Vaguely Stealthy Creatures: Max Kozloff on the Poetics of Street Photography (2002)

Image @ Joel Meyerowitz

“Vaguely Stealthy Creatures”: Max Kozloff on the Poetics of Street Photography

By Martin Patrick, Afterimage, December 22, 2002

The critic Max Kozloff frequently reminds his readers of the inherent instability of meaning within the photographic medium. In an early essay (from 1964) he considers “the aesthetic situation in photography to be extremely fluid. Alarmingly but justifiably, anything goes.” To the great benefit of Kozloff’s criticism, he does not eliminate the manifold ways of discussing photographs nor overly narrow his concerns. Instead, Kozloff manages to avoid the dead end of formalist dogmas in favor of conveying his own rapt attention in front of a wide, almost startlingly diverse range of material. It is one’s acute awareness of Kozloff’s own deep belief in the nearly limitless potential of photography that lingers after reading his essays. Kozloff explicates this belief most convincingly in a number of his essays on “street photographers,” among them Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and William Klein. This essay focuses on such material in particular and several of the many issues and questions it raises, as well a s discussing the deft manner in which Kozloff attempts to create verbal equivalents to the near-acrobatic visual images of these artists.

Kozloff repeatedly recognizes that it is just at the moment when a photograph verges on complete incoherence that its ability to provoke thought and convey beauty is much more profound in its implications. Street photographs are simultaneously random and precise, existing both as social documents and aesthetic treasures. Kozloff, in his ongoing critical project, attempts to come to terms with what he has called the “enigmas and illuminations of photography.” (1)

The opening passage of Kozloff’s essay “The Privileged Eye’ states: “consider an action photograph in which one or a bunch of figures is on the move. No matter how visually explicit, its story content is moot. Because it’s unnaturally congealed, the pictorial activity becomes literally equivocal in its drive or purposes.” (2) Kozloff proceeds to try to discover what might be at stake in such images, however equivocal, as they retain the ability to snare the viewer: “if their ‘truth’ quotient weren’t so high, they could not deceive as indiscriminately as they often do. But if they were outright fictions they wouldn’t grant me the privilege of feeling that I can hold the world, sporadically, in a set of miniature durations.” (3)

With the particularly evocative image by Cartier-Bresson entitled Alicante, Spain (1932), Kozloff speaks of being propelled into a state of “fruitful perplexity … here I am saying that not knowing, a decided lack of knowledge can become a value in itself…. if there is any such thing as a revelation that does not explain its content, this is an example.” (4) Cartier-Bresson himself in his famous statement “The Decisive Moment” of 1952, declared that

In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, product of the instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it. (5)

For the street photographer it is integral to the act of making photographs to be on the lookout, the search or the prowl to be “vaguely stealthy creatures” (6) in Kozloff’s words. When Frank was no longer on the road, he soon had to move on to other approaches to photography in an act of reinvention of his process. It seems no accident that both Frank and his contemporary Klein turned toward film–motion pictures–to escape the more restricting aspects of still photography.

Kozloff uses a Baudelairean eloquence to recount a type of photographic practice that is characterized by its energetic emphasis on blur and grain, a kind of tortured and heavy-handed romanticism eked out through incremental fragments and shards. As he remarks on Klein: “The world he depicts which has come apart–fissures everywhere and eruptions of crud–was for him a visual discovery.” (7)

The street photographer moves. This movement is the photographer’s essential task, because the street, particularly that of New York City, is rarely static, and the watchful eye must stare, yet proceed to store thousands of glimpses. Some will be held up, magnified and singled out for attention later while others will line binders, file drawers, photoboxes, portfolios and remain hidden away. (Or, in fact, in the case of Garry Winogrand, his late work amounted to several barrels full of unprocessed 35mm film canisters.)

