In the interest of shameless self-promotion, I’m excited to announce that a photo I took is included in the new book #ICPConcerned, available from the ICP Bookstore and G Editions. A little over a year ago, I was capturing the scene outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center while votes were being tallied inside–something that ultimately decided the outcome of the presidential election. I was honored to have my photograph selected for the exhibit, and I’m thrilled to see it in print alongside some amazing work by photographers from around the world, collectively documenting the insanity that was 2020.
I’m a little biased to say the least, but I think it’s pretty great. And for those on a tight budget, you can view the entire exhibit online.
It’s safe to say I’ve been more than a little obsessed with the Photo League lately. I’ve been spending time diving into the organization’s history and photographic contributions. (As a starting point, I highly recommend the excellent documentary Ordinary Miracles.) I recently wrote a Binge-Worthy column about Photo League members Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s classic first film, The Little Fugitive, and I followed that with a review of Engel’s experimental 1960s counterculture film, I Need A Ride To California, which was released for the first time on DVD this year.
Coincidentally, Ruth Orkin: A Photo Spirit, which reproduces over 200 of Ruth Orkin’s photographs, was just published to celebrate the centennial of her birth in 1921. Accompanying a retrospective exhibit (on view at Fotografiska New York through the end of November), it’s the most definitive collection of her work to date.
The book surveys Orkin’s entire career—tragically cut short by cancer in the 1980s—beginning with her early formative work, made during an epic cross-country bicycle trip from Los Angeles to New York for the 1939 World’s Fair when she was just 18 years old. Orkin had an adventurous heart and a willingness to take risks, and the bicycle trip represents a bold undertaking at the start of a brilliant career.
The appearance of the bicycle trip photos at the beginning led me to expect that the book would be laid out chronologically. However, the next image after that sequence is from 1952. A perfectly composed vertical image shows a solitary figure in silhouette, walking in a downpour, as seen from Orkin’s apartment window. It’s wonderfully atmospheric in a way that’s evocative of film noire. The subsequent photograph, taken from the same apartment during a snowstorm that same year, masterfully portrays a New York winter in bold, abstract, monochromatic strokes.
From there, the book continues to jump around in time. Images are generally grouped together according to a theme or commonality, similar to the way that a photo editor will assemble work for a wide edit before narrowing it down. It’s sprawling and at times a little overwhelming—in the absence of section headers or chapter dividers, the photos just sort of bleed into each other. Images of children at the circus are followed by several taken at a dog show, then several others taken at a parade, and so on. I found the best way to approach the collection was to simply allow yourself to be immersed in it. Approach it like you would a box set of a musical artist that houses every album along with alternate studio takes, B-sides, and excerpts from live performances.
Orkin’s optimism, empathy, and sense of humor shine through in her work. One well-known sequence of six photos, entitled “The Card Players,” dramatizes a card game between three children sitting on a stoop, rendered in soft light and painterly compositions. In the book, the sequence covers four pages. The four photos in the middle of the sequence are printed at half the size of the opening and closing photos, which serve to anchor the story. It’s a highly effective layout. The half-dozen images combine to tell a short story—or perhaps more accurately, play out like a short film—and build to a satisfying resolution as the little girl in the center of the frame smiles victoriously. The entire sequence was included in MoMA’s legendary 1955 exhibition The Family of Man, curated by Edward Steichen, who had by then become a huge supporter of her work.
One of the great pleasures of retrospectives is that you inevitably discover something new. There is no shortage of such discoveries in these pages. Adding further value to the book, excerpts from Orkin’s unfinished autobiography are printed at the end. The selections give a great deal of insight into her approach to making pictures and her experience as one of the few female photographers in a very male-dominated industry. Her diary excerpts regarding the making of the instantly iconic “American Girl in Italy,” are reprinted at the end as well.
Although it could be a little more accessible to the uninitiated, it’s a gorgeous collection nevertheless and a highly valuable book that should hold immense appeal for photography lovers. And it should further cement Ruth Orkin’s place in the pantheon of great 20th Century photographers.
Ruth Orkin: A Photo Spirit. Edited by Nadine Barth and Mary Engel. Text by Kristen Gresh and Ruth Orkin. Hatje Cantz, 2021. 240 pages. Hardcover.
Todd Webb didn’t become serious about photography until he was around 35 years old. At the time, he was working in the Detroit auto industry after stints as a stockbroker, gold prospector, and Naval officer, respectively. In 1945, when he hit 40, he left that job behind and moved to New York to pursue with an almost spiritual conviction what he had discovered, at long last, was his life’s calling.
Upon arriving in New York, he immersed himself in the photography world. Alfred Stieglitz was one of his mentors, and MoMA curator Beaumont Newhall helped arrange for him to have his first solo exhibit, held at the Museum of the City of New York. He shared an apartment with Harry and Eleanor Callahan, became close friends with Berenice Abbott, and hobnobbed with a who’s who of luminaries, all of whom expressed admiration for his work. Yet, despite all of this, Webb has been largely overlooked as a photographer.
That’s a shame, because Webb created a strong visual record of a city on the verge of enormous change. That in itself gives his work value, but what takes it to the next level is how impactful many of the images in I See A City are—visually, emotionally, and intellectually.
One of Webb’s most impressive images is a perfectly executed composite shot of an entire city block along 6th Avenue. The final image is comprised of six separate frames, seamlessly and meticulously lined up and stitched together, well before Photoshop and iPhone camera apps made it easy to somewhat clumsily approximate that process. It’s reproduced in the book as a two-page spread, but it demands to be seen larger, so that viewers can truly immerse themselves in the scene and study the details.
Just as effective is a simple photograph of a horse and buggy parked behind an automobile under the el tracks. The horse is resigned to waiting patiently while the driver makes his delivery rounds. The light and composition guide your eye around the photo to the storefronts, the windows, the train tracks, and more. It’s an elegant depiction of a city in the process of reinventing itself.
It’s also an image created via time and patience. Partly out of necessity, Webb had developed an economical shooting style. As Sean Corcoran explains in his introduction, Webb spent most of his time scouting locations, watching the light, and anticipating the moment. That process paid off in exceptionally strong final images. Webb used large format cameras, notably the Graflex Speed Graphic (popular at the time among press photographers, including Weegee), as well as a 5×7 Deardorff field camera, mounted on a tripod. The image fidelity and perspective control of large format photography give a kind of enhanced veracity to Webb’s urban landscapes and scenes of daily life.
Not all of the book’s 150 black-and-white photographs are as brilliant as these, but they are all interesting. The book was edited and sequenced by Betsy Evans Hunt, executive director of the Todd Webb Archive, and she displays a deep understanding of the photographer’s work. There’s a rhyme and reason behind the sequencing and the variations in the layout. Most of the images are given individual emphasis while working together to create a coherent whole.
To that point, early on, a double-page spread presents a sequence of eight photos, reproduced at equal size, showcasing signs hung in doorways welcoming home returning American GI’s at the end of World War II. Later, towards the middle of the book, a photo of a handwritten note taped to a store window perfectly captures the impersonal, terse, and businesslike side of the city while giving Hemingway’s shortest story a run for its money: “TAILOR IS DEAD. BUT BUSINESS WILL BE CARRIED ON AS USUAL BY SON.” Putting space between these images enables them to be appreciated separately; had she placed them together, it would have dulled their impact and felt too repetitive.
Among Webb’s urban landscapes, one photograph that stands out portrays the chaos of midtown traffic on a rainy, overcast day. It evokes a sensation that will likely be familiar to anyone who’s ever experienced a downpour in Manhattan, and it perfectly captures the ways that New Yorkers behave in such situations.
Webb’s captions are generally limited to the place and year (His rainy day shot is captioned “Sixth Avenue and 48th Street, 1946,” for example), and that’s really all the information that’s necessary.
After seeing the city, Webb traveled extensively. In 1949, he moved to Paris for a few years, and in 1955, under the auspices of a Guggenheim fellowship, he trekked cross country–on foot, no less–taking photos. Todd Webb In Africa, a book of color photos made on assignment for the United Nations in the 1950s, was published by Thames and Hudson earlier this year.
Originally published to coincide with a retrospective exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York (the same museum where Webb had his first solo show), I See A City is a book for those interested in New York City’s history as well as street photography. It should hold a special appeal for those who harbor a sense of nostalgia for that particular time. And it’s for those who have yet to add Todd Webb to the pantheon of great American photographers.
