Part 4 – The Transitional Epoch
By the time the Foundational Epoch ended, shutterbugs had firmly established photography as an art form. Whether their primary intention was in proving the technology (a la Daguerre), displaying life on the streets (Stieglitz, Atget, Thomson), moving viewers toward social change (Riis, Hine), or simply having fun with a new art form (Lartigue, Strand), one thing was clear: none of those things would’ve been possible if they couldn’t interest anyone in viewing their photos. It was clear: no matter one’s purpose with photography, crafting a good, compositionally strong photo had to be at the core of the work.
Indeed, Strand’s work was based, in part, on the works of Stieglitz and Hine, marrying art purism with socially minded photography. This would be the way from this point forward—each generation built upon, overlapping, and challenging the works of those who came before. Kertész emerged just as photography was turning to its second generation, the Transitional Epoch, and his work would fully overlap it.
This is an important point as we talk about Epochs. It would be a mistake to assume there were hard stops between phases. It is rather like the way we currently discuss human social generations: Baby Boomers, Generation Jones, Generation X, and Millenniums (or Gen Y, or Echo Boomers, etc.) while all those born into the groups exist together. Likewise, as Boomers are being split into two groups that more closely reflect their differences, profound differences in photographic styles began to emerge within Epochs that will, perhaps, one day be seen as street photography Schools.
For now, we will ignore those differences and continue to view the street shooters in terms of broad time periods, since the evolution of the art form was driven more by technology in the early phases than anything else.
Photographic Transitionals worked alongside the Foundationals, both inspired by them and determined to break through the limitations that defined the earlier group’s work. By and large, that freedom, as we discussed in Part 3, came in the form of advances in cameras. Those who took up the camera after WWI were undoubtedly influenced by war photographers and the likes of Thomson and Riis, whose lives and careers were coming to an end, and Hines and Kertész whose career spanned several epochs. However, street photography was also influenced by changes in the art world, which was rapidly moving from its traditional, centuries-old roots to a new modern view of art that fit better in the faster-paced, post-war world. We’d entered an exciting, new technical world, and these emerging photographers were determined to show it to current and future generations to come.
Dorothea Lange (USA) – 1895 – 1965
Dorothea Lange was born the offspring of well-to-do German immigrants in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895. Her lawyer father and stay-at-home mother were both “strong advocates for her education, and exposure to creative works filled her childhood,” according to Biography.com. By the time she was 12, Lange’s father had left the family. Upon graduating high school, with little interest in academics and physically impaired by a bout of polio at age 7 that left her with a permanent limp, Lange decided to become a photographer even though she’d never even held a camera. According to Corinna Wu, in “American Eyewitness,”
“Without introduction, she walked into the New York City studio of photographer Arnold Genthe, famous for his photos of the dancer Isadora Duncan, and talked herself into a job as a general assistant so that she could learn the art of photography.”
In 1918, while en route to see the world, Lange found herself stranded in San Francisco with a friend after having been robbed. Undeterred, the physically impaired, young, and inexperienced Lange stayed and had opened a private studio with a wealthy clientele within the year. By all accounts, she was dashing, charismatic, and bold in her pants, beret, and green cape. In this, she exhibited the four basic skills found in many famous street and portrait photographers: 1) the ability to see the shot as it happens; 2) enough confidence to take the shot; 3) sufficient charm or people skills that subjects show their true natures to the camera; and 4) awareness of the mechanics of photography so that she got the shot she wanted.
Dorothea did that in spades. By the mid-30s, the Great Depression had shattered the need for such luxuries as portraits, and she had left her photography studio for the street, doing her most iconic work for the Farm Security Administration between 1935 -1939 and distributed free to newspapers. She’s best known for her most iconic photo, named “Migrant Mother” and depicting Florence Owens Thompson, a photo which Thompson later regretted. Mrs. Thompson was less than thrilled when her identity was disclosed decades later, stating that Dorothea had promised her the photos would never be published.
Having been born around the same time as André Kertész, Jacques Lartigue, and Paul Strand, Lange could easily be considered one of the Foundational photographers and forms the bridge between the earliest documentarians and post-Depression shooters. What pushed her to the next generation was that most of her best work was done during the Depression, and unlike the Foundational generation’s having been tied to huge, tripod-laden gear, Lange’s setup was relatively portable. Lange herself relayed how she got her most famous photo:
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”
Lange, like Thomson before her, had redefined Street to include country roads, fields, and anywhere else people were, including WWII Japanese-American interment camps. It was no longer photography of the Street, but of Life. She was no longer photographing people or buildings, she was capturing the world as it was, so that others would understand it. And most importantly, she was doing it with artistic and technical precision borne of her childhood artistic training and years as a studio photographer. The camera was portable (mostly) and so was she. (Click on any photo to view gallery.)
For a more complete view of Lange’s work view my longer biography here.
Charles “Teenie” Harris (USA) -1908 – 1998
Charles Harris, known from when he was a toddler as “Teenie Little Lover,” then “Teenie,” grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Hill District, where his family ran the Masio Hotel starting in 1917. Harris was a natural with a camera, claiming (truthfully) that he’d been shooting since age 3, and regularly since he was 10. The Masio took in mainly borders migrating north in the Great Migration, and exposed Harris to the burgeoning African American urban explosion. By 1921, Harris was through the eighth grade and through with school for good.
In his late twenties, after stints as a baseball player, basketball player, chauffer, and worker in his family’s hotel, the married-and-then-divorced Harris was offered a job as a staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s oldest black newspapers, but turned it down due to low pay. Within a year, he’d opened a photography studio, and he was on his way.
By all accounts a sharp dresser, Harris had just as sharp a business mind. According to the book, Teenie Harris Photographer: Image, Memory, History, by Deborah Willis, “[Harris] started selling a weekly news picture magazine targeted to black communities on the streets. He soon realized that he could learn the craft of photography and publish his own photographs in Flash magazine,” named after his studio. Harris carried his 4×5-inch speed Graphic camera everywhere in Pittsburgh, and would continue to do so until the 1970s.
Not as widely known as other African-American photographers like Gordon Parks or James Van Der Zee, Harris’s sole beat was Pittsburgh, shooting for himself and the Courier, and would be from 1937 to 1975. He rarely left the city, shooting life in the city’s black neighborhoods. Perhaps more by chance than design, his life would set the pattern that a number of famous photographers would follow. (Click on any photo to view gallery.)
Like Vivian Maier, his work was relatively unknown, at least outside of his hometown, until after his death in 1998. Like Maier and Garry Winogrand, he was prolific, shooting more than 80,000 shots in his lifetime, and like Winogrand, his “working-class” style eventually garnered him some famous shots, capturing celebrities who visited Pittsburgh, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Sam Cooke, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Charlie Parker, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Dizzy Gillespie, and members of Negro Leagues ball clubs.
Known as “One Shot” because of his skill that rarely made clients sit for retakes, Harris’s work is now owned and is being cataloged by the Carnegie Museum of Art.
And he’s still cool.
You can find a link to the posts already written to date on The Art of Street Photography page in the header above.