Book Review: Street Photography: A History in 100 Iconic Images
By Michael Ernest Sweet
I am often skeptical about books that claim to be authoritative. Can any one writer actually distill the 100 most iconic images in all of street photography? Can a writer compile the history of the genre in just 200 pages? The answer is, no, on both counts. What a writer can do is provide their opinion – their own list of the 100 most iconic images. This is precisely what David Gibson has done in his latest book, Street Photography: A History in 100 Iconic Images, from Prestel publishing. And, the resulting list is pretty good.
David Gibson has been writing about photography for some time. He is also a photographer himself. These are good qualifications for setting about an ambitious project, like the one suggested by this book’s title. The most immediate trap for anyone taking on an endeavour like this is politics. That is, will they be able to write the book objectively, or will their own opinions give way to a list glaringly absent of their enemies and over-crowded with their friends. We’ve all seen those lists. I must say, I had my doubts when I first saw the book announced. Gibson has long been associated with the controversial (and now defunct) photography collective, In-Public, and this clouded my judgment going into this review. In-Public has not been known to produce particularly great photographers by objective standards. But I digress. The point is, I was looking forward to a bad book. Yet, what arrived at my door is a wonderful book, a book that has captured many of the greatest names in street photography.
Gibson seems to have compiled most of the book with clear-minded objectivity. I really only found a couple of names in the hundred that jumped out to me as being out-of-place in a collection like this one. No big deal, although I must say the names did jump! The book, as a whole, is an admirable stab at what I am sure was no easy project. Gibson himself, in the book’s introduction, which, by the way, is very poorly laid out, speaks of this challenge in a self-effacing way. Indeed, his whole introduction, which I quite enjoyed, is an attempt to qualify what comes in the following pages. Certainly a neat trick, but one I think Gibson employed honestly. He really works to explain to us the various things one might notice – the limited number of women, the choice of one “iconic” image per photographer, or, even, whether to include photographs which, in his judgment, are “set up”. It reads not so much as a justification or defense, as it does a genuine rationale for the project’s unfolding. There are times when I prefer the typical foreword by some famous name, but here, in this volume, this introduction is a good compliment to the work that follows.
The book opens with some of the usual suspects – Edward Steichen, HCB, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, and William Klein. Some more obscure, but certainly talented, names also appear – Minor White, Marvin Newman, Bruce Davidson, Ralph Gibson, and Richard Sandler. Minor White, of course, is a famous photographer, but not one that we often see between the covers of a street photography book. Kudos to Gibson for his inclusion here, as White did, indeed, contribute to the genre. I also want to take note of a good number of more “international” names included in the anthology – Werner Bischof, Thomaz Farkas, Ferdinando Scianna, Raghu Rai, and Ramon Masats, to name but a few. It is clear that Gibson made a significant effort to make the book truly international in scope and he seems to have succeeded.
On the subject of including women, Gibson claims, “Yes, there are only 13 women photographers in the 100. What can I say? I chose the photographs regardless of gender.” While I understand Gibson’s point, I am not sure I completely align with this way of thinking, at least not anymore. The old “good work is good work” argument has been used to discriminate against women and minorities for far too long in the white-male-dominated world of the arts. Big names in literature have pushed back on this argument and I believe we should do likewise in photography. Women and minorities need to be sought out. The action must be deliberate. The fact that they did not “arise” naturally is no longer a valid excuse.
Copyright ⓒ FRED HERZOG
When it comes to looking at the photographs in the collection, I am pleased, at least visually. The photographs are good ones and have been carefully selected. My only gripe in this regard would be the use of some highly anthologized images. I know the book is meant to present iconic images, but, in the case of Joel Meyerowitz, for example, the included image has appeared in print more times than one could possibly count. Joel has made thousands and thousands and thousands of photographs over his life, must we always be subjected to the same one? Further, the image, Paris 1967, represents a serendipitous moment caught on film. In some ways, it may be argued that this image neither typifies Meyerowitz’s skill or aesthetic. I know this is one of the images Joel normally sends out in response to requests, but Gibson would have done well in this situation, and others like it, to dig a little deeper and find us another glimpse into the photographer’s archive. Elsewhere in the book, Gibson tells us that “it is ridiculous to highlight just one photograph” with any one photographer, yet, this is precisely the project he undertook. The ridiculous nature must be directly confronted and tamed by the author. In many ways, Gibson accomplishes this, but there are some, like Meyerowitz, where he seems to have given in to what was easiest. In other examples, the images do not strike me as iconic to the particular photographer. Put another way, we have some very over-seen images present in this collection and some very obscure ones too, both of which leave me wanting something more. Happily, these instances are not the majority.
The accompanying text in the volume is neither lacking nor outstanding. Certainly a project like this one requires some written word to contextualize the chosen photographer and the selected image. Yet, Gibson could have done more to situate both the photographer and the “iconic” image within the history of street photography. Art is a conversation. Works speak to one another and fit into a “grand conversation” in very particular and exact ways. Gibson omits this conversational thread in his writing. Each photographer’s profile is just that, a profile. One could, for example, take these pages and toss them into the air and reassemble and not disrupt the book’s flow. I’m not sure that arrangement is sufficient to glue together the history of a genre. That said, the profiling is done well and kept this reader engaged throughout.
In the end, Street Photography: A History in 100 Iconic Images by David Gibson is an admirable stab at what was surely an insurmountable undertaking. Street photography has existed, in some form or another, since the inception of the 35mm camera. That’s a long time – about a hundred years, actually – and many, many photographers, and photographs, have come into being during that time. To represent a century of creating between two covers, and in a mere 200 pages, is certainly no mean feat. Gibson has delivered, despite all the cards being stacked against him. I have no reservations in recommending this book for every street photographer’s library.
Hardcover, 208 pages, 23,0 x 25,0 cm, 100 color illustrations