Take a look at three of the most important street photographers from 'Magnum Streetwise', an unmissable tour of Magnum's longstanding history in street photography. Words from 'Magnum Streetwise', edited by by Stephen McLaren.
As someone who was always very aware of the capriciousness of life – indeed, it was the fuel for his vision – it seems fitting that a criminal act by someone in a position of trust should lead to Henri Cartier-Bresson being stranded penniless in Mexico, speaking no Spanish and with only his camera to rely on for self-expression.
Cartier-Bresson arrived in Mexico City in early 1934 as part of a French academic group surveying the construction of the Pan-American Highway. One morning, however, the leader of the exhibition disappeared with the group’s funds, leaving them with neither money nor lodgings. But instead of returning home with his tail between his legs, Cartier-Bresson decided to stay and use his enforced exile to photograph the city’s dusty, sun-strafed neighbourhoods. Despite his penury and having to share a hovel in a desperately poor barrio, the young Frenchman felt that now was the time to take his photography to the next level.
‘If I go to a place,’ Cartier-Bresson said, ‘it’s not to record only what is going on. It’s to try and have a picture which concretizes a situation in one glance and which has the strong relations of shapes. And when I go to a country, well, I’m hoping always to get that one picture about which people will say, “Ah, this is true. You felt it right.”’ Only two years after his monumental learning experience, Cartier-Bresson would exhibit his Mexico City photographs in New York, en route to making his name as one of the greatest photographers of the era.
Double exposures, photographs printed on transparent paper and snippets of overhead speech combine to produce Stranger, a beguiling photo-book by the British photographer Olivia Arthur, shot in the Middle Eastern metropolis of Dubai.
Published in 2015, Arthur’s Stranger is a mix of portraiture, landscapes and candid photographs from a city that is simultaneously hyper-modern and rooted in an Arabian past. Taken as a whole, it makes for a disorientating narrative – which is exactly how the photographer likes it.
Living alone in Dubai for three months, Arthur shifted between medium-format film and digital 35mm cameras, adding texture and a sense of surprise to each of the book’s pages. In a city that is as multifarious and yet steeped in tradition as Dubai, we should not be surprised to see a doomed sheep being manhandled en route to an Eid feast alongside a visitor to the races finagling her purse, phone and feathered hat.
‘I’m not one of those photographers who takes photographs wherever I go,’ says Arthur, ‘but the story I was trying to tell involved me trying to get a … feeling [for] the city and give it a sense of place. The street photographs I took tie all the other images together and give you an atmosphere of what it is like for a stranger to confront this place, where people live in their own little lifestyle bubbles and rarely interact with other social classes and ethnic groups.’
‘I was most definitely an outsider in Dubai, but part of the nature of being a photographer is learning to navigate different worlds and cultures. The sense of belonging is not strong there and very few people have a United Arab Emirates passport, or call the place home for that matter, but it’s a unique city despite the sense of alienation that is all-pervasive.’
Bruce Gilden has been documenting the fabulous creatures that bestride the sidewalks of New York, his hometown, since the early 1970s.
Although Gilden can’t be sure exactly when his photographic odyssey began, he knows he was on roll number 900 in 1981, and that the first picture of his he considered decent was taken during a trip to Coney Island in 1969. Apart from that, the origins of his street- photography habit are all a bit hazy.
‘My father was a bit of a tough guy,’ says Gilden, ‘and my mother was unambitious. There were no books in the house, and the stuff I was taught was how to fight and lock my car door to avoid being robbed. I was great at sports but my dad was negative towards me, and in photography I found something I was good at – something that would prove to him that I could be artistic, stick at it and succeed.’
Always conscious of the need to move on creatively, Gilden decided to see if he could utilize his skills outside New York, concluding in 1985 that Haiti had potential. Since then, Gilden has produced books and exhibitions from trips to Ireland, Japan and the UK, among other places, but it was Haiti that would become his favourite.
‘It’s a unique place, the only country in the world to have liberated itself as a slave colony, and the people are very artistic. Of course, the government is totally corrupt and the majority of the population are really poor, but I’ve never felt threatened once. I’m good at what I do and I read situations well, but I’m also friendly with people and can be self-deprecating when I have to.’
Learn more about Magnum Streetwise here.