PART 1: Contemporary street photography

Research point (Page 33)

Brief: Do some research into contemporary street photography. Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Graham, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr are some good names to start with, but you may be able to find further examples for yourself.

• What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white?

• Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?

• How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?

Make notes in your learning log.

Contemporary street photography

1. Research

1.1 Helen Levitt

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This link is a review of a retrospective of Helen Levitt’s street photography from New York which was shown in Paris at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Institute: she was a friend of Cartier-Bresson. This retrospective which is visible on the link consists of black and white images from the 40s and 50s and colour prints from the 60s through the 80s. “The color is super-saturated and startling in its ability to evoke strong memories from that period. The wonderfully warm and humorous street theater is still present in these photos, but the luscious color itself almost steals the show.” “Levitt was a pioneer of color photography, starting seriously in 1959, when she received a Guggenheim grant to explore her familiar territory, but shifting from black-and-white to color.”

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Helen Levitt, New York Streets, 1980

There is a good contrast in this retrospective between the ‘classical’ black and white images that someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson might have taken to more modern colour images which I prefer: sometimes it is the colour in the image that dominates but sometimes it is composition with or without colour focus points. The above image is the one that stood out for me; it has a dominant colour projecting into the picture but the focus stays with the ungainly gestures of the child in the gutter.

During the early 1940’s Helen Levitt made many photographs on the streets of New York. Her photographs were not intended to tell a story or document a social thesis; she worked in poor neighborhoods because there were people there, and a street life that was richly sociable and visually interesting.

Most of the images available to view on the Atget Photography site are of her black and white images of children playing from the 1940s where there are “no unusual happenings…these immemorially routine acts of life, practiced everywhere and always, are revealed as being full of grace, drama, humor, pathos, and surprise, and also that they are filled with the qualities of art, as though the street were a stage, and its people were all actors and actresses, mimes, orators, and dancers” (Szarkowski, J. 2015).

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

The black and white images are characterised by being records of life in New York in the 40s with examples of humour and good composition. She did not intend them to be ‘artistic.’


Szarkowski, J. “Helen Levitt.” The Photographers. Retrieved July 13th, 2015, from

1.2 Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz is an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in over 350 exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world. Born in New York in 1938, he began photographing in 1962, becoming a “street photographer” in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. However, Meyerowitz works exclusively in colour.

As an early (mid-60s) advocate of colour photography, Meyerowitz was instrumental in transforming a general resistance to colour film into an almost universal acceptance. His first book, Cape Light, is considered a classic of colour photography and has sold more than 100,000 copies over its 25-year life. He has also produced 14 other books, including Bystander: The History of Street Photography, and Tuscany: Inside the Light.

Eric Kim quotes an interview with Meyerowitz about why he used colour for street photography (Kim E. 2004).

Interviewer: Why are you using color?

Meyerowitz: Because it describes more things.

Interviewer: What do you mean by description?

Meyerowitz: When I say description, I don’t only mean mere fact and the cold accounting of things in the frame. I really mean the sensation I get from things—their surface and color—my memory of them in other conditions as well as their connotative qualities. Color plays itself out along a richer band of feelings—more wavelengths, more radiance, more sensation. I wanted to see more and experience more feelings from a photograph, and I wanted bigger images that would describe things more fully, more cohesively. Slow-speed color film provided that.

Meyerowitz expands on the ability of color film to capture a wider sense of experiences in “real life”:

“The fact is that color film appears to be responsive to the full spectrum of visible light while black and white reduces the spectrum to a very narrow wavelength. This stimulates in the user of each material a different set of responses. A color photograph gives you a chance to study and remember how things look and feel in color. It enables you to have feelings along the full wavelength of the spectrum, to retrieve emotions that were perhaps bred in you from infancy—from the warmth and pinkness of your mother’s breast, the loving brown of you puppy’s face, and the friendly yellow of your pudding. Color is always part of experience. Grass is green, not gray; flesh is color, not gray. Black or white is a very cultivated response.”

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Joel Meyerowitz, Camel Coat Couple in Street Steam, 5th Avenue, New York City, 1975 – copyrighted by Joel Meyerowitz.

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Joel Meyerowitz, New York, 1974 – copywrited Joel Meyerowitz

He is also known for his images of Ground Zero which I visited a few days ago.  The local exhibition to his images was closed as is his website today. He is the only photographer to be granted unimpeded access to Ground Zero after September 13, 2001.  He systematically documented the painful work of rescue, recovery, demolition and excavation and this is clearly seen on a Google search of all of the images from the World Trade Center Archive. You can consider this work to be an extension of his street photography as a New York resident although the focus is prolonged and documentary in nature.

