Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 14, 2014
Katherine A. Bussard Unfamiliar Streets: The Photographs of Richard Avedon, Charles Moore, Martha Rosler, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 232 pp.; 104 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300192261)
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It is strangely difficult to consider what is meant by street photography, both for those who write about it and for the photographers for whom the street is their location and, to varying degrees, their subject. This is due in large part to the remarkable success of a genre that is most often championed through reference to its so-called “greats”—photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harry Callahan, and Garry Winogrand—and, more tellingly still, through a familiarity and popularity that has seen it become the stock and trade of photography blogs and image-sharing sites. Much of this popularity is predicated on a modernist aestheticization based in the contingency of city life, its spontaneity and dynamism. In this familiar form of street photography, urban experience is presented as universal and the city removed from a specific, fixed location.

Katherine Bussard’s Unfamiliar Streets challenges such preconceptions about the genre while providing an engaging analysis of four very different corpuses of photography of the street: Richard Avedon’s fashion photography for Harper’s Bazaar, photographed in postwar Paris; Charles Moore’s documentary photography of the 1960s civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, published in Life magazine; Martha Rosler’s conceptual art photography made in New York’s Bowery district in the 1970s; and Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s art photographs that isolate New Yorkers on the streets of Times Square at the turn of the twenty-first century. The diversity of these case studies, three of which would not generally be considered within the genre of street photography, is what makes Bussard’s Unfamiliar Streets so interesting. Such difference stems from the particular kinds of photographs under discussion, the audiences they address, their aims, and also, crucially, the places and times in which the pictures are located. What unites Bussard’s examples is what she terms their “non-spontaneous engagements with the street as both site and subject,” and her attention to the works emphasizes the analysis of specific locations, the street’s ability to frame and determine experience, and photography’s role in documenting and shaping these social and photographic relations (63).

Bussard approaches each photographer through four phases of analysis, considering the “generative precedents” to the work; the ways in which the photographs were taken; the specific street as a historical and social site; and how the photographs were first presented to viewers (6). She proposes this model for analysis as an extension of an early definition of street photography by Osborne Yellot, who emphasized the importance of the street depicted. This aspect of the genre, Bussard claims, has been neglected by scholars in their enthusiasm for a modernist focus on the apparent spontaneity and universality of the city. Bussard’s case studies are chosen to demonstrate the complex relations that operate in street photography beyond this cliché. Her analysis of location and the contextual framing of the photographs enable a more precise understanding of photography’s role in articulating the issues of race, gender, individual and collective engagement, commerce, class, and spectacle that make up “the street” and specific streets.

Bussard argues that Avedon insistently made Paris the site of his fashion photography by situating his models in the street, rather than the traditional location of the studio. He posed models against iconic monuments and street scenes and underscored their location still further with captions that specifically identify his sites. Bussard argues that Avedon’s work had a broader and more complex cultural agenda than simply bringing the latest fashions to the substantial American audience of Harper’s Bazaar. His representation of Parisian fashion, as inseparable from its streets, returns his intended viewer to a Paris before its occupation by German troops during World War II. The wished-for continuity of the destroyed fashion industry, like the postwar reconstruction of Europe as a whole, required feigned forgetfulness of the near catastrophe of Western civilization. It is in this context that Bussard argues Avedon’s photographs aim to make Paris the site of all that is desirable once more, to reinvent nostalgically the city as if the occupation had not occurred, or at least to confirm that no signs of those difficult times remained. Bussard identifies an incongruity between what Avedon must have seen in postwar Paris and what he represented (38), demonstrating that Avedon’s Paris is a reassuringly everyday evocation of the city based in realism while simultaneously a nostalgic and utopic construction of the city. Avedon’s photography thus maintained or reinscribed Paris as a symbol of Western culture in the consciousness of Harper’s Bazaar readers at the same time that it reinvigorated the French fashion industry.

