From Weegee’s crime scenes to Gilden’s eccentrics: these visionaries captured the grit and the grime of everyday life
Some of the most exciting and excruciating things in life happen on the streets. As cameras have gotten smaller and cheaper in the past few decades, we’ve seen an explosion in photos taken quickly and unstaged, that now inhabit every minute of our waking life. But there has always been, and still remains, the photographers that capture and record those unscripted moments, in all the chaos, or disquiet; some try and decode what everyday life is, others just throw themselves into the grime and the heat, and bring a little back in their photos. In honour of such people, we profile a small pool of our favourite photographers who shot the streets best.
His trademark strong flash and invasive stance often exposing the fragile, fleeting nature of street life, Bruce Gilden has carved a path for many imitators. He continues to innovate, recently producing a series of extremely close-up street photographs of people who are usually invisible. "People who have trouble with these kinds of pictures should look into their own soul" he said in recent interview with Dazed "because different people find beauty in different places, and that’s what makes me an artist, or a photographer. I see things that either the average person doesn’t want to look at or doesn’t want to see."
Populated by the destitute and the desperate, Boris Mihailov’s work is often discomforting. Growing up in Soviet-era Ukaine, where any art other than sunny social realism was looked down upon, self-taught Mikhailov began to take pictures of the bomzhes, the homeless people whose numbers grew since the dissolution of the Communist Bloc. Somewhat controversially, Mikhailov pays his subjects to pose, sometimes to take off their clothes. This relationship between the photographer and the subjects projects the discomfort and unease that the bomzhes have as a daily existence.
Named after a Ouija board, and his uncanny ability to arrive at a crime scene before the cops, Weegee was the original hardboiled street photographer. Having adopted New York, after leaving Austria in 1909, Weegee captured the murders, the drunkeness, the grime and the chaos of the city. Weegee made being in the right time at the right place an artform.
Fellow photographer Lee Friedlander once said Garry Winogrand was “a bull of a man and the world his china shop.” It was this obviousness that produced some of Winogrand's best photos – couples kissing with their eyes open, staring at the lens; a monkey in a convertible screams at him in the midst of a traffic jam. Winogrand’s sheer presence is felt in all of his photographs, without him once stepping out from behind the viewfinder.
Reacting to the condition of Flatbush, Brooklyn in the 1960s and '70s, Jamel Shabazz shot the life of African-American communities. Unlike the cyncism of his counterparts, Shabazz’s work is an example of street photography’s ability to empower – it’s striking how at ease Shabazz manages to capture his subjects' happiness, and moments of hope. In our interview with him, Shabazz told us about how he wanted to inspire the people he knew to avoid the effects of drug abuse, which he had seen whilst in the US Army “I used my voice to inform many of my photographic subjects of the pitfalls that they were facing. Unfortunately, I could not predict the large scale and upcoming crack epidemic that would hit the streets of America, reminding me of the destruction I had witnessed a few years earlier.”
Before becoming a member of the prestigious Magnum co-operative at the young age of 25, Mikhael Subotzky made his name taking photos of the seemingly lawless institutions of his native South Africa. His first collection, “The Four Corners”, was a collection of photos from Pollsmoor, the maximum security prison that Nelson Mandela did time in. Showing that street photography doesn’t always need to be of the street itself, Subotzky’s collaboration with British artist Patrick Waterhouse was a comprehensive documentation of Ponte City, a vertical slum in Johannesburg which was intended as luxury apartments; Ponte City records the lives of impoverished people who live in the decaying legacy of apatheid.
After seeing reports of protests in the suburbs of Paris, with flashing images of burning cars and looted shops, Arnau Bach went to find the reality behind the distorted media image of the estates. His camera leading him into the underbelly of the Paris banlieues, Arnau Bach portrays the realties of life for the disposessed youth who live there. Sometimes sympathetic, always unflinching, Bach's commitment to investigating his subject means that he beautifully unfolds a story with every shot.
Having cut his teeth taking pictures of Andy Warhol’s New York factory, Stephen Shore has ventured across America taking pictures that are as austere as a pop-era artist could be. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Shore’s work focuses less on the events of the street, and more about the banality of the objects found in everyday life, and the physical space it inhabits. Before the era of mass photography that we live in now, he has been constantly and meticulously recording the everyday.
Philip Montgomery's photos of the Ferguson marches are attempts to capture the spirit of a movement – shot amongst the tears and the fury, Montgomery’s film photos capture the situation honestly; it's a throwback to the reportage of earlier news photographers like Weegee, but with a conceptual turn that takes it beyond straight news photography.
Considered by Martin Parr as one of the best photobooks of the last decade, Stephen Gill's “Hackney Wick” is a hazy series of photographs of the Hackney Wick flea market, and the tide of discarded objects on sale – battered white goods, VHS tapes, things pulled from skips. Using a camera with a plastic lens, that he bought at the market for 50p, before the Olympics and gentrification swept away the unused greyhound stadium the market was held in.