The World Atlas of Street Photography is exactly what its title promises: a far-reaching (though by no means comprehensive) overview of photographs intimately concerned with public urban life, drawn from an array of cities stretching from Caracas to Naples, from Moscow to Melbourne. Its measurements are impressively hefty at nine-by-nine and a half hardbound inches, hardbound, with 400 pages of heavy stock weighing in at nearly four pounds. It’s an impressive volume, packed with more than 600 photos, both color and black and white, with illuminating essays on the artists in question by editor Jackie Higgins. Happily, those essays eschew crit-speak for the most part, offering an accessible and engaging snapshot, or series of them, of this lively subgenre.
It’s almost impossible for the casual reader to single out this or that artist for special mention. There’s an impressive range of work on display here, from the ghostly Roman cityscapes of Gregory Clewson, which emphasize the city’s geometric shapes in stark black and white, to the colorful photo collages of Amsterdam’s Hans Eijkelboom, which collect similarly-framed figures, head shots or profiles and lay them into precise grids, the better to emphasize both the similarities of form and their subjects’ many differences. Claudia Jaguaribe takes as her subject the sprawling slums of Rio de Janeiro, and the children who play among them, while Italy’s Mimi Mollica renders images of Dakar that sometimes verge on the abstract.
As one would expect of a volume of “street photography”, the human subject is very present in many of the images; indeed, it’s often the sole focus. Elsewhere, the urban environment itself is the subject. Most often, though, it’s the interplay between the two that creates the image’s tension and interest. Trent Parke’s stark black-and-whites of Syndey emphasize undersized human figures that nearly get lost in a forbidding landscape of deep shadows and glaring light; Hasan and Hussain Essop offer busy compositions of human figures caught in a variety of environments: a city playground, a slaughterhouse, a stretch of road facing a garish sign for Coca-Cola.
These examples barely scratch the surface of what’s on offer here. With over a hundred artists included, a page-by-page synopsis is impossible. Suffice it to say that the approaches of the artists, as well as their subject matter, is vast and varied.
As mentioned, the accompanying essays are useful, too. Describing Luc Delhayne’s series of subway portraits, taken of his unsuspecting fellow train riders without their knowledge or consent, Higgins compares Delhayne’s series to another by American photographer Walker Evans, and goes on to say that “One after another, throughout [the series], they stare back [as us] – no smiles, no frowns, no hint of animation – completely blank. The series reads like a mug shot parade, an exercise in physiognomy or perhaps an anthropological study that considers how the human animal copes in crowds, an investigation of what the experts call ‘civil inattention’”. The photographs that accompany these words – there are 22 examples – are both enriched by Higgins’ concise commentary, and also reflect its accuracy.
Elsewhere, the dramatic carnival photos of Spanish-born Cristobal Hara are described as “making sense in a carnival setting and yet taken on Xinzo’s deserted streets, they appear strangely marooned. Hara’s lens has the seemingly magical ability to turn fact into fiction; he is a maestro at seeking out the surreal in the real.” Again, Higgins is refreshing in her concision; agree with her or not, one at least doesn’t have to wade through oceans of blather to get to the point. She is also prone to quotations from the artists themselves, and makes some attempt to put the work into historical context.
For all its many strengths, this is not quite a perfect volume. (We’ll set aside the question of whether such perfection is even possible). For all that it purports to be a “World Atlas”, the selections here are heavily Euro- and America-centric, with nearly as many artists included from the United States alone (21) as from the entire continent of Asia (23), which boasts half the world’s population and many of its largest cities. For that matter, the “Asia” section itself focuses mainly on China, India and the city of Tokyo, leaving out such considerable and photograph-worthy metropolises as Bangkok, Seoul, Karachi and Jakarta. Surely there must be photographers worthy of inclusion from these places, even it it necessitates dropping one of New York’s ten included artists, or one of London’s 12.
Such cavils mustn’t be overstated, though. Of course it’s going to be impossible to include every noteworthy artist into a single book, and of course there is going to be bias in the selections. In this instance, the fact that three-fourths of the volume is given over to non-Americans, and over a third to non-Westerners, is a step in the right direction. Readers familiar with these artists will be happy to have such a representative selection in a single place, while newcomers such as myself will find much to pore over, much to enjoy and much to provoke thought.
If there’s a better reason to seek out art, I haven’t yet found it.