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Ron Galella, “Exclusive—Woody Allen and Mia Farrow Heading for Dinner in Greenwich Village” 1980


The Tate Modern’s new exhibition of more than 350 photographs, Street and Studio, is founded on one of the silliest premises I’ve heard in a while. “It presents a fascinating history of photographic portraiture taken on the street or in the photographer’s studio, looking at the differences between these two key locations in which photographers work.” Of all the strategies by which a major museum can organize a history of photographic portraiture, “street vs. studio” has to be one of the most tepid and unenlightening. The thesis reminds me of something from an illustrated children’s book. “Some photographers prefer to make portraits in their studios, where they can arrange backdrops and carefully control the lighting and poses.” (turn page) “Other photographers like the hustle and bustle of the street, where lively action can result in unique and sometimes humorous portraits!”

TATEetc., the museum’s glossy journal, ccommissioned an essay on Street and Studio by Max Kozloff, and they’ve put the entire piece online. Kozloff argues that the line between the two genres blurs more often than not: Studio portraiture is rarely as carefully controlled as the photographer would hope; both “yield a voyeuristic outcome, constructed within an imaginary space”; street photographers such as diCorcia (the Heads series) and Leon Levinstein strive to make personal and up-close portraits in the street that recall classic studio work; etc.

Yet, even in the nineteenth century, viewers would have been familiar with some degree of overlap among various photographic practices. In developed countries, an ethnographic representation of non-Western tribal life could have tourist overtones. Cartes-de-visite were not just calling cards, they frequently operated as early fashion plates. This doubling function has spread so far nowadays that it’s hard to speak anymore of the genre system as a set of monocultures, each with its targeted clientele. Some fashion work, such as Richard Avedon’s, was affected by sports photography. An impassive, self-conscious work of art by, say, Thomas Ruff might well be intended to mimic a mug shot. Within the miscellany of an urban scene, an individual might stand out, cast as the inexplicable centre of attention of a portrait. Without asking so much as the viewer’s leave, photographers have deprogrammed the genres and tossed media in a juggle of unexpected meanings.

(Thanks to MK for passing the essay along.)

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