New York Street Photography Illustrates Everyday City Life

The McMullen Museum of Art’s newest exhibit showcases black-and-white street photography from Alen MacWeeny and selected photographs from six other photographers (Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Aaron Siskind, Jerome Liebling, Walter Rosenblum, and Donna Ferrato), curated by Karl Baden. These photographs offer a glimpse into New York City life and the bearings of street photography style from the 1920s to the early 21st century—a time adjacent to the mass-media culture of today.  

The exhibit’s first installment features 10 large-scale panoramas of MacWeeny and a Century of New York Street Photography. The panoramas display two parallels: two different images seamlessly superimposed next to each other—creating compactness, mirroring the confines of the subway cars. Veiled in a layer of grain, the photos capture a blur of subway cars, bustling bodies, and lonesome figures darting past. Strings of graffiti and defunct advertisements scream from the walls of the subway platform: “Ask Us!;” “Yeshiva University;” “Winston filter cigarettes.”

Everyone in the pictures is either unaware or oblivious of the camera. No one directly stares, no one vies for attention. This is vastly different from the camera-crazed culture of today. Rather, the New York City residents of all ages remain undeterred or unaware, many masking expressionless, blank stares, closed eyes attempting to acquire rest and relief. One man stands out among the rest, however—not just staring, but glaring into the camera, imprisoned behind the windows of a passing subway car. One camera shutter clap and this older gentleman, who dons a heavy wool coat and black gloves with a garish fur cap in the picture, brandishes his steely gaze. MacWeeny has been caught in the act.  

The second part of the exhibit takes street style photography aboveground—to the New York City streets. Berenice Abbott captured the changing New York City landscape in the 1930s, Walker Evans donned a hidden camera in the subway (a predecessor to MacWeeny), Aaron Siskind’s work provided honest portrayals of race and class in the city, Jerome Liebling honored “the everyday people,” and both Walter Rosenblum and Donna Ferrato found musings in their New York neighborhoods.      

At the time, the practice of street photography style was unassuming—MacWeeny captured people without them knowing or caring. It was about speed, a race to catch fleeting moments before they passed. Today, when cameras coexist with every mobile device, we are more self-aware than ever: attuned to the flash of a camera, the glow of a screen, nimble with self-edits varying in all extremes. Image is constantly captured, fine-tuned, filtered. Now, conversations about privacy in public atmospheres photographers have long sought-out for inspiration are changing the game of street style photography today—leading to the question of how street photography, at its core, will survive in the modern age.

The exhibit is set to show from Sept. 9 to Dec. 8 and is designed to coincide with a panel discussion on Nov. 13: “When Everyone Has a Camera: Street Photography, the Right to Free Expressions, and the Right to Privacy in the Internet Age.” This discussion will undoubtedly attempt to answer some of the questions posed by the contemplative images, but the truism holds for the exhibit. If a picture is worth a thousand words, street photography has nothing to lose but its voice.

Correction, Sept. 16, 11:03 a.m.: A previous version of this article stated that the panel discussion “When Everyone Has a Camera: Street Photography, the Right to Free Expressions, and the Right to Privacy in the Internet Age” will take place on Nov. 15. The discussion will, in fact, take place on Nov. 13.

Featured Image By  Alexa Spitz / Heights Staff