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“Open City: Street Photography Since 1950”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Sept. 8

Good street photographs thrive on tension. In the 1800s, that tension resulted from photographers trying to portray realistic-looking movement with cameras and film that, by modern standards, were agonizingly bulky and slow. Photographers of the period who wanted to do more than just document vacant streetscapes had to carefully pose their subjects—as if they had been caught candidly in midaction. In other words, the artist who wanted to communicate some sort of truth about urban life had to resort to a lie.

By the early 20th century, cameras had become smaller and film faster, and photographers suddenly possessed the ability to document actual street life as it happened. Using the new technology, such journalistic-minded artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa infused street photography with a new vividness, expressing empathy for their subjects even as they practiced honest reportage.

But this type of realism also created a new kind of tension—one that transformed the once-cooperative relationship between photographer and subject. Suddenly, photographer and subject were at best strangers, at worst antagonists. Photographers such as Ben Shahn and Paul Strand sometimes even used cameras with the lens mounted sideways so they could avoid tipping off their subjects to their presence.

In the Hirshhorn’s “Open City: Street Photography Since 1950,” this new relationship between artist and subject is crystallized in a photograph taken by Garry Winogrand in the late ’60s. Titled simply New York City, the image depicts three people on an urban sidewalk. A young woman in the middle of the frame stares coldly at the camera, her brow furrowed. The other two figures, squeezed into a doorway at the far left of the image, are lovers captured midkiss. The man is oblivious, but the woman is in no reverie. As her lips lock with his, her eyeballs rotate to the side of her head, looking straight into the camera. The message sent by both women is unmistakable: Fuck you, photographer, for intruding into our lives!

All of the 132 photographs included in “Open City”—as well as a video and two continuous-loop slide shows—illustrate such tensions, between photographer and subject, appearance and reality, and control and chance. Not every image is as compelling as Winogrand’s, but the show is riveting overall. It’s possible to quibble about the exhibition’s start date, which effectively excludes decades’ worth of important street photographs, but curators Kerry Brougher and Russell Ferguson make a persuasive case for opening the show after World War II.

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The starting point is Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank. Superficially, Frank’s black-and-white images look like those of his predecessors: everyday people going about their everyday business. But in his catalogue essay, Ferguson notes several factors that set Frank apart. One is that Frank did not attempt to document a manageably sized universe—as, say, Shahn did on the Lower East Side, or Helen Levitt and Roy DeCarava did in Harlem. With his controversial 1958 series The Americans—more than 80 photographs made while crossing the country on a Guggenheim Foundation grant—the artist sought to distill the essence of the entire United States. This approach overlapped with Frank’s desire not to reduce his work to a single narrative: “If The Americans had in fact been a straightforward attack on various social problems, it is likely that it would not have attracted such a hostile response,” writes Ferguson. “It was Frank’s very unwillingness to put his work in the service of a specific agenda that enraged many of his critics.”

Frank’s working method was startling, too. At times, he would trip the shutter with hardly a look through the viewfinder—even clicking if his camera were somewhere down near his waist. Paradoxically, this light touch gave his images a weightiness that is palpable even today. The urban cowboy stealing a smoke in Rodeo—New York City; the big neon arrow that seems to point nowhere in Los Angeles; the musician in Political Rally, Chicago, whose upper body is completely obscured by his tuba—each is infused with the kind of irony and despair more frequently associated with the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era than with the mid-’50s. Even contemporaneous works by William Klein and Nigel Henderson, whose otherwise impressive photographs are grouped with Frank’s in “Open City,” seem old-fashioned by comparison.

In many ways, Winogrand represents the culmination of this reflexive strain of street photography. Like Frank, he was known for tripping the shutter without composing his image; the George Eastman House’s Photography From 1839 to Today reports that “during his final five or six years, [Winogrand] made a third of a million pictures that he never bothered to study after making the exposure.” It would have benefited “Open City” had the curators chosen to exhibit one or two of Winogrand’s contact sheets, but even his individual images are energetic: a row of 1964 World’s Fair visitors talking in seemingly overlapping conversations, a convertible driver with a proto-Jake Gittes nose-bandage zooming down the Sunset Strip, beehive-wearing pedestrians crowding Hollywood Boulevard.

