I Spy: Our Fascination with the Photography of the Street

Since the advent of “street photography” in the early 20th century, this genre has become a mainstay of modern and contemporary art and culture, and one of its most fascinating. I’ve had the opportunity to visit many a street photography exhibit over the years and it’s a challenge to pull the good ones off successfully. Some personal favorites of mine include: Daido Moriyama at the Met in NY, Richard Gordon at the Corcoran, Open City at the Hirshhorn, and Lewis Baltz at the National Gallery of Art.

I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938–2010 which opened at the National Gallery of Art this past Sunday gets ambitious by exhibiting photography from a long arc spanning over 70 years. I posted a few weeks ago about the importance of understanding photographic equipment/process and how it impacts what is photographed, as well as the resulting image. I would again urge keeping this in mind when viewing this exhibit. Also before going, I would urge you to read the excellent 50-page digital brochure that has been created and is free to download from the website! Thank you NGA for putting this online!

Equally compelling, although not found in DC, are street photographs by Chris Arnade online at Flickr. I don’t remember how I first got exposed to his photography, but I keep going back and absorbing the faces he captures, the untold stories of which we only get a glimpse.

Enjoy both these opportunities to view street photography this summer. I Spy runs from April 22 – August 5, 2012 and Chris Arnade can be found indefinitely online.

Hidden Gem: Taking it to the Street

Hidden away on the Corcoran’s second floor are two small galleries showing important photography from the museum’s permanent collection. These exhibits rotate about every 3-4 months, but right now are being occupied by Richard Gordon: Meta Photographs (on view through May 1) and Framed: Street Photography from the Collection (on view through April 17).

I visited them last week; both exhibits showcase works from post-World War II and which mark the shift of documentary photography away from pure photojournalism and towards neorealism and conceptualism. In addition to Richard Gordon, the group show features many well-known artists including Walker Berenice Abbott, Anthony Hernandez, Gordon Parks, Roy de Carava and Gerry Winogrand.  

The Street Photography show is reminiscent of a wonderful 2002 exhibit I attended at the Hirshhorn called Open City: Street Photographs Since 1950 and which featured the “fascination with the faces, gestures and architecture of the urban streetscape.”  Here too, this fascination is obvious; the human theater of cities, the authenticity and artifice of places and people, and transcendent representations of daily life. Here, we see the conceptualist departure best—not only in the photographic process (think small cameras, fast shutters and covert snapshots) but in the composition (or rather lack of it). The beauty of this movement was really in its refusal to impose easily identifiable or familiar narratives on the viewer, instead creating ambiguous tableaus open to interpretation.

Gordon’s Meta Photographs are 23 selected works from a larger portfolio of 47 photos produced between 1973 and 1978. The Corcoran owns the entire portfolio, which is but 1 out of an edition of 35. This is a smartly curated exhibit which groups together 3-4 photographs into several themes which comment broadly on consumer culture and society’s relation to both the visual culture of photography and the photographer. Be sure to spend enough time in this gallery; there’s always a temptation to breeze through photography, but devoting extra time here will pay off and allow you to absorb many of the playful and geometric juxtapositions, and Gordon’s own conceptual statements.