Photographer Joel Meyerowitz has remarked on the act of photographing:

It’s like going out into the sea and letting the waves break over you. You feel the power of the sea. On the street each successive wave brings a whole new cast of characters. You take wave after wave, you bathe in it. There is something exciting about being in the crowd, in all that chance and change–it’s tough out there–but if you can keep paying attention something will reveal itself–just a split second–and there’s a crazy cockeyed picture! (8)

Or in the recollection of Klein concerning his 1996 book New York, “The sub-title was, in further tabloid-speak, TRANCE WITNESS REVELS. In three words, all I had to say about photography, at least the kind I did then. Trance + Chance, Witness = Witness, Revels + Reveals.” (9) And of course these associations with photography bring to mind Baudelaire’s description of modernity itself as a manifestation of the “transitory, fugitive, and contingent.” (10)

Kozloff also rightly calls attention to the peripatetic nature of this photographic approach as in turn reflecting the ominous alienation of contemporary America, as he comments:

[Robert] Frank was taken correctly to say that there was no spiritual coming to rest in a place that mistook affluence and acquisitiveness for culture, that brutalized its minorities, and that threatened the world with its militarism. As for the joyless Americans themselves, they were imprisoned or dissociated by meaningless drudge work, or else they were uncentered roamers, like gypsies moving over a space incomprehensibly large to a European eye. As Frank saw them, they enjoyed a pointless mobility.”

In a certain sense, therefore, the roaming photographer merely mimics his mindlessly pacing subjects.

Several of Kozloff’s most remarkable stretches of prose occur in his 1981 article “William Klein and the Radioactive Fifties.” In Kozloff’s haunting appraisal, Klein’s images

are strangely noiseless but savage, memorable but not arresting. They give the impression of a bodiless life, other than our own, of societies not exactly alien to those we know or can remember, though they differ from them, as if they existed in a netherworld that corresponds only in its surfaces, not its substance, to the one that sustains us. The poignance of these visions issues from their insubstantiality, for the longer our acquaintance with them the more they appear to transmute everything solid into shadows–until earthiness itself dissolves into little more than flickering light and shade. (12)

Again the strength of this passage is in Kozloff’s attempt to find a literary tone to match Klein’s dark and bold, but often extremely subtle, imagery. The critic often can be imagined darting about, stabbing bits of stylish prose, sprinkled with references to modern art, though considering the breadth of Kozloff’s knowledge, he wears his learning lightly.

The following significant issue is raised in the act of reading (and rereading) Kozloff’s work: where does the art historian leave off and the photography critic begin? This writer is of the opinion that the two roles can be merged and synthesized effectively, yet I also believe that critics can happily live in the land of undocumented hunches, intuitive leaps and literary flourishes. However, if all of these (non-)methods are applied to the act of writing scholarly history, one–as a critical reader–must be able to differentiate murky assumptions from clear evidence.

This problematic situation emerges in light of one of Kozloff’s most recent and generally most cohesive attempts to record his thoughts on street photography in the exhibition catalog New York: Capital of Photography. (13) Much of this text is a series of chapters on the relation between photographers working in the context of New York City. Photographers such as Frank, Klein, Evans and others are considered at length, but a final chapter mars the serious intentions of the previous five.

In the latter installment, Kozloff tries to link a “Jewish Sensibility” to the bulk of New York street photography. He has lately received some harsh criticism for this approach, including such epithets as simply “pointless” and “a paste-board theory.” (14) I tend to think that advancing the idea that some photographic artists are intrinsically more perceptive than others due to their ethnic background is uncharacteristically misguided given Kozloff’s own general inclination toward a more democratic and inclusive “sensibility” when writing on photography.

Throughout his criticism, Kozloff has chosen to evoke and conjure rather than merely describe and dissect the images to which he refers. The structure of Kozloff’s essays often involves a slow expository progression toward an intense rush of evocations, explanations and associations that are laid out in the hope of transferring to the reader a broader understanding of the work/issues at hand.