The 28 images that make up “After September 11: Images from Ground Zero”, presented in a 30 inch x 40 inch format, relate the catastrophic destruction of the attacks to the physical, human dimensions of the recovery effort. Each is its own, succinct reminder of the magnitude of destruction and loss brought by the attacks, and the heroic nature of the response. Together, they serve as a stunning reminder of that extraordinary day, and the days that followed.

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‘Aftermath’: Photos of Ground Zero by Joel Meyerowitz


Kim, E. (2014). “12 Lessons Joel Meyerowitz has Taught me about Street Photography.” Retrieved July 13th, 2015, from

1.3 Paul Graham

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British photographer Paul Graham presents his works at the Deichtorhallen museum in Hamburg, Germany. January 2011. EPA/FABIAN BIMMER

Graham, who had a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in London last year, is a self-taught photographer. He was born in Buckinghamshire and discovered photography through the books of great American pioneers like Robert Frank, Walker Evans and Paul Strand. He has lived in New York since the early 1990s. Graham first garnered critical acclaim with his early documentary work, including A1 – The Great North Road (1983) , a series shot in colour along the British motorway, and Beyond Caring (1985), which was shot in unemployment offices. Back then, Graham was a pioneer of colour in Britain, his work influencing subsequent generations of young photographers (O’Hagan, S. 2012).

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Crouched Man, DHSS waiting room, 1984 © Paul Graham

I liked the understated compositions of his work and ‘natural’ rather than oversaturated colour pallet.


O’Hagan, S. (2012). “Photographer Paul Graham wins 2012 Hasselblad award.” Retrieved 13th July, 2015, from

1.4. Martin Parr

Thomas Weski comments on Martin Parr’s work on the introduction to his website (Weski, T. 2015);

At first glance, his photographs seem exaggerated or even grotesque. The motifs he chooses are strange, the colours are garish and the perspectives are unusual. Parr’s term for the overwhelming power of published images is “propaganda”. He counters this propaganda with his own chosen weapons: criticism, seduction and humour…

Leisure, consumption and communication are the concepts that this British photographer has been researching for several decades now on his worldwide travels. In the process, he examines national characteristics and international phenomena to find out how valid they are as symbols that will help future generations to understand our cultural peculiarities. Parr enables us to see things that have seemed familiar to us in a completely new way. In this way he creates his own image of society, which allows us to combine an analysis of the visible signs of globalisation with unusual visual experiences. In his photos, Parr juxtaposes specific images with universal ones without resolving the contradictions. Individual characteristics are accepted and eccentricities are treasured.

The themes Parr selects and his inimitable treatment of them set him apart as a photographer whose work involves the creation of extensive series. Part of his unusual strategy is to present and publish the same photos in the context of art photography, in exhibitions and in art books, as well as in the related fields of advertising and journalism. In this way, he transcends the traditional separation of the different types of photography. Thanks to this integrative approach, as well as his style and his choice of themes, he has long served as a model for the younger generation of photographers.

I liked his images and website which has many images from several series e.g. ‘Whitby Goth Weekend’ and ‘A nice pop up show’ which was of beach photography (one of his favourite settings) on the beach and promenade at Nice in France and which completed yesterday! His website shows that he has a whole army of people helping him to publish and print his work.

At first glance they look like garish photographs (over sharpened and saturated) that I might have taken 30 years ago and have lying in the bottom of a drawer. There certainly is an element of nostalgia in the images but he does display the settings well and with some wit.


Weski, T. (2015). “Martin Parr: introduction.” Retrieved 17th July, 2015, from

2. Questions

2.1 What difference does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white?

I like the comments of Joel Meyerowitz that “it describes more things” but in fact he is talking about the sensory and emotional impact that colour does particularly when it taps into memories associated with colour. If I saw an image of a black and white rather than a colour image of a tomato sauce bottle on a kitchen table it would be missing (for me) a colour that I expect to see there and the emotional connection to those fries I had last night in a cafe – fries need ketchup to bring them alive!

One of the suggested benefits of black and white street photography is that there is more contrast in a black and white picture but in the work of Helen Levitr and Joel Meyerowitz I see geometrical forms and contrast in setting and structures and not simply in the colours. For me the colour is an additional element to have or not have in a picture and for the most part I think I would like colour in my street photography.

2.2 Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?

2.2.1 Surrealism

Surrealism “emphasises artistic processes whereby the imaginary can be recorded…which would offer insights into the world of ‘thought’ and therefore disrupt taken for granted perceptions and frames of reference” (Wells L. 2015, Page 315). This reflects the work of Freud and other psychoanalysts who describe the outer visible self (persona) and inner hidden self (ego) (Hopwood, A. 2006). In addition surrealism challenged the nature of what was art such as the anti-art movement Dada. An example of this is Marcel Duchamp who placed a urinal in a gallery claiming that this location made his work ‘Art.’

