Colin Westerbeck

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Before moving to Los Angeles, Colin Westerbeck was a Curator of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1986 through 2003. Since then he has written a weekly column on photography for the Los Angeles Times in 2006 and 2007 and has contributed frequently to Art in America and Artillery. He has also taught photographic history at the undergraduate and graduate levels at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California from 2004 to 2008, and again in 2017. From 2008 until 2012, he was Director of the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside. His most recent books are Chuck Close: Photographer (Prestel, 2014), A Democracy of Imagery (Steidl, 2016), a completely revised and up-dated edition of his 1994 book co-authored by Joel Meyerowitz, Bystander, A History of Street Photography (Laurence King, 2017) and Vivian Maier: The 35-Millimeter Color Photography (Harper Collins, 2018).  


Paula: You’ve written the definitive book on street photography, Bystander, in collaboration with Joel Meyerowitz. How do you define street photography? Is it different from photojournalism? Is it different from fine art photography? 

Colin: It's pictures of everyday life in the street. Now, whether or not it's an art form depends on what photographer is doing the shooting. There are thousands of hobbyists who are street photographers. This has been brought home to me in so many ways. One time, I gave a talk at dnj gallery for a street photography show. There were 25 people there, and many of them had the first edition of the book. One of them had a library bound copy. I said to him, “What'd you do, swipe it from a library someplace?” This guy had looked through it so many times it fell apart, so he had it library bound. It’s not because my prose is so stimulating, it's just because of the subject.

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The new edition of Bystander is a third edition. The first edition was published in 1994 by Little, Brown, and I think they had printed 7,500 copies then. I thought they were nuts! But they sold so many that they decided to put out a paperback edition that was updated in 2001. It was clear it had become a classic after it went out of print because clean copies were offered on Amazon for hundreds of dollars, and then this British publisher came along—Laurence King—that wanted to redo the whole book. I cut the whole book by a third and did a lot of rewriting and condensing. I cut the Robert Frank chapter by two thirds, but added about three paragraphs, something that took me a couple of hours to write but 25 years to see. 

Paula: There’s been a lot of street photography in those years. 

Colin: Oh, yeah. Joel went online to look for street photography and found hundreds and hundreds of street photographers all over the world, many of them staying in touch with each other through the internet. In fact, the more far flung they were, the more they enjoyed keeping in touch, because conditions were so different in Czechoslovakia from what they were like in Japan or India or Ceylon. 

Paula: You said that whether or not it's art depends on who is making the picture. What's that special ingredient?

Colin: Well, art is both the gold standard and the leaden burden on street photography. Whether you're an amateur or you're Garry Winogrand himself, there is a Winogrand-esque standard there, which is to be manic about it. To need to get out every damn day if you can after work or on the weekend and shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot. Nowadays it's much easier since you don't have to process anything. When Winogrand died, there were something in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 8,000 rolls of film he never processed. People keep going into the Winogrand archive that was deposited at the Center for Creative Photography and finding rolls of film that never got processed. John Szarkowski really started this when he did a Winogrand memorial show a year or two after Winogrand died. He went through the archive and decided to process this roll and that roll, because he thought there were great pictures there. Well, we don’t know whether Winogrand ever would have even gotten to them, or what choices he would have made. 

Paula: If you're shooting a bazillion frames day after day, the editing process is really important.

Garry Winogrand,  El Morocco , 1955

Garry Winogrand, El Morocco, 1955

Colin: You bet. If you looked at any classic Winogrand picture or any classic Joel Meyerowitz picture, and you had the contact sheets from that roll of film, you would see that there was a shot taken before he got the great picture and then a couple of hits after. You're following your instinct towards something, and that something is probably going to take at least a few and maybe a lot of pictures to get to. Sometimes it's the moment in which the subject becomes conscious that there's somebody banging away on a camera. And sometimes it's the opposite of that, that the great picture was the one before anybody realized you were standing there taking pictures. And sometimes it's an undefined number of pictures in between those two.

Paula: To me there's a sort of sublime beauty to a Cartier-Bresson decisive moment picture. Whereas with somebody like Winogrand, there's often something off-kilter or wacky or odd about them.

