Street photography has typically been linked to stories of on-the-scene reporters and lucky snapshots. But its power comes from a deeper interaction between the shooter and the street, according to photographer Joel Meyerowitz and Art Institute curator Colin Westerbeck, who collaborated on the new book Bystander: A History of Street Photography (Bulfinch Press). A related exhibit of 120 photos is currently at the Art Institute along with a show of color photographs from Meyerowitz’s early years, “Joel Meyerowitz on the Street: The First Decade.”

“It’s the kind of photography that tells us something crucial about the nature of the medium as a whole,” says Westerbeck. Describing Walker Evans’s photo essays of Detroit and Chicago, published in Fortune magazine during the late 1940s, he writes, “We can feel an almost physical impact of the photographer with the subject, a collision, a confrontation, as if Evans had purposely bumped into the people he photographed.”

In an overtly literal specimen of street shooting–Lisette Model’s Running Legs series–Westerbeck spies a psychological angle: “This imagery is straight out of the bad dreams of a refugee from Nazism. The pictures have an oppressive, claustrophobic feeling, as if made by somebody who had lost her footing in a panic in the streets and was being trampled by the crowd.”

Many of the photographers themselves talk tough about the genre, as if pursuing some macho sport. William Klein says he wanted his photos of New York street life in the 1950s to be “as brutal and vulgar” as the tabloid sensibility in the New York Daily News. “Sometimes I’d take shots without aiming, just to see what happened. I’d rush into crowds–bang! bang! . . . It must be close to what a fighter feels after jabbing and circling and getting hit, when suddenly there’s an opening and bang! Right on the button. It’s a fantastic feeling.” Westerbeck writes that Klein wielded his camera “as if it were a Saturday night special he was using to stick up a liquor store.”

Westerbeck will give a free slide lecture on the history of street photography, relating his personal encounters with photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, this Tuesday at 6 PM in Fullerton Auditorium of the Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan and Adams. Call 443-3600 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown & Company.