One day last week, my husband, John, and I visited one of those museums, the National Gallery of Art, because there were a couple of exhibitions we'd been wanting to see. The first was on street photography, a way of taking pictures that originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson. Street photographers capture life on city streets or in other public places. Their best images are candid portraits of people in their everyday setting, who likely had no idea they were being photographed.
Many photographers have contributed to this tradition, but the show began with Walker Evans and his portraits of riders on the New York City subway, made between 1938 and 1941. I am fascinated by pictures like these, because they offer a window back in time, but I also appreciate Evans's gift for capturing something of his subjects' character. These subway riders are tired, preoccupied, or caught up in a simple moment. A decade later, Harry Callahan surreptitiously photographed women walking along the street in Chicago. The concept is unsettling, but the best of these images are haunting and dark, vague faces emerging from blackness.
Evans, Callahan, and others worked largely in black and white, but Bruce Davidson chose bold color for his subway series from the 1980s. Color was the only way to capture the vibrancy of the graffiti that covered New York's subway cars in these years, inside and out, as well as the reeling hues riders often wore. These big photographs had to be the grittiest in the show, but they were among the most beautiful and memorable. The exhibition, titled "I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street," closed on August 5. The images are too recent for me to post without permission, but the brochure is available online: http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2012/ispy/ispy.pdf.
I was captivated by Bellows's fearless use of color. A painting might glory, for example, in blue or purple or white. He painted a number of his cityscapes in winter, a season he clearly loved. John, in contrast, preferred the work in black and white, the lithographs and drawings. I asked him why, and he answered that as a photographer he appreciates black and white images, and that he savored Bellows's fine detail when working with a pencil or pen.
Then it was time to go, but before leaving the museum I paid a quick visit to an old friend: