This book has come in for quite some criticism, perhaps because it explicitly purports to be a ‘history of street photography’. Carefully researched and source-referenced historiography it probably isn’t, but it would be unfair to dismiss this book just in these terms as there is much in it of value.
Writing a history of something as amorphous as ‘street photography’, which is more an attitude than a genre, has its challenges, but Westerbeck does a pretty good job. It’s gratifying that the book starts where it should: Paris. The response to Baudelaire’ peculiar take on photography and the growing synergy between street photography and impressionism and street painting in the turn of the century melting-pot Paris surely laid the foundations to much that was to follow: Atget and the photography of the street; surrealism that was to find later expression in Brandt and Cartier-Bresson; humanism through Doisneau, Erwhitt; realism through Brassai and thence to the ‘gritty realism’ of Frank, Klein and Winogrand.
And it’s here that the book falls down for me. Despite a promising start, the book does not really get to grips with the various ‘flavours’ ( I won’t say ‘schools’) of street photography. We get the odd glimpse at an attempt to analyse developments, such as the chapter on the ‘Chicago School’, but proceeding chronologically through time to the 1980s acts more show discontinuities rather than similarities. It would have been better to have traced the history of street photography through the lines of influence and against developments in the wider world of the arts and society. The sense of separation that the writers accord to street photography, separate from the context of social developments, means that we don’t really get a sense of street photography’s place in our culture, its worth.
Despite this however, I enjoyed the many anecdotal reflections, particularly from Meyerowitz, a photographer who I deeply admire. Well worth a read.