and an end.”

Amy Stein Fireman’s Parade, Port Jervis, NY, 2004
“Every year I attend the Fireman’s Parade in the small town of Port Jervis, New York. While the local fire brigades parade through the streets, the townspeople come out to watch and socialise. These boys are waiting for the firemen to pass by. I love how small and sweet they are, while trying to appear tough, with their guns. The white T-shirt and sandals of the boy in the front are especially nice details for me.”

Frederic Lezmi Bucharest, 2008 (from the series Beyond Borders)
“What I love about this picture is the light, the colour and of course the reflection creating this special transparency between the in and the outside. In fact, I had already passed by this lady sitting in the shop window when I realised what a great image it would be and decided that I had to walk back. I got out my camera, made the right settings and passed by the shop window again. I took a single shot and continued. It was only after that I saw that she was selling coffins.”

Polly Braden Appold Street, from the series Square Mile
“About 330,000 people come into the City to work each day; only 10,000 people live there. I have been photographing in the Square Mile for the past five years. I hope the photos give a sense of what it might be like to be in this place for the first time. To a newcomer the City looks impenetrable, like an oiled machine with a hidden logic. City folk may look efficient, but it’s an illusion. Look again and many of them seem out of their element, as if caught between one air-conditioned sanctuary and the next. These are not employees ‘on message’; in their gestures there is doubt and indecision. Others are not dressed for the office at all. Perhaps they are residents of the City, from the nearby housing estates.”

Dalia Khamissy Missing, 2010
“Imm Ahmed holds the portrait of her son Ahmed al Sharkawi, who was kidnapped in 1986, as she lies in one of the beds inside the protest tent of the parents of the missing in downtown Beirut. An estimated 17,000 people remain officially missing in Lebanon since the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990 and the years that followed; they were abducted or killed at the hands of different Lebanese militias, Palestinian factions, Syria and Israel and their allies. The parents of the missing have been in a struggle for decades, trying to know more about the fate of their loved ones.”

Brian Griffin Rush Hour, London Bridge, 1974
“For this image I paid a London taxi driver five shillings to drive over London Bridge slowly from north to south during the rush hour. I had been out of art college for only 18 months, so it filled me with confidence upon seeing the end result, for I knew at last that I could make it as a photographer. It was at this time that I discovered German Expressionism, and I’m sure I owe a debt to Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis.”

Raghu Rai Woman Cart Pusher, Delhi, 1974, from the series Invocation to India
“Rare sight, where the wife was helping her husband to push the loaded cart so that he could deliver the goods. I kept chasing and clicking, not satisfied till I saw this building merging with the boxes they were pushing. In fact, this was the last frame of the 36 exposures. I couldn’t have gone on but, as luck would have it, everything merged and connected to create a wholesome experience.”

Snapshot The renowned New York Times street photographer Bill Cunningham out on the streeets of the Big Apple, this time in someone else’s viewfinder

The view from the streets . . .

Format International Photography Festival
Venues across Derby, until April 3.
01332 290606; formatfestival.com

London Street Photography
Photographs from 1860 to the present day.
Museum of London, London EC2, until September 4. 020-7001 9844; www.museumoflondon.org.uk

London Street Photography Festival
Exhibitions across London venues, plus the first Street Photography Awards, July 7-17.
0845 2602460; londonstreetphotographyfestival.org

Bill Cunningham New York
Documentary about the street photographer Bill Cunningham opens in the US next week.
zeitgeistfilms.com/billcunninghamnewyork

Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio & Street
National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, until May 30

This is Whitechapel
Ian Berry’s East London photographs, taken in 1972.
Whitechapel Gallery, London E2, until September 4. 020-7522 7888; whitechapelgallery.org

Vivian Maier
A selection of her work is at
vivianmaier.blogspot.com

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