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Old School Street PhotographyHarvey Stein's "Briefly Seen — New York Street Life"review by Norman Borden
Photo by Harvey Stein . Source:
Cover, "Briefly Seen" by Harvey Stein

Well, one thing is obvious from the very beginning of Harvey Stein's new book, "Briefly Seen" the 172 black and white photographs from 1974 to 2014 do not reflect his usual decidedly casual, non-candid, non-sneaky approach to street photography, a style that was generally successful in his two previous books about New York, "Coney Island 40 Years" and "Harlem Street Portraits." In his quest to capture the sensation of being swept along by a sea of rush hour humanity on some midtown and downtown streets, