A photographer in the gritty tradition of New York street, Cheryl Dunn applies her cinematographic chops to Everybody Street (2013), a feast of a documentary on New York street photographers. The featured photographers are just about all film shooters, mostly because they started that way and haven’t seen any reason to change. Bruce Davidson, Joel Meyerowitz, Mary Ellen Mark, Boogie, Jeff Mermelstein, Martha Cooper, Ricky Powell, Elliott Erwitt, Jamel Shabazz, Clayton Patterson, Bruce Gilden, Rebecca Lepkoff, and the critics Max Kozloff and Luc Sante offer interviews and glimpses into their working days, while there are appropriate nods back to the pioneers of street photography: Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lisette Modell, and Helen Levitt. This is a short list and doesn’t include every name that any one of us would fight to include, of course — but it is a rich sample. Much more information about these artists (the film’s “cast”) is available on the film’s website.
Dunn has been practicing this art, much as do her subjects (many of whom are also, one guesses, her friends) for about thirty years. She has had numerous important exhibitions and has published several books. A marvelous film bit on Vimeo, shot in conjunction with her exhibition at the Ivory & Black gallery in London in 2012, shows her in action on the London streets — Leica in hand as she strolls with the gallery owner, she cannot help but grab images as she walks along. Dunn also offers a trove of information on the inspiration and production of the film in an extensive interview with “Katie Chats” in conjunction with the film’s opening in Toronto in the spring of 2013.
In fact, the deeper I’ve gone into researching this fabulous underworld of street photography, the more excited and discouraged I’ve become to discover that my own thirty years of interest topped off by several years of intense attention have barely scratched the surface of what’s OUT THERE to discover about the practitioners and philosophies of street shooting.
Though she frankly admits that gathering her subjects was a bit of a random process (as are most interview/film projects), the film’s consistency of style and message offers the viewer some hefty takeaways. These are bold photographers — in fact, bold people, at least behind the camera. Bruce Gilden is the scariest bold, to my eyes, and he himself admits that in HIS eyes one can see madness, or at least abnormality. When he gets dressed up in his street photographer clothes, he does look a bit loony, in one of those corny multipocketed travel vests, with the brim of his pork pie hat turned up. (In fact, as you can see below, he’s a pretty handsome, quite normal looking guy.) He accosts people in lightning fast instants, releasing the camera shutter with one hand while holding his off camera flash in the other. Dunn shows one woman trying to beat him up after he gets in her face this way, and others curse him as he races by, blinding them with his flash as he steals their images. The results look very much like Weegee photos (there are other analogues, but that’s the one that speaks most loudly). Diane Arbus also comes to mind. It’s wonderful art, but wow — I just couldn’t do what he does.
I don’t mean that on any kind of ethical basis. More on my own ethics below, but I will add here that Gilden, like some of the other photographers profiled in Dunn’s film, is a Magnum photographer who has traveled internationally (even beyond the boroughs of his great city!) to showcase crisis and need throughout the world. In Haiti, which he has revisited several times, his brutal style is arresting, disturbing, somehow appropriate to the subject matter and certainly not smarmy, but — disturbing.
I have more confidence than I could ever have imagined behind a camera, but not enough to CAPTURE images the way he does, with the insouciance and certitude of the intentional artist. Jamel Shabazz, whose beautiful work often focuses on African American individuals and communities, explains that he has begun to ask people for their portraits, and he is not shaken when critics find his subjects “posed,” because the relationship formed by asking for pictures is to him more important than furtive grabbing of shots.
I’m a furtive grabber, myself, as I’ve probably written elsewhere. When caught I smile and move on. I also often use the Zack Arias ploy of pretending that I’m shooting something else by looking beyond my real subject before and after the shot. This is much easier with a camera that has an articulating screen, by the way, though chimping (checking your shot on the screen after it’s made and then looking once again BEYOND your actual subject) can also be a good subterfuge.
My own ethical standards are partially enforced by the rules of the stock sites I use, which require model releases for any but “editorial” photos (not used to sell stuff), and turn away unreleased photos of individual children, as well as adults caught in compromised positions. But the other thing is, I just don’t shoot adults in compromised positions, and when I shoot people who aren’t looking their best in that moment, I don’t make those photos public. In other words, I do pretty pictures. And though I like my pictures, I realize that this constricted aesthetic taste also constrains my career and my growth as a photographer, at least to some extent. So I study alternative approaches, to try to understand their practitioners.
Cheryl Dunn, whom I believe shot pretty much all the footage in the film, captures her colleagues doing their job in the New York streets, and the results are truly exciting as well as amusing and sometimes downright nerve-wracking. I love watching Jeff Mermelstein and Joel Meyerowitz hunching over their small cameras in the midst of the crowds, turning this way and that, pausing in an intersection, then grabbing a shot and strolling on, all in one smooth motion. I love Ricky Powell‘s goofiness, and the shameless old hippie counterculture ethic of Clayton Patterson.
For me the most plausible model — the one I can see myself emulating in her street approach — is Martha Cooper. This is not to say that our styles are identical or that I could do what she has done in tirelessly documenting not only her neighborhood but also the graffitied subway cars as she perched on automobile roofs on freezing mornings to watch for the painted ones as they clattered into the city. But she has used a gentle, smiling, we-are-all-in-this-together approach to her subjects, and has wondered at and celebrated their particular take on art.
Bruce Davidson is another subway shooter — of course, this is just one brief chapter of his long and remarkable career — and in the film he comments on his growing fascination with the New York subways as central to understanding the city. The subways in the seventies and eighties, like the city as a whole, had become grimy and scary, but were still vital to normal people who needed to get from place to place. Davidson had to learn how to shoot in the subway and protect himself and his gear at the same time.
Rebecca Lepkoff reminds us of the unbroken line of documentary photographers stretching back to the New York Photo League of the thirties and forties, which of course made it onto a black list of subversive organizations at the start of the Cold War. Lepkoff, bless her soul, died a year after this film was completed, at the age of 98.
Mary Ellen Mark also died recently, way too young at 75, and Cheryl Dunn has uploaded a brief tribute in addition to the segments in Everybody Street.