One summer day a few years ago, I picked up my camera and headed for the streets of downtown Nashville. An assignment for my studio-art class was to capture variations of light through photography and when I thought of the walks-of-life that roam Music Row, downtown seemed like the perfect place to take pictures.
Street-photography was an artform I had always been interested in. At museums or art galleries, I constantly gravitated towards the photographs, mesmerized by the way a lens could capture the fierceness and immediacy of a moment in time. It wasn’t just the photos themselves that drew me to street photography but the psychology surrounding it, the idea that art can be captured within the seemingly-habitual-monotony of everyday life.
So after hearing about a new documentary about the most influential street photographers of New York City, I knew it was a movie I needed to see. Everybody Street not only profiles the lives and influences of the photographers, but also explores the ceaseless, pulsating force that is NYC. Art historian Luc Sante says in the film that the city is defined by “the volatile proximity of citizens to each other” and that “street photography is always trying to catch up to that volatility.” That sense of ‘catching up’ to the breathless whirlwind of the streets provides an electrifying backdrop to a movie that explores the heart of why people are compelled to take photographs in the first place.
One of the first photographers profiled in the documentary is Bruce Davidson, who says, “Why do some photographers go to the street and others to the studio? Some want to pretend it’s a movie, and some photographers walk into the world and say, “Show me.” That idea of people revealing themselves with glimpses of their true nature, argues Davidson, is why many find street photography so undeniably compelling.
As the film continues, we get to know the various personalities that populate the NYC scene: Elliott Erwitt who is known for his absurdist shots, Jill Freedman who spent years photographing NYC police officers and firefighters, Bruce Gilden who stuns many of his subjects with a flashgun, Clayton Patterson who famously exposed police brutality by photographing the Thompson Square Park Police Riots becoming a kind of photographic-activist and Martha Cooper who covered the NYC graffiti scene, among several others.
Along with the interviews lies a hallmark of documentary filmmaking: the still photograph. Director Cheryl Gunn had tens of thousands of photographs to choose from and she chose smartly, picking photographs that illuminate the style and aesthetic of each respective photographer. I watched this movie in a theater with a few hundred other people and I found the audiences’ reactions to the various photographs to be fascinating. There were moments of heavy laughter even applause, followed by reactions of shock and a few times when people actually had to look away from the screen.
In an audience Q&A following the film, Gunn described street photography as being “a kind of dance,” which informs her choice of having an entirely jazz-focused soundtrack. The rhythms reflect the improvisational spirit and movement of a photographer roaming the cement jungle of NYC.
Reconnecting to that summer day a few years ago, I spent a few hours walking the streets. I remember following a homeless man, who was either drunk or mentally ill. I remember the rush, the slightly-perverse feeling when I took someone’s photo without them noticing, which in a strange way felt as if I was reading their diary and could be caught red-handed at any instant. As the sun began to set and the clusters of tourists dissipated into the bars and restaurants, I left downtown feeling like street photography was a newfound passion. However, as many of my other fleeting interests, it became something I meant to revisit but never seriously returned to.
After watching Everybody Street, I can’t help but feel inspired again. As I sit here at my desk, typing this review, listening to Dave Blume’s “Theme from Taxi Driver”and the Jazz Classics playlist on Spotify, I find myself dreaming about tomorrow. Tomorrow when I’ll step onto the street with a camera in hand, searching for that split-second moment when I peer through the lens and time takes a breath of recognition.
Will Glover is a freshman at College of Charleston majoring in English and Political Science from Nashville, TN.