Life through a lens
Crocker Art Museum’s “The Roaming Eye” exhibit captures the evolution of street photography worldwide
Barry Ramer dismissed street photographs at first, when an art dealer dumped hundreds across his bed 40 years ago.
“I said, ’What does this have to do with my interest in collecting imagery of the human condition?’” recalled Ramer, a prolific Davis art collector and psychiatrist. “But I kept an open mind and started looking at the pictures … I looked at the work and said, ’It’s fantastic! I’ve never seen anything like this in the way of photographs.’”
He was staring at a shot by Robert Frank, a seminal photographer of 1950s American culture. Though the still image of a New Orleans trolley car looked like something anyone could snap, Ramer admired the way light reflecting off the side of the trolley created an abstract design. The trolley’s back windows are occupied by a black man with a piercing gaze. In the middle of the car, a schoolboy clutches the side with a straight back and confused look. Ramer drew a connection between the photos and early 20th century Ashcan painters, whose subjects were often working-class people in the middle of everyday activities.
Street photography has existed since the invention of the camera in the early 19th century, and you can see it’s evolution through Crocker Art Museum’s newest exhibit, The Roaming Eye: International Street Photography From the Ramer Collection.
Running February 17 through May 12, the Crocker will host the second-floor exhibition of more than 70 prints from 43 of the most successful photographers in the medium’s history, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, Thomas Annan and Simon Roberts. The photos range in styles, mixing garish colors with somber black-and-white and span more than a century of photography around the world. They are pulled from the personal collection of Ramer and his wife, Lois Ramer.
Street photography is an unforgiving art form. Often, you only have one chance to capture the right moment before it disappears. Street photographers take their cameras everywhere in search of those fleeting opportunities.
“Street photography doesn’t need to be on the street. It can be on the beach, or an amusement park or cafeteria,” said Kristina Gilmore, who curated The Roaming Eye. “They’re chance encounters with strangers.”
Some of the genre’s earliest work comes from the Calotype process; invented in 1841, it used light-sensitive paper instead of metal or glass panes to develop images. The invention allowed photographers to finally take their cameras out of the studio.
Annan, one of the first street photographers, used a hulking, clumsy camera to capture living conditions in the slums of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1868.
An etched copy of one of Annan’s Calotype photographs, included in the exhibit, depicts a typical Glasgow alleyway, where clothes hang from a line out of frame. Leading into the background, more clothes hang, darkened permanently by the grime of cobblestone streets below.
Now, however, anyone with a smart phone can document their lives. Ramer said it’s a modern street photographer’s dilemma.
“[People] do their own selfies now. Holding cameras up to their face continuously snapping pictures of themselves,” Ramer said. “It seems that they become concerned when a stranger does it.”
But street photographers such as Roberts are still hard at work capturing the human condition.
Fifty years after Frank’s journey for The Americans, Roberts crossed Russia. At a meat market in Pyatigorsk he photographed a woman surrounded by a sea of red marbled flesh. The colors pop from the frame, contrasting the subtle look of melancholy across her face.
New York City photographer Leon Levinstein has 10 photographs in the exhibit. In one photo on Coney Island, he used a wide angle lens to approach a man sunbathing on the beach, his leathery arms crossing his forehead to block the sun. The man’s arms fill the frame, creating a border of skin.
Levinstein was inches away from the man, who seemed not to notice him.
“In all of his spare time, [Levinstein] crawled around Coney Island on his belly—wearing a suit at all times. He [crept] up on people and took pictures of them sunbathing, talking, swimming, communicating with one another, doing their strange things,” Ramer said.
Ramer said he originally had no interest in sharing his collection. Now, he hopes to showcase his decades-long hobby, and he’s donated art to museums over the past five years, including to The Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art in Davis.
“I used to joke with my daughters, ’Just take all my photographs and throw them in the hole when they bury me,’” Ramer said. “What’s going to happen to them? I’d rather they be out in the public, where people can see these wonderful works of art.”