- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

''Open City: Street Photographs Since 1950," the photography blockbuster at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is an eye-opener. The show surveys the rougher aspects of life during the 50 years when humans learned to live with ever-present threats of atomic warfare and continuing alienation and violence in cities (the exhibition was organized before the terrorist attacks of September 11 and does not include photos relevant to them).

Even more than the sociological comments of photographers such as Robert Frank, William Klein, Jeff Wall and Beat Streuli, the techniques that range from small, black-and-white snapshots to fast-moving videos changed the world of photography and our lives. The realization that photography both reflects and shapes our universe becomes clear in traversing this 140-photo show by 19 artists.

Who could have predicted at midcentury that Philip-Lorca diCorcia would set up electric eyes on streets for passers-by to photograph themselves? Or that Nikki S. Lee would become part of the community she photographs, then have a friend take her picture with her newfound friends? Or that preoccupation with bizarre violence would stretch from the 1950s photos of Mr. Klein to current ones by Mr. Streuli?

These powerful and challenging works have been too long in coming to the Hirshhorn and Washington. Exhibit co-curator Kerry Brougher, the new Hirshhorn chief curator, organized it when he was director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, England. He worked with Russell Ferguson, chief curator of the Hammer Museum at the University of California Los Angeles, and the pair have added 43 more images at the Hirshhorn for a larger show.

Mr. Brougher acknowledges that the show took on larger and more varied directions than originally planned. "Remember the Italian filmmaker, Roberto Rossellini, who aside from his affair and marriage to film great Ingrid Bergman took to the streets of postwar Italy to show the reality of lives there?" the curator asks. He says he titled the show after Mr. Rossellini's 1945 film "Open City" to convey the idea of what he calls the "gritty, brutal realism and edginess" the filmmaker captured in the war-torn streets.

Mr. Frank and Mr. Klein applied the Italian's ideas to New York City to record what happened in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Those were the days of the American dream the very opposite of what they chose to photograph. Mr. Klein, a special favorite of Mr. Brougher's, shot energetic Latino youngsters shooting play guns at one another and laughing through their poverty in 1955's "Gun 2, New York." A Swiss photographer, Mr. Frank cruised America to find its disparities.

The show's organizers write in the exhibit brochure that photographers Mr. Klein and Mr. Frank transformed the use of the camera. They say the photographers used the camera almost as a pistol in capturing the claustrophobia and violence of America's slums. The two rejected the elegant pre-World War II techniques of photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget and Brassai for raw, on-the-spot speed and informality.

Photographers' fascination with alienation and brute force doesn't stop here. Catherine Opie shows the desolation people create for themselves in her panoramic "Wall Street" and "St. Louis" series. She recently shot the empty streets of Manhattan's financial district in the early morning and the decaying plazas of St. Louis to illustrate the late-20th-century alienation that goes directly back to the images of Mr. Rossellini, Mr. Klein and Mr. Frank.

The Korean-born Miss Lee also shows a concern with community, this time in becoming part of one. As in the "Hispanic Project (2)" of 1998, she went into a Hispanic group, made herself up to look part of it and had a friend photograph her.

Allan Sekula photographed another kind of community, this time workers leaving a factory at the end of a workday. As they walk toward his camera, they create the images for the sequences of slides called "Untitled Slide Sequence" of 1972.

The curators organized "Open City" in roughly chronological order. At first, the tough realism of photographers Mr. Klein and Mr. Frank continued in a variety of cities and countries. Two of the most impressive photographers are Japanese, Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama. Mr. Araki shows Japanese children creating games for themselves in their war-torn streets. As with the children of Mr. Klein's "Gun 2, New York," they have fun despite their horrific surroundings. Mr. Moriyama, also inspired by Mr. Klein, made images of the damaged society from scratched negatives of shots of 1960s Japan.

In Europe, Nigel Henderson shot an encompassing photographic record of London's East End, concentrating on storefronts covered with handmade advertisements. "It's a bizarre meeting place for the bleakness of postwar Britain and the soon-to-come pop explosion," the curators write in the exhibit brochure. In another ironic twist, Terence Donovan photographed "Top Coats" in a London slum in 1960 showing that contemporary street photography was well suited to contemporary fashion shots.

Up to and through the 1970s, photographers Mr. Klein and Mr. Frank dominated street photography with their quick-shoot approach. However, in what Mr. Brougher says was "photography opening up its arms to embrace the fine arts," photographers became influenced by the conceptual art practices of the late 1960s and early 1970s. They began staging events in new, often mammoth, photographic works. Artists such as Jeff Wall, Raghubir Singh, Thomas Struth and Mr. Streuli began using large-format view and panorama cameras with which to explore slide projection and video installation.

Mr. Wall stages actors and events much like a director creating a film. The photographer perfected the use of the light box he's dominated the genre since the 1970s and presents his large-scale photos as color transparencies in boxes. Mr. Singh photographs the streetscapes and countryside of India in excruciatingly brilliant, almost neon colors. Mr. Struth roamed the streets of Shanghai during 1995 to show the dislocation and claustrophobia of this avant-garde, contemporary Chinese city.

Works by Mr. Streuli taken with telephoto lenses sum up this significant exhibit near its end. The Swiss photographer travels the world to capture young, anonymous but alarmingly look-alike, young people. Is he saying sameness will be all of our futures?

This show confirms beyond a doubt that photography is one of the great art forms of the past 50 years perhaps the greatest. It also demonstrates the seemingly endless roads photographers travel to express the issues of annihilation, alienation, bizarre kinds of terror and longing for community that insistently gnaw at our society.

WHAT: "Open City: Street Photographs Since 1950"

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, until 8 p.m. Thursday, through Sept. 8


PHONE: 202/357-1618

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide