A Keen Observer

“Street photographs have an imaginative life of their own, one that sometimes seems quite independent of whatever intentions the photographer may have had.” These words are from the introduction to Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz’s landmark survey Bystander: A History of Street Photography (1994). These “candid pictures of everyday life” highlight the fact that there is always something to see in the city, whether the streets are bustling with life or strangely vacant. These photographs are about more than documentation, but imagination: viewers bring their own significance to these moments, imbuing them with multiple meanings. Images of urban life have enthralled us throughout time, from Eugène Atget’s (1857-1927) Parisian scenes to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (1908-2004) “decisive moment” to Oli Kellet’s (b. 1983) crossroad shots. Now, David Hill Gallery and Framelines magazine bring together 18 talented contemporary image-makers continuing their legacies in the exhibition Street Life.

Cars are recurring subjects across the show. They appear in the work of Greg Girard, Oscar Diaz and Josh Edgoose, sometimes as the focal point or aligned in a neat row in the background. Changing vehicles offer subtle clues to the time period, but their ubiquity comes as no surprise since roads dominate so many modern cities. Edgoose’s Fiat 500 (2021) shows one hidden in plain sight. Its pastel teal paint blends into the romantic scene, where the sun bathes the leaves in gold and rose petals glow with warm light. Fallen pink flowers lie scattered along the pavement whilst white spring flowers burst from the concrete surrounding the shrub. This is a calmer scene when compared with the overwhelming and overcrowded shots we might expect. It was taken by Edgoose, the London-based co-founder of Framelines. The lens-based artist focuses on colour, coincidence and the serendipitous often witnessed in interactions between people. Here, these qualities culminate in a satisfying shot that indicates humanity through absence.

Elsewhere, people themselves capture our interest. For instance, a boy in a sharp suit turns back to look over his shoulder. We follow his line of sight to a mass of children behind him. Are they embracing each other excitedly? Are they in the middle of a brawl? With nothing more than this still, it’s impossible to be completely sure. The ambiguity of “candid pictures” is often at the core of street photography; it’s part of what makes it so compelling. Almost half a century later, we return to these singular moments in time. Brooklyn, Colorado, and Mexico City-based photographer Lisa Barlow took this shot when she visited Connecticut in 1981 and compiled her extensive work in the 250-image strong Waterbury (1981) series, her first photographic project upon leaving college. She states: “Waterbury 1981 is a record of a time and place. It is also, for me, the story of how I learned to see and describe the world with my camera.”

What attracts us to street scenes time and time again? From the photographer’s perspective, it might be the draw of humanity and being able to single out one perfect moment from the chaos. In Bystander, Meyerowitz explains that “it’s like going into the sea and letting the waves break over you. On the street each successive wave brings a whole new cast of characters. There is something exciting about being in the crowd, in all that chance and change – it’s tough in there – but if you can keep paying attention something will reveal itself…” For the viewer, it might be the mystery of seeing strangers frozen in time and place. Who are these people? What were their lives like? These shots inspire us to take notice of the millions of tiny occurrences that happen in our daily lives. Regardless of whether the sights we see are captured forever by the lens, these images serve as reminders that we all have the power to pay attention.

David Hill Gallery, Street Life | Until 18 May


Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Mario Carnicelli, Barber College, Chicago, 1966.
  2. Harold Feinstein, 125th Street from Elevated Train, New York, 1950.
  3. John Simmons, Love on the Bus, Chicago, 1967.
  4. Josh Edgoose, Fiat 500, Brentford, London, spring 2021.
  5. Oscar Diaz, A Window View, New York, summer of 2023.