Humanity through a lens
Photographers oftentimes needn't look far to find their subjects: the sidewalk, the playground, any place with faces will do a locale where the human condition becomes fair game for the camera. But it takes a skilled eye to make the mundane appear mysterious, the commonplace seem transcendent.
This month's gift books feature photographers who have done these things and more, proving that sometimes everyday reality renders the best art.
After a 15-year collaboration, Colin Westerbeck, curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, and acclaimed photographer Joel Meyerowitz produced Bystander: A History of Street Photography, a masterful look at the medium that was first published in 1994. Reissued recently in paperback with an additional chapter covering current photographers, a new edition of Bystander the first-ever history of the genre is available from Bulfinch. As hefty and handsome as the first, the new book has ample examples of classic black-and-white street photography and authoritative chapters that provide a context for the pictures as well as their takers, photographers who, in a manner of speaking, eavesdropped with their eyes on couples kissing in parks, children fighting in alleys, on street vendors and bums. Unpremeditated, without artful interference, plot or pose, their photos were the products of coincidence that serendipitous synthesis of who, where and when. The trick, as the saying goes, was in the timing.
Bystander offers more than a century's worth of unforgettable images, including the effortlessly elegant pictures of Brassa• and Henri Cartier-Bresson; the rootsy work of Walker Evans photos that defined a nation and the pitiless, probing, hardboiled images of '40s press photographer Weegee, whose unforgiving flashbulb revealed humanity at its worst. Among the contemporary photographers mentioned in the book is Joel Sternfeld, whose color portraits of everyday Americans are collected in Stranger Passing, a provocative volume that accompanies a current exhibition of his work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. With these sharp, vivid portraits, Sternfeld has captured the essence of our culture in its many manifestations: an Indian woman, brightly robed, pumping gas in Kansas City; a pair of summer interns on Wall Street who, with their fresh young faces and grown-up clothes, seem caught between boy- and manhood. The viewer can't help but wonder about the narratives of these lives the before and after of every photograph. Proving that the term typical American defies definition, the gallery of characters in the book is diverse. Sternfeld, who has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, teaches at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Two wonderful essays by popular journalist Ian Frazier and Douglas Nickel, associate curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, complement his pictures.