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Bystander: A History of Street Photography

Bystander by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz

Bystander: A History of Street Photography is a thoughtful text that is surprisingly readable and accessible despite its substantial length.

Colin Westerbeck, who is the primary author of the text, has a style of that is encyclopedic in the depth and breadth of his knowledge, while remaining engaging and free of the stilted language that bogs down too many histories and academic critiques of photography. That’s appropriate since throughout its history, street photography has often been a proletarian medium, drawing on the ordinary and attempting to turn it into extraordinary insight and vision.

An Expansive View

The book takes an expansive view of the genre of street photography considering just about any photographer who took pictures on the street as a street photographer. As such it encompasses such widely divergent photographers as Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, WeeGee, Lewis Hine and Diane Arbus.

Refreshingly, Westerbeck and co-author Joel Meyerowitz, have a clear perspective and opinion.  Unlike many histories of photography which get bogged down by endless recitations of individual photographers and what they are known for, this comprehensive history seamlessly weaves together major photographers, trends and social context. It explores and explains the evolution of street photography and ultimately provides not just a history of street photography, but a near complete history of photography as a whole.

It is clear that the authors love the street and love the photographs that are made on the street.

Filled with Details Large and Small

The book is filled with small details that are often overlooked by other histories. For example, it reveals that in 1920s England, Kodak – always anxious to promote the pastime and its association with their products – began issuing small buttons labeled “The Kodak Fellowship” which were intended to disarm subjects so that photographers would feel more comfortable photographing on the streets. Like a modern-day “PRESS” badge, the buttons gave an official air to photographers out on the streets presumably making it easier to capture candid images.

But, while such anecdotes are interesting, the real strength of the book is its thoughtful approach to its subject.

‘Drawn Like a Divining Rod’

It is clear that the authors love the atmosphere of the street, declaring it “…has aesthetic inherent in it, to whose discovery the camera is drawn like a divining rod.”

At the same time, they are not indifferent to the fact that most street photography, and in fact, often the strongest images, “…cannot help being exploitative…It is an act of appropriation. It always requires in some measure the kind of droit du seigneur, (‘Right of the Lord’) the sense of one’s personal powers of eminent domain…”

There is some irony in the fact that many of the photographers who take to the streets are in reality very private and quiet people themselves. As the authors point out, Henri Cartier-Bresson tried to make himself invisible when photographing. Vivian Maier was so reclusive that it is only by chance that we know her today.

Tribute to the Famous and the Forgotten

The book not only pays tribute to well-known photographers who have made their mark on the history of the art, but also gives credit to some of the photographers who practiced in near anonymity – those who have simply been lost or overlooked by history and some who were known at the height of their careers, but are now neglected. The common thread running through many of these careers was that they often photograph. not for fame or recognition, but because they are compelled to by an inner voice.

Of course, the most compulsive of street photographers was also one whose work has become synonymous with the genre – Garry Winogrand. A photographer so compulsive that at his death he left behind nearly 300,000 unedited images including about 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film. A photographer who gave us the famous line, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”

In-Depth with the Greats

One of the strengths of the book is that it devotes ample coverage to a handful of significant photographers like Winogrand, along with Robert Frank, Eugene Atget and others, without ignoring lesser-known artists.

Histories often jump from one trend to another, and can give readers the impression that great artists simply spring up fully developed out of the ether. By placing the work of artists like Frank into context, the authors do a service to our understanding of how photography has evolved, while also granting recognition to lesser-known artists.

A Rich Collection of Photographs

Accompanying and complementing the text are a wealth of photographs selected by Meyerowitz. The images not only illustrate every aspect and era covered by the book, but are also, by themselves an excellent portfolio of significant images, as well as many that are less well-known but equally intriguing.

I believe the best photography books are those that can be enjoyed simply by looking at the pictures and thanks to Meyerowitz’s photo editing that is true of Bystander. But, it would be a shame not to absorb the full text.

Defending Reality

The book opens with an eloquent defense of traditional, reality-based photography and the truths that it reveals when photographers turn to the streets. That reality has been under siege for decades as the art world has embraced post-modernist fictions that blur or even demolish the lines between reality and fantasy.

The authors make it clear that they come down squarely on the side of traditional or straight photography.

Westerbeck writes, “For me, the essence of art lies in the way in which it differs from science. Science tries to eliminate ambiguity in order to get to a unitary truth, while art preserves ambiguity in order to give us a record of life as it is lived every day.”

It is, he explains “the ability of feelings or experiences that are contradictory and irreconcilable to be, nonetheless, equally true.”

Celebrating Ambiguity

Good street photography embraces and celebrates that ambiguity, providing the viewer with an opportunity to embrace the richness of life in all its complexities and contradictions.

In contrast, Westerbrook sees in Postmodernism a “closed loop of photographs that are only about photography. It has the dullness of life theorized about rather than experienced.”

The strength and power of street photography, in fact of all “straight photography” is evidenced by the fact that while galleries and art critics may embrace the post-modernists and post- post-modernists, it is the work of photographers like Walker Evans, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander that continue to be exhibited, published and republished decade after decade.  


Still, I think it is unfortunate that the authors have not included some well-known contemporary artists whose work clearly falls into their own broad definition of street photography. A glaring example would be the absence of Andreas Gursky, an artist whose Rhein II set a record in in 2011 for the highest price paid at auction for a photograph ($4.39 million).

Gursky’s 99 Cent, depicting the interior of a 99-cent store in Los Angeles is but one example among his images which encapsulate the modern era in much the same way that the work of Walker Evans and Robert Frank did at the time they were photographing. 

Gursky readily acknowledges that his images are often subtly manipulated digitally, which raises intriguing and important questions about the nature of visual integrity and truth in an era in which AI is crashing down on all of us. A debate that could greatly benefit from the authors’ viewpoints.

Similarly, the authors devote a significant discussion to Diane Arbus which might well have benefited from at least a cursory examination of the work of someone like Rineke Dijkstra, who has produced a body of work in color that draws on Arbus’ straight-into-the-camera-flash-lit style, but reveals a more tender, empathetic and human connection to her subjects than Arbus.

Lost Opportunities

Finally, it should be noted that the photographers and images selected are heavily weighted toward Americans and Europeans, all but ignoring Asia and the global south. One glaring omission is that of Sebastião Salgado, who may be the greatest living chronicler of the region.

I consider these omissions not so much criticisms but rather as lost opportunities, because I really would like to read more from Westerbeck and Meyerowitz.

In the end Bystander, despite its truly massive depth and breadth, leaves the reader wanting more. But then, that is what any good book should do. 

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