Depicting the Gritty Streets of New York: These Artists "Consciously Broke Many of the Accepted Rules of Photography, [Yet] Shared a Common Vision and Objective: To Record Their Personal Responses to the Vivid and Often Violent City Surrounding Them."

USA TODAY, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Depicting the Gritty Streets of New York: These Artists "Consciously Broke Many of the Accepted Rules of Photography, [Yet] Shared a Common Vision and Objective: To Record Their Personal Responses to the Vivid and Often Violent City Surrounding Them."


PHOTOGRAPHERS WORKING in New York City in the years between the publication of Walker Evans' American Photographs in 1938 and Robert Frank's The Americans 20 years later profoundly changed the course of American photography. This fertile period in history is celebrated in an exhibition of some 75 images by 20 prominent artists, including key works by Evans and Frank; candid studies of children by Helen Levitt: vibrant and gritty compositions of the streets and street life by Louis Faurer and Ted Croner; evocative and lyrical views of the urban landscape by Roy DeCarava, Saul Leiter, and David Vestal; bold depictions of New York bars and nightclubs by Lisette Model; photographs of joy and alienation at Coney Island by Sid Grossman, Leon Levinstein, and Brace Davidson; and disturbing photographs of New York's latent violence by William Klein and Weegee, among others.

The artists featured were not part of an organized group, although many studied with Alexey Brodovitch, art director of Harper's Bazaar and founder of the Design Laboratory, or Grossman, who taught classes at the Photo League and in his New York apartment. However, this generation of photographers shared a common vision and objective: to record their personal responses to the vivid and often violent city surrounding them.

Encouraged by the teachings of Brodovitch and Grossman, they consciously broke many of the accepted rules of photography--they used available light, for instance, and allowed forms to be blurred, out of focus, and off-kilter--in order to reveal the city's energy and pace, vitality and vulgarity. Unlike their predecessors, their goal was not simply to document the city, but to re-create their experience of it. Organized by photographer, the exhibition highlights the novel techniques favored by these new artists, and their choices of subject matter and composition.

Among the photographs showcased, Evans' subway images, created between 1938-41, are some of the most iconic portraits of the period, and helped usher in a new era in photography. He created the photographs by concealing a 35mm camera under his coat--its lens protruding between his buttons and a shutter release down his sleeve. Relying entirely on chance and intuition, Evans did not raise the camera to his eye to frame the photograph, nor did he adjust the focus or exposure. This stealth allowed him to shoot subway riders without their knowledge, and thus capture them in "naked repose," as Evans noted. The resulting pictures are raw--full of energy and emotion--and marked a dramatic break from the highly composed images that had preceded them.

Levitt studied with Evans in 1938-39. Like him, she used a 35mm camera, but quickly developed her own fluid, graceful style, making tender, often witty photographs of children at play. …

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