Ever worry about being caught in a tourist’s stray photo? You can lay that fear to rest. What you really have to worry about is street photographers—those seemingly innocuous documentarians roaming your city with Nikons and Leicas, ready to turn your mundanest of moments into a social commentary. Case in point: “Common Ground: New American Street Photography,” now on view at the New Orleans Photo Alliance until March 23.
Curated by Stephen McLaren, “Common Ground” showcases the work of contemporary American street photographers Jack Simon, Bryan Formhals, Chuck Patch, Blake Andrews, and Richard Bram. Armed with his camera of choice, each dives into the everyday goings-on of cities like San Francisco, Eugene, New York, L.A., and New Orleans, keeping an experienced eye out for, say, a pedestrian struggling inside a disposable poncho, or a couple of swimmers unwittingly ruining a picture-perfect beach wedding.
At its simplest, street photography is where the vagaries of time and place coincide. The photographers of “Common Ground” take this happenstance a step further, combining random events with thoughtful composition and precise exposure, all in the space of a moment. Take, for example, Jack Simon’s surreal shot of a window display: two duck sculptures wearing billowing yellow scarves are juxtaposed with a burst of flowers and a vivid blue bottle of Windex, which a gallery employee is hastily reaching in to remove from view. The photo is an explosion of color, made all the better by its human subject’s impromptu inclusion and the fact that the Windex bottle shape evokes a third duck.
In a photograph taken outside of a Berlin boutique, photographer (and this writer’s father) Chuck Patch captures a conversation between two scruffy-chic smokers. The couple’s body language, all tilt and lean and leather-clad, tells a story by itself—and then you see the audience of stonefaced mannequins observing the pair’s conversation. Is the man menacing his companion or flirting with her? The mannequins want to know just as badly as you do.
A black-and-white shot by Blake Andrews sets you smack in the middle of a football game, tucked into the stands behind enthusiastic fans with their hands raised as if in prayer for a field goal. (Andrews explains, “These folks are making an ‘O’ symbol, which is very common among fans at Oregon Ducks football games,” but it’s not something anyone outside of Eugene, Oregon, would ever recognize—so the signal takes on new meaning.)
Two of the fans have their hands up, while the third pair of hands holds a digital camera. It’s as if Andrews is pointing out our ever-growing pathological need to document everything as it happens and immediately imbue it with “retro” nostalgia. What’s more important: the memory, or proving we were there? But at the same time, you can’t forget that Andrews is holding a camera too.
“Things aren’t always what they seem” is a tenet of the most creative and subtle street photographers, and Bryan Formhals’ alarming photograph of a man (is he?) on a woman on a car illustrates this old saw in several ways. The top figure’s posture suggests force, but the couple could be embracing; both faces are hidden by a shock of shiny black hair. He holds a lit cigarette, she the lighter. The photo’s vibrant colors—blue, purple and a dash of red—reflect in the car windshield.
Richard Bram’s photos, lining the back right side of the Photo Alliance, are all color: unusual for Bram, who’s known for his black and white photos. Here, he freezes New York City in the throes of its famous hustle, capturing the distraction and confusion of tourists and the baldfaced resolve of locals. A girl holding a bright, wet snow cone takes center frame in one of Bram’s shots, peering distrustfully at the lens as her windblown companions swig from water bottles. The scene is saturated with sun and color.
In the show’s press release, curator McLaren distills the particular art of street shooting, explaining, “Street photography’s ‘common ground’ is the century-old tradition of using one’s natural inquisitiveness and camera skills to show us new facets of life and reveal poetry in the world around us.” Modern street shooters continue to test the limits of their medium, building on the establishment of street photography as a serious genre by fundamental American street photographers like Garry Winogrand, Elliott Erwitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Lee Friedlander and many others. McLaren, a creative and accomplished street photographer himself, was well-positioned to choose the show’s featured artists. Elevating the everyday, “Common Ground” is anything but common.
Common Ground: New American Street Photography at the New Orleans Photo Alliance. To Mar. 23. See more images from the exhibition at the Photo Alliance website. More from Lianna Patch at The English Maven.