Sly Shooters: NYC Street Photography 101
The whole object of being a street photographer is to avoid attention. But filmmaker Cheryl Dunn wants everyone to see these sneaky photographers — or at least their work. Her documentary Everybody Street, currently in the works, pays homage to New York City street photographers, ranging from 95-year-old Rebecca Lepkoff, whose photos show a 1930s and '40s Lower East Side, to Boogie's contemporary Brooklyn.
The Picture Show asked Dunn to present one photo by 10 of these New York City street photographers — and to explain what's so great about them.
by Cheryl Dunn
1. Rebecca Lepkoff
What can you say about a 95-year-old woman who practices yoga regularly and has been shooting the streets of New York since her teenage years in the Photo League? A true inspiration to me. She approached the streets like a choreographer, composing for the stage. Her work is part of a small amount of images of the immigrant neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, where life was lived on the stoops and the streets. Her pictures of children are particularly beautiful and strong.
2. Bruce Davidson
Davidson's book Subway is my favorite photo book ever made of New York City. During the era of the late '70s, early '80s, when the city was bankrupt and incredibly dangerous, he would wake up at 1 a.m. and ride the spiderweb of tracks from one end to the other. The result — a juicy color document of the extreme conditions that New Yorkers were navigating at that time. Some of the pictures are disturbing, but there is always a feeling of hope.
3. Mary Ellen Mark
She is a technical master, shooting every format there is with precision. ... She has lived for months in asylums, been pelted with garbage on Falkland Road when documenting the prostitution trade in Mumbai, and went to the Philippines to document the set of Apocalypse Now. She was one tough chick. ... She has aggressively pursued every opportunity and assignment she ever had. "I always jump right in," she told me. "You're there to take pictures."
4. Jill Freedman
Jill Freedman is one ballsy lady. She rode around with cops on the beat for two years in the late '70-80s in two of New York's toughest neighborhoods. ... She told me that she realized there was no form of media, film or other, that portrayed cops as human — with families, just trying to do this dangerous and emotionally draining job.
5. Joel Meyerowitz
His corners are the four converging on 57th and 5th. He speaks like a poet and a professor with the utmost love for his chosen field. Like a kid in a candy shop, his excitement is contagious about all things photography. Meyerowitz was a Brooklyn boy, whose father (who worked in Vaudeville) taught him to anticipate action on the street. Joel's quick moves and eye for light, color and the absurd are ever-present in his work.
6. Bruce Gilden
You can always recognize a Bruce Gilden picture. Besides the city streets, he walked the beaches of Coney Island and published a quintessential book of these images spanning 1969-86. A born-and-bred Brooklyn boy, he has no problem getting in close.
Boogie is fearless. He took to the streets and rolled into parts of New York where most of its citizens would not venture. He grew up in Belgrade and is no stranger to extreme conditions. His pictures are hard, yet poetic.
8. Jeff Mermelstein
Mermelstein is a colorist. He finds the funny irony of the New York theater like no other. Born in New Jersey, he came to New York wide open to absorb it all. Midtown is his turf, with the high concentration of pedestrians and business making for a great mix of "anything can happen," as is illustrated beautifully throughout his work.
9. Ricky Powell
For a New Yorker of my generation, Ricky Powell is a legend. Growing up in the West Village with a single mom, he called Union Square his playground; he would just roll up to anyone for a shot, rarely to be denied. Ricky's street smarts garnered him this shot of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michele Basquiat; as he ran up, he beat the throngs of other photographers and adorning fans congregating at the gallery a block away.
10. Martha Cooper
Without Martha Cooper, we would barely have a record of the birth of hip hop, the art of train graffiti and the streets of alphabet city when there were full city blocks of rubble. She studied to be an anthropologist and used her skills to document the streets and the behavior of its inhabitants. Her pictures often celebrate peoples' need to creatively express themselves no matter what one has to work with.