“Street and Studio”

The game is fixed: As a structure for comprehending the history of photography, the dualism “street and studio” can mean only “street” versus “studio”—and in that agon, street must always win, just as spontaneity will always triumph over control, the crowd over the individual, fate over intention, punctum over studium, Dionysus over Apollo, life over art. “In true photography,” as the poet and essayist Murat Nemet-Nejat once observed, “the subject in front of the lens tends to overwhelm the photographic medium, photographic space and photographic frame”—and this ecstasis of the subject is more likely to occur in the disorder of the street than in the controlled conditions of the studio.

That said, the words street and studio may serve to designate not real places but ideal types that never occur in their pure form. No photographer represents the idea of the street more vividly than Weegee did, as attest his works in this exhibition organized by Ute Eskildsen of the Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, where the show has now moved. But Weegee’s Self-Portrait, Working in the Trunk of His Chevrolet, 1942, patently staged as it is, shows that he turned his car into a portable work space, blurring the street/studio distinction. Contrariwise, a prototypical studio portraitist like Philippe Halsman resorts to the mannerist device of asking each of his celebrity subjects (including photographers Weegee and Edward Steichen) to jump into the air, so that “he cannot simultaneously control his expressions, his facial, and his limb muscles”; the result, the artist claimed, being that “the real self becomes visible.” That is, Halsman tried (but mostly failed, in my judgment) to reproduce the distracted, Dionysian vitality of the street under studio conditions.

Through their failure, Halsman’s photographs show the real challenge of photographic portraiture (and, by extension, any photograph of a human subject) to be the photographer’s struggle to impose his intention on the subject—and that the photograph can only succeed when the photographer loses this struggle; that is, when the photographer rather than the subject is, to use Nemet-Nejat’s word, “overwhelmed.” The best examples of the photographer’s success-through-failure include images of passersby on the street taken with hidden cameras by Walker Evans (Labor Anonymous, Detroit, 1946) and Philip-Lorca diCorcia (“Heads,” 2001). In such cases it might seem that the photographer succeeds in securing his intention by imposing ignorance on the subject; but, by the same token, Evans and diCorcia thereby relinquish any opportunity to predetermine or compose the image. All they can do is select after the fact from what prepared chance has delivered into their hands.

This submission to the given is, surprisingly, exactly what postmodern appropriationists like Richard Prince (Untitled [The Same Man Looking in Different Directions], 1978) or Kristleifur Björnsson (whose series “My Girlfriend Natalie,” 2003, derives from Internet images of the actress Natalie Portman) practice: Far from assuming any critical stance, they express an unholy fascination with their subjects.

One might say something similar of the exhibition as a whole: “Street and Studio” succeeds by failing to impose its agenda on an unruly corpus of imagery, whose producers range from the canonical (Brassaï, Evans, Arbus) to the anonymous, by way of some lesser-known photographers whose images inscribe themselves indelibly on the memory, including Carl Durheim’s astonishing portraits of Swiss vagrants, taken for police purposes in 1852–53, and Helmar Lerski’s Caravaggesque close-ups of “Köpfe des Alltags” (Heads from Everyday Life), 1928–30. The force of such images escapes thematic definition just as Durheim’s “debauched subjects” escaped, perhaps, the control of the authorities who commissioned their portraits.

Barry Schwabsky