I See A City: Todd Webb’s New York by Todd Webb. Essays by Sean Corcoran and Daniel Okrent. Thames and Hudson, 2021. 176 pages. Hardcover.
Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.
Photography is front-and-center in Morris Engel’s recently restored, previously unreleased, and somewhat abstruse 1968 feature I Need a Ride to California. The film, which centers around the East Village counterculture scene, is a departure of sorts from the trilogy of movies he made in the 1950s. Nevertheless, Engel’s filmmaking approach remains largely consistent with his earlier body of work. Ultimately, it’s a footnote rather than a major addition to the canon, but while the whole may not be more than the sum of its parts, a few of those parts are revelatory.
The film begins with the main character, a free-spirited young bohemian (Lilly Shell, playing a fictionalized version of herself), stonily explaining the premise of the film to several friends: “It’s about a girl who comes to live in the East Village, just like the way I have…and she goes through all these different scenes that I’ve gone through,” she tells them. Her somewhat rambling explanation serves as both a preamble and a manifesto, alternately explaining and advocating for Engel’s neorealist, quasi-documentary filmmaking approach. True to Lilly’s word, the purposefully unstructured narrative closely hews to the way life naturally unfolds, as she meanders through a handful of relationships and life events. At times, it veers close to stream-of-consciousness storytelling.
There are cameras present in practically every shot. Lilly spends the bulk of her days wandering around Manhattan with a 35mm Pentax slung around her shoulder. She is herself an observer of life as it unfolds and a street photographer who often focuses her lens on children playing. (This is a Morris Engel joint, after all.) Additionally, one of her boyfriends, a handsome Black man named Rod (played by Rod Perry), works as a professional photographer.
Engel’s love of photography shines brightest during an extended dialogue-free montage, as Lilly and her friends explore Manhattan. People stop to photograph the coterie of young people in hip fashions. Lilly, in turn, photographs the city, and Engel focuses almost as much on the act of photographing as he does on the characters themselves.
These young bohemians are as wide eyed, innocent, and childlike wandering around Manhattan as Joey was wandering around Coney Island in The Little Fugitive. For the most part, Engel presents an idealized and sanitized portrayal of the counterculture. Although he belongs to an earlier generation, it’s clear that, as a politically progressive artist, he empathizes with and admires the 1960s counterculture.
Engel’s tender portrayal of Lilly and Rod’s barrier-breaking interracial love affair becomes the heart and soul of the film, and the movie is never sweeter than when exploring their relationship. (Perry is especially magnetic in his supporting role.) These characters communicate a great deal implicitly while staying true to the ways people actually interact and avoiding the pitfall of overly literal and heavy-handed dialogue exchanges.
As in Engel’s earlier films, the cinematography (co-credited to Max Glenn) takes its cue from still photography to excellent effect. One of the strongest elements is the visual aesthetic—all the more impressive considering it marked Engel’s first foray into color filmmaking. There are moments when the movie resembles a magazine spread on the counterculture that suddenly sprang to life.
The candid and evocative moments captured in a number of cut-away shots, such as the two below, are much more reminiscent of street photography than cinematography. These shots have little to do with our main characters (although at times, they obliquely or analogously reflect their lives and interests) and everything to do with the world they inhabit.
As a viewer, it’s a pleasure to immerse oneself in the worlds that Engel portrays in his films. His daydream vision of the East Village is just as enticing as Coney Island was in The Little Fugitive.
However, Lilly is self-admittedly naïve to the ways of the big city, and as a result, the last half hour takes an unpleasant turn. She begins making questionable decisions and encounters the flip side of her seemingly idyllic lifestyle. In the process, she discovers that other people don’t often live up to your expectations, share your values, or even play by the same set of rules.
Towards the end, an overly-literal “flower power” montage of a barefoot Lilly handing out flowers to her non-hip East Village neighbors provides the setup for a shocking climax. The ending sneaks up on the viewer and shatters the pleasant spell that the film has cast, puncturing Lilly’s rose-tinted idealism—and the audience’s by extension. It’s raw, controversial, and effective.
