Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Street Strollers of New York

You know in the couple of years I've been writing this blog, I don't think I have ever featured the writing of Mr Stephen Zagala. The essay below accompanies the current exhibition, New Photography From the Footpath, which opened at Monash Gallery of Art over the weekend. It's a great show and excellent essay. Along with reproductions of Catherine Bell's photographs it's been pulled together into a super cute booklet. You can pick it up for 10 bucks in the MGA shop. 

Images (top-bottom) Catherine Bell, from the series Street Strollers of New York (series no. 48) 2010, courtesty of the artist and Sutton Gallery (Melbourne), Catherine Bell, from the series Street Strollers of New York 2010, courtesty of the artist and Sutton Gallery (Melbourne).


Street strollers of New York is a sequence of photographs that document African-American nannies shuttling white children through the affluent mid-town streets of Manhattan. Catherine Bell’s interest in this subject grew out of her own experience working as a nanny in London; she embarked on this project with the notion to pay tribute to an under-acknowledged workforce. While there is a significant tradition in documentary photography of images of heroic workers, Bell’s images of African-American nannies belong to another tradition altogether – that of the clandestine street photograph. In these pictures, taken with a hidden camera and for the most part without the subject’s knowledge, Bell has cast each nanny in the role of a fugitive.

Bell is an artist who has worked in various media, including drawing, painting, video and performance. For this project she chose to work with black-and-white photographs, because of their association with the gritty realism of street photography. In keeping with the candid strains of this tradition, she has used a small, easily concealed camera to capture her subjects while they are on the move. As a result of this, her images pick up some of the formal qualities that characterise the genre, such and motion blur and coincidental composition.

However, Bell’s investment in street photography has less to do with stylistic traits than with the conceptual ambitions of the genre. For many street photographers, public space can be a theatre for tracking the aberrant complexities of human life as it is actually lived. For Bell, the nannies of New York bring to light the messy actuality of motherhood. In contradistinction to press photographs depicting Park Avenue and Hollywood celebrity-super-mums (who infamously adopt children from third-world countries), Bells’ pictures suggest that the maternal duties of Manhattan’s elites being outsourced to the African-American working class.

Street strollers of New York elaborates on Bell’s long-standing interest in the way that, in popular culture and literature, motherhood is often idealised in ways that deny its physical and psychological challenges. In order to maintain this idealised depiction of motherhood, its realities – its loneliness, its emotional vagaries, its messiness – are disavowed as ‘abject monstrosities’. Bell is interested in the ways that these myths permeate actuality.

The African-American nannies shown in Bell’s photographs can play a role in manufacturing this mythology. That is, the nannies help to distance mothers from the everyday messiness of family life, and give them time to uphold the super-mum ideal. But Bell makes the nannies the stars of her paparazzi-style project, celebrating the errant complexities of the street over the static ideal of motherhood.

- Stephen Zagala

New photography from the footpath
Catherine Bell, Glenn Sloggett, Ian Tippett
3 April 2014 to 8 June 2014

Alongside The Rennie Ellis Show, which celebrates the work of one of Australia’s most prolific street photographers, New photography from the footpath points to the ongoing relevance of candid photography in public space. Catherine Bell, Glenn Sloggett and Ian Tippett are all Melbourne-based artists who embrace street photography as a means of capturing the vitality of contemporary life.

Monash Gallery of Art
860 Ferntree Gully Road
Wheelers Hill Victoria 3150
Telephone +61 3 8544 0500
T–F 10am–5pm S&S 12–5pm

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