The Transformation of Street Photography

Posted by David Ozanich — 28 Mar 2011

edruscha.jpgEd Ruscha examines his "Every Building on the Sunset Strip"

Wow. Christopher Knight, the art critic for the Los Angeles Times, has written a fascinating mini-history of street photography that you should read in its entirety. The occasion is the current show up at the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts called "Streetwise: Masters of '60s Photography". He calls it "a quiet, sometimes absorbing show" which "examines street photography's old ideal -- a personal style of documentary camera-work."

Knight uses the show as an opportunity to give a primer on "The Americans", Robert Frank's "landmark 1958 book" of street photography:

Capturing people in public situations with the utmost candor is street photography's general goal. Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation literary iconoclast, opened the book's introduction with this descriptive blast: "That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that's what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road ... ."

Kerouac took the opportunity to make a sly nod to "On the Road," his own 1951 autobiographical tale of wanderlust. Frank's book of photographs was controversial, its often grainy snapshot aesthetic light years away from the exquisite, carefully composed prints that represented photographers' long-standing yearning for their work's acceptance as high art.

"The Americans" said: To heck with that.


Knight goes on to summarize the continuing growth of street photography as "serious art" in the 1960s, culminating with a famous show at the Museum of Modern Art called "New Documents" which featured Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. Knight says, "Considered radical at the time, it proposed that black-and-white pictures with ordinary subject matter and a casual, snapshot-like appearance represented photography's new direction."

But is it now waning in its influence?

The genre certainly hasn't disappeared. Look at Flickr, Yahoo's Internet photo site. There's even an ongoing project called "Street Photography Now," named after a survey book by former Tate Modern curator Sophie Howarth and photographer Stephen McLaren.

But neither does it stand on the rarefied pedestal once reserved for it. "We're all street photographers now," Howarth and McLaren write, acknowledging the ubiquity of digital cellphone cameras. Yet in the 1960s and especially in the United States, street photography was the most celebrated photography there was.

So, OK, this is all fascinating stuff. What really piqued my interest is that Knight then turns to Ed Ruscha, one of my all-time favorite artists (see some of his paintings here), and argues that he transformed the normally static activity by taking the photographer off the sidewalk and into the car.

Simply said, Ruscha put street photography on wheels. Virtually all street photographs since Daguerre, regardless of style or subject, were conceived as a pedestrian's activity. With few exceptions, street photographs were what you took while walking in the city, often with a hand-held camera.

In 1966 Ruscha mounted an automatic camera in the bed of a pickup truck and drove up one side of West Hollywood's Sunset Strip and down the other, with the camera snapping away toward the sidewalks. The black-and-white photographs were printed side-by-side along the edges of a nearly 25-foot-long sheet of accordion-folded paper.

Ruscha, then 29, made a street photograph for a city -- and soon a world -- on wheels.

Ruscha, rather than imply a social narrative, instead inserts conceptual distance between a viewer and everyday experience. His two prior photo books -- "Twentysix Gasoline Stations" and "Some Los Angeles Apartments" -- chronicle what their titles say, and both frame buildings from a passing car's perspective.

There is so much more in this essay that I beseech you to read it all. He makes a really intriguing argument about the nature of modern photgraphy that is well worth contemplating. I'm tempted to just cut and paste the whole thing here but that's just gauche.


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