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Some Thoughts on Street Photography & Related Matters, by Jeffrey Saldinger

In this Book Recommendations article, we turn over the space to Library member Jeffrey Saldinger. Jeffrey combined graduate degrees in chemistry and library science with his self-education in art to work for over twenty years in academic and special libraries, including eleven years at The Frick Art Reference Library. His paintings have been exhibited in three one-person exhibitions and many group exhibitions in the United States and Europe and have been reviewed in The New York Times, Art in America, and elsewhere. His early interest in photography was reawakened in 2009 by developments in digital photography and since 2013 he has concentrated on his photographic work, including four years of study at the International Center of Photography. His first photobook, Unassuming Places in New York City’s Manhattan and Astoria, was published in 2021. His work can be seen on his website, www.jeffreysaldinger.com. He has been a member of The Society Library since 1980.

To see a sampling of the photography mentioned in the article, have a look at this gallery of images.

A bibliography of works is included below. 

The core of street photography has been described as “candid pictures of everyday life in the street,” although the genre can be said to include, in a broader sense, pictures in which a human presence is only implied or inferred (see Westerbeck and Meyerowitz, p. 34). But there is another kind of photograph that can be taken in the street: these have no people, no portrayal or suggestion of human action or emotion, and often rely for their interest on the photographer’s success in capturing engaging visual qualities beyond the image’s otherwise unremarkable content. The photographer may have used their skills in the darkroom or with digital software (or sometimes both) to turn something ordinary, something any one of us might pass daily without ever seeing it, into an image that stops us, delights us, and maybe even evokes more intense, layered feelings. Such photographs invite us to consider the way in which whatever is portrayed is able to touch us when it is seen as the photographer saw it. Perhaps these photographs should be called “street still-lifes;” or “unpeopled street compositions;” or maybe even “pictures, often deliberate, of the everyday appearance of just the street itself.” In any case, when I think of the genre “street photography,” it is more natural for me to think of peopled and unpeopled photographs as a continuum of related works.

Books by Ansel Adams, Henry Horenstein, Barbara London, and John Paul Schaefer provide introductions to the arts and sciences of taking and developing photographs. Much of what allows certain photographs to capture the viewer’s attention may have happened in “post-processing,” a term that is used in digital photography to describe adjustments that can be made to a digital negative on a computer once the picture has been taken. It is also a term that can be usefully extended to analog photography, where instead of going back to one’s desk to work with software, the photographer goes back to their darkroom to work with traditional materials. The immediacy and quality of our phones’ photographs are the result of the phones’ engineers, who built into them the software that will be applied to what the lens saw—how such qualities as color saturation, sharpness, and overall tonal relationships will be rendered for the screen. In darkroom or workstation post-processing of negatives taken with more sophisticated cameras, so much more is possible, although the photography-related apps for phones and tablets are ever-growing. The tools of post-processing, whether analog or digital, can achieve an astounding, one might say limitless, range of effects. Some will be used in the service of one’s artistic voice, others, unfortunately, in the service of darker ends. They are all merely tools, to be used for good or ill as the user may choose. Fred Ritchin’s After Photography provides analyses of the artistic and social hopes and hazards of photography in the digital age. Anne Wilkes Tucker (pp. 29-31) addresses some of the darkroom’s artistic matters in which Louis Faurer was engaged; she includes an illustrative pairing of before and after photographs, where subtle but artistically important alterations have been made. Schaefer (v. 1, pp. 276-277) shows analogous, and more dramatic, considerations by Ansel Adams.

Of course, in the Library’s collection of photography books we’re looking at neither original photographic prints nor images on a phone but rather at photographs reproduced in ink. With this  distinction in mind, it might be rewarding to gain a familiarity with the ways in which a photograph can be reproduced in ink for a book. Richard Benson’s The Printed Picture and his essay “Working with Lee” in the Museum of Modern Art’s Lee Friedlander catalog, as well as John Szarkowski’s introduction to The Portfolios of Ansel Adams are good ways to gain such familiarity. The Printed Picture provides an historical overview, while the essay in the MOMA catalog covers Benson and Friedlander’s 35-year working relationship, which included many technical advances. For an encyclopedic history of photobooks, Parr and Badger’s The Photobook: a History, gives hundreds of examples of them, in all genres of photography. It has illuminating, brief paragraphs about and images from each book.

