Tate Modern’s Street & Studio is a blind alley

    There is startling work in Tate Modern’s Street & Studio show, but our critic doesn’t buy its urban myths

    One day, someone seeking top marks in a cultural studies department at an American university will write a thesis about the origins of the expression “the street”, as in, “I come from the street”, or “The street flows through my bad-ass veins”, or “In my ‘hood, bro’, if you ain’t from the street, you ain’t nuttin'”.

    Given that most of us have addresses of some sort, we are all, technically, from the street. But that is not what is being driven at. Somehow – and this is where our thesis writer might provide helpful dates and occasions – “the street” stopped being an actual location and turned itself into a twilit mental space, an imagined somewhere, defined, perversely, by claiming to belong nowhere.

    My guess, based on having attended a couple of psychology classes and skimmed two or three books of Freud, is that “the street”, as a concept, is an effort by the alienated modern mind to lay claim to a territory that reflects and nourishes its displaced sense of self. Feeling unwanted, uncentred, unloved, the immature modern ego colonises a home that cannot be a home: a home beyond the home. Older, more mature types, such as newsagents, might buy a caravan for the same reasons and settle down for the night in a lay-by. Indeed, we should probably think of “the street”, as a cooler and badder socio-dynamic alternative to the urge to own a caravan.

    Even if I’m wrong here, there is, surely, no arguing with the fact that the notion of “the street” is a dim-witted fantasy that has infiltrated our cultural landscape aggressively and stupidly. Illiterate pop adolescents drone on about coming from “the street” when what they actually mean is that their dads deserted their mums, leaving junior to pick up the elementals of respect and order from his mates down the road, who are in the same boat. Flog ’em and birch ’em, I say. The dads, that is. Before we do that, though, get the entire family along to see Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography, at Tate Modern, where they can share a good communal laugh watching earnest Tate curators getting their knickers in a twist as they seek, tortuously, to explain why “the street” is the same thing as “the studio”, except that it is located in a different place – ie, outside.

    Rarely, if ever, have I seen a show with fewer insights to pass on, yet so determined to pass them on anyway, at length, in an extra-complicated form. We are promised an examination of the shared history of studio and street photography, but, right from the start, the sense of a shared history simply isn’t there. Charles Nègre’s sepia-soft views of fuzzy chimney sweeps marching along the Seine in 1852 – representing the street – have nothing meaningful in common with Emile Tourtin’s portrait of the poet Charles Baudelaire in the 1860s – representing the studio. Tourtin has not tried to make Baudelaire look like a chimney sweep. Nègre has not tried to make the chimney sweeps look like poets. Nothing unites the photos or the approaches except the whims of the curator. The disingenuous twittering in the captions about the picture of the chimney sweeps not being as spontaneous as it seems because the cameras of the time required such long exposures, is just lousy exhibition waffle. All cameras at the time required long exposures. You might as well include a study of a tree for the same reason.

    The feeling that this show doesn’t know what it is talking about is exacerbated by the cavalier attitude taken to chronology. Having confused 19th-century street photography with stern studio portraiture, the display inexplicably throws modern opinions into the mix by turning immediately to a big colour picture, taken by Joel Sternfeld in 1988, of an American lawyer carrying his dirty shirts to the laundry. The lawyer looks a trifle sheepish. The photographer has noticed an amusing discrepancy between his glorious appearance and its inglorious origins. But in what meaningful way is Sternfeld doing something different from zillions of photographers who see something interesting in the street and snap it?

    A sensible visitor is advised, therefore, to ignore the show’s stated purpose entirely and wander about looking at things that catch their fancy. Of which there will be many. In 1917, Alvin Langdon Coburn shot the American poet and fascist sympathiser Ezra Pound in a startling set of “vorticist” portraits that reduce Pound’s likeness to a hard black profile set in a grid of dark shadows, some of which – and this could be my imagination – seem to form a scary preemptive

    swastika on the wall. A few images later, Paul Strand looks down on Wall Street in 1915, and notices the way the shadows of the rushing crowd cut dynamically across the blocky squares of modern architecture. Pound and Wall Street could both have sat happily in any investigation of the modernist impulse in photography. How unhappily they sit here.

    Sometimes, the two shows stumbling along at once – one mainly about pictures taken in the street, the other mainly about glamorous studio portraiture – intersect awkwardly. In the 1930s, the popular German portraitist Yva took some gimmicky pictures of celebrities from behind, while in 1946, the Hungarian firing squad shooting the collaborationist former prime minister Lazlo Bardossy – in Lee Miller’s grim view from a window – also have their backs turned to us. Is that because the aesthetics of Yva’s studio have seeped out into the Hungarian streets? Or is it because the only way for a firing squad to shoot a man is to point a gun at him? Miller’s powerful piece of witnessing belongs in a serious display of war photography, not in this casual game of photo-snap.

    Actually, a decent history of street photography would have been a useful thing to mount right now. Outside Tate Modern, on the brick cliffs of Bankside, a group of fashionable international “street artists” has been invited to cover the walls with huge examples of “street art”. They hadn’t finished when this review went to press, so I cannot comment on their efforts. But watching an organisation as institutionally snobbish as Tate Modern trying to get down with the kids is already a ghastly sight. The art world is crazy about street art just now. And Street & Studio was mounted, I suggest, in a deliberate attempt to up the tone of the external graffiti.

    Back at the show, the lack of empathy between photographers of the street and those of the studio is illustrated best, perhaps, by Erwin Blumenfeld’s gorgeous 1946 photograph of a beautiful model, in a green satin dress, stretched before a glittering approximation of the Manhattan skyline. It’s a dreamy and sexy image. But has any trace of the one quality the street can profitably have been expected to export to the studio – a sense of reality – actually made it across the divide? I suggest not.