Colin: Late in his life, in his eighties, Cartier-Bresson had a published exchange with Magnum colleague Martin Parr in which Bresson said, “I think you are from a different planet . . . without humor, where rancor and scorn dominate, a nihilistic attitude symptomatic of society today.” He was just appalled at contemporary street photography. Cartier-Bresson’s work—it’s more lyrical, it is a kind of affirmation of life, even when it's a picture of something that's disorderly or disgusting. I mean, he took pictures of Nazis being called out after the war, and even those pictures have about them a humanist understanding of history. He sees Martin Parr as a predator. And there is some truth that in pictures of everyday life in the street, human beings don't seem quite as romantic as they used to. 

Paula: Martin Parr sometimes seems a little mean-spirited. He’s kind of poking fun at people and our habits. But I can see another point of view too. We’re all absurd beings, and why can't we have a little chuckle about our absurdities?

Colin: I think Cartier-Bresson is just the gold standard, especially of photography in peace time after the war. He was an older contemporary of Robert Frank, who in many ways has a dimmer view of the human race than even Martin Parr. Martin Parr's a smart aleck, but Frank is a real pessimist.

Paula: And yet all of these visions are a part of your book and are a part of the tradition of street photography. It's enormous.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Contact Sheet (detail)  Source

Henri Cartier-Bresson Contact Sheet (detail) Source

Colin: Right. It's able to contain incredible contradictions like the ones I've just been talking about. Any art form that’s truly universal can be meaningful to people in Saigon and Los Angeles and wherever. As I suggested before, it speaks for the whole human race in some way. It indeed has a dialectical history of contradictions. It’s true of any great art tradition. Take impressionism: the Post-Impressionists started down the road to abstraction because they couldn't just keep doing what the Impressionists did. They needed to make their own place. 

This is, of course, part of the character of art and culture in the modern world. Up until around 1800 the arts were patronized and in some ways unified, legitimated and made consistent by patronage and by the Enlightenment, starting in the late 17th through the 18th and into the 19th century. There was this outpouring of a sense that the wonders of human history could be explored by everything from philosophy to photography. But in the wake of the two World Wars of the 20th century, it was really hard to make the argument that culture is increasingly a progressive thing. I mean, one of the most photogenic aspects of the 20th century was Nazism. Hitler definitely knew how to play to a camera.  

Paula: You call the book Bystander.

Colin: Right.

Paula: A bystander is someone who's standing by and watching. 

Colin: Part of the appeal was that the term bystander is usually prefaced by the word innocent. So and so was an “innocent bystander.” Well the innocent bystander is of course the subject of the photograph, but another point of using that term is that the photographer is innocent too. He's not doing something that he should feel guilty about. Now again, there have been arguments in recent decades about whether or not someone like Martin Parr should feel more guilty about what he's doing. The point was to leave implicit in the title Bystander the idea of a certain kind of innocence. This is fun, this is interesting, this is a kind of acceptable satire of the human race.

Paula: Is privacy part of it too? Some people get upset if they're photographed without their consent.

Colin: Oh, yes. And Winogrand was especially guilty. He was good at picking out somebody who was going to object, and taking some candid pictures of him and keeping at it until the person noticed and reacted. Arbus was the same way, like the kid with the hand grenade. She had taken four pictures before he made that face. She picked him out as somebody who could be provoked. There’s a wonderful recent biography of her by Arthur Lublow—six hundred pages of text and a hundred pages of notes! No street photographers have ever had a biography of that depth written about them. One of the things Lublow did was to contact some Arbus subjects and ask about being photographed by her. One guy—the one who was the kid with a toy hand grenade—said, “She just had an instinct for me. . . .When I was that age I was so wired, I could walk on the ceiling. I was like this all the time, and she knew that if she provoked me, she'd get it out.”

Paula: How does he feel about the ubiquity of his image? 

Colin: I followed up with him myself. He seemed to be good natured about it. She doesn't identify him by name. He clearly feels a kind of pleasure now, partly because he seemed to be capable of a certain kind of self-honesty, to understand that he was a kid who was wired out of his gourd.

Diane Arbus.  Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.  1962. Copyright © 1970 The Estate of Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus. Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962. Copyright © 1970 The Estate of Diane Arbus

Paula: It was a comment about her too, and her capacity for getting a reaction.

