Archive for the ‘Street Photography’ tag
Paul Graham, 23rd Street, 2nd June 2011, 4.25.14 pm, Diptych from The Present
The Present is the third in Paul Graham’s trilogy of projects on America beginning with American Night in 2003 and followed by A Shimmer of Possibility in 2007. While the previous projects focused on people who are socially and economically on the margins of American society, in The Present Graham moves closer to a geographic centre, focusing on pedestrians on the streets of New York. Graham’s shift from impoverished urban dystopias to the very centre of finance functions as an uncanny reference to the global economic downturn and a crisis in Capitalism. The architecture of the city (much of it either built by or for the banking industry) functions as the ideal backdrop for Graham’s long-term project on representing social asymmetry and injustice.
Paul Graham, 34th Street, 4th June 2010, 3.12.58 pm, Diptych from The Present
Crucially, the photographs presented in the book are diptychs. Graham photographs the same scene twice, often from exactly the same angle, and only seconds apart, to create two images that are essentially in conversation with each other. While the city as backdrop remains the same, the flow of pedestrians and traffic subtly changes from image to image. In some cases the difference is emphasized by a new subject entering the image, while in others Graham simply shifts the focus of his camera to draw the viewer’s attention to another detail in the image. Here, Graham essentially creates a visual game as the viewer is invited to figure out how the images relate to each other. It is a very subtle, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, but always a surprising connection that Graham presents the viewer with.
Paul Graham, Penn Station, 4th April 2010, 2.30.31 pm, Diptych from The Present
The amount of work involved producing these diptychs must not be underestimated. Working in the tradition of ‘street photography’, Graham does not come across unusual patterns of behaviour because of luck or by accident, but because he must have spent hours and hours searching for these patterns to emerge in the first place. Graham’s amazing feat is that he does not produce one visually compelling image, but, in fact, he produces two images that aren’t as much compelling as they are visually complex in relation to each other. A man blind in one eye juxtaposed with a man squinting against the bright sunshine. A businessman seemingly unmoved by his surroundings soaks up the sun while the world passes around him. Two cops apparently wish to check on a suspect backpack on the ground, while they actually seem more concerned with a tourist taking pictures (a reference to Graham’s very own position as photographer).
Paul Graham, Fulton Street, 11th November 2009, 11.29.10 am, Diptych from The Present
One of the most surprising diptychs presents a smart business woman and a number of men, all seemingly strangers, walking on the sidewalk. In the next image, the woman lies on the ground and the strangers have gathered around her to help her up. A man’s open-palmed hand (a universal signifier for help) is dramatically lit by a ray of sunshine as the woman contemplates accepting the man’s help. The sheer beauty, the dramatic lighting and clarity of gestures adds a cinematic quality to this and many other photographs in the book. The clearly defined focus too, has helped to produce images that appear as if they were photographed on a movie set. As the final project in Graham’s trilogy on America, The Present concludes a totally new way of photographing, perceiving and understanding the urban environment as an ever-changing matrix of social interactions.
This article was originally published at photomonitor.co.uk.
It is perhaps Boris Savelev’s first career as a scientist that makes his photographs look as if they don’t immediately fit into a history of representation. Born in Russia in 1947, Savelev chooses subjects which initially appear to be scattered, even accidental: the faint silhouette of a man riding on a street car, an elderly woman in a telephone box, the empty interior of a grubby looking garage. Drawn from a personal archive of negatives that spans a quarter of a century, Savelev’s photographs recently on display at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London focus on observations he made in Chernowitz, his city of birth, and Moscow; while more recently he also photographed cities in Western Europe.
Many of Savelev’s photographs include graffiti, scratched surfaces, crumbling walls, torn down posters and other markers of urban decay. Despite his apparently iconoclastic approach to image-making, the umbrella term ‘street photography’ might best describe the genre that Savelev is working in. Within the messiness and business of the street, Savelev’s photographs also allude to an overarching order. Most of the photographs on display are dark, subdued or even, in the true sense of the word, obscure.
It takes a while to actually discover that one of Savelev’s main subject matters are shadows. The long and straight shadows created by a burst of sunshine on an otherwise dark and moody day create a prominent pattern throughout the exhibition. The exhibition title, ‘Colour Constructions’, cleverly hints to constructivism as an aesthetic paradigm in Savelev’s work. Despite small bursts of colour, as a whole the photographs on display are surprisingly monochromatic. Using a rare and complex method of printing on to aluminum (multi-layered pigment prints on gesso coated aluminum), the large photographs turn quotidian objects into monuments.
