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Bystander: A History of Street Photography

Bystander: A History of Street Photography

by Colin Westerbeck, Joel Meyerowitz
This landmark book, a monumental chronicle of the photographic genre created from the chaotic energy of everyday street life, grew out of a fifteen-year collaboration between an esteemed curator and a distinguished photographer. The work of such celebrated masters as Atget, Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand are


This landmark book, a monumental chronicle of the photographic genre created from the chaotic energy of everyday street life, grew out of a fifteen-year collaboration between an esteemed curator and a distinguished photographer. The work of such celebrated masters as Atget, Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand are presented here, along with extraordinary photographs by complete unknowns. Colin Westerbeck's enlightening text illuminates each of these images, and a new illustrated afterword by Westerbeck, only available in this paperback edition, examines contemporary street photography.

Author Biography: Colin Westerbeck is curator of photography at the Art Insitute of Chicago, and editor of Irving Penn: A Career in Photography.

Joel Meyerowitz is best known for his large-format color work published in Bay/Sky and Cape Light, but he began his photographic career in the 1960s as a street photographer.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This substantial book embraces the history of street photography as social and cultural document. Generously illustrated with black-and-white photographs as well as a small selection of color images, the book touches upon the work of acknowledged masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andr Kertsz, Paul Strand, Bill Brandt, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and many others. Farm Security Administration photographers, including Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, also receive their due along with contemporary American photographers Weegee (Arthur Fellig), Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and Helen Levitt-to name just a few. This ambitious effort is perhaps most successful in bringing together the work of these classic photographers in a thoughtful, coherent study of this fascinating genre of photography. Westerbeck is associate curator of at the Art Institute of Chicago and Meyerowitz is a photographer (Bay/Sky, LJ 12/93). Highly recommended, especially for large public libraries and academic libraries.-Raymond Bial, Parkland Coll. Lib., Champaign, Ill.

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Read an Excerpt

Bystander: A History of Street Photography

By Colin Westerbeck Joel Meyerowitz

Bulfinch Press

Copyright © 2001 Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-821-22726-2

Chapter One

Afterword: The Sidewalk Never Ends

Throughout the history described in this book, there have been key periods when a group of street photographers have come together to share their work, their ideas, and in some cases a sense of social purpose. From fellowships like the Photo-Secession at the turn of the last century through the Farm Security Administration during the Depression to the group that formed around Garry Winogrand in New York in the early sixties and was influenced by Robert Frank's The Americans, street photography has often had more than just a history. It has represented a culture in the true sense of people bound to one another by common interests, beliefs, and practices.

Of all these groups both formal and informal, the only one still in existence today is Magnum, the cooperative for photojournalists founded in 1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, and a few others. Although current members, such as Gilles Peress, were discussed earlier, the addition of this new afterword to the original text provides an opportunity to bring the assessment of Magnum's history up to date. Magnum recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with an exhibition and a book that are startling evidence of how utterly the photography by the members has changed since the organization's early days. The photographers themselves are probably not so different, but the worlds in which they both work and show their work are.

It is worth taking a look at what has happened to Magnum in the last few decades because it tells us much about the recent history of street photography in general. When this book was published seven years ago, the idea of ending with the period of the late sixties and early seventies seemed a good one, since photo history had thereafter become preoccupied with other issues and a different notion of what history itself was, or should be. Except perhaps at Magnum, street photography has undergone a kind of diaspora in the last quarter century. Certainly there are many good photographers still working in this genre, and talented new ones come along all the time. The ultimate purpose of this discussion is to identify some of the best work being done today. Yet most of these photographers are working essentially alone, on the margins of both photojournalism and the art world, in a way that their immediate predecessors did not. It is by beginning with Magnum that we can best understand why this has happened.

Magnum's fiftieth-anniversary exhibition that was installed in late 1999 on several floors of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris was a show devoted to the inhumanity of man to man. It was a kind of anti-"Family of Man," as if it were intended to repudiate Edward Steichen's famous 1955 exhibition showcasing an earlier generation of Magnum. Michael Ignatieff feels that Steichen's show expressed the "core belief" of Magnum's founders. Writing in the introduction to Magnum, the book that accompanied the fiftieth-anniversary exhibition, Ignatieff makes an astute observation that the spirit in which Magnum was founded was the same in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in the aftermath of World War II. "Magnum's task," Ignatieff contends, "was providing the iconography of a liberal moral universalism" unique to that time. Magnum's first major project in 1947 was entitled "People Are People the World Over," an editorial idea e indistinguishable from Steichen's in "The Family of Man."

