In our media-saturated culture, everyone is a picture-taker and image-maker, adding a new wrinkle to the work of those who practice the time-honored tradition of street photography.
“It’s harder and harder to take a picture without somebody in the picture who’s also taking a picture,” the Brooklyn-based photographer Gus Powell said on Tuesday evening, explaining that the mere act of taking a photo hardly makes him stand out in a crowd. “We all take pictures — that’s what we do. It’s more that your camera doesn’t look like a phone — that’s the bigger issue.”
“Manhattan Noon,” a solo show of Mr. Powell’s photographs, opened at the Museum of the City of New York on Dec. 15 and is on view through April 20. To mark the occasion, the museum sponsored a panel discussion, “Eyes on New York,” with Mr. Powell and two leading street photographers: Jeff Mermelstein, who is based in New York, and Matt Stuart, who is based in London and runs In Public, a street photography Web site. Sean Corcoran, curator of prints and photographs at the museum, moderated the talk.
The photos in Mr. Powell’s new book, “The Company of Strangers,” which accompanies the exhibition, were loosely inspired by the poet Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), whose 1964 book “Lunch Poems” recorded his impressions strolling around Manhattan at noontime.
In a similar vein, Mr. Powell used his lunch breaks from his job as a picture editor at The New Yorker to amble around Midtown, recording the serendipitous moment.
In “For J. Singer Sargent,” he recorded a couple’s passionate but oddly emotionless embrace; the man has a rather blank expression while the strap of his companion’s blouse has slipped down, revealing her shoulder — much like the subject of John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” famously did, until the artist repainted the strap amid an outcry. For another image, “Our Secret,” Mr. Powell followed around a woman who, enigmatically, walked toward the New York Public Library’s main building, carrying a bouquet of flowers behind her.
Each of the photographers who spoke described encounters with street images as young men. Mr. Powell grew up in New York City and received a B.F.A. from Oberlin College in 1997. Mr. Mermelstein grew up in central New Jersey and studied at Rutgers University, urged by his mother to pursue a career in medicine or dentistry. Instead, he moved to New York in 1979 and got an internship at the International Center of Photography, where he studied with the photographer Garry Winogrand. Mr. Stuart, a street photographer for 11 years, was a skateboarder in London from the age of 12 and became captivated by photography after encountering the work of Henri-Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank.
Cartier-Bresson and Frank were among the historical influences cited by Mr. Corcoran, the curator, who gave a brief overview of the street photography tradition after the three photographers showed examples of their work. The overview included images by André Kertész, Helen Levitt, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, Tony Ray-Jones and Joel Meyerowitz.
Mr. Powell spoke about taking photographs of life outside his doorstep before he even knew what street photography was, and described Mr. Meyerowitz as a leading influence who helped him in “learning to be seduced by the smallest of things out on the street.”