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It was Henri Cartier-Bresson who famously associated photography with hunting. He “prowled the streets all day” ready to trap a moment when form and light came together in an image that might also contain a metaphor, at the very least, for the unexpected convergences of daily life. This idea, formalised in the early 1950s as “the decisive moment”, is what drove his and subsequent generations of photographers out on to the city streets to take candid pictures. Despite being outmoded photographically, “trap and shoot” is still what most people think of when they hear the term street photography today.
And yet since the 1970s, photographers have been working against the idea of the image as a chance encounter – or at least against the idea of retaining its verities of time and place. In her introduction to a new anthology of contemporary street photography, Jackie Higgins quotes the Canadian artist Jeff Wall, who more than any other living photographer has shifted the idea of street photography towards the stage, the theatre and the cinema. As Wall explains: “In 1945 or 1955, it was clear that if you wanted to come into relation with reportage, you had to go out in the field and function like a photojournalist or documentary photographer … I think that’s what people in the 1970s and ’80s really worked on: not to deny the validity of documentary photography but to investigate potentials that were blocked before.” In his case, this involved investigating photography’s relationship to painting and to cinema. Both regularly depict incidents from everyday life, but in both genres incidents are re-presented, or “reimagined”, by the artist or director in ways that make it apparent that they have been constructed after the fact.
Wall selected moments from everyday life as any documentary photographer might. But having found what he thought would make a picture, he began the process of restaging it, using actors, sets, lighting and direction. He introduced scale and artifice, presenting the image as a large transparency on a wall-mounted lightbox at a size that meant it could hold its own on a museum wall. He conceived each work as an independent image (not part of a series or a narrative, which further removed them from the traditions of documentary photography). They were, in many ways, about as far away from a candid street photograph as you could get. And yet they are still anchored in common experience. What they set up, along with their sense of drama and scale, is a feeling of anxiety; an almost overpowering and very contemporary tension between what you recognise to be real – the everyday event – and what you know to be fake – the wall-mounted scenario on its artificially lit screen: the ever-growing conflict between lived and simulated experience. The scale of the image makes what it shows seem life-size, or bigger. You might be in the picture rather than looking at it.
The influence of Wall’s work on his own and the next generation of photographers has easily been as strong as Cartier-Bresson’s on his. And if “everyday life” has been a shared subject, then “the street” has been a shared stage. The chance encounter and the carefully reworked scenario represent two very different approaches but many photographers use elements from both. In an extract from Higgins’s new anthology, conceived as a “world atlas” of street photography, we see some of the streets in cities around the world that today’s photographers have chosen to record, each in their own way.
‘The World Atlas of Street Photography’, by Jackie Higgins, with a foreword by Max Kozloff, is published by Thames & Hudson on September 8, £24.95. thamesandhudson.com
b. 1946 Vancouver, Canada. Studied University of British Columbia and the Courtauld Institute, London. In looking for a new way to present everyday reality, at the end of the 1970s Wall began to mount his transparencies on large-scale lightboxes. His photographic tableaux are often restaged versions of scenes he has observed around him. Many of his works are concerned with social problems and urban existence. They recreate everyday scenes that are familiar but go unnoticed until his works draw our attention to them.
“I wanted to find a way to deal with real events. To get away from my own imagination … out of the studio, but not to relinquish certain advantages whichI felt I’d gained there,” he says.
Los Angeles, US
b. 1969 Arlington, Mass, US. Studied Yale School of Art. Grannan came to prominence in the late 1990s, when her early series of works were based on the same methodology: she placed ads in local newspapers asking for artists’ models, “no experience necessary”. The subsequent portraits were collaborations between the willing model and the photographer. When she moved to California in 2006, she modified her method and approached strangers in the streets, asking if they would like to appear in a picture, and photographing them in harsh light that emphasises the concrete backdrop of the city.
“Posing for a portrait is quite a common thing, but it is another thing entirely to meet up with a stranger,” she says.
RUT BLEES LUXEMBURG
b. 1967, Leimen, Baden, Germany. Studied political science in Duisburg, then photography at the London College of Printing and the University of Westminster. She is currently reader in urban aesthetics at the Royal College of Art, London. Her work examines the ways photography is used to represent the landscape and development of the city. Her earlier works used long exposures to survey the city at night. Her recent series “London Dust” looks at the way computer-generated photographs promote an idealised version of city living that is at odds with the harsher reality. Her images often incorporate water, dust and dirt to suggest the effects of time, occupation and decay on the fabric of the city.
