Here’s the thing with street photography, it’s too easy to just take pictures of people walking down the street. And pictures simply of people walking down the street, or bunched up on it, or even a solo soul taking in the sun, are just about as interesting as walking down the street yourself. (You know, thinking about important stuff: What do I want for dinner tonight? Anything good on TV? What outrage will the president perpetrate next?) Indeed, that’s the fundamental challenge of serious street photography: how to make a photo of people walking around the streets more than just a photo of people out walking around the streets.
Historically, there are a few approaches. The most well-known, of course, is Cartier-Bresson’s fabled “decisive moment.” He could nail down moments we still can’t understand how he captured (like that opening chord to “A Hard Day’s Night”), such as the shot of the man leaping off a floating ladder over a pool of water, his movement perfectly reflected in the water, mimicking a leaping woman in a circus poster behind him, the geometric ladder harmonizing with the spiked iron fence and another fence near a clock tower, and, oh, there are those (what look like) barrel hoops in the water also picking up the arc of the man’s leaping body. Decisive moment indeed: one millisecond later, and the photo is just some guy splashing into a flooded yard.
I go on about this well-known shot because it embodies the true magic of perfect street photography. What makes it great is the way every part of the photo picks up on every other part, layer upon layer of harmonizing images, the mystery of infinite reflections … ultimately, the sense of something akin to divine presence arranging everything in so ideal a moment.
Cartier-Bresson got more than his share of moments like this … but he also put in his books shots that are just, well, people out on the street. Other masters, of course, are Robert Frank and William Klein and Garry Winogrand, each of whom made pictures so perfectly composed or captured or even intriguingly lit that they are timeless; we can never puzzle out all their mysteries. And then there’s the poetic flow of the best books by Japanese Provoke masters such as Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, photographers far less interested in showing us what takes place on the street than what percolates in their own artistic consciousnesses, erupting in furious blurs of street life.
So that’s the trick to any street photography: Either turn the street into theater, replete with telling moments of drama and human insight, and/or find a way to compress the quotidian into poetic moments (vivid or obscure) that resonate and never bore us. Not that easy to do. Simply capturing a witty gesture, a person grinning or sighing, a couple kids cutting up rarely resonates, unless, say, you’re Helen Levitt with an inexplicable gift of making any old person (or kid) on the street always interesting.
Again, street photography’s a tough challenge, especially since the practice in ways reached its pinnacle decades ago with the artists, and their peers, mentioned above.
Still, there is one further way a book of street photography can work for us today: If it captures a historical moment both true to its time and important for ours, those “some people on the street” rendered engaging because of the passage of time itself—layers of history, changing fashion, and unexpected relevance rising up from a book’s pages.
And that brings us to Mack’s new release Public Matters by Janet Delaney.
In the 1980s, Delaney lived in San Francisco’s Mission district, a mostly Latino part of town known for its then-cheap rents. (A decade earlier I lived in the Mission, paying $30 a month for a small room in a shared flat; and yes, that’s $30, not a typo. Today the same flat, swarmed by Googlers, would probably fetch 200 times that.) Back in the day, Delaney went out with her color film and captured public events, parades, street festivals, political marches … people out living their lives. There aren’t really any Cartier-Bresson–rich shots in the book, though as a rule they’re all pretty interesting, though that may in large part be a product of the book as history. People marching for civil rights, against AIDS, for gay identities, for Hispanic acceptance, and in one striking photo, three people (it’s not clear if they’re women, or men in dresses) in Girl Scout uniforms, one sporting a sign that reads “Cookies Not Contras.”
That’s one of the best shots in the book, since it both captures its time and contains a plenitude of mysteries … not to mention the photo’s emotional energy, with the lead “scout” shouting out.
There are other strong photos in their own right: a kid with a Transformer model atop his curly-haired head; a large-hatted man checking out his dominoes as if they were a poker hand, a sixer of Buds on the table before him; a pink-clad girl gobbling down pink cotton candy; a Mexican couple tangoing atop a street-side stage, a near Cartier-Bresson–esque arc to their bodies; another woman waving a Mexican flag in a photo nearly as well composed as Frank’s cover shot of the New Orleans streetcar for The Americans.
Then there are lots of not all that distinguished shots that capture our attention because of historical signifiers, as in, Wow, look how big those ’80s boom boxes were! Remember how AIDS was ravaging the community. And that people still used payphones.
There are also political parade shots that, except for puffy ’80s hair-dos, wouldn’t be that out of place today, protesting against discrimination and for greater human rights. Then there are some shots that are just people on the street doing not-that-interesting stuff: two guys getting on a bus; two schoolgirls standing by a boarded-up doorway; three construction bros sporting tool belts shot from below; a woman holding a baby; and four or five photos of regular people just looking at the camera lens.
As noted, all of the shots in Public Matters are in color, and a vibrant, conscious playing around with color, coupled with a vivid sense of composition (see Alex Webb or Jeff Mermelstein), can also enliven a book of street photos—play rarely present in Delaney’s shots, which, except for the pink-dressed girl and her cotton candy, don’t seem to care much about how colors interact or flood the frame. (Ditto composition: she seems mostly interested in simply photographing what people are up to, not how they sit in or fill the frame itself.)
Still, Public Matters is a photo book, so it should be judged (as I always do) as more than just a collection of photos but instead a narrative with its own purpose and power.
In that regard it mostly succeeds. The picture of a long-ago time, the passions of its street energy, the subtle ways politics inform almost every shot in the book (Delaney herself says the book is here to document a time redolent of our own), the way even the not particularly distinguished photos don’t sink the book itself … all this makes Public Matters a work worth owning.
Public Matters by Janet Delaney can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.