The ways to think about photography and write about it for one’s audience are limitless. John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art is one my favorite collections of writing about photography. Each recto is dedicated to one good reproduction that is paired on the facing verso with a self-contained essay on that photograph and its maker. Szarkowski’s introduction to his The Photographer’s Eye addresses ideas about some of the formal attributes any photograph might possess. Each subsequent section has brief related writing followed by many photographs sharing those attributes. Szarkowski’s books provide an authoritative introduction to the many ways one can think about photographs. Sarah Meister’s Picturing New York: Photographs from the Museum of Modern Art provides a history of MOMA’s photography collecting. Vicki Goldberg’s anthology, Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, comprises many writers’ essays on different aspects of photography, while books by Robin Kelsey and Alan Trachtenberg offer writing that addresses their more focused purposes. The Friedlander and Winogrand catalogs have added much to my appreciation of the enormity of their oeuvres. Geoff Dyer’s The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand (designed like Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs, with self-contained essays facing each photograph) gives us a terrific example of the wide-ranging, thought-provoking associations that can result when an informed writer encounters a body of work that captures their imagination. Keith F. Davis’s An American Century of Photography: From Dry-plate to Digital provides a long, detailed, readable, felicitously illustrated history of photography in the United States. Brooks Johnson’s Photography Speaks includes photographs alongside writing by or about the photographers, excerpts from interviews, and brief biographies. The writing covers a wide range of artistic, interpretive, and technical matters. In truth, one could pick off the shelf almost any book in the Library’s 770s and find writing of authority and interest.

For New York City street photography, Jane Livingston’s The New York School: Photographs 1936-1963 was important to me early on, not only for the images but also for the history. It is a wonderful place to discover what I still feel are stirring examples of New York City street photography. Saul Leiter’s Retrospektive (in which the original German essays have been translated into English) includes not only his street photography but also his paintings and fashion work. Leiter, Ted Croner, and Louis Faurer are among the many photographers who made a living (sometimes barely) working for fashion magazines or in other publishing work. All three are included in Livingston’s book, and Faurer’s career (including his commercial work) is covered in Anne Wilkes Tucker’s exhibition catalog. One body of Ted Croner’s commercial work is included in Susan Meller’s Textile Designs. A comparison of this work and his street photography reveals no visual overlap, inviting thoughts about the tension that might exist between one’s day job and one’s passions. Livingston (pp. 301-302) writes movingly of this. André Kertész’s A Lifetime of Perception includes not only his street photographs but also his still-lifes and portraits, making it easier to see all his work in context. Its New York City photographs are easy to find thanks to a list of plates, while the presence of street photography from Paris and elsewhere speaks to the universality of the genre. A fine work for Library users is Kertész’s On Reading, which is limited to photographs of, yes, people reading. About half the photographs were taken in New York City (many of them on the street); the rest were taken throughout the world. Its preface touches briefly on some interesting matters related to printing the same photographs in editions published twenty-eight years apart.

One of my favorite sub-genres of New York City photography is photographs taken in the subway or on other trains, photographs where one finds an exemplary mix of peopled and unpeopled possibilities. Four books dedicated to this sub-genre are by Christophe Agou (Life Below: the New York City Subway), Walker Evans (Many Are Called), Helen Levitt (Manhattan Transit), and Louis Stettner (Penn Station). In four other books, one can find at least one photograph that expands one’s familiarity with the range of these photographs: see Westerbeck and Meyerowitz, p. 131, by André Kertész; Livingston, p. 113, by William Klein; Leiter, p. 80; and Tucker, p. 86, by Faurer. 

