How many times have you walked down the streets of New York and done a double take? Skimpy clothes, oddball couples, a lizard on a leash… street life in the city is never boring. For a century’s worth of photographers, it has provided not only entertainment but artistic inspiration. New Yorkers have featured in photos for nearly as long as the medium has existed, but it was not until the dawn of the 20th century that technology caught up with the wandering eye.
In the decade following Lewis Hine’s famous documentary photographs of Ellis Island immigrants, Paul Strand (1890-1976) produced many iconic images of bustling Wall Street workers and impoverished inhabitants of the Lower East Side, underscoring the medium’s capacity for recording vibrant, transitory moments. As street photography has continued to evolve into a definitive genre, its practitioners have remained focused on the idiosyncrasies of city-dwellers. And while the impulse to capture these instances is shared by many, the results are as diverse as the populace itself.
In the 1930s, an anonymous photojournalist named Arthur Fellig emerged to become Weegee, the infamous raconteur of New York City’s seedy underbelly. Purportedly a twist on the word “squeegee” (an instrument used to dry developing prints), Weegee’s nickname soon became associated with the game “Ouija” for his uncanny ability to track down accidents, murders, fires and their aftermath. Weegee’s signature style involved capturing dramatic, nocturnal scenes with his flash camera: maimed bodies sprawled on the sidewalk, the horrified shock of witnesses, or the flaunted thigh of an incarcerated cross-dresser. Recording crime scenes during the decade that spawned film noir, Weegee’s theatrical eye and penchant for irony produced a new kind of documentary photograph. Joy of Living (1942) paradoxically depicted a newspaper-covered body alongside a movie marquee advertising the upbeat comedy, while Their First Murder (1941) caught a crowd of children reacting to the shooting death of a neighborhood criminal. Their range of expressions — despair, horror, glee and curiosity — showcase Weegee’s skill in snapping urban chaos.
Also working during the 1930s and 40s, Helen Levitt (b. 1913) took her Leica to the streets of Spanish Harlem. Using a right-angle viewfinder (which allowed her to work without her subjects’ knowledge), Levitt trolled the lively pre-TV streets recording interactions between families, friends and neighbors of the working-class neighborhood. In her untitled black and white prints, children feature prominently: a toddler squeals in delight while his mother rummages in the baby carriage beneath him; an adolescent girl proudly hauls two glistening bottles of milk; three young Halloween revelers pause on their front stoop, each donning a festive mask [pictured on the previous page]. Levitt transforms ragamuffin street kids into emblems of grace and beauty. Unlike Weegee’s tongue-in-cheek perspective, Levitt chose most often to highlight fleeting moments of sheer joy.
During the 60s, groundbreaking photographers Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus shook up the nomadic practice with their distinctive takes on urban portraiture. Primarily working in black and white, Winogrand (1928-1984) penetrated pavement-pounding crowds to capture his subjects
in action, snapping guests at museum openings, visitors to the zoo, and Fifth Avenue pedestrians. With characteristically oblique camera angles, Winogrand’s shots mimic the experience of walking through the city shooting sidelong glances. In his 1968 photograph of a bedraggled bum, Winogrand frames an anonymous arm extending inwards from outside the picture plane to proffer a fistful of change. In a less familiar sighting, Central Park Zoo, New York City (1967) features two chimpanzees sitting snugly in the arms of a well-dressed, bi-racial couple. Part happy accident, part political commentary, the photograph encapsulates Winogrand’s hunt for the quirky and unpredictable. Thriving on juxtapositions of sameness and difference, he trained his camera on a row of twittering teenage girls, as well as the misfit in a crowd, to produce images that evoke the randomness of the street.
Diane Arbus (1923-1971) similarly made a career of exposing outcasts. Never interested in the common man, Arbus sought the oddities in Washington Square Park, civic demonstrations and Coney Island; and rather than spontaneously snapping passers-by, she invited each person to pose. Her often-reproduced 1962 picture Child with a Toy Hand Grenade, New York depicts a skinny, blond boy gripping the explosive device in one hand while grimacing with angry frustration. His scrawny frame and overt rage are simultaneously funny and disturbing (while also providing a visual metaphor for the controversial Vietnam War). A later photo entitled A Young Brooklyn Family Going on a Sunday Outing (1966) similarly asks “What’s wrong with this picture?” Two teenage parents pose with their baby and rebellious, cross-eyed son. Details such as the father’s juvenile sheepishness and the self-conscious mother’s beehive and painted eyebrows belie the unconventionality of this family unit. By utilizing a flash, even in her daytime photos, Arbus’s sitters stand out eerily and starkly from the blurred background of the city.
More recent photographers have approached the metropolitan streets balancing an awareness of historical precedent with a desire for originality. A sleepless night for German tourist Andreas Herzau provided the incentive for a three-year photo project capturing New York before, during and after 9/11. These images push the Arbus-like fascination with the foreign or unfamiliar by employing uncanny unions of presence and absence: reflections in shop windows, a lone glove in the mud, or the dust-covered façade of a Ground Zero crosswalk sign, its eerie orange “Don’t Walk” instruction emerging like a dying ember from beneath the crusted cover. Situating living people alongside mannequins or abstracted architectural backdrops, Herzau blurs foreground figures to forge new ways of considering the city.
In the concurrent work of Japanese photographer Yuichi Hibi, a series of nighttime cityscapes recall Weegee’s exploitation of the flash. Hibi’s often secluded streets are lacerated by streams of white light, reflected on wet pavement or the incandescent glow of solitary street lamps. Also a filmmaker, he channels a cinematic style in his shots, harnessing the dramatic possibility of a tree’s threatening shadow or a pair of isolated figures crossing a rainy, desolate East Village Avenue.
As a genre, street photography has encouraged innovation from its earliest inception. Contemporary practitioners run the gamut in terms of style, motivation and technique, zooming in on the specificity of facial features or reaching out to incorporate urban surroundings. Recording the particular people and places of our city, their images nonetheless manage to provoke collective responses of shock, joy and sadness, revulsion and beauty. The proverbial melting pot of New York City.