But as the new exhibition made clear, Magnum photographers now see the world as the opposite of that which the liberalism of the postwar era envisioned. The book Magnum is similarly distressing in its impact. The photographs reflect, as though in a distorting mirror, Robert Capa's dictum that if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough. Whether covering a beauty pageant in Florida or a killing ground in Africa, these photographers tend to stand right in the middle of the action in a way that gives neither them nor us any perspective on the events they document.

The only consistent point of view (if you can call it that) is that the world is a chaos in which hands, arms, legs, and grotesque bodies fly around the photographic frame like debris in an explosion. It is not really a point of view so much as a leveling of all human experience to a lowest common denominator. It depicts all subject matter through a very wide-angle consciousness; the human condition is smeared across the frame, even when the optics themselves are not being distorted. Perhaps because they are frustrated with their inability to make people care about the tragedies they witness, Magnum photographers tend to depict the whole world as war torn. Eugene Richards dedicated his 1994 book Americans We to Robert Frank, but in it the sadness Frank felt at American life becomes the more brittle emotion of revulsion (fig. 1).

Many members of Magnum have themselves come to question the efficacy of images of murder and mayhem. A comment made by member Alex Webb is typical of such criticism: "It is incredibly important to be a witness, but ... I sometimes wonder, well, we've seen so many pictures of dead bodies, what does it mean to society at large?";' Interestingly, one of the sharpest recent controversies within the organization involves a member who takes far less loaded pictures - Martin Parr, whose most provocative work has been straight street photography (fig 3).

After Cartier-Bresson attended a 1995 Parr exhibition on world tourism, he told his young colleague, "I ... think you are from a different planet"; he had found Parr's work to be, he said, "without humor, where rancor and scorn dominate, a nihilistic attitude symptomatic of society today."

If there was a single point in time that was the watershed separating the attitudes and values of the earlier Magnum members from those of the current generation, it was a spring day in 1954 when news arrived at Magnum's offices of the death of two of the original members. One was Werner Bischof, the first photographer whom the founders had invited to join. A vehicle in which he was riding had crashed in the Andes. The other was Robert Capa, who had stepped on an antipersonnel mine outside the village of Thanh Ne, Vietnam, thereby becoming the first American correspondent to die in Indochina. Though no one could have recognized it at the time, the almost simultaneous deaths of Bischof and Capa provided a coda for the era of liberal universalism that had been Magnum's founding faith.

Capa's death was a singularly telling-or rather, foretelling-event. Earlier on the day that he was killed, the Viet Minh had ambushed the French armored column in which he was traveling on a road bordered by rice paddies. To Capa's amazement, the peasants tending these paddies just went on with their work while the firefight raged around them. This was the first time he had been directly involved in the kind of war of liberation that was to characterize the later twentieth century, and it killed him. With him died, one might say, many humanitarian ideals that had emerged from the world war in which he had made his reputation and that had shaped Magnum.

The subtitle that Russell Miller gave to his recent book on Magnum is Fifty Years at the Front Line of History. It would be a decade after Capa's death before the rest of us became familiar with the sort of situation in which he died and with the disturbing questions implicit in it about - War and everyday life-war as everyday life. If you have the street photographer's passion for incongruities, this new kind of war presents you with great photo ops. The surrealism Capa witnessed as peasants went on with their daily chores while gunfire erupted in their midst is the same that Philip Jones Griffiths responded to a couple of decades later when he photographed a woman in Northern Ireland mowing her lawn as a black British tommy crouched, rifle at the ready, under cover of a bush in her yard (page 404). Obviously, clever ironies like these are not appropriate when a photograph's subject is an atrocity. But beyond even that concern lies a still larger problem of whether such wittiness works at all in a society that has become as divisive and self-critical as ours.

It is not just a historical coincidence that no new culture of street photography has arisen since the seventies comparable to the FSA, Magnum, or the group that hung out together in New York in the early 1960s. That was the last moment at which the liberal consensus of the postwar period was still intact. Since then, both photojournalism and the art world have had a far more adversarial relationship to the society that is their audience. You don't have to accept uncritically the sentimentalism of "The Family of Man" in order to agree that without genuine assent to the ideals it was popularizing, the celebration of life found in most street photography becomes difficult to sustain. Already in the work of Robert Frank, William Klein, or Garry Winogrand, as different as their sensibilities are, there is an edginess, a degree of alienation from both their subjects and their viewers. In the work of many current Magnum members, from James Nachtwey to Martin Parr, alienation is sometimes carried to insupportable lengths. The street photographer becomes a man without a country, a rogue talent.

