The first evening I spent in Arles, I met in some bar a young and friendly American photographer, Ethan Levitas. He said he was presenting an exhibition at the Grande Halle, and that he was confronting Garry Winogrand. “What a cheeky guy!”, I thought to myself.
Winogrand is a big deal, and Ethan Levitas’ artistic claim sounded exorbitant: to follow in the master’s steps, all the while reinventing “street photography” altogether. After our brief encounter, I found out that Levitas was no greenhorn at 45 years of age: I became even more impatient to see how this alleged “confrontation” had turned out.
This two-headed exhibition postulates that Winogrand’s conception of street photography evolved, as evidenced in his later works. Rather than a hunt, a series of snatches, a quest driven by this early Winogrand quote: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed”, taking pictures should be an event, an encounter between the artist and the subject. And the photographer, decisively involved in the process, becomes a protagonist as well, beyond the cliché of the paparazzo on the prowl.
Many prints by the hand of Winogrand (including some very famous images) are featured in the first room, whereas contact sheets are to be found in the back, after a long corridor (a superb choice of scenography, one that is coherent with the content, for once). The contact sheets are blown up in huge format, plastered on the wall, testifying to the fact Winogrand died leaving a large number of unprocessed film rolls and negatives that were never printed. Looking at those contact sheets, I think I found one image authored by this “new Winogrand” –at the very least, an image echoing this new relationship between the photographer and his/her subject–, portraying an old beau, verging on homelessness. In front of Winogrand’s lens, he appears proud and defiant, vehemently addressing the photographer in what seems a dialogue of sorts. A dialogue, indeed, and not a candid snapshot of a street scene. Ariella Azoulay’s remarkable book, The Civil Contract of Photography, promptly comes to mind, for it puts to question the photographer’s position of power (albeit with a much more political resonance).
What about Ethan Levitas, then? Well, it begins with a wall full of angles displaying photographs of passersby in Lower Manhattan, ten years after 9/11. Immediately, a dialogue is established between the photographer and his subject, maybe a sense of communion, linked to the memory of the tragedy.
The exhibition continues with a corridor featuring a series of (photographic) confrontations between Ethan Levitas and New-York police officers (including a nod to Duchamp’s “In advance of the broken arm”). Sure, those confrontations did not have tragic consequences (contrarily to many of A. Azoulay’s case studies), and only amount to moderate civil disobedience (a notch below Alain Declercq’s photographs of restricted areas, for instance). Nevertheless, some of these photographs led to Levitas being prevented to take further pictures, to having his camera confiscated, to being taken into custody… Such events are recounted minimally by a brief caption, not even a narrative, often quite cryptic, written in the dark on a typewriter and presented in negative scans, typos included: “Photograph of the officers who I will not permit to no now know because of this photograph.” Photographing brings about the event.
Finally, a third series is on display at the end of the corridor, as the room widens to also accommodate Winogrand’s contact sheets. For this project, Levitas stood in the street and held up high his large-format camera right next to CCTV cameras. Even though the passersby have grown used to be constantly filmed, monitored, GPS-located, spied on and preyed upon –without much complaint anymore, fifteen years after the Patriot Act–, they are suddenly subjected to another intrusion in their lives: the photographer’s. Levitas’ photographs are intrusive, for sure, but not brutally so, rather in a friendly way, and proving to be of a different nature than videosurveillance’s cold, surgical sampling. The passersby are surprised, amused, bewildered; maybe they take it as an opportunity to ponder the destination of their image after its capture –maybe this photographical event allows them to engage in political reflection (and since I cited Ariella Azoulay, I should also mention Miki Kratsman’s work on surveillance).
In any case, Ethan Levitas produced a remarkable exhibition, and a present-day assessment of what “street photography” can aspire to –especially how it can establish and account for an updated relationship between the photographer and his/her “subject”. And to conclude, here is the label to the photograph above, a last cheeky nod.
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: July 14, 2016.
Translation by Lucas Faugère