It’s Trust vs. Wariness on Our Urban Streets

For Eyes on the Street, Cincinnati Art Museum’s contribution to the FotoFocus Biennial, curator Brian Sholis set out to do something more than just display still photographs and short films/videos that he liked.

Nov 19, 2014 at 12:27 pm
click to enlarge Philip-Lorca diCorcia's "Head #13"
Philip-Lorca diCorcia's "Head #13"

For Eyes on the Street, Cincinnati Art Museum’s contribution to the FotoFocus Biennial, curator Brian Sholis set out to do something more than just display still photographs and short films/videos that he liked. As this was his first show since coming to Cincinnati from New York a year ago, he wanted to posit a provocative new idea — to shape a conversation — about the evolution of street photography in a changing world.

No more is it what it was in the mid-20th century, when (mostly male) romantic, heroic figures prowled urban streets with their hand-held cameras, hunting for something/someone unexpectedly striking to candidly photograph.

The events of 9/11 changed street life everywhere. To a large degree, the street was now its own camera, as security needs prompted video monitoring everywhere. At the same time, everyone with a smart phone is now a photographer with the potential for instant worldwide distribution and impact. What can old-fashioned street photographers do to top that? New ideas are needed.

Sholis’ Eyes on the Street attempts to address both of those societal changes simultaneously, while not losing track of the fact he’s showing fine art. He has selected relatively recent work from 10 international artists. The show is up through Jan. 4, 2015.

It’s a daunting task, maybe too big a goal for a show of moderate size, and I wish he had narrowed the scope to only include images of people. (Although it would mean missing something monumental like the German-born Michael Wolf’s “Night #20” cityscape.)

And not everything included is equally interesting. The German-born Barbara Probst meticulously synchronized 12 cameras to simultaneously take 12 separate yet loosely related photographs, but the results aren’t up to the conceptualist idea.

Overall, Sholis has approached this with humanism and optimism — a tribute to writer Jane Jacobs, whom he credits with the title phrase. (In 1961’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she saw “eyes on the street” as a good thing.)

The show tries to show us that on these streets and cities overstuffed with dystopia-inducing screens and cameras, there is still a place for trust. And hope.

The artist who most decidedly confronts that possibility is Jill Magid, a New Yorker who worked with Liverpool’s City Watch surveillance system to make the 2004 digital video (with sound) called, fittingly, Trust. Wearing a red coat, she walks and sometimes stands along a crowded pedestrian plaza with eyes closed as the unseen male system operator gives her instructions. (We hear what she hears in her earpiece.)

It’s frightening and also thrilling, both for her daring and for what it implies about our dependence upon one another. It helps that his voice is calm — warm, even — and when he has her open her eyes and then says, “Good morning,” you think this could be the set-up for a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie.

Oddly enough, another artist whose work best conveys optimism about the unexpected use of street cameras is also one of the most controversial: the New York-based Philip-Lorca diCorcia. From 1999-2001, he built a kind of camouflaged photo booth under scaffolding on Times Square. He remotely triggered a strobe flash when someone walked under, and then took their picture with a large-format camera from a half block away.

One of the subjects, an older man from this Head series, sued the photographer for appropriating his image for “advertising” purposes — it’s in the show as “Head #13.” A judge held the work was art and thus protected.

But it’s hard to see where any complaint could be in diCorcia’s “Head #23,” a large color print. The subject here is a teenage girl, who seems to wear the intense lighting like a crown of creation. With a half-smile and glancing shyly downward, her thoughtful face is full of inner life, curiosity and happiness. You see her and you think, “There is a future.”

And American filmmaker James Nares’ mesmerizing film Street, shot on New York streets with a high-speed, high-definition camera and then shown in intoxicating slow motion, is people-watching as cinematic epic.

The show ends with an eight-minute, single-take Steadicam shot of Beirut by the Canadian Mark Lewis that, in its stalking and soaring movements, could have inspired Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography in Birdman. It ends with a hauntingly strange image — a woman doing laps in an apartment building’s small outdoor pool. She’s like an animal pacing the cage — she should be out on that street, part of humanity.

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CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]