Review: Unfamiliar Streets by Katherine A. Bussard

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The term street photography is now widely understood to stand for, as Wikipedia explains, “art photography that features the human condition within public places and does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment.” In 1900, photographer Osborne Yellott described it as the “record of scene or incident which may possess sentiment or merely human interest” (in an article entitled “Street Photography,” published in Photo-Miniature: A Magazine of Photographic Information 2, no. 14, May 1900, pp48ff.; as quoted in Unfamiliar Streets by Katherine A. Bussard).

This is all fine, but one might wonder about all the other photography that happens to be done somewhere in the streets and that does not follow this photographic approach. Given that it is cities that appear to be driving large parts of what we could consider as our culture (sorry, country folks!), looking at photography that uses their streets as a backdrop, maybe even as an integral part of its approach, might tell us quite a bit, in fact possibly more than the genre of street photography itself, which, let’s face it, has become rather stale and exhausted.

This is precisely where Katherine A. Bussard Unfamiliar Streets enters. “I advocate for an analysis of street photographs firmly grounded in the locations of their making. Shifting the conversation to the depicted streets themselves, my analysis addresses the significance of the street as both site and subject.” Bussard writes in the introduction.

Why is this interesting? The names of the four photographers discussed in the book might give us a clue: Richard Avedon, Charles Moore, Martha Rosler, Philip-Lorca diCorcia. It would seem that these artists have very little in common, other than each being a photographer. But this is exactly why Bussard’s approach is interesting: It investigates what roles the streets, the urban surroundings, play in their work, and, crucially, how those roles relate to both the medium’s history and to larger cultural and/or societal trends, even trends in city planning.

Here is what this looks like in the case of Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Unfamiliar Streets focuses on two bodies of work, Streetwork and Heads. In obvious ways, Streetwork references the work by New York’s well-known street photographers, but it also deviates significantly, given its production, relying on elaborate lighting and pre-arranged camera settings. With its carefully elaborate set-up, the body of work uses the city’s landscape as a theater stage on which the actors would appear. The focus is both on the stage and on the actors. Heads takes the approach a step further, focusing solely on, well, the heads of passersby. It might seem as if Streetworks and Heads have very little in common, but Bussard’s discussion makes the connections clear.

In addition, Bussard discusses the relationship between diCorcia’s work and Walker Evans’ subway and Chicago photographs, as well as bodies of work by Harry Callahan, one, a proto-Heads of sorts, photographed in Chicago. Photographs almost inevitably reference other photographers, or they are in dialogue with them, and much can be gained from such a discussion.

But there is more. Given diCorcia photographed in New York, Bussard includes an in-depth discussion of Manhattan’s transformation with time, with a special focus on Times Square. Given the city does not merely serve as an irrelevant backdrop in doCorcia’s work, but instead is an integral part, Streetwork speaks of the city itself and of its transformation from a rough city to essentially a large strip mall and playground for the wealthy.

As a result of this discussion, the reader gains deeper insight both into diCorcia’s work and into how it relates to the larger context it is embedded in. The same is achieved by the discussions in the other three chapters.

Doing this work, Bussard has found and deftly attended to one of the most glaring gaps in discussions about photography today. I can’t help but think that all-too often, discussions about photography omit or ignore historical references, for whatever reason. But historical references, when established clearly and forcefully, serve to elevate photography, and they can help us see our own world with a different set of eyes.

What is more, discussions about photography all-too often pretend that there is no larger picture, beyond whatever often narrow view of the world is being served. Photography has become too atomized, too concerned with trifling matters. Take, for example, the brouhaha over “social media.” It’s fine if you want to go gaga over sharing your work with many people, but it really helps if you have something to say. And maybe there should be a focus on having something worthwhile to say first and then about sharing it – instead of the other way around.

With Unfamiliar Streets, Katherine Bussard demonstrates the immense promise contemporary photography has. That promise will only be fulfilled, however, if we’re willing to look more deeply, if we’re willing to make all the connections that might require a little work, but that ultimately offer such a deep engagement with the medium. I hope there will be more books like this one. We really need them.