at Prospectus, through June 20
Helen Levitt and Roger Mayne: Vintage Street Photographs
at Stephen Daiter, through June 13
By Fred Camper
Many of Ron Gordon’s 89 Chicago images at Prospectus are well within existing traditions of documentary photography, revealing an interesting face or building we haven’t seen before, perhaps, but offering no fundamentally new way of seeing. More unusual are 12 large grids, each containing between 9 and 20 individual photos, documenting single locations over time periods ranging from minutes to a year. Night falls on the Wrigley building; a drawbridge is raised and lowered as a boat passes beneath. These little frozen movies remind us more graphically than most single shots that photography represents mere instants in time, scenes that were once different and will soon change.
Muybridge made this point more than a century ago in his many series on human and animal locomotion, of course, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen changes in Chicago documented as explicitly and incisively as in Gordon’s grids. A block of buildings is demolished, and rubble becomes parking lots; a loft is renovated; old Comiskey Park comes down and the new one rises. While Gordon, a native Chicagoan born in 1942, takes a straightforward documentary approach that makes it appear he’s not judging these changes, his sympathies seem to lie with the old, the grungy, and the stylishly messy; certainly I found the transitions he documents troubling.
National Cafeteria 1 follows the demolition of a whole block from a single camera angle. The series begins with views of a storefront eatery with two different signs in two different styles. The signs are disassembled, then the whole building comes down, and finally the adjacent building is gone, too. Gordon’s unchanging vantage point makes the transition seem all the more stark: the physical boundaries of the scene become a kind of given on which these human interventions intrude. By the end we see a parking lot and tall buildings in the background that had been blocked by the razed structures–but the whole process seems almost cravenly pointless. Perhaps there’s a photographic style that can make parking lots seem as meaningful and attractive as old buildings, but I have yet to see it.
Chicago Stadium documents that structure’s demolition from different angles, its frame–which was apparently disassembled gradually–evident almost throughout, like a skeleton that won’t decay. The very last shot also includes the photographer’s shadow, stretched out on the empty pavement, as if Gordon felt the need to bear witness to destruction by inscribing a human presence on an otherwise desolate landscape.
The grid I found scariest is superficially the most benign. Tyner White–Scott Sonic documents the transformation of a hippie loft into an architect’s office. It begins with a photograph of White in his loft, shows us the loft’s renovation, and ends with Sonic standing in his new offices. Again the camera angle is the same throughout, and as a result the changes in the space seem almost an impingement on the viewer’s field of vision. The first image shows an aging hippie holding several interesting homemade contraptions (Gordon writes in his notes for the show that White made his pieces “out of discarded materials…for smoking what he called spices, I think to avoid any problems with the law”). The cluttered space around White is messy enough to look human: there are things on the floor but also things organized on shelves and in drawers. White wears a warm if slightly goofy smile. Then the space is shown devoid of human presence; soon drywall rises in the otherwise empty loft. The final photo reveals that Sonic’s office walls don’t go up to the ceiling, making the space look like a stage or movie set–a trend in modern interiors. Sonic stands with his jacket slung coolly and fashionably over his shoulder, like an actor projecting an image. Because his position in the frame is similar to White’s, the series offers a vision of human transformation as well. In fact White has complained to Gordon that some of his friends thought he was Sonic, “that he too had been renovated into the neat and trim new Tyner.” That misinterpretation shows the strength of Gordon’s approach: his documentation makes it seem that ornate buildings become parking lots, that hippies become trendy yuppies.
Unfortunately, many of Gordon’s single images lack the power of his series–though all document areas of Chicago worth looking at. What makes documentary photography an art is the excitement produced not only by the subject matter but by the photographer’s style. In this vein Eugene Atget’s poetic, haunting, faintly morbid pictures of Paris streets and French monuments have never been surpassed, but many other relatively straightforward photographs do both present their subjects and express some feeling. Gordon has some such photos in this show. The birds rising above a partly demolished building, its rooms still visible, in Building With Pigeons feel like the ghosts of former inhabitants. A bit of ornamentation hanging by some barbed wire from a building’s side in Barbed Wire–Maxwell Street dangles against the sky, the barbed wire more ornate than the building.
But too often Gordon’s head-on views seem obvious, and whatever poetry and drama there are in his images come only from the subject, making one wish to see the original scene. Human beings are often simply posed alongside their possessions; buildings are centered in the frame as if the image were meant merely as a substitute for the object itself.
After my first visit to the gallery, I passed a building being demolished on Halsted and thought back to the times I’ve watched such demolitions. Inevitably they’re much more compelling–and much creepier–than any of Gordon’s single photos suggest, as the sound of the wrecking ball blends with the irregular ways the walls come down and the odd vistas offered by each newly exposed room. After my second visit I discovered that the demolition was complete and the building had been replaced with a paved lot. And I realized that Gordon’s almost bitter series had helped sharpen my sense of the evolution–or devolution–of this particular locus of change.