“I am trying to show how photography permeates public territories and infiltrates our lives,” she says.
b. 1979 Devon, UK. Self-taught in photography. “The Little People Project” began in London in 2006 and has been played out in other cities, including Moscow, New York and Beijing. Slinkachu (not his real name) stages everyday dramas in miniature, using model train-set figures, which are customised according to their roles. Once photographed, the figures are left in place on the streets. These simple little scenarios, which are as funny as they are touching and accurate, point up the absurdities of city living.
“Underneath there is always humour. I want people to be able to empathise with the Little People,” he says.
b. 1978 Algeria. Studied Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Decoratifs and Le Fresnoy, Studio National des Arts Contemporains, Paris. Bourouissa grew up in the Paris suburbs, and his photographs, which are staged for the camera using actors and lighting, rework the kinds of conflicts and tensions that arise in the high-rise housing projects on the edge of the city “places where immigrants’ identity problems and political conflicts become crystal clear”.
“What I’m after is that fleeting tenth of a second when the tension is at its most extreme … when anything could happen, or nothing,” he says.
b. Kaiserslautern, Germany; lives in New York, US. Studied Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Munich, and the School of Visual Arts, New York. Lutter creates her large-scale unique photographs by turning a room into a camera obscura, or pinhole camera. Initially, after arriving in New York, she used her own loft, but has gone on to choose locations in different cities. She blacks out all available light, except for a small hole through which light can enter. Photosensitive paper is hung on the wall opposite the light source, and the image appears gradually; exposures can take hours, days, even months as the picture builds up its ghostly presence.
“When I saw the first projection, it was an epiphany. It was probably one of the most overwhelming moments of my life,” she says.
b. 1968 San José, California, US. Studied University of California, San Diego. Has been described as a “virtual street photographer” as he takes his images from Google Street View. For his first series, “A New American Picture” (2008-2012), he searched online for locations in the US where poverty, unemployment, crime and drugs were most visible. He wanted to document American society as concerned photographers had done in the previous century. In its mixture of artifice and reality, his work mirrors the way we increasingly experience the world through a computer screen.
“The work kept me in a dark room behind a computer for a thousand hours or more, over three years,” he says.
. . .
São Paulo, Brazil
b. 1980, São Paulo, Brazil. For this, his first major series of photographs, Bittencourt wanted to recreate some of the chaotic experience of living in an occupied city building rather than simply to document its visual appearance. To do this he created a collage made up of many different windows of the same building. Seen as single images in close up, each window emphasises the different individual worlds that people create within a confined, uniform space, and the way buildings evolve around them.
“The city continually and rapidly expands, always generating crisis,” he says.
New York, US
b. 1951 Hartford, Connecticut, US. Studied Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Yale School of Art. Some of his best known series concentrate on aspects of street life, such as “Hustlers” (in which he asked male prostitutes in Los Angeles to pose for his camera and paid them the going rate for sex). In “Heads”, meanwhile, he set up a hidden camera and flash in Times Square, New York, which passers-by set off with a trip switch as they walked by. He described the resulting portraits as “giving a cinematic gloss to a commonplace event”.
“I never ask [the subjects’] permission … I’m not sure I would like it to happen to me, but I maintain my right to do it,” he says.
b. 1971 Barcelona, Spain. Studied University of Barcelona, International Center of Photography, New York. Salvans does not stage or orchestrate his subjects but to take the photographs of prostitutes waiting for customers on the edges of Spain’s cities and towns he used a disguise – he pretended to be a land surveyor – so that he could work without drawing attention to himself. He always photographed the women from a distance. His intention was to show their isolation and lack of protection, and the bleak landscape of their lives.
“I can assure you that these girls … don’t have a strategic plan for the future: they don’t have anything,” he says.
b. 1940, Tokyo, Japan. Studied Chiba University. Has published more than 400 photobooks, from “Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey”, about his honeymoon and then his wife’s early death, to many filled with his infamous photos of sex and bondage. “Tokyo Story” tracks the seasons of the city, and shares its title with Yasujirô Ozu’s 1953 film about the gulf between generations.
“In the act of love, as in photography, there is a form of life and a kind of slow death,” he says.
Photographs: Jeff Wall; Katy Grannan/Fraenkel Gallery; Rut Blees Luxemburg; Slinkachu; Mohamed Bourouissa/Kamel Mennour Paris; Vera Lutter; Doug Rickard/Yossi Milo Gallery NY; Julio Bittencourt; Philip-Lorca diCorcia/David Zwirner NY/London; Txema Salvans; Nobuyoshi Araki/Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo