Capturing the smell of the city in images.
The CONTACT Photography Festival runs from May 1 to May 31. We’ll be profiling selected artists and shows throughout the month.
Bruce Gilden, one of seven photographers whose work is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art as part of the CONTACT Photography Festival, defined street photography this way: “If you can smell the street by looking at a photograph then it’s street photography.”
With that in mind, this exhibition reeks to high heaven.
The festival’s 2012 theme is an exploration of “the social and political issues that shape our experience of publicness.” At MOCCA, from Bill Sullivan’s installation, More Turns, to quirky images in Nine Eyes of Google Street View, everyday life is elevated—or debased, depending on your view—to the status of street theatre.
Spanning six decades, the exhibition brings together some of the greats in the field, among them originators of the genre—and most prominently, Henri Cartier-Bresson. But not just him. As early as the 1930s, Brooklyn-born photographer Helen Levitt was traipsing through East Harlem neighbourhoods, a trusty Leica at the ready, collecting black and white images of children at play. Her prints remain sublime and timeless.
Arthur Fellig, known to the world as Weegee, inhabited a much darker place. Perched in a rented room across the street from a busy New York City police detachment, he spent hours listening in on police communications with a scanner. If a call piqued his interest, he’d race to the crime scene, arriving before authorities could cordon off the area. Besides photos of crime victims and car wrecks, Weegee specialized in photographing the gawkers and curious onlookers who inevitably gather when police tape appears.
There is an invasive quality inherent in street photography—skilled practitioners must rely on a certain degree of subterfuge. Bruce Gilden is so swift in his execution, subjects often remain unaware he has photographed them at all.
From the deceptively simple to the downright grotesque, we see versions of ourselves in these images. These streets are our streets, peopled with strangers we recognize. Yet street photography has an uncanny ability to transcend daily experience. Take Weegee’s 1939 print, Mrs Henrietta Torres and her Daughter Ada watch as Another Daughter and her Son Die in a Fire. Captured on a large 4×5 Speed Graphic camera, the image reveals a mother’s anguish at a moment of unimaginable pain. Cloaked in black, mouth agape, her grief harkens back to Renaissance depictions of Mary witnessing her son’s crucifixion.
Street View transports viewers back to a black and white world of photography where the scent of the street was just as fragrant and repugnant as it is today.