The exhibition takes its title from Italian director Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 film Open City. Rossellini’s innovative documentary style transformed the way urban life was portrayed in both the cinema and photography. The image of an ‘open city’ has proved surprisingly durable in its presentation of the street as a source of spontaneity, innovation, authenticity and artifice. It provides a highly appropriate backdrop to this exhibition.
The photographs of Nigel Henderson were taken in the early nineteen fifties in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London, where he had been living since 1945. Henderson brought a very personal style to his highly concentrated works, which tend to leave to the viewer´s imagination the question of what the rest of the streets where he took his photos looked like. Robert Frank and William Klein maintained the realism of the photo-report while acting as independent, subjective observers. Included here is part of Frank’s series The Americans, produced between 1955 and 1956, which offers an image of the United States far removed from the optimism of the ‘American dream’. In the blurry, grained and high contrasted photos of Klein, the chaos of New York is transformed into an ordered, complex composition. Garry Winogrand used the distorting wide-angle lens to achieve a greater social and structural contrast. Also making free use of this lens, Lee Friedlander includes elements or objects that would constitute a serious hindrance for most other photographers in their work. Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki took their photographs on the streets of Japan: they are casual or carefully set up scenes of daily life that capture the diversity of urban life in that far-off country. William Eggleston and Raghubir Singh worked exclusively with colour film. Eggleston uses it to capture the intensity and familiarity of daily life, while Singh employs vivid colour and strong contrasts to capture fragments of the chaos reigning in the streets of India. As we see from her images of Nicaragua, Susan Meiselas uses colour to underscore a somewhat disturbing relationship between danger, threat, extravagance and vulgarity. Jeff Wall and Thomas Struth explore the potential of the large-format camera, which enables them to show images and narrative on an unprecedented scale. Struth explores the connections between different urban environments and their cultural identities; Wall’s work reflects his interest in the language of film. The relationship between the cinema and photography is also a feature of the work of Allan Sekula and Catherine Opie. Sekula’s slides, which show workers leaving the factory at the end of their shift, take us back to one of the first films made by the Lumière brothers on the same theme. Opie captures the sinister stage-set emptiness of the streets of St. Louis and the vertigo-inducing architecture of Wall Street in New York. As well as using the street as a scenario for documentary purposes, Terence Donovan and Wolfgang Tillmans also bring it into their trade and art work. Donovan uses the façades and factories of London’s East End to give a realistic touch to his haute couture presentations and advertising work. Nikki S. Lee, Beat Streuli and Philip-Lorca diCorcia all take a fresh look at issues of authorship and of the relationship between the photographer and his subject. Lee gets passers-by to take his photo with an instant camera. Streuli often uses a telephoto lens to snap people as they walk by, separating them for just a second or two from the surrounding crowds. In DiCorcia’s work, the passers-by, and not the photographer, activate the sensors that make the camera take the pictures.