Fortunately, Engel lets the final moments play out without interruption. Earlier, at different points, Engel chose to insert shots of the small film crew, and of Lilly herself watching the daily rushes, calling attention to the conditions under which those scenes were created. There’s a seed of a great idea in observing Lilly as she observes herself reenacting events from her life. However, Engel’s attempts at metatextuality don’t quite function as intended. Instead, he winds up dissipating the scenes’ emotional impact and undercutting his actors’ performances. Nevertheless, such instances of self-reflexivity, along with the film’s experimental narrative structure, help make I Need a Ride… a significant example of early postmodern cinema.
After years of collecting dust, Engel’s long-lost film was restored by MoMA, and it had its debut screening at the museum in 2019. It has just been released as part of a DVD box set via Kino Lorber, and it’s available to stream on Kino Now.
I Need A Ride To California(directed by Morris Engel). 35mm film (color), 83 min., 1968.
Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.
“I’ve always felt that to be a good movie maker, you should do still photography first. And I’ve always felt that to be a good still photographer, you should do movies first. Now, of course, the question is which to do first—I don’t think it matters too much, but in the history of photography, there haven’t been many people that have done both.”–Morris Engel
At the start of the 1950s, husband-and-wife team Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin made an independent feature film called The Little Fugitive for $30,000, shooting clandestinely among the crowds in Coney Island with a small, custom-built portable 35mm film camera.
Their unassuming and charming debut as filmmakers went on to have an unexpected and considerable influence on the film world. It directly inspired the 1956 French classic The Red Balloon as well as François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), and was a major influence on John Cassavetes as well.
The bare-bones plot is easily summarized: A seven-year-old boy named Joey is tricked by his older brother Lennie into running away from home. Joey hops on a subway train and takes it to the last stop on the line, which happens to be Coney Island. When he doesn’t come back, his older brother Lennie desperately tries to track him down before their mother finds out. But for most of its runtime, the film follows Joey around as he enjoys everything that the Nickel Empire has to offer—the games, the rides, the food, and the beach.
Of course, the setup is basically an excuse for the filmmakers to send Joey off on a day’s adventure in Coney Island. Yet, the opening moments also give the viewer a glimpse into the working-class Brooklyn neighborhood that Joey comes from—a world that wasn’t really depicted in American cinema at that time. It’s a world of concrete and bricks, empty side streets and vacant lots littered with broken glass bottles. The two brothers are being raised by a single mother who is struggling to provide for her family as best as she can, and the family’s situation is portrayed honestly and empathetically.
At the same time, the opening also offers an unvarnished and decidedly unsentimental look at the casually cruel ways that kids often interact, as Lennie and his friends pick on Joey. All of this occurs in the first 15 minutes of the film, via an effectively spare, no-frills approach to storytelling.
The film remains grounded in reality even as Joey lives out a dream scenario in Coney Island. Much of the dramatic action is rooted in ordinary moments, such as when the script calls for Joey to lose at a boardwalk game or spill a cup of water. It’s a reminder of—and a reflection on—how in real life, and especially for children, the significance of such seemingly inconsequential events can be greatly magnified.
During the making of the film, Engel often allowed scenes to play out naturally in front of the camera, rather than constructing them in advance via storyboarding, blocking, and other such methods. Engel gave minimal direction to Richie Andrusco, the young boy who played Joey, encouraging him tohave fun and be himself during the early Coney Island sequences.
As a photographer, Engel had traversed the beaches and boardwalks himself many times, taking some of his most well-known images there.
Born in Brooklyn, Engel was a street photographer and photojournalist specializing in photo essays, a number of which focused on the lives of families and children. A member of the Photo League, he had been mentored by Aaron Siskind and Paul Strand, among others. He began to branch out into film after assisting Strand on the documentary Native Land.
Following his experience shooting segments for Strand’s film, Morris decided to ditch the heavy tripod, pare down the equipment to the bare essentials, and find the closest possible equivalent to the unobtrusive approach that he used for street photography. He and a friend designed a small, portable 35mm motion picture camera that enabled him to move around while at the same time remaining inconspicuous. (They chose 35mm over 16mm for the picture quality.)
Handheld and strapped against his chest with a neck support for added stability, the camera gave Engel the ability to be almost as mobile as his lead actor. That element is noticeably at workwhen Joey wades through the throngs of people on the beach, none of whom were extras and all of whom were probably unaware a movie was being made to begin with. The camera also enabled Engel to be more creative and spontaneous while shooting, whether standing inside a batting cage or capturing a POV shot from the legendary Parachute Jump ride.
