Monday, May 20, 2013

Kinetic Art: Everybody Street (2013)

from Brooklyn Gang (1959) by Bruce Davidson

“What did August Sander tell his sitters before he took their pictures?” the art critic John Berger asked of the expressive plein-air portraits made by this turn-of-the-century photographer. “And how did he say it so that they all believed him in the same way?” These are the kinds of questions asked and answered in Everybody Street (2013), a documentary made by Cheryl Dunn about street photographers in New York City. Profiling the likes of Bruce Davidson, Joel Meyerowitz, Boogie, Mary Ellen Mark, and the New York Photo League’s Rebecca Lepkoff with her 16 mm video camera, Dunn, a New York street photographer herself, captures the curiosity, spontaneity, and obsessional passion that drive the craft. In showcasing the work and careers of her colleagues and idols, Dunn reveals street photography as both a kinetic art and a romance. The documentary seeks to pay homage to the art and the artists while probing the distinct means by which each photographer invites their shared subject – New York City – to reveal itself anew. 

Filmmaker Cheryl Dunn
While critics and art historians often arrogantly complain that artists can’t talk critically about their own work, this film succeeds in pursuing the emotional and practical experience of artistic production, getting beyond the artist statements you read in books and exhibitions as well as the familiar stump speeches that get adapted in so many interviews. Dunn gives her subjects the chance to express themselves in their own language, and she stages her interviews in artist studios as well as on the streets, attending to both the conceptual and theoretical basis of the work and the physical labor of its production. It’s the embodied experience of taking photographs that her subjects return to in their interviews: Rebecca Lepkoff describes how her feeling for composition was forged by a background in dance, with people around her on the street seeming to move on invisible stages, while Joel Meyerowitz came to photography after a sort of conversion experience watching the way the photographer Robert Frank moved while he worked in dynamic engagement with the street life around him. For those of us who experience photography on the wall of a museum rather than from behind the lens, the physicality of the medium may be invisible, but everything in the film – from the associative style of the editing (by Alison Sherman) and of Dunn’s Louis Faurer-inspired urban cinematography to the glorious, energizing soundtrack provided by the NYC band Endless Boogie – exuberantly conveys the kinetic mode in which these artists work.

Bruce Davidson, perhaps best known for his intimate portraits of street kids called (Brooklyn Gang, 1959) and a two-year project from the late ‘60s in which he photographed the most notoriously dangerous block of Harlem (East 100th Street), is, by my account, one of the greatest living practitioners of the form, and the extensive footage the documentary provides of this master is one of the pleasures of the film. (Although other photographers have documented the New York City subways, Davidson’s Subway (1980) is the definitive work on this subject, and Dunn has the inspiration to ride the subways with him and film him at work there. “I lived like a monk,” he tells her of his early days starting out as a photographer, and there is something almost Jesuitical about him and his devotional, obsessional practice of, as he describes it, waking up in the middle of the night thrilling at the vibration of the subway going by and rising to ride the trains and take pictures until dawn.

“People are glad you’re there to see them because no one’s paying attention,” Davidson says when Dunn asks him how he so deftly penetrates the privacy of his human subjects. His practice of courting his subjects – immersing himself in their lives, as in East 100th Street and sharing his photographs to gain their trust, as he did with the teenagers in Brooklyn Gang, taking care to bring them pictures not only of themselves but of other subjects altogether to expose them to a wider world – is in direct contrast to the gruff, leonine approach of Bruce Gilden, who pounces on his subjects on the street without warning (or asking permission). There’s a great moment in which he snaps a picture of a young woman as they pass each other on the street, and the woman turns on him, furious; you can see them fighting, the woman perhaps asking Gilden to fork over the film, and when he defiantly refuses, she whacks him with her handbag and moves on. The encounter, with the woman’s sudden anger and sense of violation, brings to the surface the inherent eroticism of the medium.

Bushwick, Brooklyn, 2005 by Boogie (from his "Drugs" series)

It’s also an example of the dueling camera effect Dunn’s street footage creates. Often, her camera captures the images that I bet the photographers she’s profiling wish they had instead. But she never seeks to overshadow them. It is, rather, a sort of pas de deux: in her street footage of the Serbian émigré photographer Boogie at work, their two cameras seem playfully to engage with the same subjects. The movie interpolates Dunn’s footage with the photographs Boogie took on their outing, creating the effect of two artists pushing and challenging each other to see and experience more. 

Even in the footage of the artists in their studios, which are stationary and recorded in HD rather than sensual 16 mm film, you never forget you are seeing through the eyes of a photographer: the camera lingers too long on faces, catching those moments when faces relax into their true expressions. There is also a strong historical component to the film and a dearth of images, both by the photographers profiled in the film and the now-deceased twentieth century street photographers who precede them. I saw the film at its premier at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival with a very responsive audience and I could hear people reacting to the images – laughter when a picture was witty, and a sharp intake of breath when it gave astonishment or surprise – and it occurred to me that I’d never heard a group of people enjoy visual art in quite this way, loudly and viscerally and as a collective.

Visual art has the misfortune these days, like poetry, to be perceived as a medium that can only be enjoyed in the spirit of educated, distanced contemplation – as opposed to movies or even novels, which anyone can enjoy. Everybody Street breaks down that divide with a joyful, rowdy spirit, and that seems only right for an art like street photography in which each urban subject – whether skyscrapers, subway graffiti, or street gangs – represents a new frontier of vision, an attempt to make visible what the pace and prejudice of everyday life renders unseen. By taking on the subjects of her subjects, Dunn creates something like a moving portrait of the city through multiple refracted lenses, at once a history and an instance of the craft. It’s a complete pleasure to watch. 

Amanda Shubert is a graduate student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

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