Returning to the broader category of street photography, any number of books in the Library’s collection could be mentioned. Writing of Helen Levitt’s photographs, David Campany, in his introduction to her Manhattan Transit, observes that “[her] pictures did not dare insist on the artistry of their maker. She preferred you to feel you were looking at the accidental artistry of the world itself [my italics].” I am taken by how his words help us think about the contrast between understated and willful approaches to making photographs look the way they do. Levitt’s quality of understatement is expansively seen in her books A Way of Seeing and Here and There. The Library owns two editions of A Way of Seeing (each with an introductory essay by James Agee), and seeing the same images printed in different books can add depth to one’s understanding of the challenge of printing photographs. For an interesting contrast to Levitt’s spontaneity, consider Todd Webb’s I See a City, in which most of the photographs were taken with a large format camera on a tripod, which makes spontaneous, candid work difficult if not impossible. Elliott Erwitt’s images often show great humor, an attribute hard to capture in photographs. Adam Gopnik’s introduction to Elliott Erwitt’s New York provides a nice way to think about New York City street photography. Roy DeCarava, a Retrospective includes traditional street photography as well as more formal portraits and photographs of musicians (often while performing). One of its images is a small, stunningly simple, elegant, unpeopled street scene (“Traffic Light and Fog,” fig. 17, p. 52). I am drawn to the subdued tonal range with which DeCarava made many of his prints. Weegee (the pseudonym of Arthur Fellig) is known for his stark photographs, often of New York City crime scenes and nightlife (they are a thought-provoking contrast to Levitt’s work). Weegee’s World is a compilation of his photographs while Weegee’s Guide to New York presents walking tours in different neighborhoods, complete with photographs and maps. Ben Shahn’s New York includes photographs he took as notes for his drawings and paintings (see text on p. 100 and juxtaposition of a painting and drawing on p. 101). Two of the photographs I find especially poignant show the now-recently-demolished Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street as it looked in the 1930s (plates 11 and 12, pp. 160-161). In Ken Schles’s Night Walk and Peter Fink’s New York Nocturnes one sees very different moods: in the former, there are gritty, up-close photographs printed on matte paper; in the latter, there’s a cooler approach, often showing New York architecture at some distance and printed on more familiar coated paper. For a comparison of two photographs of steam emerging from a manhole or other opening in the street, see Boretz, p. 14, and Louis Stettner’s New York, p. 102. Street steam is a wonderful example of something we see in New York City “all the time,” and perhaps try to ignore, but its wonderful moving shapes and variations in opacity combined with whatever number of people might be nearby provide a cornucopia of possibilities for artful photographic compositions.

Robert Frank’s The Americans is generally recognized as one of the most important, influential photobooks ever published. Its images are preceded by Jack Kerouac’s enthusiastic, impressionistic introduction. Looking in: Robert Frank's The Americans, by Sarah Greenough, offers an in-depth, comprehensive examination of The Americans. Its well-documented essays cover the way the book came into existence as well as its wide and lasting artistic, social, and technical impacts. It includes reproductions of Frank’s contact sheets, from which he began selecting the final eighty-three that appear in the book (after taking over 27,000 photographs during his two-year travels around the country). Incidentally, of the eighty-three, eight are from New York City: plates 10, 12, 16, 27, 43, 53, 65, and 67. 

For one last and especially evocative comparison of images, consider looking at Stettner’s “Six Windows” (in Penn Station, pp. 40-41, also in Louis Stettner’s New York, pp. 116-117) next to Frank’s “Trolley—New Orleans” (plate 18). (These images are the last two in the accompanying gallery.) Between them there are sixteen windows. In eleven of them there are people, in five there are abstractions (distorted reflections of the street). I am looking at the images as I write this and feel in this comparison an unusual wealth of resonant associations. This intimate occurrence of peopled and unpeopled imagery, here felt to come from different realms of human experience, represents to me so many of the necessary artistic and social purposes photographs can have. And in thinking of these manifold purposes, I am reminded of Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content and the accompanying bibliography’s three books by Robert Adams. These four books have helped me find or refine the values I hold in photography as art; in photography beyond its artistic potential; in the arts more broadly; and occasionally in matters well beyond art.


Note: If you prefer to browse, you will find most of the Library's photography books on stack 12, call number range 770. To search the Library catalog, begin with the subject headings Street photographywhich is subdivided by location, and New York (N.Y.)  Pictorial works, which gathers books featuring NYC photography. —Ed.