Under the Influence

Under the Influence of John Gutmann

Introduction

A student, at any age and at any stage, treads a well-worn path. I consider myself a student and I’m on a path. I research and study street photography greats for equal parts advancement in my own development as a photographer and for just pleasure. The path of research, as I’ve said before, is well-worn but with reason. The names link together, one great leading to the next, making the path easy to follow. The names Cartier-Bresson, Frank, Winogrand, Doisneau… they all are markers on the path. But sometimes, the path becomes too familiar. You see familiar sights. The same images pop up again on the mostly digital and sometimes hardbound trail I take. Then something, or in this case, someone different catches your eye and you must detour. Hours pass and you realize that the neck of the woods you’ve stumbled into isn’t that far off the path, it’s just been neglected. This particular neck of the woods I thrashed my way into belongs to John Gutmann.

Gutmann(1905-1998) was, in my humble opinion, a true pioneer in American street photography and his story is fascinating. Born in Germany, Gutmann studied art in Berlin with the great Expressionist painter, Otto Mueller. He then became an art teacher. As the Nazi regime rose to power he was prohibited from practicing art. Being Jewish, he was also forbidden from teaching, He devised a plan to escape Germany. The plan was brilliant… buy a camera.

Under the Influence of Bruce Gilden

Introduction

Bruce Gilden. In the circles we run in, the very mention of his name seems to part the masses like the Red Sea. There doesn’t appear to be anyone on the fence. Love him or hate him, that’s it. But the opinions on him always seem to go back to the way he works. Once one watches a video of him in action, an opinion is immediately formed. More on that later. Regardless of how he operates, there’s one thing that can’t be denied… he’s an amazing talent. His images back it up and they command respect.

Gilden(born 1946), has been with Magnum photos since 1998. Before I continue, let me say that by being a member of Magnum does not mean they are the photographic equivalent of a “chosen one”. But I’ll be honest, the name Magnum carries a lot of weight for good reason. Almost much everything I’ve seen from Magnum shooters is pretty damn stellar. Ok, let’s carry on.

Gilden is known globally as a street photographer and, from what I’ve read, he proudly considers himself one. He’s been walking the streets of his hometown, New York City, for over twenty years and bringing to us what most folk consider “hardcore” street photography. Why is it hardcore? Simply put, Gilden gets in people’s faces. And he’s still doing it to this day. “The older I get, the closer I get.”

Bruce Gilden doesn’t sneak candid shots. He pounces into the subject’s personal space with his camera and handheld flash and fires. Watch the available YouTube videos and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. There’s no stealth mode. No hiding. No being clever or coy. Just a full-frontal attack. This is how Gilden operates and what has forged his style.

Under the Influence of Lee Friedlander

Introduction

Perhaps the greatest thing when looking at the masters of Street Photography, besides the work itself, is what I call the “chain”. After only being a student of street for a year, each master discovered is new and fresh to me. The research of that master then begets research into another. Whether that next master is an influence of, an influence on our a contemporary of… each great is a link in the “chain” of discovery. No one great is the end all. Each is a stepping stone to another.

I’ve come across Lee Friedlander’s name numerous times in my journey, but never took the step  in his direction. Why? Ignorance, really. His name was always referenced, especially when digging into Winogrand, Meyerowitz and Arbus, but it wasn’t as “talked about” as the other big names in street. Dare I say not as revered? Granted, Friedlander is still living, and his name is not hallowed. Do a search of Friedlander and you’ll understand what I mean. Critics and “experts” praise him, but his name doesn’t seem to have the marquee power of Cartier-Bresson, Parr, Winogrand, Arbus, etc. Why? I don’t know. But, after diving into his work, I can tell you that it’s a crime that it does not.

Lee Friedlander (born 1934) is about to turn 80 and his body of work is simply massive. Friedlander moved to New York in 1956 and made a living photographing jazz musicians for record covers. After that he freelanced for magazines like Sports Illustrated, Esquire and Art In America. In 1967, he was featured in the monumental New Documents exhibition at the Museum Of Modern Art along with Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. In New York he kept company with other greats like Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Richard Avedon. In the 1960’s, Friedlander’s name was synonymous with Street Photography. It’s been written that he showed us the true “social landscape” of that time.

Introduction

Art, like life, can be way too serious. Street Photography is no exception. Personally, I’ve found myself too wrapped up in trying to capture the “decisive moment”. Or, maybe worse yet, pressuring myself to seek out that compelling subject or composition. This can be a dead-end road for any street shooter. It can be lost on us that life and our practice of street photography, is also really a comedy of errors. Life is lived through lessons we’ve taught and, hopefully, learned from mistakes we’ve made. Street Photography is much, if not exactly, the same. But life is not just a comedy of errors, it’s also just a comedy. We, as humans, are playful creatures. We joke, we laugh, we kid around. We do silly things. We wear silly clothes. And if you think about being a Street Photographer, well you also realize it really is a fool’s folly. Think hard about that! Maybe war photography could be more unpredictable and/or dangerous, but street photographers are the foot soldiers on our everyday streets. A bold analogy that can be debated, for sure,  but we are the “boots on the ground” documenting, capturing everyday life. Capturing and documenting life… truly a fool’s folly and an incredibly tall order! And some brave Street Hunters may choose to put themselves in “hairy”situations in order to get a stark, grim or chilling shot. But most of us walk on well-paved streets. Walked on and paved by people like us… common folk. Being human, being playful. For this week’s Under The Influence, I’ll be taking a look at the master of being playful and one of the early masters of Street Photography , Robert Doisneau. Come along, let’s lighten up a little.

