2011 is unquestionably the year of street photography with a number of exhibitions and festivals exploring the genre taking place in cities across the UK. This exhibition is Birmingham’s contribution to this national phenomenon.
Take to the Streets has been brought to Birmingham by a range of public and private sector partners including the Colmore Business District, Birmingham City Council, Birmingham Library and Archive Services, Birmingham City University, Birmingham City Centre Partnership, Magnum Photos and FORMAT International Photography Festival.
The exhibition in Birmingham, which follows its launch at the FORMAT Festival in Derby, demonstrates the way in which these partnerships can help transform the public realm through innovative and engaging cultural projects.
We hope that the photographs made by Magnum photographers in streets and cities around the world encourages people to look again, see the beauty and significance of everyday life
in the heart of Birmingham and, usingtheir own cameras, capture and reveal some of the magical and weird moments that vanish faster than the blink of an eye.
The Magnum exhibition Take to the Streets, produced in partnership with FORMAT International Photography Festival and the Photography Archive, Birmingham Central Library, presents a selection of seven of the agency’s most prolific documentary photographers and celebrates the art of their candid photography. Founded in 1947 as a collective owned by its photographer members, Magnum’s early photography was primarily journalistic or “concerned”; the camera being the main source of visual record for current events in the days before television.
Today its contemporary membership reflects the broadening of approaches to, and contexts for, storytelling. However, the right to photograph unchallenged in public, without model release, to produce an unfettered account of the world around them, remains a major part of the work produced by Magnum photographers today. Making the city street its stage, street photography’s subject is the everyday interplay of people, traffic and urban architecture. The main arteries of any city are a melting pot of humanity balanced between order and chaos. For many, Magnum’s founding father, Henri Cartier-Bresson is considered the godfather of street photography and his infamous “decisive moment” is the prize sought by many contemporary street photographers.
Each of the seven Magnum’s photographers appearing in Take to the Streets interprets street life differently. They have produced both stand-alone images and narratives exploring the identity of a people or place. What unites this work is its location on the street and a spontaneous rather than posed approach. Street photography as produced by Magnum’s members, Cartier-Bresson included, has often been part of longer-term projects and larger narratives.
The earliest body of work included in Take to the Streets, Bruno Barbey’s The Italians (1960-4) follows in the tradition of Robert Frank’s The Americans, (1955) in striving to capture the spirit of a nation. From 1961 to 1964, Barbey, still in his early twenties, traversed the streets of Italian cities, producing remarkably unselfconscious portraits of their inhabitants be they dogs, nuns, workers, beggars, or mafia members. They were to launch Barbey’s career nearly fifty years ago and today present an engaging, historic record of the Italian people.
A more contemporary documentary of the spirit of a place is Alex Webb’s Istanbul: City of A Hundred Names. Published as a book by Aperture in 2007, it evolved out of assignment work into a longer-term project running over several years. Webb’s high colour, fluid, compositional style is hugely distinctive. Drawn throughout his career to document transitional locations, Istanbul’s position at the crossroads of Europe and Asia provided his photographs with rich, multi-layered subject matter.
Raymond Depardon’s subject has often been travel and unfamiliar places, photographed with great clarity and technical skill. Manhattan Out features 97 images shot over two trips to New York in 1980 & 1981 and differs from this later work in that Depardon ceded control of these pictures in an approach relying heavily on chance. Shot from the hip, using black and white film and a Leica, this was a technique chosen for its discretion. Yet, framed within its cityscape, his subjects often engage with his camera despite his intention.
© Constantine Manos/
A colour counterpoint to Depardon’s bold black and white aesthetic, Costa Manos’ American Colour originated in the early 1980s. Evolving into a long-term personal project, resulting in two books, and spanning over two decades this collection of images, taken mostly at public events in America, takes as its subject the visual kaleidoscope of American culture. With no specific narrative in mind, Manos’s fluid and often surreal compositions instead explore colour and light and the transformative power of photography over the everyday.
A love of the absurd defines Richard Kalvar’s Earthlings. Dating from the late 1960s onwards his black and white photographs record strange and disjointed moments within the flow of daily life. In a split second a funny expression is captured on the face of man in a square in Italy – hilarious and deceptively simple, it represents a moment patiently hunted down. Kalvar’s performers are not always human: anthropomorphic images include a dog hunched in a human pose on a pavement and a bear seemingly rolling on his back with laughter. Inanimate objects are also transformed, like the tree trunk that becomes a pair of legs through the camera lens.
Chris Steele-Perkins Tokyo Love Hello (2007) is born from his experience of living part-time in the city. Almost diaristic in nature he combines individual images of city life, with more personal photographs, emphasising his role as participant as well observer in the narrative of the city. Tokyo’s mix of tradition and modernity is portrayed in colourful pictures of sumo wrestlers mixed with Harajuku girls, salary men and karaoke bars. These jostling often gently humorous impressions are interspersed with pictures of blurring neon, train stations and street crossings highlighting a sense of movement through it.
Trent Parke’s evolving style has led him to Coming Soon, a colour, large format, series of images, that sees him slowing the photographic act down in order to explore the physicality of the city as much as its people. Still embodying Parke’s mastery of light, these street mages are refined to a level mimicking the perfection of the manufactured image.
Each of Magnum’s photographers interprets street life differently. They have produced both stand-alone images and narratives exploring the identity of a people or place. Working within the framework of a location, these projects often investigate the act of photographic transformation itself. Each photographer’s position as participant and observer is hugely nuanced, from Depardon’s physical detachment from his camera to Steele-Perkins semi-autobiography. What unites this work is its location on the street and a spontaneous rather than posed approach.