At the Addison Gallery, a look at street photography
ANDOVER — The Addison Gallery of American Art supplied the 72 photographs in "On the Scene: 20th Century Street Photography" from its own very rich holdings. The show runs through July 31.
How rich is the Addison collection? Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Roy DeCarava, Walker Evans, Andreas Feininger, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Helen Levitt, Aaron Siskind (from his early "Harlem Document" days), Andy Warhol, and Garry Winogrand all have work in the show. Some of the images are very familiar: Frank's New Orleans trolley, Arbus's little boy with a toy hand grenade, an Evans subway portrait.
What may be the most striking image — certainly, it's the most ironic — isn't one of the familiar ones. It was also taken by a photographer associated with the dance studio rather than the street. Barbara Morgan's "Le Corbusier in New York," from 1946, shows the architect, who famously abhorred the mess and turmoil of urban granularity, looking upward and frowning. Presumably, he was doing his Ville Radieuse best to avoid having to see the teeming Manhattan untidiness around him.
"On the Scene," bless it (bless its curator, Allison Kemmerer, too), revels in untidiness. There are billboards, cars (of course), crowds, diners, elevated trains, newsstands, oddball characters, pedestrians (of course), skyscrapers, storefronts, surreal juxtapositions, traffic, at least one dog, and a kitten snuggling with a sleeping girl on a fire escape (courtesy of Weegee, of all people).
In fairness, Le Corbusier would likely have had no objections to Ralph Steiner's God's-eye view, looking down from the Brooklyn Bridge, of a solitary cyclist. It contrasts quite spectacularly with the nearly asphalt-level perspective of Lisette Model's "Running Legs, NYC." The Steiner verges on abstraction. Model's tangle of ambulatory appendages is a metaphor for something very different: the human fullness and complexity of urban life.
Like those photographs, most of the images in "On the Scene" were taken in New York. Most but not all: We also get Chicago (thank you, Harry Callahan), New Orleans, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston (Dorchester, to be precise, Eugene Richards's "First Communion"), Paris, and Naucalpan, near Mexico City. Jim Dow took that last photograph, a notably attractive view of a not notably attractive taco stand, in 2004. It's both the only color picture in the show and the most recent. The earliest is Alfred Stieglitz's "The Street: Design for a Poster," from 1903.
Stieglitz's presence is a bit of a surprise. Street photography is generally thought of as something enabled by the smaller cameras and faster film speeds of the interwar years. It's a genre that flourished in the couple of decades after World War II. "On the street" usually doubles as a synonym for "on the fly," with Winogrand — he of the prowling eye and ever-ready index finger — as street photography's foremost practitioner.
Yet the beautifully studied, even monumental compositions of a Stieglitz or Paul Strand fit right in. Grandeur can be as much a part of the urban scene as funkiness and unpredictability. The twin spires of Saint Patrick's Cathedral in the background are as much a part of Strand's 1915 view of New York's Fifth Avenue as the happy happenstance of the hats worn by the three ladies in the center of the picture. Their plumage is so assertive! It's not hard to imagine Winogrand, whose best-known book bears the title "Women Are Beautiful," wishing he'd been there with his camera, too. On the street, birds of a photographic feather flock together.