With more than 1 billion smart phones in use world wide, the number of people-watching photographs and videos emailed to friends in a given day may safely be underestimated at a million. So a new National Gallery exhibit titled “I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938-2010” provides a pleasant foundation for this happy venture—and a test to see if quantity trumps care.
Featured are some of the iconic photographers of the 20th century: Walker Evans, Harry Callahan and Robert Frank. A few contemporaries join the mix: Beat Streuli and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia. Since a photograph involved effort and expense for these practitioners, these examples required care. Today’s photography comes as freely as sand, and falls inattentively through the hand.
But since we’re all photographers now, we can appreciate better the technique, approach and even final product. Consider, for example, the candid shots by Evans, who hid his camera behind his coat as he rode the New York subway. One features a behatted couple who seem aware of Walker’s interest in them, if not his camera. The gentleman’s eyebrows are slightly raised, perhaps worried, with furrowed brow, while the lady appears slightly amused. One imagines the quiet war they contest with the Depression ongoing in this 1938 photograph, or perhaps their day’s battle with some particular effort.
Can today’smart-phoned amateur match this haunting image? Somewhere, no doubt.
Several close-up, shadowed portraits of women come from Harry Callahan. These candid shots came from Callahan’s Chicago ambles, where he raised his camera quickly to capture these in-motion subjects. Cameras of those days required care for focus, so Callahan’s efforts contain grain and gauze that add appealing mood; his female subjects seem unhappy. “Chicago 1950” features a well dressed woman, with a hat, mouth open in mild anger.
Robert Frank shot from a bus window. For two years beginning in 1955, he shot 750 rolls, prodigious then, but average for a heavy fingered smart phone user today on a vacation. From this effort came “From the Bus, 1958,” a high contrast piece with buses framing a lone figure crossing the street with a low sun casting a long shadow.
Bruce Davidson explores some bad days of the New York subway when the Guardian Angels, self-appointed police, helped address the dangers rampant on the transportation system. Safe from harm, many of these photographs can be celebrations of color and vitality. Others, inevitably, compel the viewer into the fright of crime, including one alarming shot of a guardian holding a gun to the temple of a cowering man. “Subway 1980-1983” depicts two well-muscled guardians. Initially opposed by the mayor, then embraced, the current controversy stemming from the murder of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer invests these picture with a complex chill.
These earlier photographers enjoys the protection and appeal of age. We can both admire their skill, and excuse blemishes owing to equipment. And we treasure the history they captured. Beat Streuli faces a sterner test, competing without such excuses. In 2001, he shot from a New York coffee shop at the entrance of the Astor Place subway entrance. This interesting presentation comes through high definition screens with rotating pictures, as if the subjects appear from new trains.
Art in-breeding means these photographs dwell on New York and Chicago. When smartphone photography matures, we’ll enjoy exhibits from Main Streets in less cliché towns.
While handsomely presented, this exhibition won’t leave the visitor particularly transformed. With a few exceptions, these quiet pictures dwell on anonymity. We must help these pictures speak. Perhaps the great days of street photography are ahead.
The exhibit remains on view through August 5.

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