Colin: Right. And the ultimate comment about her and the personality that made those pictures was of course that she killed herself. She slit her wrists a few years later. One of the most poignant things Szarkowski ever wrote was about the memorial show he did for her shortly after her death. Outside of The Family of Man, her memorial show had the highest attendance the Museum of Modern Art had ever had at a photographic exhibition. He said the thing that was striking about it was the silence. In The Family of Man exhibition, people were boisterous and talking to each other because it's a simple show about how we're all human beings together. In contrast to that, for the Arbus show the mobs were big, but no one spoke. People went through and looked at this stuff and said nothing, even to each other. That was one of those signal events about the history of photography and how it affects people. People wanted to come to that show because they knew she was a troubled woman who killed herself. It wasn't that they were full of ghoulish curiosity. On the contrary, they came to be moved by the tragedy of it all.

Paula: You worked on this book with Joel Meyerowitz. Tell me about that collaboration. 

Colin: I lived on the upper West Side of Manhattan in the '70s, arguably the worst decade in New York history since World War II. The city was broke. Graffiti in the subways. A guy mugged my wife. I wrestled him for the knife and got the tips of my fingers cut off. I was at that time writing a weekly movie column for Commonweal magazine. I wrote 48 movie reviews a year. I loved it. I had gotten a PhD in English and I was teaching in the city university system at Brooklyn College. But it was really the movies and writing about them that I loved. I became the president of the National Society of Film Critics—Pauline Kael nominated me. It was just wonderful there in New York, especially if you were young and didn't have much money. My first wife Penny and I had a rent-controlled apartment on 103rd and Riverside, and my daughter was born during that time. When you've got a kid you become friends with a lot of other people who have kids. We got to know a couple who lived a few blocks from us, and the husband said to me one day, “I know another guy who talks as much as you do. You and he should get together. It’s this photographer Joel Meyerowitz.”

Joel at that time would spend 90 days a year shooting cigarette ads. Terrible stuff. But in 90 days he could make enough money to live for a year and do his own photography. There were then and are still a lot of photographers who had apartments in rent-controlled buildings on the upper west side of Manhattan. These buildings had been really elegant at one time and were broken up into smaller apartments. There had been accommodations for the staff of cooks and housemaids and so forth, and there were laundry rooms off of the side of the kitchen that made perfect darkrooms.  

The first time we met I arrived at his apartment when he was in the darkroom processing some film. He said “I'm going to be about 20 minutes or so. While you're waiting take a look at this,” and he dumped this book on my lap. It was by some guy I never heard of named Robert Frank. The book was called The Americans. By the time Joel came out of the darkroom, I was jumping up and down.  I said, “This book is a movie, it's a paper movie. It's the most incredible movie I've ever seen.” So he and I were off and running.

When both of us had an afternoon free, we would often walk to the Museum of Modern Art from the upper West Side, which took about an hour, talking the whole time. The department of photography at MoMA at that time was a cramped space cut out from a brownstone that they had purchased next to the museum. There was a big, round table in the reception area where people could meet and talk. [John] Szarkowski had brought in this guy named Peter Galassi and a young woman with braces on her teeth named Maria Morris Hambourg. Szarkowski wanted to do a great show about Atget, and she was his research assistant. Do you know the story of Atget's archive?

Paula: Tell me. 

Colin: It's interesting. Atget had been an actor for most of his life in 12th rate productions. As he got older, he gave that up and he took up photography. He was living in an arrondissement that wasn’t very classy, and he had a sign outside that said “Photographs for Artists.” He was making photographs of the landscape of Paris that artists could buy from him so that they could copy them and use them for their painting. There were two Americans in Paris at that time who happened to know each other well enough that one of them worked for the other. The employer was Man Ray, and the person who worked for him was Berenice Abbott. Man Ray was the first one who went and bought some of these photographs from Atget, and the Surrealists loved this stuff. One day Berenice Abbott goes to his studio, but the studio is locked up and she finds out that he had died. She immediately asked about his archives and was told that he had no heirs, so the photographs would be thrown out. So she and Man Ray—but really she's the one—rescued all the photographs and shipped them back to the States. The archive sat in her studio for 25 years, and then Szarkowski bought it for MoMA, because he thought that Atget is one of the great unrecognized geniuses. This was at the time when Joel and I are sitting there at MoMA, looking at pictures. 