2.2.2 Surrealism, photography and Cartier-Bresson

The surrealists used photomontage, double exposure, rayographs or solarisation to produce disorienting images. I have seen a number of images by Man Ray, a key surrealist photographer, in Venice, Paris and New York in the last 4 months; they are interesting historical images but they would have been shocking and confusing to viewers of that time.

David Bate (quoted page 318 in Wells, L. 2015) argues the the ‘surreal’ in photography “refers not to a type of picture but to a type of meaning, and enigma.” “This usefully reminds us that the surrealists were concerned to explore new ways of looking at the work that cold draw attendant to disturbing tensions or contradictions.” (Wells L. 2015)

I think that a distinguishing feature of this surrealist movement is photographing the everyday object (Man Ray) or  event (Cartier-Bresson). There is also this desire to explore the subconscious within the frame which is a feature of decisive moment photography (Suler, J. 2013).

He trained initially as a painter, but his interest in the work of the Surrealists inspired Cartier-Bresson to embrace photography and in turn the language of photojournalism. As Richard Lacayo wrote in Time magazine in 2010, “what excited him was the Surrealist attempt to bypass the rational faculties as a way to glimpse a deeper reality.”

After befriending artist Max Ernst and writer Rene Crevel, then members of the influential Surrealist movement, the young Cartier-Bresson became involved in lively intellectual debates about art, politics, the role of the subconscious and the expression of Andre Breton’s theory of ‘psychic automatism’.

Photography soon became a focal point for Surrealist artists like Man Ray and Herbert Bayer. They found inspiration in the work of Eugene Atget (1857-1927), an amateur photographer whose images of Paris streets, store mannequins and reflections in shop windows were published in La Révolution Surréaliste in 1926.

“The Surrealists approached photography in the same way that Aragon and Breton … approached the street: with a voracious appetite for the usual and unusual…. The Surrealists recognised in plain photographic fact an essential quality that had been excluded from prior theories of photographic realism. They saw that ordinary photographs, especially when uprooted from their practical functions, contain a wealth of unintended, unpredictable meanings.”

2.2.3 The shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?

My impression is that Cartier-Bresson carried his early ideas of photographing the ‘decisive’ moment throughout his life but other influences and developments changed the focus of his work. Between 1937 and 1939 he was a photographer for the communist party’s evening newspaper Ce Soir. The paper’s editor was former Surrealist poet and writer, Louis Aragon. During these times many artists abandoned their own independent creative work and subordinated themselves to the service of Stalinism.

At Ce Soir, Cartier-Bresson joined Robert Capa and David Seymour. They were given more freedom than other photographers, but were obliged, as he explains, to photograph “‘chiens ecrasés’ [literally “run-over dogs”—slang for mundane news shots], on a regular basis.” He turned to photographing “the masses”, and his pictures took on a documentary, sociological character, different from his earlier Surrealist-inspired photographs. Galassi explains it in this way: “Beginning in the late 1930s, Cartier-Bresson’s attitude towards his own work began to change, and with it his style. In broad terms the shift in attitude may be described as a greater openness to worldly or social as opposed to personal and artistic concerns.”

As at Ce Soir, Cartier-Bresson faced interference in his work. He was obstructed when he tried to shoot his own scenes and an entire reel was edited out. He describes his desire, as the post-war era began, to be free to use his art to create a better world. “I felt close again to André Breton and to his attitude: ‘First of all, life!’ It was later that I became a photographic reporter.”

An important change in direction comes in 1947 when David Seymour and Robert Capa persuaded Cartier-Bresson to join Magnum. Cartier-Bresson described its significance at the time:

“To be autonomous is something very important. It means you’re not on a payroll of anybody, you can decide what you want to do” and you could “put your own questions”. The stated purpose of Magnum was to “feel the pulse” of the times.

How had the political struggles of the 1930s and the war affected Cartier-Bresson’s views on photography? He explains, “I became less interested in what one might call an ‘abstract’ approach to photography. Not only did I become more and more interested in human and plastic values, but I believe I can say that a new spirit arose among photographers in general; in their relationships not only to people, but to one another.”

A conflict between abstract and concrete schools in painting, film and photography erupted in the post-war period. Cartier-Bresson made clear where he stood. But the true “pulse” of that time was not the rise of a Communist utopia. It was the savage betrayal by Stalinism of the revolutionary movements that gripped the world following the defeat of fascism. During this period, Stalinist political and artistic conceptions—the promotion of “Soviet” or “Social Realism”—acted as a dead hand on the artist’s interpretation of the world. But there were still traces of Cartier-Bresson’s earlier genius in some of his work.

