April 25, 2021

"How does one inject oneself momentarily into someone's life and come away with something that resonates with some real aspect of the individual?" Dawoud Bey I've recently had the privilege of experiencing a new work by Dawoud Bey called Street Portraits. It's a collection of powerful photographs of African American individuals and couples largely from the streets of Brooklyn and Rochester made between 1989 and 1991. I use the word powerful carefully as he also describes his work as about 'not only the picture making part but there was very clearly the social part'. His portraits give a sense of agency, respect and yes power to the people photographed. I have a real sense of a collaboration, understanding and empathy between them and the photographer through their eyes, gestures and poses.

For me this makes the images incredibly uplifting. It's more than the composition of the photographs and their reproduction, which are both magnificent, but they really speak to me if I can use such a contrived phrase. The titles of the images are at the back of the book so all the viewer has to work with on initial viewing is the pure photograph. Granted I still acknowledge the social and political context in a very simplistic way and having spent a short but significant part of my life in New York at this time there's a further, tenuous chord they strike. Coincidentally I've been enjoying a series of online talks and discussions courtesy of Paul Halliday from a range of photographers including Bas Losekoot discussing his recent book Out of Place. I love the way the images have been brought literally off the page using different size pages to overlap each other and simulate the chaos and serendipity of the street. The insertion of improvised film scripts as a commentary on the photographs as stills is another neat angle

However for me the making of the images was a throwback to a way of working which I admire but find it harder to reconcile. Dropping into a society for a short period of time and finding ways to depict it, to give it meaning, can lend itself to decisions on subject and composition that make for interesting images but are open to question on representation of those cultures. It made me think of work by Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Alex Majoli which I enjoy but now find wanting... I'm certainly not one to throw stones as it's a style of working I've been privileged to follow for a number of years The motivation behind my last book New Europe 2015-19 was to find a way of giving more social context to my photographs beyond the pure aesthetic of street life from different cities. I still have lots to do and I accept the limitations of this kind of photography. Street portraits used to be an oxymoron for me but Dawoud Bey's work is inspirational.

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Sean McDonnell

I've been pursuing a style of photography now called street for a number of years. A south Londoner by birth I am pre-occupied with the West End and spend too much time there taking black and white pictures on film. I nurture a hope that one day London will be recognised like Paris, New York and Tokyo as a great city of street photography but secretly like the fact that it is still the underdog. For someone who enjoys the solitary practice of his work I am surprisingly talkative about it - although not at the same time. Here's a collection of idle musings and distracting links.

These posts are a sample of my current blog PORTRAIT OF A STREET PHOTOGRAPHER. There are 10 years of posts so please visit!

Portrait of a Street Photographer archive

link to Portrait of a Street Photographer blog
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