Engel and Orkin took their cues not only from street photography but also from the Italian neorealist films of the 1940s. (I personally believe that neorealism is the nearest cinematic equivalent to street photography, but I’ll save that argument for another time.)
Ruth Orkin learned to edit movies while working on The Little Fugitive, andthe way she assembled and sequenced the somewhat unconventional footage is a major reason why the movie succeeds. Orkin was also an established photojournalist and street photographer, best known for her iconic photograph “American Girl In Italy.” She had grown up in Hollywood and was initially interested in pursuing a filmmaking career before gravitating to still photography. After moving to New York, she met Engel through the Photo League and they officially tied the knot while in post-production on the film.
The Oscar-nominated screenplay is largely the contribution of Raymond Abrashkin (working under the name Ray Ashley), also credited as co-producer and co-director. Abrashkin was a writer and editor of children’s fiction whom Engel had befriended while they were both working at Ralph Ingersoll’s progressive newspaper PM.
Engel and Orkin’s equally charming if less influential follow-up, Lovers and Lollipops (1956), utilizes the same filmmaking techniques, albeit in a more polished and professional way. It tells a more complex and nuanced story as well, focusing on a young girl’s conflicted feelings about her widowed single mother getting engaged. This time around, the main characters travel to a variety of New York destinations, including MoMA, the Statue of Liberty, and Rye Playland (subbing in nicely for Coney Island). As in The Little Fugitive, the filmmakers employ a street photography approach at these locales, but Lovers corresponds more closely to the photo essays that Engel was producing in the 1940s which quietly observed the lives of families and children, mostly in domestic spaces.
A film critic for the New York Times referred to Lovers and Lollipops as a “picture film,” clarifying that Engel and Orkin “use their actors almost as models for individual photographs, as it were, which are put together with very little of the usual cinema punctuation to tell a ‘picture story,’ much as it would be done with a series of still photographs in a picture magazine.” This insight applies equally to The Little Fugitive, and I couldn’t have phrased it better.
Both of these films have been restored by MoMA and reissued by Kino Lorber as a DVD box set, along with their third feature, Weddings and Babies (1960), which rounds out the trilogy of features they made together over the course of a decade. Kino Lorber has also included their short films and documentaries as well as Engel’s previously unreleased 1968 feature I Need a Ride to California, which is centered around the Greenwich Village counterculture scene. I’ll take a look at that later work for the next installment of this series.
The Little Fugitive (directed by Morris Engel & Ruth Orkin). 35mm film (black and white), 80 min., 1953.
Highlighting photography exhibits and photo-related happening in the Philadelphia area.
The inaugural 20/20 Photo Festival is happening throughout September here in Philadelphia, featuring events, exhibits, workshops, artist talks, a book fair at Cherry Street Pier, and more. The festival is billed as a monthlong, citywide celebration of photography, with the bulk of its core programming taking place the week of September 22. The festival is organized around the theme “history informs the contemporary.”
One satellite show worth noting is New Sicilian Topographics at Art on the Avenue Gallery. Organized by Blaise Tobia, a Philadelphia-based photographer whose work will also be on display, the show takes its cue from the landmark 1975 photo exhibit New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. Collectively, the three participating photographers take a critical look at suburban sprawl and encroaching development in Sicily, via color images rooted in a firm sense of place. They reveal an ancient place on the cusp of irrevocable transformation, often via cleverly-composed juxtapositions. The opening reception takes place on September 25, and a gallery walkthrough is scheduled for September 26.
Opening September 1 at Gravy Studio, Michael Froio’s solo show From the Main Line is a visual survey of the landscapes altered by the historic Pennsylvania Railroad Corridor, which dates back to the mid-19th Century. His large format black-and-white photos capture vistas at once familiar and alien, and reveal a keen eye for region-specific details. It’s one of the core exhibits of the festival, and it complements New Sicilian Topographies nicely.
A beautifully printed, densely informative catalog that accompanies the current MoMA exhibit (on view through September), Fotoclubismo focuses on the contributions of a mid-20th Century amateur photography club in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Largely unknown outside of Brazil, the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante (FCCB) was comprised mostly of white-collar professionals, both men and women, who produced bold and innovative photographic works.