Photojournalism was not Cartier-Bresson’s first aim, but when he turned his Leica to social upheaval he was unequalled in capturing elements of the process of social change. From 1947 to 1949 he travelled the world, including the United States, India and China. He was in China during the last six months of the Kuomintang dictatorship, and the first six months of the Maoist regime. One famous picture from this period is of a scramble for gold, issued by the Kuomintang at a Shanghai bank, as the value of the Chinese currency plummeted. The crowd, a mixture of desperate people from all classes, is crushed, as they hold each other up, on a thin path over a ditch. Heads appear from the strangest of angles and places. The picture expresses the mass of contradictions faced by the Kuomintang and Chinese society.

It was while he was in China that Cartier-Bresson developed an interest in Buddhism and a fascination with its approach to external reality. What interested him was the Buddhist idea of disrupting nature as little as possible. It seemed to express an unformed direction in his photography of seeking to capturing things “as they are”, which was a far cry from the artistic vision of the Surrealists.


Wells L. (2015). Photography: a critical introduction, Routledge.

Hopwood, A. (2006). “Jung’s model of the psyche.” Retrieved May 2nd, 2015, from

Suler, J. (2013) The Psychology of the “Decisive Moment”. Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche.

2.3 How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?

I would define irony a ‘The expression of an images meaning by using photographic language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.”

Martin Parr is a good example of ironic work illustrating British Culture. Today (July 18th, 2015) his website introduction has photomontage images of him dressed in ‘Arab’ robes, with his head in a sharks mouth and as a ‘beefcake’ body builder. I laugh at the images but recognise the contrasts and experiences wrought from ‘dressing up’ in clothes, threatening but safe situations such as a roller coaster ride and the aspiration of having a beautiful torso with all that dieting. Perhaps these are uniquely British images and associations that I share with him.

I came across Cindy Sherman when I was researching the concept of verbal and pictorial irony.

Among those who have worked with wordless irony is Cindy Sherman, known for her use of self-portrayal to explore issues of female identity and representation. Her work is particularly concerned with the ‘elision of image with identity’, the way in which women’s identity has in large part been created, rather than re-presented, by representations of women. In addition to popular culture and its consumerist credo, Sherman undermines many other established genres: film, fashion, men’s magazines, religious paintings, classical portraits and fairy tales among them. As Elizabeth Smith has said:

‘Sherman’s undermining of established genres … points to a satirical vein that underpins her work’s late 20th century ironic sensibility. Through her use of trenchantly absurd juxtapositions and transformations and her embrace of melodrama, she succeeds in parodying the construction and presentation of myth and archetype in all these genres.’(Smith, 1997:24).

There is a double irony underlying this work. The first level has to do with the use of contrast and even exaggeration in order to expose the false promises of fashion advertising. The second comes into play when we realise that Sherman’s fashion work was actually commissioned by a fashion house and used for publicity (Dorothée Bis, 1983). Why, we might ask, would a fashion house wish to project an image of itself which is an ironic parody of what it stands for? And why would an artist whose life’s aim is to expose the brainwashing inherent in advertising and in the representation of women more generally agree to work for the ‘enemy’? The answer must be that where the fashion house is concerned, it adds to their kudos and credibility to be able to assimilate criticism and even turn it into a virtue, since it is a powerful force indeed which can turn enmity into complicity. It also shows them to have their finger on the pulse of cutting edge culture: in this case the work of a photographer with a cult following.


Scott, B. (Unknown) Picturing Irony: the subversive power of photography. Centre for Linguistics and Philology, University of Oxford.

Cindy Sherman was born on January 19, 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. She attended State University College at Buffalo, New York, 1976, B.A and lives in New York City. She was most recently honored with a complete retrospective at the Jeu de Paume in Paris and traveled to Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria; Louisiana Museum for Moderne Kunst, Copenhagen; Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin (2006-2007). In 1997, the Museum of Modern Art, NY purchased and exhibited her entire Film Still series and she was also granted her first retrospective which started at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and traveled to Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague; capc Musée, Bordeaux; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (1997-2000).

The exhibition History Portraits by Cindy Sherman from 1989-1990. In this series we find Sherman, “always the master of disguise, in costumes flanked with props and prosthetics portraying famous artistic figures of the past, like Raphael’s La Fornarina, Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus and Judith Beheadding Holofernes, or Jean Fouquet’s Madonna of Melun. ” She drew her inspiration from a broad scope of historical imagery from Florence in the 15th century to 18th century Paris, and used props and clothing found while living in Rome.

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The History Portraits are considered to be one of Sherman’s best-known and successful series due not only to its satirical art historical references and sheer wit, but also because of its inherent commentary on and deconstruction of Western portraiture.

As with Martin Parr there is their playful ironic contrast, in this case between the artist and the assumed pastiche identity of a person from a painting and other era. This is a comment on how Americans create their identity through makeup and clothes to others – you can be who you want to be, including absurd transitions to charachters from history.


One thought on “PART 1: Contemporary street photography

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