KMA's 'Streetwise' Sheds Light on Social Upheaval and Shifting Perspectives

Streetwise: Masters of '60s Photography, an exhibition at the Knoxville Museum of Art through Aug. 5, features images of 1960s America that remain as potent today as they undoubtedly were when they initially appeared. Beyond being familiar, many of the photographs on view—by Diane Arbus, Ruth-Marion Baruch, Jerry Berndt, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyon, Garry Winogrand, and Ernest Withers—are considered essential to our visual record of an unusually dynamic and pivotal era.

To whatever extent specific events and countercultural topics belong to another time, however, work selected for Streetwise possesses an indescribable presence. That presence appears to rely on the intensity of each photographer's vision, perhaps resulting from an ability to identify in the external world that which embodies one's own point of view.

Organized by the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, Streetwise includes more than 75 prints occupying two downstairs galleries at KMA (one with a reading area unfortunately placed next to a repeating video about the significance of the show's images). The exhibition is thought-provoking and moving, with masterful photography addressing everything from the Black Panthers movement in Oakland, Cal. (Baruch), and racism/activism in Memphis (Withers) to prostitutes (Berndt and Frank), hoodlums (Berndt and Lyon), protesters (Davidson and Winogrand), and outcasts (Arbus, predominantly).

I find street photography remarkable; its contents have existed for all to see, yet it seems it could not have been realized by any other means or by anyone other than the photographer who produced it. Like great poetry, images in the Streetwise show suggest that no other number or combination of elements could ever be as powerful. Furthermore, selected pictures manage to speak of the past without feeling dated or distant.

In last month's review of Streetwise Knoxville, a companion show at 2 Many Pixels Gallery on Jackson Avenue, I commented that some images in that show—like many at KMA—convey how far-reaching change and general chaos were during the 1960s. I also mentioned a shift in various photographers' motivations, quoting Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski, who asserted that approaches to documentary photography were veering "toward more personal ends…. [N]ot to reform life, but to know it."

Certainly a desire to reveal what could otherwise go unacknowledged unifies work in both Streetwise exhibitions, and images at KMA depict quite real people and incidents. But the changes in intention alluded to above are notable, and especially evident in the photographs of Arbus, Davidson, and Friedlander. Setting them apart is their decisive movement away from what scholar and curator Gretchen Garner has labeled the photography of "spontaneous witness."

The tired adage known to writers that one should show, not tell, can here reference something else altogether. Whereas photography of witness shows what a participant in a given scenario could see—a chance immersion captured on film—work by Arbus and others emphasizes the very medium of photography, using the camera in such a way that it becomes part of the telling, creating a narrative of sorts that blurs the line between one's self and that which is photographed.

For instance, Arbus' choice of a nondescript backdrop for a portrait titled "Woman With Briefcase and Pocketbook, NYC" sets in bas-relief what looks like a dressed-up doll prepared for anything an employer might dish out. Her ultra close-up stance when photographing "Puerto Rican Woman With Beauty Mark, NYC" may be partly responsible for the subject's expression of alarmed disdain.

Davidson's perspective, often assuming the form of narrow or otherwise tight composition, is likewise integral to his image of small children pressed up against the wire mesh of a New York window, looking as blown-about and discarded as trash littering the seemingly endless alley beside them. Another Davidson shot from the same street, showing a boy clutching a tin can with a fish swimming inside, employs the strong vertical of the sidewalk's curb along which the boy is perched to possibly symbolize the division between young and old, shelter and exposure, and containment and boundlessness.

Friedlander's juxtapositions and cropping represent a somewhat extreme variation of the photographer dominating his or her subject; his efforts epitomize work that is more a matter of how one sees than what one sees. Whether he's capturing a father and son posing for a snapshot in a bustling Texas town or people reflected in glass windows and doorways, Friedlander transforms reality into something resembling collage (often with the absurd sense of humor found in his photograph "Nashville, Tennessee," an image of a magnified and dazed-looking face on TV, the set's antennae appearing to sprout from the picture onscreen).

Groundbreaking images by Frank set the tone for the show; they reflect an impulse to incorporate personal perspective into photography that illuminates the conditions and concerns of an entire culture. As such, Streetwise exemplifies changes in photography as dramatic as changes occurring in American society throughout a decade, the likes of which we'll probably never again experience.