Organized by Sarah Meister, MoMA’s former curator of photography, the book and exhibit illuminate the contributions of the FCCB while challenging the ways that amateur status is viewed as a liability in the art world. In her opening essay, “Excelente, Bom, Sofrivel, Pobre: Judging Postwar Photography in Brazil,” Meister argues, “Their photographs attest to the seriousness and skill with which they approached the medium; their amateur status figures prominently among the reasons why this chapter of photographic history has been largely overlooked outside Brazil.”
This neglect is unfortunate, since the Bandeirantes created dynamic, unconventional, and powerful images. This was by no means an accidental development. The club’s members prized innovation, valued originality, and adapted a range of approaches with an emphasis on developing one’s personal vision. They fostered what Meister terms a “culture of criticality,” utilizing in-depth, constructive critiques to help elevate their work collectively and prevent “the complacency that characterized so many of their amateur peers.” This was in line with the club’s monthly contests, rankings, portfolio reviews, discussions, and seminars—and a distinguishing feature from most other photo clubs.
In many ways, the club is comparable to New York’s vaunted Photo League, which had been founded a decade earlier. However, the Photo League concerned itself with documenting the social issues impacting New York City, while the less politically-minded Bandeirantes favored more avant-garde, abstract, and experimental work. They embraced the potential for Modernist compositions that Sao Paolo’s industrial transformation offered, rather than photographing, with a social conscience, the impacts of those transformations.
As a result, their striking and dramatic works place a strong emphasis on form, texture, and technique. When people happen to be present in a shot, they are often rendered in silhouette or shown with their back to the camera—or both. The selection of photos in the book (expertly curated by Meister) reveal that the practitioners were finely attuned to the strengths of black and white photography. There is an impressively diverse array of images on display, still Fotoclubismois an apt title, since this genuinely feels like a collective body of work.
The 140 tritone plates are divided into six sections. Each section explores two interconnected themes and spotlights an individual photographer while segueing from one theme to the next. The themes are inspired by the monthly photography contests in the club’s highly collectible monthly publication, the Boletim, and approximately half of the photos are from MoMA’s collection.
The sequencing is a major strength of the book. The sections are arranged like jazz compositions, offering variations on themes and finding cohesion in the process. There is rhythm and harmony, spontaneity and repetition.
Case in point: The first section opens with a collection of architectural photos. Lyrical photographic compositions showcase lines and curves, and play with light and shadow. Architecture seamlessly transitions to the early work of Jose Yalenti, a civil engineer and co-founder of the club. His fragmentary, geometric, and pointillism-influenced compositions, in turn, lead into the theme “Abstractions from Nature.”
The next chapter, “Solitude/Shadows,” highlights the club’s first female member, Gertrudes Altschul, whose 1953 photograph “Filigree” adorns the book’s cover. That striking image emphasizes the intricate veins of a leaf while imbuing it with an artificial sheen. It was selected for the cover partly because it illustrates an instance of an amateur’s day job overlapping with her photographic interests–Altschul had a small business designing handmade ornamental flowers. Born into a Jewish family, she had emigrated from Nazi-occupied Europe, as had Thomaz Farkas, a prominent founding member who at 14 years old was the youngest photographer in the FCCB when he joined. Meister alludes to their Jewishness in her opening essay without going into any depth, but it would have been interesting to explore, in greater detail, how this part of their shared history influenced their work.
Farkas’s body of work is particularly strong. His images tend to be visually playful and imbued with a humanistic quality. There is an intellectual complexity to them. I found myself returning to his photos as I looked through the book, and discovering something new each time.
Far from purists, FCCB photographers often cropped their work—sometimes radically so—and dabbled in the types of alternative processes familiar to most Beginning Darkroom students: solarization, photograms, printing from multiple negatives, and negative printing (a two-step process that involved first making a positive print and then contact-printing the positive in order to reverse it back to a negative image). Although those works may come across as antiquated and, well, amateurish at first glance, they nevertheless speak to the spirit of experimentation that the club had at that time.