Perhaps the most stringent 1950s review of "The Family of Man" was written by Roland Barthes, whose criticism would later transform the way the educated Western audience looked at photography. In the Postmodernist era to which he has contributed, art itself has become a critique of the institutions, assumptions, and politics of our own society. There is at least one Postmodernist street photographer, Philip-Lorca di Corcia. He takes photographs of life on the street that usually seem random, as if purposely without any composition; yet these daylight pictures are also illuminated by a powerful blast from strobes intended to give the image the artificial drama of a scene from a movie. Many of Jeff Wall's light-box installations have a similarly staged, self-consciously arch quality. Where Magnum's work seems to have become a kind of anti-"Family of Man," Postmodernist productions like di Corcia's or Wall's are an anti-street photography.

If there is no longer the place there once was for street photography in magazines, as photojournalism, neither is there the place for it that it once had in the museum, as art. Historical exhibitions and retrospectives for older photographers continue to be done, but newcomers to the field find it harder either to be published or to get shows. Where does that leave street photographers today? On their own. Photographers ranging from Tom Arndt in Chicago to Tom Wood in Liverpool have spent the last two decades haunting the streets like ghosts of a spirit that refuses to die.

Arndt's career demonstrates the increasing isolation in which street photographers have worked (page 415). When he first went to New York in 1971, traditional photography was just beginning to attract attention from the contemporary art world (before the action moved elsewhere), and Arndt was picked up by the prominent gallery O. K. Harris, where he was given a show every two years through 1977. But then it was more than six years before Arndt had another New York exhibition, and now twelve years have passed since his last gallery show there. Meanwhile, the continuity in his photography has been supplied by those things that were already in place before he took up the medium-the working-class values and politics he inherited from his parents and instilled in his 1995 book Men in America, his love of the Midwest, particularly his native Minnesota, that has resulted in a long friendship and occasional collaboration with Garrison Keillor, and so on.

Like Tom Arndt, Tom Wood has been sustained by his roots in the community. Wood has lived in the same house near Liverpool since 1978. He doesn't drive a car, so his life is very circumscribed; he must travel everywhere by bus. But the confinement that the bus imposes has, paradoxically, given his talent room to grow (pages 415 and 416). Wood's background contains the sort of social history that Magnum members like Griffiths have been documenting in recent years, for Wood was born in 1951 in County Mayo to parents who, because one was Catholic and the other Protestant, had to leave Ireland. (Wood was three years old at the time.) Wood's portraits in his 1999 monograph People have some of the same, hard-bitten quality as work by Magnumite Martin Parr, who is a friend. However, in the bus pictures published in 1998 under the title All Zones Off Peak, Wood approaches his subjects more obliquely, in the same way that one addresses one's neighbors more politely than strangers.

In Czechoslovakia during the Soviet era, photographers like Jindrich Streit (fig. 2), Viktor Kolar (page 415), and Bohdan Holomicek hunkered down and stayed close to home. If you photographed in your own backyard, as Streit did in northern Moravia between Jesenik, where he grew up, and Olomouc, where he attended university, chances were you could remain beneath the notice of the authorities. Only if you showed your images to the world at large, as Streit dared to do in London in the mid-1980s, did the officials realize that seemingly provincial street photographs could contain disturbingly universal meanings. Though Streit was jailed for a time, the Velvet Revolution of the late eighties and early nineties has rehabilitated street photographers like him and vindicated their role in Czech history. Today, when they are free to photograph wherever they want, Streit and Kolar continue their solitary exploration of strictly regional cultures.

Like these Czech photographers as well as Arndt and Wood, Cristobal Hara in Cuenca, Spain, and Tom Roma in Brooklyn, New York, both localize their vision to a degree that also humanizes it. As Ignacio Gonzalez has pointed out, "While ... most Spanish photographers have come to resemble their European and American colleagues more and more, Cristobal Hara insists on making pictures which could only be Spanish." The key, in Hara's own opinion, is to photograph only out in the countryside (pages 412 and 420): "Places where I photograph have to have a strong personality. If I work in Madrid-it is a modern city now-I could be anywhere." At the same time that Hara has a fierce loyalty to a specific place and culture, he also shares the sense his contemporaries in street photography have of being marooned in history, like a man stranded on an uninhabited island. "I feel almost completely out of touch with other photographers," he says.


Excerpted from Bystander: A History of Street Photography by Colin Westerbeck Joel Meyerowitz Copyright © 2001 by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz. Excerpted by permission.
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