Being a street photographer is a bit like conducting a drunk symphony: You must make order of chaos. Only a few photographers do it well, and many of them appear in Cheryl Dunn’s film, Everybody Street, which chronicles the street photography of New York City.
Dunn chose New York because it always has been at the center of the genre. Many a shooter has made a career documenting the city’s colorful characters, and many of street photography’s most iconic photographs were shot in one of its boroughs.
“If you want to get a really broad slice of humanity, you can find it in New York,” Dunn says. “Every kind of person is out there and I think that’s what’s attracted all these photographers.”
It took Dunn several years, but she tracked down everyone from Elliot Erwitt andMary Ellen Mark to Bruce Gilden and Martha Cooper. Each discusses their craft, and Dunn also filmed some of them on the street, providing a glimpse of how they work. We get to watch Bruce Gilden, a member of Magnum Photos, jump in front of someone and light them up with a flash, and we see one of Jill Freedman’s infamous interactions with the police (she published a book called Street Cops back in 1982).
Of all the photographers Dunn interviews, it is Joel Meyerowitz who most succinctly summarizes the power of street photography. Meyerowitz, who is known for his color work and for documenting the clean up at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks, says that instead of simply pulling one clean moment in time from the jumble, the best street photographs say something about the world in that moment and in that place.
“I think that part of what you love when you’re a street photographer is this kind of sensibility that develops when you think you understand something about not only the person you’re photographing, or the group you’re photographing, but the culture at large,” he says.
The film addresses the rise of digital photography, which has helped make street photography more popular. Some photographers, like Elliot Erwitt, who is nearing 90, think digital cameras have saturated photography with mediocrity. “I get the feeling that there are too many bad pictures in the world,” he says. “But, there’s always room for good ones.”
But Meyerowitz argues that a growing number of photographers and the ubiquity of cameras increase the odds of seeing truly great work emerge. “Everybody is a photographer now. And we’re going to find geniuses,” he says. And ultimately, how a photo is made is far less important than the fact it’s made at all.
“A picture is a picture,” Jill Freedman says. “What’s it matter what tool you use?”