Bussard points out that Moore’s documentary photographs of the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations, and others like them, have been excluded from discussions of street photography and yet are located in the street in a way that is absolutely central to their subject matter and its political effects. Bussard’s account of Moore’s photographs and their appearance in the May 17, 1963 issue of Life magazine in the photo essay titled “They Fight a Fire That Won’t Go Out” is made all the more insightful by her looking at the original photographs as separate from the publication and then examining the specifics of their use in the magazine through captions and text, design and placement, scaling, sequence, and cropping. Her analysis shows how Moore’s images documented and constructed the spectacle of the demonstrations and how Life maintained an ambivalent response to the civil rights movement through the complex play between images and text. Moore’s physical proximity to the scenes he photographed amplifies the occupation of the streets of Birmingham by black demonstrators and the extreme violence used against them in order to remove them from the street as symbolic site of both civic engagement and everyday business and labor. Bussard writes: “Life’s pages . . . offered a distinct and visual challenge to white, middle-class idealism. . . . The demonstrations treated the streets as political sites. Moore’s photographs and photo essay did no less. . . . They offer a necessary expansion of the history of street photographs as a history encompassing representations of politicized streets” (97; emphasis in original).

Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974–75) is the most overtly reflexive use of photography among the case studies in Unfamiliar Streets. Rosler’s powerful critique of documentary photography’s “non-responsibility to the subject” (102) is closely accounted for by Bussard’s analysis, particularly its debts to and criticisms of the so-called reformist photography of the 1930s and critique of the depoliticized photography of the following generation of art photographers. “A lot of photographers made pictures of Bowery bums,” Rosler states. “That upset me because I thought it was a false endeavor, that it involved a pretense that such photos were about the people when they were really about the sensibility of the photographers and the viewers” (130). In her chapter on Rosler, Bussard employs arguments from Walter Benjamin, Rosalyn Deutsche, and Susan Buck-Morss in marking out the formation of the street in social and political relations. Benjamin’s ideas about the collective use and construction of the street are particularly helpful for Bussard’s proposal that Rosler’s empty street can represent the destitute people that occupied it. Bussard’s discussion of the formation of the street could have been profitably expanded here and elsewhere in the book. Just as street photography has been understood in a partial and fragmented way, so too has the idea of the street itself and its social and cultural construction.

Bussard’s analysis of diCorcia’s street photography concentrates on photographs located in Times Square in the photographs titled New York from his Streetwork (1993–98) and Heads (2001–3) series. Her discussion identifies Times Square as “shaped by commercial spectacle, architectural transformation, and social ‘revitalization’” (139) and as a “mythic incarnation of American urban experience” (160). This urban street space, Bussard writes, “does not merely appear in both these projects; it fundamentally informs them” (160). Unlike Bussard’s other examples, diCorcia’s photographs have previously been discussed specifically as street photographs. Despite this, they pose acute challenges to the genre as well as to Bussard’s argument about location and her call for rigorous attention to what is found within the photograph itself. While the remarkable portraits of the Heads series can certainly be understood better through knowledge of diCorcia’s process and through reference to his earlier photographs of Times Square, there is nothing in these tightly composed images of people walking out of the darkness of a scaffolded sidewalk in the midst of urban development that places their subjects emphatically in Times Square, or in New York for that matter. Bussard tempers her claim by describing Heads as having a “more opaque” connection with the site, but the claim remains. As Bussard concedes by the close of the chapter, Heads moves toward an idea of a universal urban space and experience; its photographs are not visibly anchored to the specificity of their location.

One of the strengths of Unfamiliar Streets is the way that Bussard has made the discussion of the photographic object central to her analysis, consistently addressing not only the street but also the places in which the photographs have been encountered—in the pages of periodicals, on gallery walls, in art books, and in slide shows. She insists on considering all aspects of street photographs, from their historical precedents and their sites to their audiences. Bussard’s attention to the photograph as object and to its use and reception is perhaps no surprise when we consider her role as a curator of photography, currently at the Princeton University Art Museum. Her rigorous readings prove valuable in Unfamiliar Streets, but it is not clear whether her methods can be applied with the same success to any random example of street photography. Further, Bussard describes aspects of her case studies as archetypal. Paris serves as the archetype of Western culture, the photographs of Birmingham’s street demonstrations as representative of the struggle for civil rights across America’s streets in the 1960s, the Bowery as the quintessential skid row, and Times Square as symbolic of Western commerce and its spectacle. Doing so, however, argues against the very specificity that so effectively drives her book’s claims. These reservations aside, at a time of renewed interest in street photography, Unfamiliar Streets offers a fascinating and convincing argument for an expanded engagement with the genre. It makes excellent use of the history and theory of photography and of photographs themselves in arguing for the importance of the street and its representation.

Rosemary Hawker
Senior Lecturer Art Theory, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University

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