In each case, Winogrand’s images rely on factors so fleeting that he couldn’t possibly have controlled them. In the Hollywood Boulevard photograph, for instance, Winogrand shot directly into the sun, filling his image with intense light and deep shadows. Somehow, though, he also captured a wheelchair-bound beggar whose hunched back contrasts with the ramrod-straight pedestrians, and a star embedded in the pavement whose points meet the tips of the pedestrians’ shadows.

Yes, Winogrand had a great eye, but the fact that he managed to capture such happenstance events seems more a testament to the brute force of constant shutter-snapping than his talent alone. That’s one reason why subsequent artists have found his approach to be something of a dead end. A second reason has something to do with that stolen kiss of New York City.

Since that picture was taken, many photographers have backed away from direct confrontation with their subjects and looked for other ways to document the street. Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston, for example, turned street photography into landscape work. Working the streets at times when they were largely devoid of people, Friedlander and Eggleston focused instead on the often haphazard geometries of urban and suburban thoroughfares.

To judge by the examples in “Open City,” the two artists found mixed success. On the occasions when Friedlander included his own shadow or reflection, his images bristle with psychological intensity. Other times, however, Friedlander’s photographs are positively soulless, especially those that depict empty urban spaces. Eggleston is also ill-represented in “Open City,” with selections from an especially bland series he shot in Pittsburgh.

By the ’90s, Swiss photographer Beat Streuli was taking a different approach. Rather than increasing the distance between himself and passers-by by targeting deserted streets, Streuli worked at peak times on crowded streets, using a telephoto lens to distance himself from the people he shot. Streuli’s technique, which recalls Shahn’s and Strand’s attempts to remain unseen by their subjects—is so simple that it’s surprising it hasn’t been used more often.

The pedestrians in Streuli’s “Open City” images depict perfectly ordinary New Yorkers, but thanks to the use of the telephoto lens, they seem almost frozen in time, isolated from the world around them. Their closest analogue is the street shots in Godfrey Reggio’s 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi, in which footage of urban pedestrians was taken from a distance and then shown in slow motion in conjunction with the film’s eerie and monotonous Philip Glass score. (Appropriately, Streuli has produced his own filmic version of this technique; it is projected to impressive effect on three walls of the Hirshhorn show.)

Some of the most compelling photographers featured in “Open City” are those who, like Streuli, challenge viewers’ preconceptions about what is real and what is artificial. Ironically, some of these late-20th-century artists have recapitulated the earliest method of street photography: the artificial staging of “natural” events.

The best-known adherent of this approach is Jeff Wall; he photographs his scenes using paid actors, then blows them up to dramatic proportions and mounts them as transparencies over light boxes. Wall’s visuals in “Open City” run hot and cold; the conversing couple and the crowded, nighttime street of Pleading communicate immediacy, but the crouched man holding an imaginary gun in Man With a Rifle seems disappointingly static. Still, the entire backlit package is undeniably powerful: From across the room, I kept thinking that Man With a Rifle was actually a window looking out onto Independence Avenue.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia pulls off an opposite trick: He makes unposed photographs look posed by setting up lights and cameras that are tripped remotely by unsuspecting pedestrians. The results are dynamite: ordinary street scenes rendered magical by the unexpected presence of fashion-shoot lighting. One New York image features an umbrella-toting woman whose face is split dramatically into half-darkness, half-light. Naples captures a pedestrian whose expression makes it seem as if he’s about to say something important to the viewer. In reality, he’s just taking a stroll.

“Open City”‘s youngest photographer, Nikki S. Lee, born in 1970, blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction most of all. A Korean-born New Yorker, Lee uses photography to document her efforts to blend into various subcultures, from senior citizens and yuppies to Hispanics and Japanese teenagers. Rather than struggling with how to resolve the relationship between artist and subject, Lee simply becomes both.

Typically, Lee has bystanders take pictures of her all made up and in character. The photographs themselves aren’t aesthetically groundbreaking—in fact, her images come complete with a cheesy date stamp in the corner to emphasize their snapshotlike quality—but Lee’s performance-art act is mesmerizing. It provides all the tension that good street photography requires: How can this young Korean-American woman possibly become a convincing facsimile of a Latina, a retiree, or a drag queen?

In a sense, it’s the oldest trick in the book: To communicate some sort of truth about urban life, Lee has had to resort to a lie. The limitations of its subject matter could have killed street photography long ago, but work such as Lee’s provides good reason for optimism about the genre’s endless capacity to reinvent itself. As “Open City” repeatedly proves, even after more than a century, street photography remains both potent and relevant. CP