Red dress

I Spy—Photography and the Theater of the Street
At Washington’s National Gallery of Art

Red dress

Before cell phones and security cameras invaded our privacy, photographers were capturing images of people who, going about their everyday lives, were unaware that their faces would grace museum walls. A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art brings together the works of six photographers who set up their cameras on New York City streets or in the subways, challenged themselves to work within certain constraints and, in the process, produced iconic street photography.

I Spy is aptly named, a playful reference to a childhood detective game or the TV show that dealt with undercover agents. Both descriptions fit these talented street photographers who focused on the details while remaining out of sight.

Even in the age of Facebook and YouTube, the photos from these street photographers have withstood the test of time. There’s a historical quality to each grouping, pulling together a slice of life in a set time and place. The images are endlessly fascinating. More than one person exhibits a “deer in the headlights” stare, aware of the camera but unable or perhaps unwilling to react.

Street photography is protected under the First Amendment. In 2006, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, one of the photographers included in I Spy, was sued by Ermo Nussenzweig, an Orthodox Jew who objected on religious grounds to diCorcia’s publishing in an artistic exhibition a photograph taken of him without his permission. Nussenzweig lost in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court with Justice Judith J. Gische ruling that the photograph was art not commerce, even though diCorcia had sold copies of the print.

The National Gallery has done a superlative job selecting and arranging the photographs with just enough background information to explain each photographer’s technique without distracting from the work itself.

Walker Evans is the earliest street photographer whose work is displayed in I Spy. In 1938, Evans had a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art that won wide acclaim. Yet, he was not satisfied with that success and sought to test his talents further. He chose a challenging venue—the New York City subway system and came up with strict guidelines for taking his photos. Sitting across from his subjects, his 35mm Contax camera hidden beneath his coat, the lens peeking out between buttons, and a cable release strung down his sleeve, Evans snapped away. Evans photos pique our curiosity. Did that woman with the cold stare know Evans had her in his sights? Did the woman with the black hat and haughty air turn away on purpose? And did subway cars really look like that? Yes, of course they did.

Evans then set up his camera on Main Street and Fairfield Avenue, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, snapping people as they walked by. This time, he did not attempt to conceal his camera, yet most people stared into the lens and continued to walk by. Some look confused, others rushed, still others oblivious that they are being watched.

In 1950, Harry Callahan employed a different method when photographing people on the streets of Chicago. Using a telephoto lens on his 35mm camera, he prefocused to a distance of about four feet and randomly shot women’s faces. This is HD before the invention of HD. The closeup shots are every woman’s nightmare, the camera zooming in on blemishes, wrinkles, mascara smudges, large pores and pimples. Even more disconcerting than the women’s appearances, however, are their expressions—pensive, frustrated, and angry.

Walker took the subway; Robert Frank took the bus. Frank’s method for this 1958 project was in direct contrast to what he had done with The Americans, where he drove more than 10,000 miles around the U.S. shooting 767 rolls of film. With the bus project, he confined himself to shooting scenes from bus windows. With both the bus and the street scene in motion, the results are intriguing. And because the year is 1958, we have a glimpse of what New York City streets and buses looked like four decades ago.

With Bruce Davidson, we are back on the New York subways in 1980, when the city, struggling financially, found its infrastructure crumbling. No where was that deterioration more apparent than in the subways. Graffiti covered cars conveyed a sense of despair and desperation. Crime was rampant, leading to the creation of the vigilante group, The Guardian Angels. Unlike Evans and Frank, Davidson asked subjects for permission to photograph, a courtesy that often resulted in threats of violence. Davidson attempted to produce a balanced portrait of New York’s underground warrens, focusing on lovers, older women riding despite the risks, and younger women in their summer dresses.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads includes 17 closeups of pedestrians made in 2001. He spent a year observing people in Times Square, photographing them close up with a telephoto lens with an intense flash. Against a dark background, the individuals, a postal worker, a teenage girl, and a businessman, are elevated to celebrity status.

In 2001 and 2002, the Swiss photographer Beat Streuli sat in a New York coffee shop and focused his still camera on the entrance to the Astor Place subway stop. His work is presented in two side-by-side projections of still photographs that fade in and out, capturing the pulse of the city.

In Manhattan 09-09, Streuli set up his video camera in various locations around New York. While those being photographed sometimes spy his camera, no one reacts. We have become numb to these intrusions into our lives, cameras capturing our actions, whether for public consumption or private contemplation.

I Spy
Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938-2010
National Gallery of Art

Through August 5, 2012

Bruce Davidson
dye imbibition print,
Michael and Jane Wilson

Walker Evans
Subway Portraits, 1938
gelatin silver print
National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Gift of Kent and Marcia Minichiello

Walker Evans,
Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1941
gelatin silver print
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Promised Gift of Kent and Marcia Minichiello

Robert Frank
From the Bus, New York, 1958
gelatin silver print
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Robert Frank Collection
Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation through Robert and Joyce Menschel

Bruce Davidson,
21 Subway
dye imbibition print
Michael and Jane Wilson

Philip-Lorca diCorcia
Head #23, 2001
chromo- genic print
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York

Add Comment Register

Leave a Reply

Find out why every womanwants to be a woman around town.

Sign up for our Free E-mails and receive news about upcoming events and promotions