Published as a catalogue to an exhibit that debuted at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art, this coffee-table book gathers the work of 19 photographers under the somewhat hazy concept of "street photography." If you are familiar with Roberto Rossellini's groundbreaking 1945 film, which lends its name to the book and exhibit, cocurators Russell Ferguson and Kerry Brougher were attempting to bring together work that explores the notion of the camera liberated from the carefully controlled confines of the studio. And as Ferguson puts it in his accompanying essay, "The city offers itself as ready-made compositions constantly formed new patterns, an endlessly regenerating trove of pictoral opportunity." Both his essay and Brougher's rather ably and briefly explain the history of technology in photography that led to the photographer's literal freedom, as well as the shifts in the art world that led to the photographer's artistic freedom to wander the streets looking for material. In both cases, there is a lot of overlap with motion pictures, especially the neorealist movement, cinema verite, and the French new wave. The two essays also provide brief overviews of the photographers included and their respective careers (an appendix also offers additional biographical detail on each).
However, the whole notion of "street photography" remains rather ill-defined and broad. The book includes cityscapes cluttered with people and cityscapes devoid of people, aerial shots, ground level shots, unstaged shots of real people, staged shots of models, combat photojournalism from Nicaragua, and conceptual work by Nikki Lee that has pretty much nothing to do with cities whatsoever. Indeed, the only organizing principle seems to be that the photos are outdoors and not obviously rural -- although in the case of Raghubir Singh's Indian photos, even the latter is violated. Which is not to say there's not some beautiful work here. The best is from some of modern photography's big names, such as Robert Frank's William Klein's gritty candid shots from the '50s, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand's beautifully composed work from the '60s, and bunch of vivid Eggleston shots from 1985. Legends of Japanese photography are present as well, with several pieces from Nobuyoshi Araki's 1963 series "Satchin and Mabo" and 1988 series "Tokyo Story", and Daido Moriyama's menacing late '60s work. There are some very good photos from Britain, including two from Thomas Struth, some very campy magaziney Terrence Donovan stuff, and two very nice early '50s shots from Nigel Henderson.
The remainder of the work was rather less impressive and/or out of place. Adam Secula's series of workers walking up stairs in the '70s left me unmoved. Philip-Lorca Dicorcia's early '90s series of pedestrians in various cities were pretty unremarkable save a nice one of a shambling rough character in Los Angeles. Jeff Wall's recreated scenes look as fake as they are -- and seem kind of pointless on top of it all. Tomas Struth's two shots from China come off like good amateur work -- the kind of photos where the subject matter does all the work. Catherine Opie's wide format empty streetscapes didn't do much for me. Nikki Lee's conceptual series is interesting but out of place. Wolfgang Tillmans seems split between fashion photography and more interesting abstract stuff, the selections here vary. Raghubir Singh's work is uneven and out of place. Susan Meiselas's coverage of street combat in late '70s Nicaragua is immediate but also out of place. Finally, Beat Streuli's series of New York pedestrians is utterly banal.
All in all, the essays are better than average and it's a decent taster's menu of photographers that might turn you on to someone new. However, the overall concept and selection don't really hold together very well. Few are likely to truly love the entire book.