Fotoclubismodeepens our understanding of 20th Century photographic history, and it will likely lead towards a greater appreciation of both amateur photography and Brazilian photography. MoMA’s bold decision to showcase the work of an amateur photography club should resonate in a positive way among galleries and museums and lead to more opportunities for works created by “non-professionals” to be discovered and rediscovered. It can’t completely overturn the biases towards amateurs in the art world, but it’s a huge step forward.
Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography and the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante, 1946–1964 by Sarah Hermanson Meister. The Museum of Modern Art, 2021. 184 pages. Hardcover.
Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.
In the Street is a sensitively observed slice-of-life portrait of Spanish Harlem shot in 1948 and released in the early 1950s. It’s a non-narrative film that manages to tell a compelling story nevertheless, immersing viewers into the world onscreen. It’s visually innovative and mesmerizing to watch.
Acclaimed street photographer (and Walker Evans protégé) Helen Levitt made the film in collaboration with her sister-in-law, painter Janice Loeb, and author James Agee, who wrote the text for Now Let Us Praise Famous Men. All three took turns handling the silent portable 16mm film camera, Levitt edited the footage, and Agee wrote the opening text. It’s difficult to parse out exactly who filmed what, but this really feels like Levitt’s vision overall, in large part because it’s of a piece with her photographic body of work: decisive-moment street photography mainly preoccupied with the lives of children.
In the film, kids play, laugh, and fight in the street. They mug shamelessly for the camera, cool off in the spray of a hydrant on a hot afternoon, and dress up for Halloween in simple homemade costumes. This is a child’s-eye view of their world, filmed with a social conscience, empathetic without being overly sentimental.
Agee’s prologue begins by stating, “The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theater and a battleground.” The “theater” becomes almost too literal during a sequence where children dance in an alley. The battlefield does too, at one point. The streets and sidewalks, which double as the kids’ playground, practically transform into a war zone during a particularly chaotic free-for-all. (The rough-around-the-edges nature of children playing in the street is a theme that emerges in Levitt’s still photography as well.) Kids chase each other, hit each other with things, and run around with cardboard boxes on their heads. It’s rowdy, violent, anarchistic, and results in tears more than once.
In the midst of all this is Levitt’s camera. They trust the filmmakers enough to let them into their world–and at one point are very clearly avoiding hitting the camera as they attack one another. For the most part, the adults in the neighborhood relegate themselves to the background of this scene. Some seem oblivious while others stay well out of the kids’ way.
Like the previous entry in this series, In the Street embraces the language of street photography while mostly disregarding cinematic conventions. The filmmakers capture the everyday dramas unfolding in the street, and their loose, informal camera work results in dynamic and spontaneous compositions.
In the Street has been digitally restored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is being presented as part of their From The Vaults series, which highlights rarely-seen films from the museum’s archive. The film can be viewed on the Met’s website as well as on YouTube and Instagram.
The Met has added a new musical accompaniment composed and performed by Ben Model, who astutely sums up the silent film as “an exhibition of moving images” in his video introduction. Originally, Levitt hired MoMA’s longtime resident silent film accompanist Arthur Kleiner to record a piano score after she finished editing the film. Sync sound hadn’t been developed yet for portable 16mm cameras, so including the actual sounds of the street would have been an incredibly complicated task.
It’s debatable as to whether Model’s score improves on Kleiner’s original. They’re both quite beautiful. However, to my ears, they also seem to be superfluous nods to the perceived demands of the viewer. Watching the film with the sound muted resulted in a more authentic and immersive experience for me, and it enabled my mind to reconstruct the approximate sounds as the images rolled past.
Worth noting: Levitt, Agee, and Loeb collaborated on other projects as well. Around the same time, they penned the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for Sidney Meyers’s socially concerned 1948 docudrama The Quiet One. Agee also wrote the text for Levitt’s 1965 monograph A Way of Seeing: Photographs of New York.
In the Street (directed by Helen Levitt, James Agee & Janice Loeb). 16mm film (black and white, silent), 17 min., 1948.
In her collected writings on photography, New Yorker staff writer Janet Malcolm accomplishes what many critics set out to do but few achieve. She illuminates much that is true about the medium in a unique, eloquent voice that is piercingly intelligent and bluntly honest.
