Bystander: A History of Street Photography

Image of Bystander: A History of Street Photography
Release Date: 
October 30, 2017
Laurence King Publishing
Reviewed by: 

Bystander: A History of Street Photography is a book that defies easy description. It is a wide-ranging compilation of images that exemplifies the saying by photographer Elliott Erwitt, that photography “is an art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” To say that Bystander is merely a book on “street-photography” is too narrow a category. It is that, but most eminently it is about the photographic observation of people in the full swing of urban life, whether in New York City or Paris, New Delhi, Mexico City, or Beijing.

Any photographer who has ever walked the streets of a metropolis, camera in hand, aware and following the action and the chaotic ebb-and-flow of life on the streets, knows the thrill of attempting to seize the action with a camera.

This book captures that excitement. It has a dynamic mixture of black and white and color images that include work by renown street photographers such as Cartier-Bresson and Joel Meyerowitz, as well as a broad diversity epitomized by the work of Diane Arbus, Eugène Atget, Walker Evans, André Kertész, Martin Parr, Dorothea Lange, Saul Leiter, Alfred Stieglitz, Ben Shawn, and many others.

Its 400 pages are filled with an eclectic mix of images and styles that find their context within the 20 or so essays and reveal their topics with titles such as Art for Art’s Sake, Social Uplift, The View from Abroad, Collective Vision, etc. These essays elaborate on themes by using the work or lives of specific photographers, such as the work of Jacob Riis in creating awareness of child labor, poverty, and other social social issues by means of photography. Such work and themes clearly go beyond the narrow definition of “street photography.”

For those unfamiliar with the photographic work of Ben Shawn, Josef Koudelka, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, William Klein, Lewis W. Hine and so many others, this book is a treat and a revelation. It is so wide-ranging that it starts with images photographed at the beginning of the 20th century and progresses through to the present.

People often assume that “street photography” centers on action of a photojournalistic nature. This book is about photographers whose passion is documenting people as artistic expression, showing what people care about, and the timeless human condition that is visible by observing life on the streets.

It also includes an insightful and fascinating conversation/interview between co-authors Joel Meyerowitz, photographer and creator of photo books Cape Light and Taking My Time; and former museum curator Colin Westerbeck. The conversation rests mainly on Meyerowitz’s photographic career and his association with photographers Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander.

Although understandably not everyone can be included in the book, it was remiss of the editors to not include Arlene Gottfried or Steve McCurry, who undoubtedly qualify for inclusion. Predictably, the book includes many of the same tried and true names that have shown up repeatedly in collections over the past 30 years.

Bystander: A History of Street Photography by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, is a robust read with heady, engaging themes, filled with biographies of specific photographers and their place in the greater context of photography. It is 9 x 11.9 inches in size, and beautifully printed on a substantial heavy weight paper in color and black and white.