Under the Influence of Joel Meyerowitz

Introduction

New York City. Beloved, yet despised, it is a, if not the, cultural Mecca. That being said, it is obviously a street photographer’s utopia. The vast diversity of people and cultures, the architecture, the styles, the atmosphere, the FEEL. There is nowhere else like it in the world. I Now imagine the Big Apple in the 1960s. An incredible decade of change and cultural turbulence. And imagine seeing icons like Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Ted Papageorge walking the city and joining their skills. And alongside them is this week’s subject, Joel Meyerowitz. Since I’ve touched on both Winogrand and Arbus in the previous two features, let’s stay in a New York State Of Mind. Let’s go under the influence of Joel Meyerowitz.

Meyerowitz, 76, has shot street in his hometown of New York for over 50 years. Five decades of shooting in the “greatest city in the world”. That’s dedication. Meyerowitz was driven to photography by Robert Frank in 1962 when working as an art director at a studio shoot that Frank was doing. Frank’s movement had tremendous impact. He dove into street photography shortly thereafter and later began hunting in the streets with Winogrand. Meyerowitz shook up the street photography scene by starting to shoot in color. This choice went on to impact other titans like William Eggleston and Martin Parr. Meyerowitz was a Guggenheim Fellow twice, received National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and taught at the prestigious Cooper Union. However, he didn’t really receive great notoriety until his book, Aftermath: World Trade Center, was published in 2006. The gripping work documents the cleanup at Ground Zero of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He was the only photographer granted unimpeded access to Ground Zero. Meyerowitz is still actively photographing to this day.

Introduction

Let this quote sink in for a minute:

“I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do — that was one of my favorite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse.”

That quote is from Diane Arbus, and I think it nails what the thrill of street photography is all about squarely on the head. Shooting street is a rush, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, a naughty one at that. Pushing creepy, voyeuristic analogies aside, the nature of street photography could be considered slightly criminal. We are stealing from our subjects when we work candidly. We’re stealing moments, expressions, emotions, positions and movements. But, it is not with malicious intent. At least for me it isn’t. I “steal” to celebrate or to document.

However, detractors can legitimately argue against that defense. The anti-street folks can claim it’s an invasion of privacy, but I know the real deal and that’s what counts. I can even say, with a slightly straight face, that a street photographer can be viewed as a type of Robin Hood, stealing from the world that is rich in images and presenting them to the poor, unfortunate eyes that don’t see what we do. Lame excuse to justify my need to satisfy my street addiction? Perhaps. But, it’s true. Or maybe I’ve just told myself that enough that I believe it’s true! Never trust a junkie.

Introduction

Although it’s been documented that Garry Winogrand was not a fan of the label “street photographer”, there is absolutely no doubt he was a master. His body of work speaks to this and will stand as a testament to it for all time. Winogrand considered himself simply a “photographer”. He didn’t attach any other adjective to the noun. But, and probably much to his dismay, we have to consider him one of the greatest street photographers of all time. And it can also be argued that he is the greatest ever. But photography or street photography is not a competition. It’s not about how many fantastic photos you produce, or how many exhibitions you have our how many books you publish. Photography, at it’s core is personal. It feeds a hunger to create. To document. To share. However, that being said, Winogrand not only satisfied his creative drive, but he did it in great volume and with great artistic vision and skill. The man was prolific and incredibly talented.

Introduction

For this this third installment of Under The Influence, I’m taking a hack at one of the most polarizing active photographers today… Martin Parr.

Parr is best described as a documentary photographer. His big splash was made in 1986 with the publication of The Last Resort, a project spotlighting British middle class vacationers at the New Brighton seaside resort. The Last Resort had a massive impact in the photography world, particularly the documentary genre, which I consider street photography to be an offspring of. The book made waves because of it’s subject matter. Opinions divided on whether it celebrated or ridiculed the common man. People were not depicted in the most flattering light. The backgrounds were not always flattering either, with rubbish about. But Parr’s work also made waves with his decision to use colour film for the project.

Parr had worked in black and white previously,having a few books published, but The Last Resort marked his transition into colour, as he drew inspiration from greats like Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. And what colour it was. Loud, garish, lurid all are terms that could be used to describe the colour used in his images. With his use of flash, coupled with cheap film, the colours were pushed to over-the-top levels of saturation. To me, the shots were made even more exploitive because of this.

Under the Influence of Henri Cartier Bresson

Introduction

For the second installment of Under The Influence, I reluctantly choose Henri Cartier-Bresson as my subject. Why reluctantly? Simply put, his influence is far too massive. To single out one thing, one influence (which is the objective) seems nearly impossible.

As photographers and admirers of street photography, we all know his name and the monumental impact of his work. Calling Henri Cartier-Bresson a father of street photography is not a stretch. His images are simply iconic. As a co-founder of Magnum photos, his contribution to the world of photography expanded even more. To read his written work has helped scores to open their “mind’s eye” wide. I simplify his many achievements and contributions only because they’ve been expounded upon thousands, maybe millions of times before. Really, it’s quite safe to say his legacy will never be diminished. He is part of the foundation on which all street photographers tread upon. And, his name will always be referenced as one if the masters of the craft.

Under the Influence of Vivian Maier

Introduction

As photographers, we’ve all been influenced by another photographer’s work. Their images stoked our creative fire. They spoke to us, awakening the very spirit that drives us to do what we do. Somewhere deep within us all, that spirit was buried until our eyes found their treasures. Then we found ourselves compelled. Compelled to pick up a camera for the first time. Compelled to try street photography. Compelled to emulate them. And then, and perhaps most importantly, compelled to create our own style. These titans of their craft gave us the greatest gift an artist can give… inspiration. This series is an homage to these great photographers. Some passed and some who still walk among us. With each artist, I’ll focus on one aspect of their work that has had a deep impact on me. For the first installment, I present to you… Vivian Maier.

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