Saturday, June 2, 2012

I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938–2010

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through August 5, 2012

This show consists of photographs of people on city streets, buses and subways, a photo gallery of urban inhabitants.  Some of the pictures were taken in the late 1930s and 1940s; others are only a couple of years old.

I have mixed feelings about this show - so many of the photographs were taken without the subjects' knowledge.  There's something intrusive about the photos - a lack of respect for people's privacy and more than a hint of voyeurism.  I tried to get past this feeling of barging into someone's life, but couldn't quite manage it.  There seems a lack of respect for the people in the photographs - as if their privacy is secondary to another person's artistic expression.  The fact that I'm going to see the show makes me culpable as well, of course - all in all, unnerving.  That having been said, I'll now attempt to put those feelings aside and review the exhibit as artwork.

The first set of photos were taken in the 1930s and 1940s on the New York City subway by Walker Evans.  He hid his camera in his coat and took photos of people sitting across the aisle from him.  What I found most interesting is how dressed up many of his subjects were.  I'm guessing they were simply on their way into town to shop, or on their way home from such a trip, but there were many women in furs and hats.  The subway was, if not luxurious, at least clean.  Evans seemed to have some sense that what he was doing was questionable, as he waited 20 years to publish his photographs.  The problem with hiding one's camera, especially in a time without the technology available to us in the 21st century, is that the photos themselves are not that great.  They're interesting; they give you the sense that you're sitting with the people and sharing their trip, but they're really just snapshots.

Evans also took photographs of people in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  He set up his camera openly on a street corner, but still surprised people as they came around the corner and were photographed unexpectedly.  A different setting than the subway photos, but they suffer from the same problem.  When you're taking snapshots, you get a "slice of life," but you don't get the same information about a person that you get from a posed photograph.  You might think that candids are just that - more candid, and I suppose that's true, but I remember seeing the portraits in the exhibit, "The Black List" at the Portrait Gallery, and those revealed quite a bit about their subjects, and were beautiful photos besides.

Also represented in the show is Robert Frank, who took a series of photographs entitled, "From the Bus."  The idea behind this project is that he rode a New York City bus in the late 1950s and took pictures of what he saw out the window.  It's an intriguing idea, and a challenge.  I like the idea of placing limits on yourself in your art - it forces you to become more creative.  Harry Callahan also did some technically challenging work; his "Chicago" series of photos of women he saw on the street lost in thought are compelling.  I was uncomfortable looking at them though - I walk down the street all the time lost in thought in just the same way.  Do I want to see my photo hanging in the National Gallery?

Bruce Davidson's New York City subway series was an interesting companion piece to Evans' series.  Davidson took his photos in 1980-1981 and 1985, what was really the nadir of the New York City subway.  The differences between his photos and Evans are startling.  If you didn't know this was the same subway system, you'd never believe it.   Evans' subway is clean and his subjects are calm; Davidson's subway is filthy and his subjects all look on edge - as if they might need to run or fight for their lives at any moment.  Davidson got permission from his subjects to take their photos, so I felt no unease in looking at the shots.  Most people he approached agreed to be photographed - others, however, were distinctly uncooperative.

The show ends with several pieces by Philip-Lorca Dicorcia.  The exhibit notes describe his subjects as anonymous.  Well, really, I thought, they're not anonymous.  They all have names and lives and families and friends.  He calls his photos of individual people "Head" with a number.  I had to roll my eyeballs at that.  If you won't find out someone's name, you could at least come up with a better title from them than "Head."

Also on display just outside the exit from the show is a video by Beat Streuli taken in 2009 in Manhattan.  It's just a movie of the street and people walking past the camera.  People have now become so accustomed to being recorded that they don't bat an eye at the video recorder.  Far from having to hide one's interest in others, the photographer can just set up shop on the street  and let his subjects come to him.

Verdict: This is certainly a thought-provoking show.  I can't describe it as containing great art, and I felt uncomfortable looking at many of the pieces, but it is worth going to see for the issues it raises.  A great subject, I think, for panel discussion.

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