Amongst the predominantly dark photographs, Savelev also displays a penchant for humour. As a reference to the scarcity of food during the Soviet era, Savelev photographed a rather pathetic looking display of cakes in the window of a bakery. The cakes are so small and few in the otherwise empty window that they are barely noticeable near the edge of the photograph. The title of the photograph ‘Cakes’, Moscow 1987 better describes the very absence of items one might expect to find at a bakery. As such, the photograph represents a particularly dry type of humour, perhaps enjoyed by Russians of an older generation who witnessed the slow and steady demise of their country towards the end of the Cold War.
Metaphors also seem to be a dominant trope in Savelev’s photographs. In ‘Sun Basket’, Chernowitz 2011, Savelev photographed a basketball hoop drenched in sunshine while the back- and foreground of the photograph characteristically remain in the shadow. The vibrant red of the basketball hoop, and the circular shape of the metal ring of the net are strongly reminiscent of the outline of the sickle on the flag of the former USSR. The height of the basketball hoop (an object usually associated with American culture) and the bright red colour clearly evoke the old flag as symbol for communism. The photograph, and perhaps Savelev’s body of work as a whole, is a comment on the schizophrenic political system in contemporary Russia: despite the wholehearted embrace of capitalism by the oligarchy, the country is still haunted by its troubled transition from two conflicting ideologies.
This post is part of a new series of exhibition reviews I write for the photomonitor.co.uk.
“Shutter chance”, that is the Japanese expression borrowed from the English language that best describes the photographs of the Japanese street photographer Kayo Ume. Take above photograph as an example. A young couple makes an evening visit to a local chemist. They are dressed casually, knowing that their trip would only last a few minutes. They find what they were looking for, go to the cashiers and pay. The harsh artificial lighting and the products on the shelves are deeply reminiscent of Andreas Gursky’s iconic photograph “99 Cents” depicting a giant supermarket. In this claustrophobic space of consumerism, there, on the linoleum floor, is a pigeon blocking the way to the exit. The young couple look down in awe at this unusual and unexpected sight. What they don’t see is that out on the street is a young photographer, born in 1981, who has been watching the pigeon and their very own actions from the beginning. It’s a chance encounter and Kayo Ume knows when to press the shutter. Ume’s observations are relentless. In the photograph we can see the joy on faces of the young couple while the shop clerk’s blank expression is perhaps evidence for a long day at work. The young woman so delighted about the pigeon is wearing an eye patch, further contextualizing her visit to the chemist. In the foreground of the photograph, on the far right, is the silhouette of a person passing by and holding, what appears to be, an umbrella. In this single photograph, Ume supplies the viewer with an abundance of information that supports a greater narrative of the everyday.
Other photographs from Kayo Ume’s massively successful book Ume-me, which sold over 100.000 copies in her native Japan, tell similarly intriguing stories. There is for example the slightly tragic moment when five elderly people are desperately trying to open a locker in a train station. The strength in these photographs is that they bridge the tragic with the comic, but also the voyeuristic with the mundane. These photographs are made possible by Ume’s pathological dedication to the medium photography, working in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson or even Jacques Henri Lartigue. The sheer volume of her photographic archive might also provoke comparisons with fellow Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama. Unlike Moriyama’s dark photographs of urban dystopia, Ume’s photographs are a far brighter, optimistic and also funnier depiction of life in Japan.
Ume is predominantly known for her photographs of young kids pulling grimaces and playing on Tokyo’s back streets. However, simply categorizing Ume’s photographs as slapstick humor would not do her practice justice. The photograph of a young man dressed in camouflaged military clothing as he approaches an elderly lady is an example for the drama that Ume also uncovers. The woman’s body language and her facial expression, as she is standing with her back to the wall, signifies her intimidation vis-a-vis the significantly taller man. But is that the whole story? Ume’s photographs offer many alternative readings and the one above is no exception. From the side of his mouth, the man can be seen smiling – a facial expression that stands in opposition to the woman’s reaction. Also, the man seems to be holding a pink toy, perhaps suggesting that his approach is more innocent than it first appears. All the time, Kayo Ume herself seems to be operating like the proverbial fly-on-the-wall so often attributed to photographers working in the tradition of social documentary. Magically, Ume herself remains invisible in these odd encounters with the comic and the tragic of the everyday.
The tragedy that the urban environment offers street photographers like Kayo Ume is maybe most apparent in the photograph of a man fallen to the ground on a train. The sight of the so-called salaryman sleeping on the ground after a hard day of work, or drinking, or both, is so common in Tokyo that such sightings have provoked a facebook group dedicated to this subject. The subject in Ume’s photograph is therefore not necessarily the fallen man, but rather, the many other passengers that ignore his, and Ume’s presence. Life continues as normal in spite of the out-of-orderness of the passenger lying on the ground. Whether or not he is just sleeping or suffering a heart attack is another ambiguity in Ume’s photograph. Unlike the other passengers, Ume is not ignoring the situation and photographs the tragic and comical offered by dense urban living.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.