Elliott Erwitt's Masterpiece & The Demise Of Street PhotographySaturday, March 05, 2011
|Elliott Erwitt by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward 1990
The subject of today’s blog has been on my mind for quite a long time. It has been on my mind ever since the proliferation of the digital camera and in particular since the advent of the $200 (or less) digital point and shoots.
But it hit home with a thunk to my head when I watched Justin Bieber’s documentary Never Say Never a couple of weeks ago with my granddaughter. The sold out performance of Justin Bieber’s concert at the Madison Square Garden on August 21, 2009 was somewhere in the order of 40,000 people. It seemed to me that a great majority of the young girls attending were all clutching and waving either cell phone cameras or point and shoot digital cameras. It was a sea of glow.
In today’s (I get the Sunday New York Times delivered on Saturday night) newly designed Sunday Magazine there is a new section called What They Were Thinking. The one page contains (and will contain) one photograph in which either the photographer or the subject discuss what was in their mind at the time of the exposure. Since the photo was taken in New York City in 1985 we know it was taken and not “captured” to use the modern parlance.
What is different (even in this first feature of the new column) is that the photograph, taken by Ted Barron is about the more famous Robert Frank (who is in the picture) taking a photograph of Tom Waits squatting over a puddle in Tompkins Square Park in New York City. So the page is about three men (Tom Waits, Robert Frank and Ted Barron) and what they were thinking.
In this age of unbridled photographic proliferation there are still some controls that protect the copyright of some of the good photographers of the past, particularly those who are still alive as Robert Frank and today’s subject of my blog, Elliott Erwitt. Ted Barron’s photograph is an interesting photograph even before we know that the squatter is Tom Waits and that the photographer, what seems to be a collapsible Polaroid Land Camera) who we only see from the back is the famous Swiss photographer who published one of the seminal books on photography of the 20th century, The Americans (1958). I will not copy the NY Times photo and place it here and face a copyright infringement and the possible (remote I would think) lawsuit by the newspaper and Ted Barron. What I find remarkable is that the NY Times did not publish Frank’s photo of Waits (no room for it in the layout, perhaps?). What is more remarkable is that if you Google , Tom Waits/Robert Frank, the only picture that turns up is Ted Barron's. There seems to be no evidence on the web of the photograph that Robert Frank took of Tom Waits.
Any of us who might have an extensive collection of photo books (but I don’t have the Frank book that would have Waits’ photo) would instantly find the photograph and it would be most educational to see what it was the Robert Frank took.
But Ted Barron’s photograph is interesting from another perspective. There are gawkers (besides Ted Barron who arrived at the scene purely by accident), who are mostly quite young and some have smiles on their faces. Not one of them has a camera in hand or around their neck. In 1985 there was no proliferation of cameras in the street as you would see now. It was before telephones started sharing tasks with cameras. An exception might have been near the Eiffel Tower in Paris or in the pre September 11 Statue of Liberty. Only tourists seemed to have cameras in those days.
If you go back 30 years to the prime of Henri Cartier-Bresson, those with cameras in hand would have been even more reduced. That any of those fewer photographers would have owned an sophisticated and expensive Leica (Cartier-Bresson’s) that number would have been even smaller.
The kinds of photographs that Cartier-Bresson took were in genre called street photography. He was not the first by any measurement. The first street photograph was a Daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre taken of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris in 1838. Scholars suspect that it was not strictly a street photograph. What seems to be the cardinal rule of the true street photograph is that the photographer is a bystander who does not participate in any way. The photographer can wait until the action that is suspected in happening happens. But there must be no interference. Many good street shots are thus the “lucky” shots of photographers in the ready who are masters in being able to shoot quickly from the hip.
|Louis Daguerre, Bulevard du Temple, 1838
It seems that Daguerre’s street shot was staged and he either paid or asked a man to stand on the street to have his boots cleaned. One of the pioneers of street photography as we knew it (I used the past and I will explain below why) was the Hungarian-born André Kertész who spanned almost the whole 20th century (1894-1986). I will not delve into the subject of the fact (for me) that Kertész was a better photographer than Cartier-Bresson in that he had a wider repertoire of skills and interests. The fact is that Cartier-Bresson singlehandedly became the beacon for the new breed of street photographers that followed after him. They could have told you all about the significance of the decisive moment.