Although this collection was originally published forty years ago, the passage of time has not lessened its impact and relevancy. These pieces were originally published in The New Yorker, along with The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, and they are presented here in chronological order. (The expanded edition ranges from 1975 to 1996.) There are 16 essays total—11 in the original, plus 5 for the expanded edition. Most start out as reviews of specific books or exhibits, using those as jumping-off points to examine larger questions.
One of the pleasures of the book is seeing her ideas and views develop and evolve over the course of the book. Each question she asks leads her to another deeper, more complex question. (“Questions are what matter, of course,” Malcolm writes.) Recurring themes include the complex and somewhat symbiotic relationship of painting to photography, the fundamental nature of photography and its ability to capture “truth,” issues of form and content within the context of photography, and the struggle to situate photography within the arts.
Malcolm expresses little interest in the politics of photography. She doesn’t traffic in holier-than-thou writerly critiques of photographic practices. Nor does she rhapsodize about the power of photography to bear witness or bring about social change. She’s much more interested in exploring the connections between Abstract Expressionism and Harry Callahan’s formal innovations, Jackson Pollack’s Action Painting technique and the incessant snapping of Garry Winogrand’s Leica, early pictorialism and Diane Arbus’s portraits. Malcolm is a strong proponent of the argument, popular in New York art critic circles at the time, that innovations in painting preceded and influenced innovations in photography. That point of view is very much up for debate, but she makes her case convincingly.
Malcolm also wades into the early debates surrounding the use of color in fine art photography via William Eggleston and ruminates on the elegant cruelty of Richard Avedon’s portraits. She was one of the first critics to connect the dots between Walker Evans’s work and Robert Frank’s and to truly elucidate Evans’s impact on Frank.
The influence of MoMA’s legendary photography curator John Szarkowski is present throughout. The title essay directly addresses Szarkowski’s classic book The Photographer’s Eye, which inspires Malcolm to reexamine some of her beliefs about photography. Looking at The Photographer’s Eye, Malcolm writes, “Photography went Modernist not…when it began to imitate modern abstract art but when it began to study snapshots.” It is here that Malcolm starts to view the camera as a democratizing instrument, and she asserts that attempts to re-establish the dividing line between the refined artist and the untrained amateur (e.g., by segueing into alternative processes and camera-less methods) only move those practitioners further away from the genuine nature of photography.
The last two essays, posthumous considerations of Diane Arbus and E.J. Bellocq respectively, continue Malcolm’s own evolution as a writer towards in-depth journalistic profiles. The former is an excellent consideration of Arbus’s work that uses quotes from her writings to give insight into the images (the how and why behind their creation). The latter involves a posthumous investigation of the enigmatic Bellocq, with input from Szarkowski, Lee Friedlander, and former New Orleans Museum of Art curator Steven Maklansky.
Malcolm still writes for The New Yorker on a variety of topics. She contributed an intelligent and in-depth profile of Thomas Struth in 2011 that goes deeper than most full-length biographies in addressing fundamental questions around the creative process of an artist. The essay was reprinted in her 2013 collection, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, which is well worth seeking out as well.
Art criticism is much more likely to be read by academics, curators, aficionados, and collectors than artists, but that does a disservice to Malcolm’s work. Diana & Nikon holds relevancy for photographers–moreso than most criticism, in my opinion–and I believe that it is beneficial for photographers to familiarize themselves with essential works of criticism, even if their ideas only indirectly manifest themselves in one’s work. Even so, in these pages, Malcolm herself asserts that those benefits are limited, since so much of photography, in her view, depends upon being present in the moment, placing oneself in the right place at the right time, capturing the right expression—and ultimately, resigning yourself to technology and chance.
Diana & Nikon:Essays on Photography (Expanded Edition) by Janet Malcolm. Aperture, 1997. 224 pages. Hardcover.
A living legend and an innovator in several different photography genres, including abstract, street, and fashion, William Klein also boasts a reputation as an innovative and prolific filmmaker. True to form, he tried his hand at a number of film genres, including experimental avant-garde works, documentaries, and features. Gare de Lyon, one of his earliest efforts, is much more modest in ambition and scale than his later films. It’s a quick sketch made by a brilliant autodidact who is just beginning to test the limits of the medium—and a relatively simple concept executed extremely well. Within a brief time frame (approximately 12 minutes), Klein captures a day in the life of the famous Paris train station from which the film takes its name.