Mike Smith, Streets of Boston

JTF (only facts): Published 2021 by Stanley/Parker (here). Hardcover, with 63 black and white photocopies, without supporting text. The images are unnumbered and are basically arranged as two pages with one side. (Cover and post the shots below.)

Comments/Context: This book of previously unpublished street photos was introduced in the 1970s by Mike Smith without text amplification. The photos have no captions nor a separate page listing the dates or places that identify the year, season, or Boston neighborhood in which the photos were taken. Biographical notes are also absent. We’re left to guess why Smith snapped the photos then, put them away for decades, and now decided to take them out again. There are no page numbers.

The publisher site offers some help but not much. In a few misspelled and ungrammatical paragraphs, they reveal that the photos were made in 1976 with a Linhof Press 23 camera.

The absence of standard background information is of course a technical tactic: imprecise form forces us to appreciate images without any interference from words, dispensing with recognition, anecdote, geography or history as interpretive aids.

Choosing a press camera was the first step in this most popular process. The device cannot be hidden more easily than 35mm. Its apparent size increases the odds of a direct and cooperative encounter, or at least a longer one. Phishing attacks and sneak attacks are attractive options for photographers with smaller cameras. Not here, where mutual recognition is the most common outcome. There are no hidden or runaway glances in these pages, nor ambushes. Black and white photography at a time when color finally became respected in art circles—Eggleston had his brilliant show at MoMA in 1976—was another way to dignify a street portrait occasion, perhaps to cut costs.

To judge from the pictures, Smith was met with the least amount of friction in his wanderings. Except for two photos – an early design portrait of a middle-aged man on a bench in a bathing suit and reading a stack of papers; And the last in the book, of a young man sleeping in a winter coat and lying on the beach – everyone in these frames agreed to paint his or her picture. In fact, many seem to welcome Smith’s interest.

Before cell phone cameras, asking a photographer to take your picture was often interpreted as a friendly gesture. Now, the camera sight automatically arouses suspicion. After George Floyd, the taking of photos and videos by people on the streets is likely seen as a prelude to legal action – as evidence of wrongdoing or protection from accusation. The three men who chased and killed Armand Aubry would not have been convicted if a video of their actions had not been later revealed. Comedian Larry David helped free a man from arrest for murder when footage from… curb your enthusiasm It was established that the suspect was in the stands at Dodger Stadium at the time of the crime.

If the date on the site is correct, Smith compiled this working group in 1976, the year of the country’s bicentennial. An occasion to raise flags in most parts of the country and a pivotal year in the history of American photography – Eggleston made his journey election That year Lee Friedlander published American MonumentThe atmosphere around the event in Boston was not so festive. Racial conflict divided the city in the 1970s. Opposition to the court-mandated transfer of white and black students has been vocal and violent, particularly in the Irish enclave of South Boston. Extremists from the left and the right bombed courts and planes to prove their point.

A stranger in this time and place, Smith was a young vet from Vietnam in a city where students his age had sparked anti-war protests. His photographs, surprisingly, do not reflect any sense of alienation or hostility. His high success rate depends on the trust he has gained during these short approvals. It covers a broad spectrum of humanity. Subjects come from different ages, races, incomes, sexual orientations, and occupations. Also, his eyes are not prying or intrusive. In only one case–a couple on the lawn, and the woman wearing a maiden and sunglasses while lying atop a younger man–did she sense his camera being overtaken, perhaps asking for their permission.

None of the photos were taken from afar. Most record a cooperative distance of 6 feet or less between people and Smith, who usually puts himself right ahead. The semi-square proportions of the negative press cam allow objects to be pressed against the frame. For the most part, Smith appears to have taken photos outdoors during the day, although 6 of the last seven photos were taken indoors with flash. The clothes that are worn range from cold weather jackets to T-shirts and shorts to jackets and again raincoats. In less than six pictures snow fell on the ground.

The cover photo (duplicate inside) was taken on a downtown sidewalk strewn with filthy snow: Three surly teens in bell-bottom jeans, leather jackets, and fancy bangs—their future body pairs for The Ramones—stand near a double movie theater set in the time Shows new releases In search of Noah’s ark And king kong character (The 1976 edition starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange). Smith has captured the occasional individuality of the three at a glance – two out of three might be brothers and appear tough and boastful while the unrelated one is smaller (standing higher on a snowbank to better match his shorter height) and appears less confrontational. The front of the book is of a smiling boy pushing an empty shopping cart – stolen from a supermarket? – Under an empty pier in Lower Roxbury. A study in infantile infinity, he is as curious about Smith as Smith is about him. The first photo after the title page is a three-quarters portrait of a middle-aged man in a yard. He sings and holds a button accordion and drum at his feet. He and a man standing next to a dump truck (in the middle of the book) are the only ones on these pages who are seen in action. All others were caught on the way home or to work, shopping, or planning their next move, at ease, sitting on a bench, or in the midst of momentary pleasure.

Whether by design or by chance, Boston streets Focuses almost exclusively on the working class. Only one guy in a suit and tie – sitting in front of a tree, a Panama hat at his side – and he doesn’t even look good. Smith recorded a time in the United States before the traditional divide between rich and poor widened into a chasm, which can be seen due to Yuppie consumption and banking investments portrayed as masters of the universe. It would be a safe bet that no one in this book earns more than $25,000 a year, most of which is about half that.

Other photographers on the streets of Boston during the mid-1970s included Nicholas Nixon who used his vision camera with an ecumenical compass similar to human concerns. After completing the series, Smith ended up studying at Massachusetts College of Art, graduating in 1977 before receiving his MFA from Yale in 1981. If he had any connection to the so-called Boston School of Photography (Nan Goldin, and David Armstrong, Mark Morrisroe, Gail Thacker, Jack Pierson and others), this is not demonstrated in his work.

Smith’s approach to portraiture has evolved. He was, at the time, closer to what Mark Steinmetz had become in his final Atlanta trilogy and to David Bay in his street portraits around black neighborhoods. He no longer presents himself as an objective or friendly witness and is not afraid of ridicule from his subjects if he feels they deserve a beating. writing Warning shots (Kehrer Verlag, 2019) was a brutal indictment of gun culture in East Tennessee where he has taught photography for over 35 years.

Boston streets It takes us back to Smith’s beginnings, when he was working on the Arbus stage and before he decided to focus on landscapes. As one of the last projects overseen by Alice Rose George, a New York-based Mississippi-born photo editor and advocate for artists — she preceded me as a free-lance editor late reaction Magazine – it’s unfortunately the end too. She passed away in January of 2021. Countless books, articles, and photo collections have been enhanced by her flair, stubbornness, historical intelligence and far-sightedness, and this book is no exception.

POV collector: Mike Smith represented by Lee Marks Fine Art (here). His work has a bit of secondary market history, so the retail gallery will likely remain the top choice for collectors interested in pursuing.

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