March 23, 2012

Street Photography at National Gallery of Art, Washington DC - I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938-2010

I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938-2010
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Curator: Sarah Greenough
April 22 - August 5, 2012

This exhibition is devoted to street photographs by some of the genre's greatest photographers: Walker Evans (1903-1975), Harry Callahan (1912-1999), Robert Frank (b. 1924), Bruce Davidson (b. 1933), Philip-Lorca diCorcia (b. 1951), and Beat Streuli (b. 1957). "The Gallery is pleased to continue its long tradition of exhibitions devoted to the innovative ways in which photographers have captured and explored the urban environment," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "I Spy also showcases the Gallery's strong holdings in this genre, featuring more than 20 works from the collection along with nine promised gifts."

Philip-Lorca diCorcia 
Head #22, 2001
chromogenic print,121.92 x 152.4 cm (48 x 60 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Charina Endowment Fund
© Philip‑Lorca diCorcia

Since the invention of small hand-held cameras and faster films in the late 19th century, photographers have recorded everyday life in the urban environment. Mining the city rich potential, they have explored its varied subject matter —people, architecture, and modes of transportation— to celebrate the cacophony and diversity of modern life, as well as its rapid pace.

The photographers represented in this exhibition have creatively pursued this genre by setting rigid parameters on how they made their works. Like children playing the game "I Spy" by looking through the narrow frame of a car window, these photographers restricted the ways they made their pictures as a means of selecting and ordering the chaos of the city. Walker Evans hid the camera from the unsuspecting public and photographed without even looking through the lens, Robert Frank photographed only what could be seen from the windows of a bus moving through the city, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Beat Streuli placed their cameras in single spots to capture photographs of random passersby. But all these photographs and videos court chance and serendipity, and all these artists view the street as a perpetually fascinating spectacle.

Arranged both chronologically and monographically, I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938-2010 explores these ideas through the presentation of nearly 90 works, including a video and a digital still sequence. Evans, Callahan, and Frank embarked on their projects as a challenge to create images in a fundamentally different manner than they previously had; diCorcia and Streuli incorporate such devices into their regular practice. All the works address questions of voyeurism, surveillance, and privacy.

The exhibition includes photographs made by Walker Evans between 1938 and 1941 on the New York subways with a camera concealed beneath his coat, as well as those he took standing on a street corner in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1941. Harry Callahan is represented with an evocative group of photographs of women lost in thought on the busy Chicago streets in 1950. Robert Frank's elegant, almost balletic suite of photographs made from the windows of a bus moving through New York City in 1958 will also be presented, as will a series of bold, aggressive color photographs by Bruce Davidson taken on the New York subways between 1980 and 1985.

Contemporary artists Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Beat Streuli have pushed this genre still further in works made in the 1990s and into the 21st century. Mining the latent theatricality of the street, diCorcia erected scaffolding and lights in busy urban areas to create a series of monumental portraits of hapless pedestrians who chanced to pass in front of his camera.

The exhibition concludes with two works by the Swiss artist Beat Streuli made on the streets of New York: a digital still sequence, reconfigured expressly for this show from its original display in 2002, and a video made in 2009. Using a telephoto lens to capture richly saturated scenes, Beat Streuli reveals not only the congestion and heterogeneity of modern urban life, but also its beauty. As he transforms the ordinary into the iconic, he shows the isolation and anonymity of the individual in a crowd. In addition, his work calls into question the surveillance photography now so routinely captured by governments and corporations, and it makes us realize ever more keenly how in our daily lives we are both watching the world around us and are being scrutinized by it.

The exhibition curator is Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head, department of photographs, National Gallery of Art.

I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938–2010 was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA. For information visit the Gallery's Web site at

Supports: The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of The Ryna and Melvin Cohen Family Foundation and the Trellis Fund. Tru Vue has provided in kind support of Optium Acrylic Glazing for the works of art.

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