Nick Turpin started the In-Public website in 2000 to foster a community of practicing street photographers. The recently published 10: 10 Years of In-Public features the work of the 20 photographers who now make up In-Public. In-Public is very much a 21st century endeavour, a virtual convergence of street photographers on four continents with a shared interest who have influenced one another’s individual practices. As Turpin writes in the introduction, “We grew with the internet and benefited enormously from the way it circumvented the gatekeepers of the art and publishing worlds that had traditionally decided who would or would not reach an audience”.
In the last 20 years, street photography has almost become a genre of outsider art (even as many of its practitioners hold day jobs as editorial or commercial photographers). Speaking in a visual vernacular, this tradition of photography that comments on public life – usually in cities – would seem to have eschewed the conversations driving the high art world, and has therefore largely been omitted from its discourses.
Its practice, however, flourishes. In fact, its current trajectory demonstrates a thriving engagement with both its own traditions and the worlds through which street photographers move. 10 translates well from the web where it is a continuous work in progress to the substantive and considered form of the book. The book is a marker, an assertion not only that street photography is alive and well, but also that as a genre it has not stood still.
From Atget to Kertész to Cartier-Bresson to Evans to Frank to Klein to Papageorge to Kalvar, photographers have commented on the world with humour or grace or observed the sublime in the everyday. The work in this book – 10 images by each of the 20 In-Public photographers, arranged in the order in which the photographers joined In-Public – is continuous with this tradition of street photography in that it is as much about the photographer’s internal experience of the world as it is about the world depicted.
Paul Russell’s pictures have a sweetness to the surprise – the viewer simultaneously gets the joke and recognizes how far he or she is from the event that Russell witnessed. Matt Stuart photographs a man whose car has been clamped in Covent Garden, as the devil sheepishly stands nearby. This is modern photography in the classic sense, photography that organises the world and interprets it. David Gibson’s elegant composition from Crystal Palace is anchored in the background by dinosaurs and in the foreground by a dog relieving itself. Blake Andrews’ photograph SE12th and Belmont, Portland, 2004 stops me in my tracks every time I see it, as does Gus Powell’s Paso Doble. It is a great pleasure to look at pictures that can’t be adequately described in words.
The work in 10 differs significantly from the work of, say, Winogrand, Arbus, and Friedlander – photographers whose work, with the influence of John Szarkowski, catapulted street photography into the art world – in that much of it embraces the surreal and the romantically evocative. Unlike the New Documents photographers who took to the street to look at individuals and unpack the stories told about class and society in the media, the In-Public photographers take a more distanced position (with the exception of Jeffrey Ladd, whose street work is the most resonant with those earlier photographers, and Otto Snoek, whose street scenes urge the eye to study faces even as the scenes threaten to disintegrate in an instant).
What the In-Public photographers have in common is a certain distanced view of small individuals moving through their environment. Society looms large: the architecture and unceasing work of cities constantly pressing on the people in these pictures as they wait for buses, come out of subways, try to relax or recreate. Subjects are largely unaware of the absurdities of the made worlds that they navigate. The individual pictures in Jesse Marlow’s Wounded and Walking Head series are clever observations; collectively they are deeply disquieting. Christophe Agou describes people as they cross the threshold from subway to street; hard shadows across their bodies, they are already girding themselves to navigate the shared street; these are not the same subway riders that Walker Evans photographed, lost in private moments.
But even as the weight of the world presses down on its citizens, the photographers sometimes find some poetic redemption, the sprit of Kertész standing over their shoulders. Trent Parke’s Dream/Life pictures feel like spectral photography as individuals are set free by light while in his Coming Soon pictures the light holds people down in place). Narelle Autio’s beach scenes are celebratory. Nils Jorgensen’s long view of a grey plaza in which one figure is brightly illuminated by a camera flash is unabashedly romantic. In one of Turpin’s images two women wave to people out of frame, in geometric dialogue with the ladders and workmen behind them; their real joy gives the picture its valence.
It would be wrong to give the impression that all of these photographers are working together, deliberately, to a common end. The value of the book is that it gives access to the work of so many individuals who are addressing the world through their experience of it in so many different ways. Yet in total, there is a sense of a world that does not know itself, of alienation, of individuals bearing the weight of society, and sometimes of a weary world made magical. In these patterns street photographers have converged with many of the tropes adored by the art world, but has arrived at them independently.
10 is satisfying not only because the photography is good but also because this work argues that by making pictures, it is still possible to discover something about both the world and about what you feel about it. And while street photography is enjoyable – clever, funny, strange, provocative – the story these pictures tell is important, speaking to the condition of this moment in history. It’s a critique but the terms differ from the street photography that has come before, and the “art photography” discourses to which it runs parallel. As such its value derives not so much from the work’s documentary aspect, but from the photographers’ ability to spin vernacular social appraisals out of their own investigations, photography in the first person.
See more images in a slideshow here.
10: 10 Years of In-Public
Nick Turpin Publishing (£35)