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JEFFREY BROWN: In the rubble of World War II, Italian director Roberto Rossellini helped create a new kind of cinema with the film “Open City”: Cameras in the streets, real people as actors, the grittiness of life very much part of the story.
An exhibition at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, “Open City: Street Photographs Since 1950,” shows how several generations of still photographers picked up Rossellini’s idea and ran with it, shot with it, and played with it. In the ’50s, Robert Frank used the recently developed pocket- size 35-millimeter Leica camera and began to capture the American street as never before.
Unburdened by heavy equipment, Frank and others, including William Klein, bent the rules of beauty and composition in photography, using the camera in a new way. Kerry Brougher is co-curator of the exhibition.
KERRY BROUGHER, Curator, Hirshhorn Museum: They were using it almost like a gun, like a pistol that they held at their sides. And they were able to use it on the spur of the moment when the right elements suddenly came together, they could snap that photograph off very quickly. Sometimes they didn’t even take it up to their eye. They would simply sort of shoot from the hip, as it were.
JEFFREY BROWN: William Klein’s photos of New York were shot with fast film, producing grainy images of high contrast– a movie theater, Cadillac salesmen, and this strange portrait called “Four Heads.”
KERRY BROUGHER: His works are so much in your face, and this one literally is in your face. You have these figures that the camera’s pressed right up to, and yet Klein was probably using a fairly wide-angle lens, so it tends to distort everything. And so what you get is a photographer who’s captured the kind of claustrophobia of the street in that photograph, and who’s gone against all the conventional rules of portraiture.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the 1960s, Gary Winogrand brought an even more confrontational style.
KERRY BROUGHER: He would slowly move up on the subjects on the street, usually to the point where suddenly they noticed he was there, and they would turn around and see him, and there was this moment of confrontation between the subject and the photographer, and sometimes, you know, a sense of, “who are you and what are you doing there, and why are you coming so close to me?”
JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes in these works it’s the absence of activity that is so compelling. Lee Friedlander’s “Empty Kansas City Street,” from 1965, a composition of lines, signs, shadows, and light. William Eggleston’s color photographs from the ’80s, with cars at haphazard angles, or a solitary soul on an otherwise lifeless street. In the ’90s, Catherine Opie’s pale and cracked St. Louis factories — and Wall Street inhabited by windows, traffic cones, and plastic trash bags.
Other times it’s the sheer riot of activity, especially in the works of several foreign photographers: Raghubir Singh’s India, with the vibrant colors of that country; a floating Marilyn Monroe in Nobuyoshi Araki’s Tokyo; and the massive detail in Thomas Struth’s photos of Shanghai in the mid-’90s. As Kerry Brougher points out, every photograph is, in some sense, selected, edited, composed, so the idea of capturing reality can be tricky. Some contemporary photographers play with this idea explicitly. These by Jeff Wall, for example, are not what they seem.
KERRY BROUGHER: He actually stages his scenes. He uses actors, he uses costumes, and he stages the entire image and photographs it many, many times. In a way, he’s like Stanley Kubrick. He will go through 50 takes to get what he has to. These are then presented as back-lit Cibachrome transparencies, quite large sometimes, on the wall, and so what we get is a very cinematic experience.
JEFFREY BROWN: Philip-Lorca Dicorcia creates something between the staged and the spontaneous. After setting up a large camera and elaborate studio lighting on the street, he waits for an unsuspecting passerby to trip an electric sensor and activate the shutter and lights.
KERRY BROUGHER: In a funny way, the subject actually photographs themselves in these shots. And… but they have the look as if they’re lit for the movies in this wonderful, dramatic lighting. You get a kind of sense of theatrical and the stage, together with an actual, spontaneous event that occurred out there in the street.
JEFFREY BROWN: So it seems like there is always a tension between seizing the moment and constructing the moment.
KERRY BROUGHER: We think of street photographs often as these very spontaneous photographs that occur on the street, but they’re never completely spontaneous. The photographer’s eye is really the important tool that makes these photographs, and the amazing ability of these photographers to capture these images on the street in the complete turmoil and chaos that often is out there, remains absolutely amazing to me.
JEFFREY BROWN: In these final images, taken only last year in New York by Swiss-born Beat Streuli, the individual is alone in the city, lost in some private thought. And perhaps fittingly to bookend an exhibition that begins with an idea from film, Streuli has created a video room of life at one busy intersection, slowed down, hypnotic, capturing the life of the street.