Everybody does “street photography” these days. Go to Tumblr or Flicker and you’ll find reams of it posted day after day. Most of it is not very good, nothing but throwaway looks with no internal dynamic to make you look again. Just.people.on.the.street. Really good street photography somehow rises above the pedestrian view, revealing a greater narrative within a sliver of everyday life. There is always something surprising about it, something unexpected that draws your eye and makes you want to look again. It poses a question, draws you in for a second look, gives you a glimpse of something incongruous, something you don’t expect to see in the way you’re seeing it, inviting a unique interpretation for each idiosyncratic viewer.
Take the above photograph by Jorge Fidel Alvarez: A man, presumably, with a bizarre mask stands facing the camera, something decorative hanging over where he stands; his demeanor unreadable, maybe slightly menacing. The scene radiates something indefinably sinister. An elderly Chinese woman stands in the background, smoking, staring at either the masked man or the western photographer. I wonder: who in her mind is normal, and who is exotic? The photo fascinates me, but I’m not quite sure what I’m looking at, so I look at it again and fashion a narrative to fit what I think I see. The photo suggests various interpretations; its up to me, the viewer, to work it out for myself. (The masked man is actually a welder using a homemade steel mask, which, after the stories we’ve told ourselves, almost seems irrelevant).
Good street photographers shoot a lot. The father of modern street photography, Garry Winogrand, using a Leica M4 film camera, shot over 12,000 rolls of film between 1971 and his death in 1984. When he died at the age of 56 he left over 6500 undeveloped rolls of film. Winogrand’s heirs, today’s street photographers, work in a digital age where photographs are cheap and ubiquitous, easier than ever to take, store and share. With the advent of camera phones, public resistance to strangers with cameras in public places has lessened. Yet exceptional street photographs remain as rare in the digital age as in Winogrand’s day. And almost no one shoots the street with film anymore. The ease of digital capture makes street shooting with film a proposition for only the most dedicated and hardcore film fanatics. So I’m fascinated when I see great street work done on film. Jorge Fidel Alvarez is a great street photographer, and he works with film.
Alvarez is a French photographer living in Paris. He is a 2004 graduate of SPEOS, Paris, where he studied under Georges Fèvre (master printer for Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Josef Koudelka, among others). The Institut Culturel Français en Chine (The French Cultural Institute in China) recently invited Alvarez to Wuhan, China to shoot that city’s streets and exhibit the resulting work at the New World International Trade Center in Wuhan. The plan was simple: fly Alvarez to Wuhan for nine days of shooting whatever caught his eye, back to Paris for two weeks to process, select and print his work, and then back to Wuhan to exhibit 20 prints,, opening reception May 29, show to run through June 12. (details)
Jorge Fidel Alvarez, May 29, 2014, New World International Trade Center, Wuhan, China
Alvarez, who uses digital for his paying work as an architectural photographer, chose to use a Leica M4 and M6, with 25mm and 35mm lenses, while in Wuhan. (At least one Chinese reviewer found his choice of “antique cameras” memorable.) He shot 70 rolls of 36 exposure Tri-X over the course of 9 days.
Alvarez, who has been shooting the street since the 80’s when he bought his first Leica, took up professional photography comparatively late, after a first career in IT. He has carefully studied the work of other photographers – his Paris flat’s bookshelves are lined with the work of European masters Cartier-Bresson, Boubat, Koudelka, Lartigue, Doisneau, Frank. In 2003, enrolled in the photography curriculum at SPEOS Paris, he discovered the American Garry Winogrand. Alvarez’s mature work can hint at the European formalism of Cartier-Bresson and Boubat, and one see’s as well the more spontaneous elements of Frank, Daido Moriyama and Winogrand- but his vision is unmistakably his own, a fascinating amalgamation fusing the poise and balance of a studied, mannered aesthetic with the arbitrary and instantaneous.