Just as the best European street photography reflects the energy and attitudes of the Old World in ways that are brave and unsentimental, so the best street photography of the United States captures the American experience without courting cliché or shrinking from the hard realities that define the New World. The scale and scenarios of America--its outsized conceits and urban planes, its public violence and, always, its racially charged narrative--define the photos in this exhibit, which ranges from the political demonstrations of the 1930s to the encroaching sense of urban alienation that defines the late 20th century.
This gnawing perception of a land paradoxically torn between the spirit of its democratic founding and the reality of its enslaving past is expressed powerfully in more than few of these images. Indeed, the troubled truths of the African-American experience are implicit in classic photos by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, George Gardner or Constantine Manos--shots that depict a spectrum of racial tension and tragedy, whether isolating an old black man in the throes of poverty or searching the impassioned faces of the protest marches of the 1960s.
In every case, the street--the locus, after all, of urban exposure and motion--is the indispensable context in which the inchoate drama of America plays out. Whether abstracting the brisk strides of workers heading home in New York City or the feral bravado of a street hockey player masked and crouching over a storm grate or the Brobdingnagian sight of the floats from a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, the street drama of a Salvation Army recruiter or a surrealistic image of black-hooded nuns marching in step side-by-side, photographers like Arthur Tress, Susan McCartney, Lou Stoumen and Frank Paulin all bring us views of the American everyday that are at once familiar, fierce and even fantastical.
Walker Evans, as well, captured the vitality and still-human scale of the Chicago street in the 1940s, while 50 years later, Vladimir Birgus would bring a richly colored palette to his images of Chicagoans dwarfed by architectural mass. Other images--of police attacking Communist sympathizers in the streets of Manhattan or of Gotham's broad boulevards and weathered brownstones--are rich exercises in available light, superb composition, and the decisive moment.
Robert Frank brings another dimension to street photography with his gritty images from the Americans, such as the very rare and early print, "Butte, MT".
More than anything, these photographs convey a powerful comprehension of the American juggernaut's most public manifestation, from the powerless to the proudly enfranchised, as it struts and frets its hour on a great stage of asphalt and concrete.