Eugène Atget.  Magasins du Bon Marché . 1926-1927.

Eugène Atget. Magasins du Bon Marché. 1926-1927.

Joel was already an established figure, and he and I applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—not the arts, but humanities—because in the humanities people from two different disciplines could come together on a project. We got the grant and we traveled from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Paris and Berlin and all over the place, looking at archives—looking for street photography.

Paula: Wow. In this book you talk about the masters of street photography but it's not a greatest hits collection. There are a lot of pictures that I'd never seen. How did you make your selections? 

Colin: From the beginning the point was to look at many varieties—many incarnations of street photography. Our ambition was to show the infinite variety that this genre could take. There is a connection between Atget’s work and Cartier-Bresson’s, even though Atget was using a cumbersome view camera and was unknown to the world, while Cartier-Bresson with his Leica was the most famous photographer in the world. So from the beginning, the idea Joel and I had was to show the variety of street photography, to show that this is a universal visual language. 

Paula: Why should we care about this? Why should we look at it? What is it doing for us? 

Colin: The reason we should look at it is that when we do we get mesmerized. We want to see more, and more, as this book proved. Even the lay reader—let alone the one who’s already a street photography nut—is fascinated to see that everyday life can be so entertaining, that it can have so much fun and foible and sometimes tragedy in it. Even the tragedy seems, in the properly made photograph, to come to a new level of importance. It's not that we all love to see other people suffer. It's partly that even the suffering has to be something that's not just humanized, but humanist. That's the appeal of the material, not only to all the people who bought the book, but to me and Joel in doing the book. A book on street photography is a book of all the oddballs you could possibly imagine. And yet there is something not only human but humane and even humanist about that. 

The street photographer is, after all, a reporter. You see that looking at all of the aspects of human culture in that way is itself a culture. Two street photographers who are doing seemingly opposite things—one hides behind the corner and sneaks up on people, while the other one is in your face—are both making photographs that are reducing humanity to individual human beings in moving situations. Sometimes the situation is created by a reaction to the camera, but more often the subjects aren’t aware of the camera. There’s the sense in which it seems to be about something larger than any individual. From a particular point of view at a particular moment in something that was totally ordinary and had no consequence, the photographer saw that there was an index of human behavior and of humanity itself: something that rose from the level of reportage to the kind of symbolism that art has. 

Paula: I love the ones that are funny, where somebody is making a weird face or people are interacting in a funny way. 

Colin: The main core of street photography is in the human comedy. But even comedy sometimes shades over into tragedy, or comedy is wrested from a disagreeable or even potentially tragic situation. 

Paula: In the book you talk about some of the relationships between photographers.  They would sometimes go out together, they knew each other, and they had opinions about each other and sometimes not favorable opinions about what others were doing. Two individuals can go out to the same place and see different things.

Colin: There's a wonderful incident with Cartier-Bresson. One time when I was in Paris I had gone to see Cartier-Bresson. Joel was there with me, of course, and Joseph Koudelka was there, too, and I forget who else. But there were four or five of us. It was a Saturday afternoon, and it was in the spring. It was a beautiful day, and they all met at Cartier-Bresson's. Someone said “Oh, it's beautiful, let's go out, and we'll walk around.”  So, everybody went out, and we're walking, this knot of about five of us. We were walking down the street and at one point we arrive at a corner, and we look around and Cartier-Bresson has disappeared . . . and nobody saw him leave.  Koudelka, who knew Cartier-Bresson well and spent more time with him than any of us, said, “Oh, he'll turn up, we'll wait here.” There was a bistro there, with outdoor tables. We all sat down at some tables and after about 10 or 15 minutes, Cartier-Bresson turned up again. He'd seen something he wanted to photograph, disappeared and did it, and came back again as if nothing had happened. And I swear to God, he was older and more prominent than any of us. Yet he was able to disappear, and no one saw him go. No one saw where he went, or even when he went. I thought Wow, I just experienced the genius of Cartier-Bresson incarnate.

