Imagine trying to provide a convincing rationale – or even a title – for an exhibition so wide-ranging it included work by Daido Moriyama and Cecil Beaton, Rineke Dijksta and Weegee, Lartigue and Richard Prince. Imagine too that anonymous photo booth pictures, fashion shoots, police mugshots and paparazzi snaps were to accompany the varieties of documentary and art photography on display. Nor would the exhibition confine itself to photographic prints: books and dummies for books would be on show, as would twin-screen video projections and digital slide shows. Under the circumstances a theme as nebulous and as open-ended as “street and studio” might begin to appeal.
Tate Modern’s exhibition of the same name amassed over 400 works by more than 100 photographers from Europe, the United States, Africa, Asia and, for good measure, South America. The period covered – from 1852 to 2007 – was equally immodest, sparking fears that Bankside was gripped by an unchecked outbreak of curatorial megalomania. The question remains whether the show testified more eloquently to the host’s institutional clout, and an exhausting Now That’s What I Call Photography! inclusiveness, than it did to the conceptual coherence of the project.
Street and Studio plotted the emergence of street photography, here conflated with forms of urban portraiture, from origins in 19th century France (represented by works by Charles Nègre, Henri Rivière and Louis Vert). By the turn of the century, technological developments – including the use of fast gelatin silver prints and the introduction of smaller cameras – enabled the photography of moving subjects. The representation of transitory and fugitive moments came to be recognised as an especially modern response to new areas of urban experience. Passers-by, pedestrians and passengers became one of street photography’s most fertile subject areas. Street and Studio offered an exemplary overview of such work, and included pictures by Paul Strand, Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Helen Levitt, William Klein, Diane Arbus, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Beat Streuli and Pieter Hugo.
In apparent contrast to the supposed spontaneity and authenticity of street work, studio photography offered a controlled environment in which sitters and portraitists could collaborate on presenting a posed and composed image. Its versatility guaranteed a multiplicity of functions: the show included advertising and editorial commissions, society portraits, publicity shots, and artworks exploring identity and representation.
Given the vast scope of the exhibition it is not surprising that it should raise far more questions than it could ever hope to answer. Maybe the only secure generalisation to be made is to observe how often the histories of studio and street photography have intersected. The earliest street pictures in the show, by Charles Nègre, were as elaborately staged as any studio portrait – in the same way that much of the most engaging and innovative studio work has depended for its vitality on references to the street beyond its confines.