Kozloff knows that the photographs he comments upon represent a precarious balancing act of formal experimentation, an approach that incorporates chance effects, and thereby does not rely only on the visible subject matter at hand. Kozloff, on Klein, wrote: “To describe the actual situations in his photos is to explain nothing about their capacity to move us.” (15)

So what is the crucial point of street photography? Why does it matter? From which of its many attributes emerges its truly uncanny, strange and lasting power? In speaking of Frank and Klein, Kozloff writes of “A form of witness in which the whole of their perception is implied or evident in the single fugitive glance…. they breathed the air about them, and their task was to find the means to invoke the effect of that air upon social behavior.” (16)

There is much at stake here for the analysis of the underrated genre of street photography. In these images, glimpses of concrete specificity launch us as viewers into a vertiginous zone of ambiguity. Photographic details, however sharply rendered, become mysterious clues to something always just out of reach. Kozloff recognizes that to lurk near the edge of chaos without succumbing to it can be an altogether pleasant sensation.

The practitioners of street photography coming into their own a generation after Cartier-Bresson’s “equilibrium” capitalized on the “indecisive moment” [author’s emphasis]. These images incorporating “eruptions of crud” rather than the austere and elegant classicism of their predecessors became influential as well, often harboring a cult status. Out-of-print books passed from hand to hand and enthusiastic word of mouth kept Frank and Klein and others from disappearing from view. Klein’s New York, however, was left unpublished in the United States for decades, after its initial cool reception by editors. He remarked later: “Yecch, this isn’t photography, they would say, this is shit. This isn’t New York, too black, too one-sided, this is a slum. What else did they think New York was?” (17)

Yet we are perhaps today viewing photography itself at the end of a certain formal/technological road. The decline and very nearly total demise of street photography was noted in a 1999 essay by the Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer, who when traveling on a Guggenheim Fellowship in the U.S. noticed:

The disappearance almost everywhere of any downtown life. Those parts of the city had become populated mostly by parking lots and empty streets, with whatever was left of “life” taking place inside tall buildings. What used to be a bustling environment around commerce, had now been displaced towards the “shopping mall” located in the suburbs. “Street life” changed from being in a public-city–space to that of a private–corporate–one, the mall. (18)

Street photography is too often relegated to a mere “genre” status and in this unfair appraisal the breadth of the approach is diminished and underestimated. In the increasingly diversified photographic arena of the 1980s and ’90s, the achievements of the “men (and women) on the street” were considered passe. If a much needed, more analytical, post-conceptual approach was now favored in certain circles, it was also often sabotaged by a bloodless, didactic tone.

Much of Kozloff’s best photographic criticism was written on the eve of the desktop computer revolution, the introduction of digital cameras and the tapering off of the art photography “boom” with in its place the focus of the artworld shifting to all matters postmodern. Kozloff’s critical approach becomes more contradictory when addressing more recent technology. He seems to derive great interest from images that challenge the fixity of meaning(s); the unsteadiness of photographs in more than one sense, in terms of both technical idiosyncrasy and as a record of a physiological spasm or tremor registering the forcefulness of life.

However, Kozloff is such a humanist critic that he holds little regard for postmodern relativist positions, becoming quickly exasperated with the dehumanizing potential of new digital technology–somewhat ironic, as he wrote beautifully earlier in his career about the futurist movement: “for the first time we encounter truly revolutionary artists who were perfectly prepared to attack the bourgeoisie from the right as well as the left–a cardinal reason why they are still so disturbing today. They conceived all politics as vengeance, just as they looked upon all media as interchangeable.’ (19) Once the veracity of the photograph as indexical record is challenged by its new virtual malleability, the photograph becomes simply a media image/product, seemingly corroding the very essence of photography as Kozloff sees, interprets and believes in it. Potential is squandered, as the use of chance effects by an intelligent witness becomes instead a dumb series of increasingly randomized options.

Kozloff described the importance of his use of the term “witness” in an interview from 1981, in which he stated that

In the medium of photography, just as in any other communicative utterance, a statement cannot be made without filtering it through the interests of the maker. That’s why I like to use the word witness when referring to a photograph, because it describes a complex role without being tendentious. The word conveys the idea that some conscious party or agency was at a scene and can give an account of events, but it doesn’t say anything about the reliability of that account. Those who did not witness an event can learn something about it from those who did. (20) [emphasis original]

The street photographer is typically closemouthed, uncomfortable to hostile in regard to any surrounding discourse. Many of these photographers have made eminently quotable statements, statements that remain insightful fragments, agitated outbursts and flippant conceits. Winogrand’s statement “1 photograph to find out what something will look like photographed” leads us about as far as Frank Stella’s (almost contemporaneous) “What you see is what you see.”

