||American StreetSeventy years of a photographic tradition
From the first decade of the twentieth century, improved camera technology including plate sensitivity to low light conditions and shorter exposure times made it easier for photographers to take to the streets.
With its complexities and contradictions, offering both possibilities of wondrous progress and decline, redemption and ruin, the modern city has presented photographers with endless possibilities. In particular, America’s distinctive symbols of consumer culture—such as bill boards and advertising signs—have been a well-explored subject in American photography since the 1930s.
Garry Winogrand 'Worlds Fair–New York City, New York. From "Garry Winogrand"' 1964
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1978
In the post-war period, there was a reaction against such conformist and homogenous consumerism. The Beat Generation’s intense personal search for meaning in an increasingly alienating and complicated society, often represented by the road trip, became a theme in popular culture. The new wave of Abstract Expressionist painters in the 1950s also relied on first hand perception and direct experience, placing importance on process, subjectivity and striving for spontaneity.
Berenice Abbott 'Greyhound bus terminal' 1936 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1979
Ernst Haas 'Albuqueque, New Mexico' 1969 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2000
Photographers took up these developments, establishing a genre which focused on urban subject matter and portraiture. There are some who reflect the fact that the city can be an isolating and lonely place, and a definite melancholic note is also found. Most, however, revel in the dynamism and display a love of the ever-changing, exciting, energetic make-up of the street. It is an impetus best summed up by photographer Garry Winogrand, who observed that ‘when things move, I get interested’.
American Street: seventy years of a photographic tradition is on display from 22 December 2012. It draws on the photography collection which has a distinct strength and depth in this area. A selection of important books by which much of this material was disseminated to the public is also on view—including, for example, a first French edition of Robert Frank’s Les Américains. Photographers include Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, E.O. Hoppé, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Harry Callahan, Lisette Model, William Klein, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Saul Leiter, Leon Levinstein, Ernst Haas, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Ed Ruscha, Larry Clark, Joel Meyerowitz and Stephen Shore.