One photographer, generally considered to be a street photographer (his career began in the 50s) is Paris born (parent of Russian emigrés) Elliott Erwitt. Some see him as a street photographer as his most famous image is the one here which was the invite card for his 1990 show at the Presentation Gallery in North Vancouver. But if you investigate further you will find out that he shot the stills for The Misfits (in my interview with Erwitt for the Georgia Straight back in 1990 he had no recollection of Marilyn Monroe's polka dot dress!) and was there during the kitchen debate between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev.
These pictures agencies have sort of disappeared as we know have Getty Images which is really and organization not run by photographers and which is slowly but surely securing a monopoly on images.
Magnum still has a reputation and it is perhaps for that reason that you cannot find some of the finest photographs taken by their photographers unless you happen to have old photography books.
The proof is what I consider one of the best street photograph ever taken (it happens to be a sequence of three). It was shot by Elliott Erwitt. In his book Get The Picture -A Personal History of Photojournalism by John G. Morris (1998) he writes of the sequence:
These pictures may have provided President Kennedy with his only laugh during the Bay of Pigs crisis. Elliott Erwitt took this sequence at one of Nelson Rockefeller’s stump speeches in Albay, New York – a warmup for a presidential run he was planning in 1964. I noted the dog’s reaction to Rockefeller’s oratory and had prints made for my visit to Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger who jumped at the chance to lighten his boss’s dark mood. It Worked.
|Elliott Erwitt's Masterpiece
This sequence (connected by me with Photoshop) works to perfection even if we do not know that the man central in the group is Nelson Rockefeller. What you see here is a low resolution version, the only one available to the viewer at the Magnum agency web site if you happen to search for Erwitt/Rockefeller. It my hope that neither Magnum nor Erwitt nor John G. Morris will go after me for the use of their work without prior permission.
The point of the blog is that I believe that the brand of street photography and photojournalism (try to find a definition that clarifies their absolute distinction) that was pioneered in the 20th century is either moribund or dead. A young Cartier-Bresson suddenly plunked by magic in 21st century Vancouver would not be able to find work.
Flickr, facebook and millions of digital cameras (the equalizer versions of the 19th century Colts) have leveled the playing field. There are street photographs everywhere and after a while my eyes and those of others (I guess) must become dulled.
Converting some of those pristine, sharp and colorful images taken with the help of image stabilization and state of the art zoom lenses and auto focusing to b+ws sometimes helps to clear the eyes, but even those after a while dull the senses eventually.
I remember reading a fine piece of fiction in an 80s Penthouse Magazine in which 18th century Italian composer and virtuoso harpsichordist Domenico Scarlatti was brought, via a time machine, to Los Angeles circa 1980s. His agent (a savvy American ) planned to make a bundle parading the harpsichordist around LA. To the agent’s horror, Scarlatti wised up quickly and lost all interest in harpsichords and the baroque music of the 18th century. Scarlatti grooved on the Moog synthesizer of the era and took Leary’s advice and dropped out in a haze of dope and drugs.
Likewise I think that a young Cartier-Bresson in Vancouver would trash his Leica and purchase a $140 Cisco Flip-cam and do street videos.
|El Santo de la Trompeta, Alex Waterhouse-Hayward 1964
A Hungarian friend of mine, Michael Varga, one of the best CBC cameraman of his generation and now extremely busy even though he is retired, told my wife Rosemary that Alex (me!) would be less morose if he purchased a good digital single lens reflex camera. My other friend, also Hungarian, Paul Leisz begs to differ (and seems to understand my so-called predicament). He says that a digital camera would not change my method of working and using lights or my personal approach to photography. It would just provide me with a learning curve. It would be a toy and a distraction. I agree. For now, my type of photography is in deep slumber. Will the bear wake up? Perhaps or perhaps not. In any case I did my stint in street photography in the 60s in Mexico. Above is one of them. The picture is interesting only in that it would look alien to most how have never seen a Mexican wrestling mask. If I happened to take street photographs in b+w or even took Varga's advice I might have a show of the pictures in Buenos Aires or Madrid where our every day Vancouver would be seen as exotic. To most that saw Cartier-Bresson's shots of Paris, Paris was a remote and exciting place. It is now an almost available destination to anybody with Airmiles points and Expedia.