Both the act and result of the street photographer’s craft resist most attempts to analyze them closely, much as a jazz musician’s improvisation or an abstractionist’s splatter. The fact that they tend to deflect commentary has not prevented a prodigious amount of photographers, critics and historians from having their say. But this also becomes a peculiar dance. As Susan Sontag has written:

The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque. It is a view of the world which denies interconnectedness, continuity, but which confers on each moment the character of a mystery…. Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy. (21)

Critics circle about these alluring specimens trying to piece together arguments and assertions that frequently refer to the oblique, confounding and mysterious nature of photographic imagery, and remain necessarily inconclusive.

The general tone of the work that most often attracts Kozloff’s attention is one of lament, melancholy and dread, which he, with the vibrancy of his criticism, transforms into life-affirming, positive statements. Ultimately Kozloff is attracted to artists who care. He speaks of the “convulsive empathy” evident in Larry Fink’s startling society tableaux, and when he writes on Larry Clark, for example, Kozloff characterizes his work as exemplifying a

For Kozloff, the search for meaningful ways to write about the photographic medium has been a quest in turn toward his own self-definition as a critic. Very few critics have paid as much extended attention to photography and its significance over the past quarter century. Perhaps Kozloff’s circuitous, meandering path in and around photography could be summed up via a quotation from one of the artists he has repeatedly championed, Frank, who in a [958 statement wrote the following:

I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others-perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph. (23)

To read Kozloff’s work is to discover many things, and perhaps most significantly to be reminded that both aesthetics and politics can be engaged simultaneously within serious criticism of photography, and with great subtlety and sensitivity to language. (24)


(1.) Max Kozloff, “Report from the Region of Decayed Smiles…” in Max Kozloff, The Privileged Eye (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987), p. 233.

(2.) Max Kozloff, “The Privileged Eye” in The Privileged Eye, p. 3.

(3.) Ibid., pp. 4-5.

(4.) Ibid., pp. 3-7.

(5.) Vicki Goldberg, ed., Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present (New York: Touchstone, 1981), p. 385.

(6.) Kozloff, “A Way of Seeing and the Act of Touching: Helen Levitt’s Photographs of the Forties” in The Privileged Eye, p. 29.

(7.) Kozloff, “William Klein and the Radioactive Fifties” in The Privileged Eye, p. 43.

(8.) Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, Bystander: A History of Street Photography (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1994), pp. 4-5.

(9.) William Klein, “Preface” in New York (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1996), p. 4.

(10.) Charles Baudelaire, ceuvres completes (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1980), p. 797.

(11.) Max Kozloff, “Koudelka’s Theater of Exile” in Lone Visions, Crowded Frames: Essays on Photography (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994), p. 149.

(12.) Kozloff, “William Klein” in The Privileged Eye, p. 53.

(13.) Max Kozloff, New York: Capital of Photography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

(14.) Jed Perl in The New Republic (August 19, 2002); Frederick M. Winship, “The Art World: Photos and the ‘Jewish Eye,’ UPI (August 8, 2002).

(15.) Kozloff, “William Klein” in The Privileged Eye, p. 51.

(16.) Ibid., p. 48.

(17.) Klein, Preface, New York.

(18.) Pedro Meyer, “Street Photography” (July 1999) on

(19.) Max Kozloff, Cubism/Futurism (New York: Charterhouse, 1973).

(20.) Kozloff, “Photography: Straight or on the Rocks?” (Conversation with David T. Hanson) in The Privileged Eye, p. 237.

(21.) Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), p. 23.

(22.) Kozloff, The Privileged Eye, p. 204.

(23.) Goldberg, p. 401.

(24.) An earlier draft of this essay was presented on October 25, 2002, at the Southeastern College Art Conference in Mobile, Alabama.

MARTIN PATRICK is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Illinois State University.

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