Photography's Enduring Street Cred

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

Fans of the street photograph -- part urban portrait, part sidewalk social science, part celebration of the sometimes surreal poetry of city life -- are in for a treat. Two shows (one at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, one at the Baltimore Museum of Art) offer visitors a crash course in the evolution of the genre and its enduring place in the history of photography.

It may help to think of the Corcoran's "Chance Encounters: Photographs From the Collection of Norman Carr and Carolyn Kinder Carr" as a kind of prequel to the 2002 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's "Open City: Street Photography Since 1950." That lavish survey dealt only with work from the second half of the 20th century, creating the false impression that the street photography movement didn't emerge until after World War II. With work ranging from the early 1900s to around 1970, "Chance Encounters" fills in the rest of the story. It's a bit like "Open City's" missing first half.

Looking for even more context? Check out the BMA's roughly contemporaneous "Looking Through the Lens: Photography 1900-1960." Although not a street photography show, strictly speaking, the 168 works (drawn, with one exception, from the museum's permanent collection) spotlight several street photographers who made their name by shooting life on the fly: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Robert Frank, Harry Callahan, Gordon Parks and others. You'll find several of those artists featured in both shows.

The more tightly focused of the two, "Chance Encounters" features 58 works from two private Washington collectors with an eye for street photography's inherent contradictions. At one extreme: deadpan photos by such pioneering social documentarians as Lewis Hine, whose work was meant to call attention to economic injustice (1910's "Italian Immigrant, East Side, New York City"). At the other: a pair of untitled portraits of society's misfits, circa 1970-71, from the iconic Diane Arbus. But are we meant to sympathize with, or sneer at, Arbus's mentally challenged subjects? "Victims" almost seems a better word. That's a question left unanswered by the artist and the Corcoran.

There is no better example of that uncomfortable tension (between laughter and tears, voyeurism and outrage) than the work of Arthur Fellig, the New York tabloid photographer nicknamed Weegee for his seemingly clairvoyant ability to turn up at crime scenes. Thirteen of his works are featured in "Chance Encounters," all dating from his most fertile period (late 1930s to 1940s). They're only a fraction of the 73 Weegees owned by the Carrs, but the baker's dozen of works chosen for display encapsulate the full range of street photography's power and ambiguity.

"Heat Spell" (1941), for example, is pure social document, almost evoking Hine in its depiction of a tenement fire escape crowded with kids sleeping outside on a hot summer night. In the portraiture category, Weegee's "Norma Devine Is Sammy's Mae West" (1944) captures a heavily mascaraed nightclub singer in almost religious ecstasy. As for the everyday surreal, it doesn't come much stranger than "Simply Add Boiling Water" (1937), which shows fire hoses dousing a burning building emblazoned with the advertising slogan for hot dogs from which the artist took his grin- (or perhaps groan-) inducing title.

The double nature of photography isn't limited to pictures shot on the street, of course. It has always been an art form torn between the necessity to show life as it is and the capacity to show off one's skills behind the camera.

That point is never made clearer than in this twofer of photo shows. The BMA's permanent collection showcase runs the gamut, from such quintessential street photographers as Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans to the mid-century modernism of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, an optician-turned-artist known for his often troubling staged photos of children in Halloween masks.

But here's a question. Is Meatyard a street photographer or a surrealist? His work, from the 1950s and '60s, is included in both shows: one at the Corcoran (1964's "Romance of Ambrose Bierce #3"); five at the BMA.

Here's a tip: Start with the Corcoran, where Meatyard seems like Arbus's artistic soul mate. Then zoom out for a bigger picture at the BMA, where he seems closer kin to Salvador Dali.

If the image gets only fuzzier, that's by design, not by accident. As we've all grown up, so has photography. And the lesson is there are no easy answers.

Chance Encounters: Photographs From the Collection of Norman Carr and Carolyn Kinder Carr Through June 22 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West) Info:202-639-1700. Hours: Open Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday-Sunday 10 to 5, Thursdays 10 to 9; closed Tuesdays. Admission:$6; free for members and age 6 and younger.

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