© 2012 Cheryl Machat Dorskind
“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye… Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something.”
This Evans’ quote appears adjacent to his 1938 Subway and 1941 Bridgeport photographic series on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, one of six artists included in the show “I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street.”
Sound dramatic? At the time Evans’ “I Spy” experiment was a radical departure from his precision style compositions as he explored random expressions and gestures on the NYC subway and a street in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Motivated to step beyond his comfort zone, Evans recalled years later, “beware of this; don’t accept acclaim; be careful about being established.”
Evans’ goal was to make the camera an objective recording device. On the subway, Evans hid is Contax camera, the prefocused lens peaking out of his jacket. For the Bridgeport series, he used a 2 ¼ camera, his eye looking downward on the focusing screen. Evans clicked the shutter at whim, most strangers never knew.
Times have changed. You can not stare at strangers these days. The unspoken rule in New York City subways is “No eye contact.” And what about copyright laws? Can you really post photos of strangers without worrying about lawsuits or being punched in the face? As a side note: Evans was concerned about his subjects privacy and waited nearly twenty years to publish these works.
The exhibit “I Spy” creates a timeline of street photography and in addition to Walker Evans, includes the photographs of Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Beat Streuli. It is a terrific exhibit. On the one hand, the show is hung beautifully and the open gallery contrasts with the claustrophobic space of the subway and crowded city streets. Personally, like seeing a favorite band or celebrity on stage, I get a thrill from looking inches close to iconic photographs.
Seeing the contrast in size and color between Walker’s subway photos (1938) and Bruce Davidson’s (1980) images startle the senses. Davidson’s chromogenic large format photographs shock and recreate the dirty, crime ridden, dark, dank station atmosphere into the National Gallery of Art. The photos also reflect the changing times, whereby Davidson asked permission to photograph many of his subjects. His work was dangerous; he was mugged at knife point and accused of rape. Still, Davidson was addicted,
“In this grim, abusive, violent, and often beautiful reality of the subway,” he wrote, “we confront our mortality, contemplate our destiny, and experience both the beauty and the beast….Trapped inside” the moving train, we all hang on together.”
The issue of copyright is addressed with the inclusion of the larger than life size photographs by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who was sued for privacy violation. In 2006, the New York State court ruled in favor of the photographer, citing
“On the grounds that his photographs were works of art and therefore constitutionally protected free speech, exempted from the reach of New York’s privacy law.”
The show brings us to date, with the work of Beat Streuli (2002-2012). Across the street at a coffee shop, a still camera was prefocused on an Astor place subway stop. The images are projected side-by-side on two flat screens, changing to the bustling New York city pedestrians rhythm, in “staccato fashion.”
The curator sums up the show’s relevancy to today’s ubiquitous camera, “In this age of cell phone and security cameras, YouTube and Google Earth, the photographs also make us aware of our uneasy relationship to the camera, suggesting both our fascination and discomfort with its intrusion into our daily lives. “
In closing, if you are in Washington DC, don’t miss this exhibit which closes August 5, 2012.
I have added an “I spy” photo. If you want to share your subway photo, please post on my facebook page or ping me on G+ .
Final note: My online classes start this weekend. Why don’t you join me?
All About Color
More About Color
Photographing Children:Rising to the Challenge