When Joel Meyerowitz first picked up a camera for an errant work assignment, he promptly marched back to his employer and quit his job.
“What are you gonna do instead?” said the magnanimous jefe.
Joel wanted to take pictures, and that was all. Not actually having a camera — or solid job prospects — wasn’t a problem. These were the lawless sixties, and who was a boss but a dude who might be willing to lend you a piece of equipment for a while?
Indeed, much of “Everybody Street” — a documentary made up of rapid-exposure glimpses into the lives of New York City street photographers — feels dated, but in the best possible way. It’s a beguiling throwback to the days of busted, graffitied subway cars, Times Square prostitutes, bohemia in Greenwich Village, and shambles on the Lower East Side. To the pre-recession days of affordable Manhattan apartments you could finance by following your joy. Most importantly, it’s a snapshot of the people who take the snapshots, who sometimes face very imminent danger in order to democratize the visual anthology of daily urban life.
With 13 photographers to uncover in the span of 101 minutes, director Cheryl Dunn chooses quantity over depth to some degree. In another sense, it’s an aesthetic choice, with pictures and tidbits deployed at a rapid pace that mimics the ephemeral whirl of New York City street life. Visually, it’s a treat: Martha Cooper‘s sooty children playing in the abandoned lots of the 1970s Lower East Side; Boogie‘s intravenous drug users and humanized gangsters; Bruce Gilden‘s grotesque, arrested facial expressions. To no one’s surprise, the minds behind the photos are as vibrant as the scenes they had the good sense to capture. Some of the photographers who have never been documented before are sitting on the opposite end of the camera for the first time.
That said, there’s a little more seeing and less talking in this film, which lightly grazes topics like digital versus film. Less of a thematic exploration of photography and more of a series of vignettes, “Everybody Street” has more to offer to the visually hungry viewer eager to absorb a bygone mood. It’s not so much that time has created a sense of nostalgia around the seedy, crime-ridden New York of yore, though time has a tendency to do that anywhere. In the creation of iconic imagery, it really is all in the frame.