Paula: How did you come to your position at the Art Institute of Chicago? 

Colin: I had a PhD in English and after I got it, I realized that there were hundreds and hundreds of new historians of English literature coming out of every graduate program every year. The field was way overpopulated. The one thing I had some confidence about was that when I took a real interest in a subject, I wrote about it better than most people; and where photography was concerned that was especially good. I had begun writing about photography partly because Joel introduced me to people prominent in the field. I was writing a lot for Artforum, but there was no living in that. But then a lawyer in Chicago put up a $5,000 prize for a contest on writing about photography. I wrote an ironic, teasing piece about Ansel Adams and the whole Ansel mystique. I took it apart and made him human again. I wanted to write something that would be acceptable to people who love this guy and thought he was the world's greatest genius as well as to people who would be willing to laugh at him. I won first prize.

And it turned out that the lawyer who sponsored the contest was on the committee of the Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. I had no idea that I would ever work in a museum. I mean, I had a PhD in English, what museum was going to hire me? It happened that Carter Brown, who was then the Director of the National Gallery, decided to do a huge show celebrating photography’s sesquicentennial, which was coming up in 1989.  He got Kodak to give him $1 million to do a touring show that would go all over the world celebrating the history of photography. He had recently hired this young woman named Sarah Greenough to be, I believe, the first full-time curator of photography they ever had there. The thing was that not only was she young, but she was a woman, so he couldn't trust her with $1 million. So he consulted with Jim Wood, who was the director of the Art Institute where there was a longstanding photography collection, and a study room, and climate-controlled vaults. They knew everything about how to deal with photography, and they had a curator there, David Travis, who with some trepidation agreed to participate.

The Art Institute made this the opportunity to create a second curatorship, an assistant curatorship of photography. Because this lawyer was on the committee, because I won that award, and because I won it not by knowing more but by writing better than anyone else about the medium, they said to me, “Would you be interested in being an assistant curator of photography?” And I said, “Absolutely.” Then I said to myself, ‘What the hell does a curator do?’ I had no idea. I had never taken an art history course in my life. I had no idea how museums worked. . . . But there was this job. 

Because this was absolutely a straight arrow show about the history of photography, my essay about the contemporary work never broached the subject of Postmodernism. Nevertheless, Postmodernism was making the history of photography as important, if not more important, than any other medium. Because it was adversarial, Postmodernism made the history of photography important in a way it hadn’t been before. Postmodernism was being much celebrated in magazines like Artforum with cutting edge articles about theories of art and so it was this kind of chance convergence of ideas that gave me a chance to do something I have loved ever since. It was pure dumb luck. I had never planned to do it. Nor did I have any real insight into how I would do it. 

Paula: And now look at the body of work that you’ve created. 

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Colin: Yeah. I’ve published five books in the last seven years. Each with a different publisher. I continue to notice aspects of the history of photography different from the one that I started with. One of the reasons that I was so dedicated to developing a relationship with Irving Penn was that his work couldn't have been more different from street photography. That project also started out with this silly chance thing. I went back to New York a lot once I was a curator in Chicago, and all the galleries were glad to see me. There are two historically dominant galleries across the street from each other, Howard Greenberg’s and Pace MacGill. Whenever I was in New York, I would stop in to both of them. One day Peter MacGill walked me to the elevator and as I got on he said to me, “You should go and see Irving Penn. He needs a friend.”

Peter had realized that no New York museum was likely to take Irving's archives, even though he was one of the most incredibly organized human beings who ever lived. He had saved everything, knew where it was, had it all cataloged. And he was eager to go beyond just the recognition that the Szarkowski show in the 1980s had given him. Once I figured out what message Peter was trying to send me, I was thrilled. I started making sure that I came to New York at least once every couple of months. I would go and see Irving and sometimes we would have dinner together. Penn’s archives came to the Art Institute along with a donation of prints that has now grown to well over 200. And the ultimate result was a 1997 exhibition at the Art Institute that travelled to the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia (where it was their first photo show ever), and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

Paula: How do you maintain your enthusiasm? What keeps you excited about this? 

Colin: There’s always something new to write about.