The documentary genre known as street photography is perhaps the most fundamental and pervasive form of photographic image-making in the twenty-first century. Amateur or professional, hobbyist or artist, all it takes is a camera and a comfortable pair of shoes.
On an elemental level, street photography is visual note-taking; the result of individuals’ desire to record objects or moments they find compelling as they move through life, be it around the corner or on the other side of the planet. In the hands of artists and professionals, street photography comprises a vital part of the photo-documentary tradition. Historically, street photography has provided a metaphoric mirror held up to the world, one that has played an important role in introducing one culture to another, with the goal of promoting mutual understanding.
In conjunction with a panel discussion organized by Prof. Karl Baden entitled When Everyone Has a Camera: Street Photography, the Right to Free Expression, and the Right to Privacy in the Internet Age on November 13, the McMullen Museum presents a selection of documentary photographs from its collection. All were made on the streets or in the subways of New York City, one of the world’s capitals of street photography.
The first section displays Alen MacWeeney’s rarely seen subway photographs. They were taken in the early 1970s with a small, hand-held panoramic camera, and have been printed recently in large-scale, inkjet format. These gritty images capture people waiting on platforms or in subway cars, as they are shuffled from one point to another under the city. MacWeeney depicts them alone or in small groups, illuminated in fluorescent-lit islands within a landscape of darkness and foregrounded against walls filled with advertisements and/or graffiti. MacWeeney’s mural-sized images present a paradoxically sweeping view of claustrophobic space, and lend an existential quality to the passengers and their surroundings that conjures the theater of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett.
The exhibition’s second section includes New York photographs by MacWeeney’s predecessors as well as works by a contemporary practitioner in the street style. Walker Evans was the first photographer to create a series of candid photographs in the New York subways, later published as the book Many Are Called. Berenice Abbott, Aaron Siskind, Jerome Liebling, and Walter Rosenblum participated in the Photo League, a group that banded together around social causes between 1936 and 1951.