Twenty years after its original publication, authors Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz are preparing a new revised edition of Bystander, to be released hopefully in 2015. I asked Joel Meyerowitz a few questions about the new edition.
BA: What was the motivation to produce a second revised edition of Bystander?
JM: This is the 3rd revision. We need to keep track of everything that is happening in the genre, particularly when the internet has added so many new voices to it. We also have the opportunity to make a newly designed edition since the demise of our first publisher.
Were there things in the original version you regret or wish you could change?
We regretted that back then Robert Frank was reluctant to have his work published in history books. We are hoping that with time and the place this book has earned that he will willingly allow the work to be added.
The first edition of Bystander helped organize and describe various strands in street photography. And by definition it also served as a historical marker, summing up the state of the art at a specific date. Do you think there is a risk with Bystander of conveying street photography as a historic, old fashioned process whose time has come and gone?
Our goal and point of view is to show how valuable and dynamic street photography still is, and how seriously new minds have brought fresh attitudes to bear on a form that has always been difficult for the art world to accept and find valuable. We still feel that this form is at the very heart of photography, basically a purely original photographic genre which does not take from the more conventional forms that belonged first to painting, such as; still life, portrait, landscapes, directorial mise en scene, etc.
Do you think the basic nature of making street photographs has changed since the original edition? And if so, how?
There are implicit restraints and even resentment these days, from a general public whose fears about internet exposure make them constantly on the alert for people who might put them in some compromised situation. And, for example; in Paris there are laws forbidding this kind of approach, laws so daunting that Cartier-Bresson would have found it nearly impossible to make his work there on his home territory. That is just on the street side of the question. On the photographers side we have seen certain tropes appearing that reveal how much the actual street itself has changed, take Natan Dvir's work as an example; his response to the oversized scale of advertising on the boulevards of the world has produced a fresh approach to the way street photography usually describes the street. And we have seen far too many examples of photographers playing point-counterpoint with signage interacting in an ironic or humorous way with pedestrian traffic. We have also seen a more aggressive brand of in your face work in the style of Bruce Gilden, which is a punishing assault on innocent people all for the look of shock on their faces.
Are you still an active street shooter? Are you an active viewer/consumer of street photography?
Yes! I carry a Leica with me every day and find myself still looking to see what a man of my age might find interesting out on the streets now. There is a big difference between being 30 and dancing on the street and being 75. And by being 75 I recognize that I have seen a lot of street life so how do I not simply repeat myself but push on to seeing things that are fresh to me now?
You have one foot in the art world. How do you think that community views street photography generally?
I have both feet in the art world. I stopped making my living commercially, as a means of supporting my personal work, back in 1990 and I have always heard first hand from the many dealers I have worked with how difficult it was for them to convince their clients of the value of street photography. People generally don't get the art of it and would rather see some fashion shot or interior, or objects that have rusted and been colored up by time rather than do the hard work of looking which street photography demands. Yes, there are some great collectors who love our side of the game, but the greater collecting part of the art world prefers setups, conceptual, and easier work.
What's your most basic definition of street photography?
Street photography is at its best when the instantaneous consciousness of the photographer reveals, or draws, new meaning from the ordinary acts of human behavior and daily life.