Theater of the Street Explored through the Photographs of Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Robert Frank


Share on Facebook


The National Gallery of Art exhibit, "I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938–2010," is on view through August 5, 2012.

The exhibition is devoted to street photographs by some of the genre's greatest innovators: Walker Evans (1903–1975), Harry Callahan (1912–1999), Robert Frank (b. 1924), Bruce Davidson (b. 1933), Philip-Lorca diCorcia (b. 1951), and Beat Streuli (b. 1957). (See slideshow at the end of article.)


Phillip Kennicott wrote recently in the Washington Post:

Most people will acknowledge that the camera can be used as a powerful tool for telling lies. Harder to accept is that the camera, by its very nature, always lies, that it always misrepresents, distorts or manifests the hidden manipulation of its operator.

But it’s a truth ineluctable after spending time in the National Gallery of Art’s fascinating and provocative “I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938-2010.” The exhibition is devoted to six photographers who explored ways to photograph surreptitiously, or without intruding on the drama of their subjects’ private existence. In Walker Evans’s 1938-1941 “Subway Portraits,” the photographer concealed a camera in his coat and captured straight-on images of people sitting opposite him on a train. Decades later, photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia rigged elaborate photographic traps in New York, concealing synchronized flashes and using a pre-focused telephoto lens to record spontaneous moments of street life with the professional polish of a fashion photographer.

"The Gallery is pleased to continue its long tradition of exhibitions devoted to the innovative ways in which photographers have captured and explored the urban environment," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "I Spy also showcases the Gallery's strong holdings in this genre, featuring more than 20 works from the collection along with nine promised gifts."

The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of The Ryna and Melvin Cohen Family Foundation and the Trellis Fund.

Since the invention of small hand-held cameras and faster films in the late 19th century, photographers have recorded everyday life in the urban environment. Mining the city's rich potential, they have explored its varied subject matter—people, architecture, and modes of transportation—to celebrate the cacophony and diversity of modern life, as well as its rapid pace.

The photographers represented in this exhibition have creatively pursued this genre by setting rigid parameters on how they made their works. Like children playing the game "I Spy" by looking through the narrow frame of a car window, these photographers restricted the ways they made their pictures as a means of selecting and ordering the chaos of the city. Evans hid the camera from the unsuspecting public and photographed without even looking through the lens, Frank photographed only what could be seen from the windows of a bus moving through the city, and diCorcia and Streuli placed their cameras in single spots to capture photographs of random passersby. But all these photographs and videos court chance and serendipity, and all these artists view the street as a perpetually fascinating spectacle.

Arranged both chronologically and monographically, "I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938–2010" explores these ideas through the presentation of nearly 90 works, including a video and a digital still sequence. Evans, Callahan, and Frank embarked on their projects as a challenge to create images in a fundamentally different manner than they previously had; diCorcia and Streuli incorporate such devices into their regular practice. All the works address questions of voyeurism, surveillance, and privacy.

The exhibition includes photographs made by Evans between 1938 and 1941 on the New York subways with a camera concealed beneath his coat, as well as those he took standing on a street corner in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1941. Callahan is represented with an evocative group of photographs of women lost in thought on the busy Chicago streets in 1950. Frank's elegant, almost balletic suite of photographs made from the windows of a bus moving through New York City in 1958 will also be presented, as will a series of bold, aggressive color photographs by Bruce Davidson taken on the New York subways between 1980 and 1985.

Contemporary artists diCorcia and Streuli have pushed this genre still further in works made in the 1990s and into the 21st century. Mining the latent theatricality of the street, diCorcia erected scaffolding and lights in busy urban areas to create a series of monumental portraits of hapless pedestrians who chanced to pass in front of his camera.

The exhibition concludes with two works by the Swiss artist Streuli made on the streets of New York: a digital still sequence, reconfigured expressly for this show from its original display in 2002, and a video made in 2009. Using a telephoto lens to capture richly saturated scenes, Streuli reveals not only the congestion and heterogeneity of modern urban life, but also its beauty. As he transforms the ordinary into the iconic, he shows the isolation and anonymity of the individual in a crowd. In addition, his work calls into question the surveillance photography now so routinely captured by governments and corporations, and it makes us realize ever more keenly how in our daily lives we are both watching the world around us and are being scrutinized by it.

Harry Callahan (1912 –1999) was born in Detroit, Michigan. He worked in Chrysler when he was a young man then left the company to study engineering at Michigan State University. However he eventually dropped out, returned to Chrysler and joined its camera club.

Callahan began teaching himself photography in 1938. He formed a friendship with Todd Webb who was also destined to become a photographer. A talk given by Ansel Adams in 1941 inspired him to take his work seriously. In 1941, Callahan and Webb visited Rocky Mountain State Park but didn't return with any photographs. In 1946 he was invited to teach photography at the Institute of Design in Chicago by László Moholy-Nagy. He moved to Rhode Island in 1961 to establish a photography program at the Rhode Island School of Design, teaching there until his retirement in 1977.

His technical photographic method was to go out almost every morning, walk the city he lived in and take numerous pictures. He then spent almost every afternoon making proof prints of that day's best negatives.

He encouraged his students to turn their cameras on their own lives, leading by example. Callahan photographed his wife over a period of fifteen years, as his prime subject.

Eleanor was essential to his art from 1947 to 1960. He photographed her everywhere - at home, in the city streets, in the landscape; alone, with their daughter, in black and white and in color, nude and clothed, distant and close.



Visit your local library to learn more about street photography:


Bystander : a history of street photography
Colin Westerbeck; Joel Meyerowitz, (1994).
Bystander explores street photography through a discussion of the medium's masters - Atget, Stieglitz, Strand, Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Kertesz, Evans, Levitt, Frank, Arbus, Winogrand, and many others - and reveals along the way much about the craft and creative process of photography.

Street photography : from Atget to Cartier-Bresson
Clive Scott, (2007).
Clive Scott traces street photography's origins, asking what really what happened to photography when it first abandoned the studio, and brings to the fore fascinating questions about the way the street photographer captures or frames those subjects - traders, lovers, entertainers - so beloved of the genre.

Harry Callahan : the photographer at work
Britt Salvesen; University of Arizona. Center for Creative Photography.; Art Institute of Chicago, (2006).

Philip-Lorca diCorcia
Philip-Lorca DiCorcia; Peter Galassi; Museum of Modern Art, (1995).

Beat Streuli : New York City 2000-02

Beat Streuli; Vincent Katz, (2003).

Walker Evans, America
Walker Evans; Michael Brix; Birgit Mayer; Sta¨dtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus Mu¨nchen, (1991).

Story lines
Robert Frank; Tate Modern, (2004).

Central Park
Bruce Davidson; Marie Winn, (1995).

Image credits:

Harry Callahan Photos:
Chicago, 1950, gelatin silver print
Collection of Randi and Bob Fisher, © The Estate of Harry Callahan courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, New York, 1997, chromogenic print
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York, © Philip Lorca di Corcia

Bruce Davidson photos:Subway, 1980-1981, dye imbibition print
Michael and Jane Wilson, © Bruce Davidson

Walker Evans: Subway Portraits, 1938-1941,gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Kent and Marcia Minichiello, © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Creative Commons License