Extraordinary complexity of a street corner

Shooting street corners

Given the fact that probably the majority of modern art photography is a result of authors’ desperate search among various techniques for the unique, one can easily forget how shockingly impressive may be a simple image. Of course, there is a catch in that statement, hidden behind the word ‘simple’. What could that actually mean in relation to a picture or any visual object is not a question we could assume to have a short answer to. We can, however, define the technical and conceptual simplicity of an image and we can do it with a couple of adequate examples. The Corners by Chris Dorley-Brown seem not to stretch out his creative effort beyond the classical ‘aim and shoot’ philosophy. A series of photographs kept in almost-square dimensions presenting the ordinary landscape of British suburbia and moments in daily life of its residents.

Chris Dorley-Brown, The Corners
Chris Dorley-Brown, The Corners. Kingsland Road & Downham Road 18th July 2014 – 11:38am – 12:01pm

No quirks, no bells and whistles, just plain pictures of random pedestrians passing by, as seen from the other side of the road. Besides following the basics rules of composition and likely changing the focal length depending on the density of surroundings, Dorley-Brown does not interfere with the subject whatsoever (although we can find a claim that he did paste pedestrians into some photos in a digital darkroom). He lets the street speak by itself, however odd it may sound in regards to a crossing in a neighborhood of any city outskirts. Yet, looking at many of those images, we feel almost compelled to scan the swarm of their parts and details, at the same time trying to focus on one particular element and analyze it individually, only then moving on to another. The first glance at the series gives us an overview of what the project is about but just moments later we’re asking ourselves if what we see is an actual snapshot of a street corner or is it rather a set-up with hired actors and buildings made out of cardboard. However, having a good look at those photographs, within minutes we grow sure that we have not been pulled Gregory Crewdson off at. In other words, this wasn’t staged.

Chris Dorley-Brown, The Corners
Chris Dorley-Brown, The Corners. Chelmer Road & Glyn Road 3rd March 2009 – 12:47pm – 13:18pm

The extraordinary seem to be contained in the simple, you just need to find the right spot to shoot and do it wisely. No matter which element is exactly the one efficiently anchoring the spectator’s sight (and probably there would be more than one), what counts is the fact that a street photograph of an everyday scene in the suburbs may look so appealing. What’s even more uncommon is that virtually all of the images included in in The Corners series lack what Roland Barthes called punctum. There’s nothing making us, the audience, uncomfortable, disrupting the harmony of the picture. Apparently, even restraining ourselves to the very basic level of conceptual complexity we can still get impressively hooking frames. Dorley-Brown’s Corners are about watchfully looking around and realizing how often we unconsciously traverse through engaging, kaleidoscopic landscape. Those images make us aware of unspeakable plethora of plots and scenarios taking place every day in so many spots throughout the cities. That is probably the reason why more than a few writers point out the importance of going out, and taking a walk or commuting rather than driving a car. As pompous as it may sound, you get to experience the overwhelming unpredictability of human existence and you may watch or listen to it for no more than nothing.

Chris Dorley-Brown, The Corners
Chris Dorley-Brown, The Corners. St.James Street & Grange Road 4th May 2017 – 08:46am – 09:02am

Just looking at the streets

It’s hard not to see the resemblance of Stephen Shore’s work in The Corners. One of the most recognized projects of his, Uncommon Places, was in fair part dedicated to documenting the ugly, empty and odd spaces in America. As the photographer himself has expressed it: ‘To see something spectacular and recognize it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognize it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in’. In that brief statement Shore managed to catch the difference between something being observed directly with our eyes and what we see in a picture. That ‘photographic possibility’, as Shore put it, to many may seem as an insignificant detail but it is actually a definitive proof to the fundamental theory of inequivalence between reality and an image. Both mentioned projects define the art of photography as an act of passage of observed things to a different state of existence where “ordinary” may no longer be associated with ‘tedious’, ‘plain’, ‘unattractive’ but rather with the opposite.

Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places. El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas, July 5, 1975

One may argue that this is the ultimate meaning of art: a struggle to bend and explore the boundaries of objects by playing with context and form. Would we ever come to think of taking a shower with a slight feeling of anxiety if not for the work of Alfred Hitchcock? Or what comes to your mind when you think of laughter? And what would you imagine hearing it in a dark corridor in an abandoned place? Writers do the same by taking some dull anecdote heard in a line in a grocery store and putting it into the storyline of a proper character. The role of the artist is to carve the ordinary into the cherished unique.

Transforming the ordinary

We could easily name a couple of big names in photography and their projects following that concept. New York Arbor by Mitch Epstein with his bewildering ability to portray an exquisitely ordinary thing which a tree is in an absolutely staggering way, or The River Winter by Jem Southam essentially presenting us with an ode to the river Exe. Yet, there are also other artists worth mentioning in that particular context. One outstanding example is Lucian Bran and his project Promised Land depicting mural wallpapers sticked to the walls in various locations in Romania.

Jem Southam, The River Winter
Jem Southam, The River Winter. River Exe at Bickleigh, 29 December 2010

In absurdly appalling, kitsch and typical of the Eastern European interiors elements of interior decor in the 80’s Bran saw something romantic, sentimental, maybe even charming. His idea for a project required from him to explore living rooms, old-style restaurants, even places of cult. The quest for the ‘paradise at hand’, as described by the author, reveals some sort of human disposition: be it to domesticate the closest space or to offer an eye a distraction from the inevitably bleak environment.

Lucian Bran, Promised Land
Lucian Bran, Promised Land. Living room in Tineretului, Bucharest

Wojciech Wilczyk virtually reached the limits of the photography based on research with his monumental No Such Thing as an Innocent Eye, traveling throughout Poland searching for the architecture once used as synagogues. The amount of work done by him before pressing the shutter release in that and other projects of his makes him impossible not to respect. The ugly turns into something else when you realize how many small-town Polish restaurants, workshops, cinemas, public toilets and other types of buildings conceal old Jewish houses of worship. By revealing the bygone function of today’s ordinary estates Wilczyk’s project illustrates the tragic fate of Polish Jews. Interestingly, the photographs do not exhaust the essence of that series as the artist’s testimony prove to be of high importance. According to the photographer, due to coming back to some places and taking photographs of the same locations more than once, he was being frequently watched by the locals which, on several occasions, led to an aggressive approach with accusations of working for ‘international Zionism’.

Wojciech Wilczyk, No Such Thing as an Innocent Eye
Wojciech Wilczyk, No Such Thing as an Innocent Eye. Krakow, Halberstam’s Bet ha-midrash, 25.08.2009

Learning to look

These fascinating examples of transition of the visual happening in the photographs ought to lead to a conclusion that there are no limits to creation in photography as those limitations are only set by the artists’ imagination. Documentary style, which many turn back on to these days, teaches us to appreciate and venerate the ordinary. Usually, those ‘tedious’ spaces and objects require a specific approach – based on patience, knowledge, understanding or even an emotional connection. You can travel across the country looking for a big story to tell and find it but there’s probably another one, just around the corner. Do you know the history of the streets you walk every day? Have you ever looked at your neighborhood from a different angle?

Mitch Epstein, New York Arbor
Mitch Epstein, New York Arbor. English Elm, Washington Square Park, New York 2012

Many photographers know about the concept of looking around rather than far away. Dorley-Brown has taken most of his pictures in a certain part of London and spent a good chunk of time studying the history of The City. The majority of Lucian Bran’s work has been produced in his hometown of Brașov and all of the photos in Mitch Epstein’s New York Arbor have come to existence out of him looking at trees in The Big Apple. This is how something that sounds extremely unexceptional becomes the opposite. But still, that would mean nothing if the lesson those artists gave us were useful only for the masters of the craft. The merits of those projects lie in the fact that from them we can all learn to look. Even deprived of a camera, just with our eyes, we may create the extraordinary and see what we had not seen earlier. At the end of the day, this is where the complexity of a street corner comes from. It’s there for us, the spectators, to grab it.


You may also like: Appreciation of water. Interview with Lucian Bran

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