He found a plump woman clutching a weary child on the seat across from him. The child slumped over in near-despair, but the woman was stoic, her set face signaling her determination not only to endure travel underground but all the assorted indignities of life. Helping to keep up her spirits was a jaunty flying saucer of a hat, its round, white crown rimmed by a careening black brim. Evans took a picture of the round woman, child and hat, framed by the train's square windows, and called it simply, "Subway, New York."
Evans may be best known for his pictures of dirt-poor Southerners, but he also chronicled the travails of their northern brethren on the subways of the big city. One of some 600 evocative subway pictures Evans shot in New York's trains from 1938 to 1941, this photograph of the enduring urbanite in the saucy hat turns up in the Center for Creative Photography's exuberant exhibition On the Street: The New York School of Photographers.
Drawn from the center's own fine collections, the show concentrates on the mid-20th-century photographers loosely called the New York School, with big names like Weegee, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand. Some 110 pictures strong, it teems and jostles with all the energy of New York City itself. Bathing-suited revelers cram subway-like onto the beach at Coney Island. Raggedy children play stickball on asphalt. Dowagers promenade in feathers and furs. A dead man sprawls on the sidewalk, blood leaking from his head, the murder weapon--a gun--abandoned nearby.
On the Street is a wonderful exploration of the place where street photography was practically invented (setting aside the small matter of Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson shutter-bugging in Paris). The show opens with a prolog of early 20th-century pix that pay homage to the city itself. The earliest are by Alfred Stieglitz, a practitioner of soft-edged pictorialism, who offers a lovely, even romantic vision of his adopted hometown. "24 Hours After the Fall," 1896-1899, is a tiny, pale glimpse of a man and woman picking their way along a snow-covered street. "Spring Showers, New York," 1900, pictures a delicate vision of a rain-washed street with a tall, skinny tree tethered in a cage, budding out in leaves.
The painterly Kurt Baasch made tiny, beautiful chiaroscuro pictures of the city. His platinum prints, dating from about 1909 to 1912, alternately picture the skyline through the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, the ghostly, grand spaces of now-lost Penn Station and the nighttime river, its shadows falling in diagonals and lights twinkling on the far shore.
Moving away from these soft-focus works, photographers working a decade or two later celebrated the engineering marvels of the city's soaring skyscrapers and suspension bridges. Propelled by an optimism about the American century looming ahead, they capitalized on the city's architectural immensity.
Ralph Steiner behaved like a typical tourist awed by the city's superlatives: its biggest and longest bridges, its tallest buildings. In "Five Corners Near Wall Street," 1924, he craned his neck--and aimed his camera--at a convergence of skyscrapers in lower Manhattan. In this ant's-eye view, through the skewed perspective of the lens, the towers incline jazzily toward one another in the sky. "Boy on a Bike Below Brooklyn Bridge," from 1921-22, also takes in a vast distance. But this time, it's the photographer who's up high, pointing his camera down at the distant earth below, just capturing the image of a boy, his bike and their shadows.
The show's co-curators, CCP director Doug Nickel and the brand-new staff curator Britt Salvesen, have made helpful groupings of subjects, proving how differently individual artists approach the same thing. Thus, Margaret Bourke-White's view of the George Washington Bridge hangs by Edward Steichen's, but Bourke-White's is a symmetrical abstraction of cables and arches while Steichen's is angular and off-center.
Changes in camera technology helped alter the New York aesthetic. The earlier photogs were burdened by cumbersome and highly visible equipment. The development of small, hand-held cameras permitted them surreptitious photographs of the proverbial man, woman and child in the street, a street that, as the Depression wore on, grew increasingly bleak. As the curators note, by the 1930s, their darker vision of the city's failures overshadowed the easy optimism of the early photographers.
Helen Levitt concentrated on poor children fleeing squalid apartments to play on the sometimes-dangerous streets. A beautiful young girl, pictured around 1940, sits pensively in a cluttered doorway among a pile-up of boxes. An unsettling photo from the 1940s has a little boy on the loose in the city; he walks over a grate and--precariously--past a giant, teetering crate.
Walter Rosenblum's "Women and Baby Carriage, Pitt Street, New York," 1938, captures a bleak scene of women idling with a baby alongside chain link. The fence is a barrier marching across the picture, effectively barring any escape. Lisette Model, a wealthy immigrant from Vienna, joined the socially conscious Photo League. In her "Lower East Side," 1950, an older black woman trudges through the streets. She's walking her little dog, but she's bent over, weighted down by an impossibly heavy coat and burdened by her troubles.
By contrast, Weegee (B. Arthur Fellig) has an immigrant's sense of thrill at the big city. After immigrating to New York from Poland as a child, he worked as a newspaper photographer in the 1930s and 1940s. Weegee kept a police radio in his car, according to writer Maz Kozloff, and managed to get to crime scenes even before the cops did. Thus, he could photograph "Corpus Delecti," the dead man on the sidewalk with the blood still trickling from his head, circa 1942, and "Sudden Death for One ... Sudden Shock for the Other," 1940, a startling picture of a woman learning from a sympathetic cop that her husband has just died.
But grim as these pictures sound, they're not, exactly. Instead, they revel in the great human panorama of the city. And you can feel Weegee's compassion for the little guy in scenes that are now classic New York: children tenderly curled up against each other like spoons in "Summer's Children Sleep on Fire Escape," 1938; other kids squealing in the spray of an open fire hydrant outside their cramped tenements in "Summer, the Lower East Side," 1937.
Photography altered its course again after World War II, influenced by abstraction in painting; a fractured reality began to sneak into documentary photos. In Robert Frank's "Macy Parade," 1948, the buildings dissolve into dots, while a big, black parade balloon hangs ominously overhead. Diane Arbus, a student of Model, began photographing her off-kilter, even harsh works of people whose lives are not quite right, like the "Young Brooklyn Family," 1966, with a retarded son.
Garry Winogrand immersed himself in an almost delirious love affair with the streets, roaming with absolute anonymity, returning with thousands of images of faces in crowds, of oddities and ambiguities. This show has his monkey sneering in a convertible ("Park Avenue," 1959) and the 1961 picture, simply titled "New York," that shows the feet of a man and woman on the sidewalk, energetically striding toward the future.
History is about to change the street photog aesthetic once again. The long and honorable tradition of surreptitious subway photography may be coming to end, the latest victim of Sept. 11. The New York Times reported last week that the city is poised to ban photography on the subways, lest terrorists take pictures in the trains.
Photographers of Walker Evans' caliber could still apply for permits to continue their work, a license at odds with the absolute freedom and spontaneity that define street photography. With such a ban in place in the '30s, we surely would never have known of the stoic woman and her saucy hat. And who knows what we'll miss in the future?