Street photography — and the resultant compositions in which every form and expression is integral, with nothing superfluous — has evolved against many urban backdrops across the world, but few are quite as evocative as those born on the concrete, tarmac and brick of New York City.
The genre spans the globe — from Tokyo-based Daido Moriyama, to Brassaï and Robert Doisneau, the great chroniclers of Paris between the wars, to Don McCullin, whose photographs of London launched his career. Arguably the greatest street photographer of all, Henri Cartier-Bresson, captured urban life in the cities of many continents.
Yet is is surely New York — perhaps because of its incomparable energy and unrivalled diversity — that has given most to this restless art form, and made it the arena of choice for many of the 20th century’s greatest photographers, including Elliot Erwitt (b. 1928), Robert Frank (b. 1924), Ilse Bing (1899-1928), Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), Diane Arbus (1923-1971), Louis Faurer (1916-2001), Helen Levitt (1918-2009), William Klein (b. 1928), Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) and Weegee (1899-1968).
From 16-24 July, Christie’s presents an online auction dedicated to New York City street photography, primarily during and just after the Second World War — offered from two private American collections, with estimates ranging from $3,000 to $8,000. Here we take a look at some of American street photography’s most influential players, whose prints come to auction frequently, and who have remained highly collectible on both the primary and secondary markets.
Walker Evans’ 1938 American Photographs exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the accompanying groundbreaking publication, catapulted him to fame. The exhibition mostly presented images of the American South made for the Resettlement Administration of the Department of Agriculture. The goal was to show how Americans throughout the country were affected by the Great Depression and expose their socio-economic plight.
Soon after this exhibition Evans made a series of New York City subway portraits, discreetly photographing subway riders with a 35 mm camera. These raw images were the artist’s attempt at spontaneous objectivity, which was a quintessentially modern take on photographic portraiture.
James Agee described Helen Levitt’s work as ‘remarkable juxtapositions and moments… reality in its unmasked vigour and grace’
Born in Springfield, Ohio in 1898, Berenice Abbott studied sculpture in Paris and then Berlin. After returning to Paris, she became an assistant at the Man Ray Studio. Arriving in New York some years later, in 1929, she embarked on a body of documentary work that would culminate with a travelling exhibition and publication, Changing New York, an important work that showed the city’s landscape in flux.
Robert Frank’s influential photobook The Americans is the result of the artist’s two consecutive Guggenheim Fellowships (1955 and 1956). Frank’s use of quick snapshots and slanted viewpoints provided a new expressiveness to documentary photography. Building on Evans’ American Photographs, the sophisticated sequencing of images in The Americans is a landmark in the history of documentary photography.
In Helen Levitt’s images of New York, most of which were made during the late 1930s and the 1940s, viewers are presented with familiar characters — often children (see below) — inhabiting her own working-class neighbourhood. Writer James Agee once described Levitt’s work as ‘the ordinary metropolitan soil which breeds these remarkable juxtapositions and moments… reality in its unmasked vigour and grace.’
Philadelphia-born Louis Faurer balanced street photography with a distinguished career in fashion journalism. He was an artist who embraced photography as ‘an act of living’, expressing the cacophony of the city through his images of Times Square, Union Square and other lively neighbourhoods. His empathetic portraits of figures embedded in the urban environment — often revealing a comic sensibility — hint at an interest in the subconscious.
Taught by both Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model, Diane Arbus had an attraction to subjects inhabiting worlds vastly different from her own privileged upbringing. In her 1962 application to the Guggenheim Foundation, her list of projects included ‘children’s games; sideshows; secret photos of steam bathers; photographs at the beach; movie theatre interiors; and female impersonators’. Arbus opened up the field of documentary photography by establishing a remarkable closeness to the subjects whom she encountered, resulting in images of arresting intensity and intimacy.