After a lengthy period of trailers and online conversation, Everybody Street was released last year. The feature-length documentary was made by New York photographer Cheryl Brown and is available through the website or via Vimeo. Once purchased, the film and ‘extra features’ can be downloaded at will.
The film is a series of brief interviews with 13 practicing New York street photographers. The brevity of the conversations can occasionally be frustrating, but it cleverly reflects the subject matter. As art historian Max Kozloff tells us early on in the film that on New York’s streets, everything happens at once in what he calls a ‘volatile proximity’. There’s a lot of photography in the film – it is not just a series of talking heads – showing the eclectic styles of each of the artists featured. These styles and approaches to their practice are often at odds with each other and the various points of view are cleverly juxtaposed throughout the film. The photographers featured are a strange bunch, but I guess you have to be to do what they do.
For example, Bruce Gilden’s famous style of jumping into people’s faces and firing a flash is at one extreme. In the film, he explains that he uses flash to show the stress and energy of the city and it certainly works. He also talks about his technique of getting so close that people think he’s shooting something behind them.
On the other hand, Jamal Shabazz’s pictures are on the same streets, but feature posed portraits, often with big smiles from the sitter. He talks of the method he used to gain the confidence of the gangs he photographed, by approaching the ‘alpha’. He’d take his picture, flatter him and show him prints. Once he was convinced, the rest of the gang was easy to recruit.
Seeing the variety of styles and the resulting images through the film was fascinating. The photographers come from different backgrounds, from local New Yorkers to those that have been attracted to the city and its chaos. Joel Meyerowitz is a local and one of the most famous. He explains that he started wandering the streets, not knowing what he wanted to photograph, but knowing that he had to out on the streets, watching life. He explains that by understanding the individuals that he photographs, he can begin to understand the culture at large.
Boogie is from Belgrade and the film features an interesting insight into how he works. He has a Go Pro attached to his Leica, allowing us to see how he’ll frame a shot and then wait for the ‘decisive moment’ when the subject looks at the camera or is in the perfect point of his composition. He picked up a camera back home in Serbia to distance himself from the horrors of the war. He says that when he is behind a camera, he is not a participant but just an observer. His sets of gang members with guns and drug users shooting up are both stunning and shocking. They’re summed up nicely when he explains that he wasn’t afraid when taking them; he had no feelings, he was cold and simply observing. He says ‘the deeper you go, the better the pictures’.
I liked Martha Cooper’s work. Refreshingly, she brought colour with her street work, although she claims that they are ethnographics rather than photographs. She also demonstrates what timing does for a picture in one of my favourite images in the film. She seemed the most normal and likeable of the photographers featured. At the opposite end of this spectrum was Jill Freeman. Her most famous work is the shots of NYC police in the ’80s. One thing she said that I did agree with is that a picture is a picture, regardless of how it is made.
Another odd character is Jeff Mermelstien. I guess like many photographers, he is uncomfortable in front of the lens, but his mannerisms and avoidance of eye-contact with the camera were very odd. His photography however was fantastic. Of those featured, his use of colour was my favourite, particularly this photograph – excellent timing, but some kind of witchcraft to set the focus correctly to see the reflection in her glasses.
The film spends a little time on some of the predecessors to the current crop that are interviewed. The role of Levitt, Model, Klien, Frank and Arbus in pioneering street photography in New York is touched on briefly as an introduction to 97 year old Rebecca Lepkoff. Her work, like Martha Cooper’s considers the use and occupancy of public space, with her training as a dancer informing her photography further.
As the film progresses in no particular direction, we are introduced to some real big-hitters. Elliott Erwitt, Bruce Davidson and Bruce Gilden bring a world-weary wisdom to the proceedings. Erwitt says entertainingly that there are too many bad pictures, but always room for good ones. His opinion is that digital makes it too easy meaning that while everyone can get an image, not everyone can get a good one. He then contradicts himself a little by saying that photographers aren’t needed anymore. Meyerowitz is more optimistic. He says that by making photography inclusive and available to all, geniuses will be discovered.
Davidson talks about his work on East 100th street in Harlem, a single block that he photographed repeatedly for two years in the late 60s. He shot the stark images showing the people and poverty on a large format camera, bringing what he calls ‘a dignity to the process’. Time was suspended; there is no decisive moment in these pictures. He says that his subjects were ‘glad you’re there to see them because no one is paying attention’. We also see some of his work taken in the subways of New York and he talks about his ‘ten second love affairs’ with the women he saw there.
Speaking of dignity, there is none in Gilden’s approach to street photography. He defends it by saying that social attitudes to privacy have changed and that inspired by celebrity culture, we all want to be stars and so are not afraid of the camera or being photographed. We see him in action in the film and it appears that very few of his ‘victims’ share his view as most recoil and many shout abuse at him as he walks quickly away.
The film feels like walking down a New York street. We’re bombarded with visual stimuli, strangeness and odd characters. While I can’t imagine that viewers will grow fond of any of the photographers featured, the quality of their work remains. New York is a rich source of material where ‘everything happens at once’, all of the time!
I realise that Leicester might not quite be the same (!) but Bruce Gilden’s work in Derby proves that street photography is not just about pointing your camera at a street and converting the image to black and white. Pictures of unremarkable people going about their business is not enough. This work, more than any other genre perhaps, needs a special ingredient, a unique character or ‘decisive moment’. All of the photographers featured in Everybody Street bring this. They are masters of their trade because they have the vision to see these characters or moments through the noise and distraction of city life and can capture its essence on camera.
If you get the chance, you must watch it.