An exhibit of vintage street photographs at Stephen Daiter also reminded me of the documentary photographer’s principal dilemma: how to make a photograph a document and work of art at once. Roger Mayne, an Englishman born in 1929, is represented by 14 vintage prints of 1950s photos taken in areas of London soon to be demolished in the British version of “urban renewal.” His subjects are mostly children, not posed but playing–rolling a bicycle wheel down a street, having a snowball fight, in midair reaching for a ball. Mayne’s images are dynamic: the boy on a bike in Addison Place looks ready to move; the kids in Dublin seem to be scouting the street, ready to fight.
Mayne’s willingness to photograph directly and without aesthetic artifice such gritty, lower-class scenes was more daring than it might seem today, given that in the same decade Sir Leigh Ashton of the Victoria and Albert Museum informed him that “photography is a purely mechanical process into which the artist does not enter.” Mayne’s images match Gordon’s in directness and honesty, and surpass them in the way his active kids make their unyielding, stony neighborhoods into arenas of play. Nonetheless, Mayne’s photographs never make the leap beyond straightforward document.
Yet Helen Levitt’s images make it clear such a leap can be made even in unmanipulated street photography. Her work is represented at Stephen Daiter by 37 vintage prints from the 1930s and 1940s–photographs of Mexico, of New York City, and of street graffiti. The contrast between her work and Mayne’s is starkest when they’re photographing similar subjects. Mayne in his Children in a Bombed Building shows three kids climbing up a shelving unit. One boy is just lifting himself up, a girl in the center stands on the top shelf, and a third kid is just climbing out of sight. The shot has the random quality of a mid-action view; the peeling walls around the children add atmosphere to the scene, which their play humanizes. Yet in comparison with Levitt’s delicately angled views, Mayne’s symmetrical head-on image is impersonal and uninventive. His camera seems less alive and adventurous than his subjects; at her best, Levitt dances with hers.
The comparable Levitt photo (N.Y., c. 1940) shows a lone boy climbing, but his pose, attire, and position in the frame all have a surprising, almost surreal beauty: the odd position he’s gotten himself into is both awkward and poetic. The kid has ascended a door frame; his body is bent slightly at the waist, indicating the tension required to maintain his position and his dynamic interaction with the architecture. He’s wearing a funny multisided cardboard hat, which I first took to be a building ornament–a lighting fixture, perhaps. A big rip in the back of his shirt almost matches the tears in the wallpaper to his right and the torn-off wall panel above him. In Levitt’s eyes this is not simply another boy at play but a kind of performance artist whose costume and pose underline every aspect of the world around him, bringing it to life. The hallway visible behind him opens up the image, as does Levitt’s composition, a mix of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals. The boy’s head is angled toward the dark hallway, perhaps indicating where he’ll explore next.
Despite the intimacy of such scenes, Levitt–a New Yorker born in 1913–also has a way of standing back, as if hesitating to invade her subjects’ privacy. We don’t know why the boy’s left eye, the only one we can see, is closed. She never pretends to offer the penetration of a master portraitist, revealing her subjects’ essential nature; rather, her photographs are presented as transitory if elegant moments in some dance, never meant to reveal all of a character. Each delicately dynamic pose suggests the subject is about to become something else: the crying child will smile again, the irritated adult will be calm.
Levitt’s subjects aren’t always children, nor are they always happy. Mexico City, 1941 shows a group of people in different poses not interacting at all. A boy in the foreground picks his nose; a man behind him eats a large taco, his head and jaw drooping; a little girl to the right carries a pan. The expression on each face is so odd and sharply defined that we know it’s only momentary–even nose pickers don’t pick their noses all the time. Each person looks in a different direction, conveys a different kind of body language, and occupies the space differently. Levitt’s approach to them shows a profound respect: capturing each person at a sharply defined moment, she shows each as free and independent from the others.
Her work is at its most sublime, however, when her subjects are children. Most of the frame in N.Y., c. 1938 is filled with the rear end of a large truck, its sealed door reinforced by heavy wooden beams. But one boy peering over the top of the truck is trying to open the door from above while another standing on the tailgate tries to open it from below. Once again Levitt’s slightly oblique angle creates a more open sense of the space. As the two boys try to seize control of the apparently impregnable truck, they seem almost to be stretching toward each other. Dwarfed by the trailer and tiny in the composition, the boys nevertheless seem about to convert the truck–and the photograph–into their very own playground.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Barbed Wire–Maxwell Street” by Ron Gordon; “Children in a Bombed Building” by Roger Mayne.