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Critic's Notebook: Ed Ruscha's revolutionary moment in street photography

The 'Streetwise' exhibition in San Diego walks with one generation of street photographers. Then Ed Ruscha came driving along, headed toward events to come.

March 27, 2011|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • "Los Angeles, California," a 1969 photograph by Garry Winogrand.
"Los Angeles, California," a 1969 photograph by Garry Winogrand. (Museum of Photographic…)

You don't hear much about street photography anymore. There are lots of reasons why. One, hitherto unacknowledged, is that artist Ed Ruscha's extraordinary photo books turned the genre upside down in the 1960s. It hasn't been the same since.


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article included a caption that identified the photograph as "untitled." The photograph is titled "Los Angeles, California."

In the '60s, street photography's art world stature was peaking. We'll get to Ruscha's brilliant reinvention in a moment, but first it's worth mentioning "Streetwise: Masters of '60s Photography," a quiet, sometimes absorbing show currently at San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts. It examines street photography's old ideal — a personal style of documentary camera-work that crystallized in the wake of "The Americans," Robert Frank's landmark 1958 book.

Capturing people in public situations with the utmost candor is street photography's general goal. Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation literary iconoclast, opened the book's introduction with this descriptive blast: "That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that's what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road ... ."

Kerouac took the opportunity to make a sly nod to "On the Road," his own 1951 autobiographical tale of wanderlust. Frank's book of photographs was controversial, its often grainy snapshot aesthetic light years away from the exquisite, carefully composed prints that represented photographers' long-standing yearning for their work's acceptance as high art.

"The Americans" said: To heck with that.

New York's Museum of Modern Art eventually picked up the dangling thread. Its influential 1967 exhibition "New Documents" displayed 92 works by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, all built on Frank's foundation. Considered radical at the time, it proposed that black-and-white pictures with ordinary subject matter and a casual, snapshot-like appearance represented photography's new direction.

The current San Diego show adds six more photographers for a nine-artist survey of the decade. The focus shifts a bit too: "Streetwise" looks at the intersection of street photographs and social upheaval during a tumultuous decade.

Among the works are Jerry Berndt's gritty pictures of the Combat Zone, a seedy Boston adult-entertainment district; Ruth-Marion Baruch's intimate chronicle of Oakland's Black Panther Party; and Ernest C. Withers' epochal documents of civil rights protests in the South — pictures given a slightly different cast by recent revelations that Withers, a confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., was also an FBI informant.

The genre certainly hasn't disappeared. Look at Flickr, Yahoo's Internet photo site. There's even an ongoing project called "Street Photography Now," named after a survey book by former Tate Modern curator Sophie Howarth and photographer Stephen McLaren.

But neither does it stand on the rarefied pedestal once reserved for it. "We're all street photographers now," Howarth and McLaren write, acknowledging the ubiquity of digital cellphone cameras. Yet in the 1960s and especially in the United States, street photography was the most celebrated photography there was.

It could even be traced to the modern camera's birth, starting with Louis Daguerre's picture of Paris' Boulevard du Temple, taken in 1838 or 1839. André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt and Brassaï, when they started working in the 1920s, ushered in what many consider European street photography's golden age.

America's Walker Evans didn't like the term, given its association with the hawkers of commercial souvenirs at carnivals and tourist sites. Still, his now-famous admonition to use the camera to "stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop" is as succinct a description of the genre as was ever uttered.

So what happened when Ed Ruscha came along? How did he transform it?

Simply said, Ruscha put street photography on wheels. Virtually all street photographs since Daguerre, regardless of style or subject, were conceived as a pedestrian's activity. With few exceptions, street photographs were what you took while walking in the city, often with a hand-held camera.

But nobody walks in L.A. — at least, they didn't used to, according to the old cliché (and the old Missing Persons song). Sprawling, freeway-carved Los Angeles rendered obsolete a distinction that arose from a European idea of urban experience. Why would an L.A. artist make pedestrian street photographs?

In 1966 Ruscha mounted an automatic camera in the bed of a pickup truck and drove up one side of West Hollywood's Sunset Strip and down the other, with the camera snapping away toward the sidewalks. The black-and-white photographs were printed side-by-side along the edges of a nearly 25-foot-long sheet of accordion-folded paper.

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