Do some research into contemporary street photography. Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Paul Graham, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr are some good names to start with, but you may be able to find further examples for yourself.
I decided to first have a look at some of the Masters of street photography, namely Joel Meyerowitz, Helen Levitt, Joel Sternfeld and Martin Parr. I then looked at a few contemporary street photographers: Nils Jorgensen, Todd Gross and Matt Stuart. Some examples of their work is listed below.
What differences does colour make to a genre that traditionally was predominantly black and white?
Although these photographers all started off shooting in black and white they now prefer to shoot in colour. Black and white represents an abstract form. The human eye does not see in black and white. Colour describes more than black in white as it conveys emotion, feelings, radiance and sensation to the images. Colour is representative of real life. A photograph of a woman in a red dress in black and white is just a photograph of a woman in a dress, but in colour the red dress can convey sexiness, lust and passion. Certain colours in images can trigger memories of past years which would not be possible in black and white. Colour also lends spontaneity to images. If one compares two of Helen Levitt’s photographs of children playing in street, we can clearly see that the colour photo conveys a sense of spontaneity and fun while the black and white photo just concentrates on the shapes.
Can you spot the shift away from the influence of surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work)?
Surrealism is defined in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as ‘a 20th-century movement in art and literature that tries to express what is in the subconscious mind by showing objects and events as seen in dreams’. According to Liz Wells (2009, p. 282) this is an oversimplification of the artists’ intents. The aim of Surrealism is ‘to disorient the spectator; to push towards the destruction of conventional ways of seeing; and to challenge rationalist frameworks.’ Early surrealist photographers such as Man Ray and Maurice Tabard use methods such as montage, double exposure, rotation, distortion and solarization to disorient the viewer and to achieve a sense of dreamlikness. According to The Art Story website, Surrealism began in 1924 and ended in 1966. Looking at Cartier-Bresson’s work featured on the Magnum website it would seem that there was a shift away from surrealism after World War II although I can’t be certain of this. Notwithstanding, I do think surrealism is still quite prevalent today. A short lecture on surrealism in photography can be seen below.
How is irony used to comment on British-ness or American values?
Dr Biljana Scott in her paper entitled ‘Picturing Irony: the subversive power of photography’ states that there are two kinds of irony that can be encountered in photography. The easiest one to spot or read is the word based visual irony. One example of this is can be seen in two American FSA photographers’ work. In Margaret Bourke-White’s series of ads for the ‘American Way of Life‘ the photograph shows a huge billboard featuring a car and the typical American family of four together with their driving in their car. Text on the right side of the billboard states that ‘there’s no way like the American way’, and the title text at the top of the billboard states ‘world’s highest standard of living’, while beneath the large billboard is a long queue of black Americans standing in an unemployment line. The irony in this photo depends on the juxtapositioning of the white-black social classes and also the have’s and have-not’s. Similar statements can be made for Dorothea Lange’s ‘Toward Los Angeles, California’. The two men traveling on foot are urged to try the train next so that they can relax. Obviously they do not have money for the train.
Scott lists some of the defining properties of irony as:
- a dual perspective, one which reveals the dominant representation, while the other offers a subversive alternative
- an ideological component: which sets two orders of reality and associated belief systems into conflict with each other
- a dissembling component, or at least an element of differential awareness, between the ironist-cum-audience and the unwitting victim of irony
- an incongruity, which alerts the viewer to either the intention or the potential for irony.
The other type of irony Scott references is the “Echoic Mention Theory of Irony”. This is a more subtle form of irony which employs specific criteria to evaluate the presence of irony. This type of irony involves the ‘mention’ rather than the outright ‘use’ of the proposition. It also involves a critical attitude. An example that Scott cites of the echoic mention irony is Robert Doisneau’s Rue Jacques Pervert, Paris 1955 photograph. She states:
… an arrogant looking man in hat, tie and pinstripe suit, cigarette in mouth, dog at his heals, stands in front of a shop. Judging from the awning, the shop is called ‘Merode’, but because the man’s head obscures the letter ‘O’ from the name on the shop front, the remaining letters spell out ‘merde’ (‘shit’ in French). Doisneau uses this coincidence in order to pass an ironical judgment on the man: he may think he’s hot, but we see him in another light, and unbeknown to him, he has been labelled as such. In the terms of echoic mention theory, the man’s body language is a genuine statement about himself (use). This same body language is signalled as a pose (mention) by the photographer, whose critical (echoic) attitude is reflected in the text of the shop name.
So it is fairly clear that where words are involved with images, it is easier to detect the irony in the visual message. Where the image is wordless the image must allude to a common understanding or view, but knock it flat at the same time.
Todd Gross makes use of signs in his photographs to convey irony to illustrate the much sort after New York Life as well as cultural hand signs and street signs to convey a sense of arrogance. American Richard Bram plays on politics, engaging in our knowledge of the Iraq war to convey irony in this photograph of an American soldier crouching behind an art installation which is in front of a middle-eastern food truck selling halaal food. He also plays on patriotism in this photograph of a girl sleeping on the street. British photographer, Matt Stuart uses playfulness and colour to draw attention to lawlessness and status symbols and of course, British photographer, Martin Parr uses irony to poke fun at tourists and the way they behave when on holiday.
Blake Gopnik on Art, (2011) (online) Available from: http://blakegopnik.com/post/8870502454 [Accessed 6 June, 2015]
In-Public (online). Available from: http://www.in-public.com/ [Accessed 6 June, 2015]
Lange, Dorothea (March 1937). Toward Los Angeles, California. [negative: nitrate]. [online image]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA [LC-USF34- 016317-E]. Available from: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa2000000962/PP/ [Accessed 6 June 2015]
Photography and Surrealism (online). The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phsr/hd_phsr.htm [Accessed 6 June, 2015]
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1989). 4th ed. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Scott, Biljana (n.d.). PICTURING IRONY: the subversive power of photography. University of Oxford.
Surrealism (online). The Art Story: Modern Art Insight. Available from: http://www.theartstory.org/movement-surrealism.htm [Accessed 6 June, 2015]
The Surrealists [vidcast, online] The Adventure of Photography. Dir. Philippe Azoulay, Rosebud Productions, France, 25/01/2013. 25 mins 10 secs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSKHW-7FssY (accessed 6 June, 2015)