by Renny Pritikin
There is a famous early album cover by Elvis Presley that has his first name in pink down the left edge and Presley along the bottom in green in an asymmetrical font that virtually shouts 1956. A black and white image of a very young Elvis is displayed, mouth open in closed-eyed ecstasy, acoustic guitar around his neck, arm in mid strum. Twenty-three years later, in 1979, The Clash duplicated the cover, replacing Presley’s name with the title of their masterpiece album, London Calling, and with a black and white image of Clash bassist, Paul Simonon, smashing his instrument into the stage. The homage to Presley is an iconic pop culture design moment, but it also traces the difference in the world over a mere quarter century: more violent, more electric and alienated, louder, cruder, angrier, politicized, if still full of male assertion.
Though unstated, there is a wonderfully similar parallel in two of the photographs on view at the Crocker Art Museum in an exhibition called The Roaming Eye: International Street Photography from the Ramer Collection. In a 1961 work Black Country 011, Divided Street, by the British photographer John Bulmer, a man stands with his back to the camera at the apex of two urban streets intersecting in a V. Empty sidewalks, closed storefronts, homes and empty sidewalks dominate the image; it’s a vestige of mid-century existential angst, all isolation and loneliness. In the second work, a man stands in a formal garden, in profile to the viewer, near the apex of a V-shaped row of large hedges that meet in the foreground, just as the houses do in Bulmer’s image. This 1987 image is by the Bay Area photographer Ira Nowinski; it’s titled Jack Brymer, Glyndebourne Festival Opera.
After almost 30 years of postwar wealth, we’re still miserably alone and solitary, though perhaps with the consolation of art (the man is carrying a musical instrument), as we face our crossroads. As in African-American folklore, the crossroads is where life meets death, the past meets the future; it’s where we meet the devil to sell our souls at midnight and where 20th century photographers went to find profound subject matter.
Almost every great photographer associated with street photography (read: 20th century, black- -and-white, urban, humanist, unposed, 35mm) is represented: Helen Levitt, William Klein, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, et al, with the notable exceptions of Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand. Dr. Barry and Lois Ramer, the Davis couple who amassed this collection, do have favorites, sometimes somewhat eccentric, but often thrilling work by such lesser-known figures as Leon Levinstein (11 prints or 14% of the exhibition!). His Fifth Street and Broadway, circa 1958, is a sculpture in light celebrating human joie de vivre. George Rodger, a British artist, is represented by four images that fall into the now problematized arena of ethnographics, the subject here being North African people. His 1940 image, Hausa Chieftains Demonstrate Their Superb Horsemanship in a ‘Fantasia’, is simultaneously an unforgettable instance of frenetic energy captured at its peak and an unforgivably Romantic colonial indulgence.
And oh, did I mention what a treat it is that there are individual works by such crucial figures as Eugene Atget, Cartier Bresson, Walker Evans, Lisette Model, W. Eugene Smith and James Van der Zee? I’ll conclude with a few words about personal favorites, lesser-known, but worthy images. The Israeli photographer Lev Borodulin captures that hole-in-one’s-gut sensation of flight as well as I’ve ever experienced it in his 1980 Merry-Go-Round, Tel Aviv. Individual bodies fly through a sunlit sky suggesting souls in transit, ultimate vulnerability, and isolated fate, a theme that runs through the collection. Lewis Hines’ Child Picking Cotton, 1908/1920s, is a heartbreaking image from the era of muckraking journalism. A child who appears to be under ten years old is depicted in a barren field trying to find enough cotton to fill her bag, her body leaning in a near balletic posture of exhausted labor. The British artist David Hurn is represented with a piece documenting teenage girls at a rock concert in 1963; this is well-trod territory but Pop Concert Audience captures the cartoony extremities of teenagers responding to the Beatles’ sexual power. Juxtaposed with Hines’ image, it’s hard to reconcile the spectrum of these 20th century childhood experiences, one depicting economic devastation, the other showing the earliest days of an incipient industry, one now valued at billions of dollars, selling music to middle class children.
Viktor Kolar, a Czech, is another artist whom the collection supports generously. His Untitled (Painters and Dogs) is typical of his humorous takes on social situations he observes in the streets. In 1978, two house painters, seen only from the waist down, in paint-splattered work clothes, are approached by two tiny, leashed dogs. A line in the sidewalk indicates, metaphorically, a class divide that the dogs have crossed, away from their unseen middle-class owners. Workingmen are also depicted in Peter Stackpole’s 1935 photograph, In Deep Contemplation/Quitting Time. Workers seated in a boat are seen moving toward San Francisco (and the viewer) and away from the unfinished Bay Bridge. Wall text informs us that the men are somber because there had been a death on the crew that day. In fact, there were far fewer deaths on the site of the Golden Gate Bridge, simultaneously being built just a few miles away, because that project’s architect, Joseph Strauss, insisted on work nets being installed underneath the bridge, saving many lives.
San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery has an ongoing series of exhibitions titled Several Exceptionally Good Recently Acquired Pictures. In my mind I have retitled the Crocker’s Roaming Eye along similar lines, the better to enjoy the experience. While there are many classic street photographs in the show, there are a larger number of prints better understood under other rubrics. As a consequence, I found my experience interrupted every
few steps, wondering how many of them fit into the ostensible theme of the exhibition. The Ramers have great eyes for powerful images, but the spread — over almost two centuries, almost every continent and many diverse cultures — defeats any simple aesthetic classification. The Roaming Eye serves as a terrific primer on the history of documentary photography for those new to the field; one hopes that viewers follow up with artists whose work in this exhibition intrigues them. For knowledgeable visitors the exhibition is a reminder of the less familiar and more surprising directions of a plethora of well-known names.
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“The Roaming Eye: International Street Photography from the Ramer Collection” @ Crocker Art Museum through May 12, 2019.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin retired in December after almost five years as the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Prior to that he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis. In 2006 Pritikin and Matthias Geiger co-curated Joint Venture, Contemporary and Vintage Photography, The Ramer Collection and Other Selected Work, simultaneously at The Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the Pence Gallery in Davis. He was the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. He is working on a memoir of his experiences in the arts from 1979 to 2018.