Bystander: A History of Street Photography

  By John Veldhoen

When was it? Seven years ago? I was working in a bookstore in a photography gallery and I had access to a tattered copy of the original version of this book from 1994. I looked through it, but can’t say I read it. At the time, I wasn’t making photographs that were any good myself, and I wasn’t reading anything with intention either. I was just looking (but not seeing).

I guess it was five years ago, I went through a phase when I was photographing constantly on the street, mostly in film. I came across this book again at the University library where I had spent the cold winter reading. When I started ordering books for The Camera Store, this was the book I wanted for our customers the most, given that the most interesting photographers in Calgary may be given to the category, or genre, of street photography. The unfortunate thing is it was out of print. Now, thankfully, the book is available again from the same publisher that has made our best-selling “Read this Book if You Want…” series.

“Bystander: A History of Street Photography” is the only comprehensive survey of its kind. It is hard for me to separate my changing perspectives from it, since for good or ill, I have practiced a form of this kind of picture making. The start of the book, beginning with the earliest examples of architectural and verité pictures (mainly by the so-called French primitives) is so separate from the art claims of the pictorialist photographers, and is still the most exciting part to me, along with American pictures from the 60’s and 70’s. The section of writing on Harry Callahan’s intentional subversion of the Bauhaus is also intriguing, given how the last two years I have been investigating Josef Albers’ theoretical writing, and photocollage.

I think the last section, now revised, is also a benefit, reading about Joel Meyerowitz’ working habits is valuable, inasmuch as a master practitioner relaying the kernel of experience is worth its weight in gold. So, if you are working as a photographer, this book is essential insofar as learning about the past does seem to abrogate the chance of making boring pictures. But, I think the greater interest in this book is historical. The section of Jacques Henri-Latrigue is fascinating because Latrigue does seem, with the benefit of hindsight, the representative photographer of his age. And that may be the weakness of the latter, newly revised part of this book. It is too early to tell who or what is representative of the current age. Street photographers today seems engaged is breaking away from the mode that recognizably has become a genre.

I take Anthony Hernandez as the stylistic forerunner of this subversion, and Jeff Wall’s comment about how Hernandez broke away from a formal attitude that would have otherwise marked his work as “representative of the genre” as a directive. “Bystander” makes bare mention of the new currents in style in “street” photography right now, only because it hardly can, given that this age is just coming to light on corners of Instagram. The new photography is not as direct as the French primitive “representatif” picture, nor is it so concentratedly pictoriarialist, but has reformed into something akin to allegory.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.