Part 4: Vivian Maier and the “modern”: Harry Callahan, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander
A “modern” approach to street photography, starting from the late 50’s often involves a “peripheral vision”, that is literally opening the frame and capturing much of what’s all around, instead of focusing on / detaching a main subject-matter (albeit its juxtaposed motifs). The result is the suggestion of multiple and sometimes opposite energies and directions and every so often the introduction of tension(s) and visual dissonances. Many old rules are broken. One could make a comparison with tonal music as opposed to polytonality/polymodality (and by the way it is interesting to note that jazz music went through a similar evolution at the very same period with musicians such as Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Jimmy Giuffree …)
Examples of these new conceptions are the ‘Providence’ photograph from Callahan.
… and this famous photograph below from Winogrand.
These new conceptions requires most of the time to frame into an horizontal aspect ratio (as opposed to square format and portrait format) which sounds rather logical because the world and its energies are largely organized horizontally. But actually there is a new, less rigid sense of frame in photograph which is being developed here, together with the use of lenses of wider angle than used before. And although it is sometimes wrongly perceived as lousy, casual (“snapshot”), there is a concern with filling the frame with as much information as possible (as Winogrand put it) often organized in complex and multi-layered manner (Friedlander), as opposed to narrow down and straighten the perspectives around a simple subject-matter.
Also from a rather psychological point of view a more ironical and detached way to look at the world around is achieved. Even the portrait pictures (straight portraits or more environmental one) would benefit from the horizontal aspect.
Exception to horizontal framing are for example the vertical shots that Winogrand did, especially of women. But in that case the combination of very wide angle and tilt would make it fit into this new aesthetic.
Another consequence of this approach is the decline of empathy in street photography and a higher detachment. The photographers seem to be engaged on a broader visual level rather than simply on one or two individuals detached from the background. Empathy leaves place to a disconnected, elusive, and sometimes a “cartoonesque” or an aggressive vision of the world (Garry Winogrand), or a “slower”, colder and more abstract one (Callahan, Friedlander).
This point is important when it comes to political and sociological themes evoked in photographs since the (western) world (especially America) then went through major changes and events (Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam war, the Feminist Movement…). But the most seminal figures of this new wave of photography would choose not to deal very seriously (i.e. politically) with all that, as opposed to a more radical form of photojournalism which was developing. Hence the controversy (and misunderstanding) around images such as Winogrand’s iconic mixed couple carrying chimps which is unsettling in the context of the rising of political correctness. And both Winogrand and Friedlander were heavily criticized for so-called “reactionary vision” in their women images and nudes. But as a matter of fact they were seemingly interested with the sheer visual aspect of photography first and foremost rather than by making political or sociological statements. “I photograph to see how things look like photographed”… at this point the divorce with photojournalism is complete and other major “straight”-photographers of the forthcoming generation such as Eggleston and Shore would likewise elude the political and sociological content from their work.
I think that Maier’s work does not set well into this new approach and instead remains remote thereof. Especially her sense of framing seem to have been inspired by more classical concerns, and it is likely that her use of square format was for her a showstopper to embrace these conceptions (not meaning that using that square crop was a no-go itself – see Friedlander use of it). Also she seems to have favored a closer proximity with subject matter and been concerned about faithful and detailed description, as opposed to a more elusive vision.
Fig 1 (above) and fig 2. (below), two photograhs from Maier that I find have a “Winogrand vibe” in it. Fig 2. is very interesting, involving some “uncertainty” and is derogatory to Maier’s usually rigorous and balanced framing. How many of that sort did she shot ?
… Could be that she focused more on her acquired strength and was more willing to refine her skills. Anyhow the evolution of her work from the 60’s and onward is still a bit of a mystery. Especially since there is very few work done with 35mm published so far to figure out if she successfully made a shift in her stylistic approach – or at least if she intended to make a shift. Some clues about that can be found in this recent interview with John Maloof but what we learn is not very promising (or maybe it is ?)
Did Vivian Maier had the “Atlanta” picture from Callahan (fig 3. above) in mind when she shot this one below (fig 4. below) ? But it is likely that the one from Maier is much older.. Anyway I am not sure that those two images are very comparable otherwise than just its main subject matter, the red spotted dress. The background and light condition seem to play as much as a prominent role in Callahan’s composition whereas Maier seemed to have been drawn by the hand gesture in the first place.
Of course that does not mean that she was kind of outdated at one point. She was not, that does not make sense. But it is worth to mention that her style does not achieve a comprehensive coverage of street-photography. This is worth to be mentioned at a time when one can read here and here many hyperbolic statements about Vivian Maier.