Dismemberment is a good metaphor for the effect the camera has on our view of urban life in many of these images. Most of these photographers are breaching social protocols, and the moody and anxious view of city life they come up with might be its own form of illusion. Anything ripped from context will seem disconnected and bizarre, and so it’s no surprise that they create visions of the city in which nobody seems to be in a relationship with anyone else.
Bruce Davidson’s “Subway” is a powerful but disturbing series made in the 1980s when New York was a much grittier place than the Giuliani-scrubbed and Bloomberg-curated tourist mecca of today. But it feels dated. In part, it is the subject matter: graffiti-covered subways, gang members, thugs, Guardian Angels, terrified middle-class commuters and what appears to be a mugging in progress. It is all documented with the precision and care of a National Geographic cover story on exotic and dangerous animals. Davidson asked permission to photograph most of his subjects, so he isn’t really “spying.” But the people in his images seem so caught up in collective degradation, it’s hard to imagine that they could foretell how lurid it would look when reproduced in Davidson’s wonderfully rich and saturated prints.
A series of photographs from 2002 and 2012 by the Swiss photographer Beat Streuli aims to breathe new life into street photography. Streuli captured random people near the entrance to a subway stop in Manhattan, then projected the still images on two high-definition screens. Some faces linger longer than others, and as they slowly fade in and out, they seem to enter into elusive but tangible relationships with each other and the photographer. Faces seen straight on indict the viewer for invading the subject’s space. In some cases, disconnected faces appear to study each other, converting the victim of voyeurism into the voyeur. Where Frank, Evans and Callahan dismembered social relationships by picking out individual people, Streuli creates a series of faux social relationships, carefully managed by the photographer’s juxtapositions.
By the end of the exhibition, you might wonder whether the city is quite so horrible as its street photographers seem intent on making it. Our sense of urban woe might be partially manufactured by the kinds of images these photographers make.
Three very large changes in the world will probably make this photography seem a little passe until a revolution in taste comes. First, small cameras are everywhere, and governmental and commercial surveillance is nearly complete in many cities. Capturing people unawares is easy and ubiquitous. Second, the number of snapshots circulating in the world, on social media and the Internet, has diluted not only the impact of the form but our sense of privacy as well. Many of us freely circulate, with no embarrassment, images of ourselves with our “mask off,” so much so one wonders whether the mask even exists anymore.
Finally, the city isn’t the forlorn, anxious realm of disconnected misery that it once was, or that these photographs claim it is. Much of the social despair, isolation and pathology once seen as particularly urban has gravitated out of the cities, to the lands where people bowl alone and cook meth in beat-up trailers. And not surprisingly, the dissecting gaze of the camera has turned elsewhere, so much so that this show feels like a fascinating but almost remote chapter in the history of photography.
I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938-2000
is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Aug. 5. For more information, visit www.nga.gov/exhibitions.