From slow shutter speeds to the Google streetview car
December 25, 2021 2:22 PM   Subscribe

Empty street photography, a view from the pandemic: an historical photo essay from Stanford Art Historian Kim Beil.
posted by Rumple (8 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
That's a very thought-provoking essay, with some utterly fabulous images accompanying it. (I'm quite familiar with a lot of the San Francisco Public Library's historic photo collection, but Beil selected some especially excellent examples for her article.)

So much fascinating information, like this:
The “grand style” urban photography of the late nineteenth century, for example, intentionally blurred out people on the street by using long exposures.
I don't think I knew that, and it's most interesting (especially in light of the first image on the page, "A bootblack and his customer.")

I was also amazed to discover that the phrase "street photography" is well over a century old.

I've done a LOT of street photography, myself, and I try to get images with no people in them - partly because I'm trying to focus on the buildings, and partly because I don't want to upset people by photographing them if they don't want to be photographed. But it's very interesting indeed to think about what we choose to show, and why.

This is a great find, Rumple. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!
posted by kristi at 2:46 PM on December 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Looking at old photos and seeing the history of cities is fascinating. I would love to have a sort of time machine that allowed me to immersively view the growth of any city, from the land's natural state to its current level of development, with full color at any viewpoint at any speed, including the ability to zoom in or out and replay parts of it as I please. I have no idea what I'd do with such knowledge, but it sure would be fun to experience!
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:33 PM on December 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

She’s not writing about street photography as the phrase is used today—she’s writing about photographs of city streets, usually taken by professional photographers for commercial purposes.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:40 PM on December 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Also, the author claims not seeing any people in the photos is the erasure of “workers”—but professional photographers don’t want to have to deal with random strangers making funny faces, photo-bombing, etc.. There’s no expectation of privacy in a public space, but that doesn’t stop potential litigants who think they should have been paid for being in a photo.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:54 PM on December 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

for several years, smartphone software engineers have been developing algorithmic methods to remove so-called “obstructions” or “distractions” from digital images, especially street scenes
I have been thinking for twenty years that the elaborate planning and scheduling and inconveniences to thousands of people to allow Tom Cruise to run through an empty Times Square or Cillian Murphy to wander through a deserted London would seem hopelessly baroque in a generation or so, as filmmakers would just run regular shots through some particular software scrubbing filter.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:37 PM on December 25, 2021

Certianly fair to say that if newpapers were "Fetishizing the empty street" during lockdown, they were indeed erasing the essential workers who were still out there.

It's funny to read in the NYT today a description of last winter that is rather contrary to all the empty street photos I remember: "stoop cocktails in puffer coats, long walks with friends to nowhere and a long line of park hangs"
posted by joeyh at 7:50 PM on December 25, 2021

I think the long exposures that don't quite erase the people but leave ethereal streaks where there is a sufficient density are really neat to look at.

I did once manage to take advantage of a snowstorm to get some literal street photography of Boston Avenue in downtown Tulsa from a perspective that would have otherwise been suicidal to attempt during daylight hours.
posted by wierdo at 9:08 PM on December 25, 2021

I spent Christmas in London once with nowhere to be, and even on my dinky cam, i got enviable street photos, the streets were so empty. I definitely understood then how they managed to get a post-zombie London set for 28 Days Later. Not even my city got that state of being so void of people (barring the lockdowns from incipient street protests).
posted by cendawanita at 3:05 AM on December 26, 2021

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