Throughout the history of photography, there have always been arguments regarding its legitimacy as artwork. A novelty, a contraption, a machine taking the place of the hand of the artist? Oh, the horror! But slowly, as the 20th century unfolded, cameras landed in the hands of artists, and these impractical visual novelties, these mechanical painting machines, were put to work in service of the eye of the beholder. It started moving out of the portrait studio, with the likes of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Alice Austen dragging enormous large format cameras to great heights and remote locations to express the profound beauty of the world around us, while writers and intellectuals like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans headed to the Depression era countrysides to document the real lives of those living in poverty.
Then slowly, photography’s value beyond its technical ability to document was being realized in private showings, galleries, and collections, until the term documentary photography, once reserved for newspapermen, wartime frontlines, and voyeurs like Weegee, became a genre in and of itself. The street photographers came into their own by making art out of the everyday and turning the simple absurdities of quotidian life into considered poetic composition. So now that everyone has a phone in their pocket, we have arrived at a point where we must ask, what qualifies anymore as photography when the machines are taking over once again?
Well, if you call Clay Benskin a photographer, he will be quick to correct you. “I’m a street photographer, not a photographer,” has become something of a mantra for him since picking up a camera a couple of years ago. But unlike most of the self proclaimed street photographers of the Instagram age, Clay manages to capture something deeper, something true.
“I have a love/hate relationship with street photography. I love it because I don’t know what I’m doing and I hate it because I don’t know what I’m doing.” And though his approach comes off as nonchalant, the work is dynamic—always stopping time at the height of the action. His work contains so much life, in all of its complicated yet extra-ordinary glory. We see the story through his own lens, a combination of his unique empathy and curiosity about people in the world. See Clay's first Culture Crush feature story, Candid Camera, here.
“I actually make up stories in my head, but I’m not necessarily looking for one, per se. I’m curious about everything and everybody.” Taking a look at society requires a separation of sorts; an ability to look beyond the self portrait, outside of one’s self all together. These kinds of skills are inherent, rarely learned, and often executed badly. But this sort of behavior has always been peculiar to Clay, even back in his childhood and adolescent days.
“Growing up in the Bronx, I used to get kicked out of the house early. Say 9 O’clock. So I would sit on this mailbox in front of my building and just look at people and you know, make up stories. Just watch people. I would think, ‘oh she’s going to do that. Oh, he’s going to do that.’ Then when I got older we would go to clubs and you know, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t dance. So, I would just hit the wall and watch people interact in clubs. I don’t like to talk to people. I would just pick a wall and watch people, that was my thing. But I wasn’t taking pictures then. I’d just make up stories.”
And although Clay has always had an active imagination, real street photography isn’t as easy as a quick snap and a fancy filter. Most people don’t want you taking pictures of their altercations, break ups, fights, or even romantic moments. More importantly, once people notice you have a camera, they change. In a way, they get pulled out of the narrative and the story disappears. The action of taking the picture alters the picture itself. It recalls stories of Walker Evans hiding a custom built secret camera in his coat so his fellow straphangers wouldn’t notice he was working at all, an important observation that led to his incredible subway series. But Clay himself has mastered the art of going seemingly unnoticed.
“I don’t put the camera up to my eye. I shoot from the chest. Everyone says to shoot from the hip, but I always shoot from the chest. If you put it to your eye it’s harder, people are gonna notice." To capture stories right out of the world, to take a deep look at our society through everyday actions, to express the extraordinary through the moments that are ordinary, is itself an artistic gesture. What differentiates Clay’s work is his ability to let the viewer feel as though they too, are part of the story, like we are all in it together. And as we keep losing touch with reality, nothing feels more uniting than being allowed into the complicated story of all of us.
It’s hard to imagine that once upon a time people didn’t have cameras at their fingertips. In fact, more people didn’t have cameras than those who did. Which is why, way back in 1930’s New York City, when Walker Evans embarked on a radically new series of photographs, creating what would become some of the first ever street photography, he changed the game forever and set a precedent for a whole new groundbreaking way of how we take and look at pictures.
Nowadays, we’re so tuned in when it comes to how someone is holding their phone in our direction that it's become very difficult for street photographers to achieve an truly candid photo. Although it was some 80 years ago, Evans was also aware of peoples' inevitable desire to pose when knowing when there's a camera in the room. So he built his own hidden camera system by cutting a hole in his jacket and putting cables in his sleeves, never raising the camera to his eye or dare adjust the focus, and despite being underground, he didn’t even use a flash. His portraits were dependent on chance, the natural mystery and empathy of humankind, and a lot of secret discretion.
His book, Many Are Called, is a three-year iconic photographic study of people on the New York subway. With text from his longtime collaborator James Agee, Evans shot random, everyday passengers and commuters while they traveled underground in NYC. He explained that these photos were his how he thought portraits should be, “anonymous and documentary and a straightforward picture of mankind.” Making him what you could consider to be the godfather of street photography. No filters, no followers, just a milestone in the history of photography.
See All of Clay Benskin's Pictures BIG! In Our New Winter 2019 Print Spectacular Available Now!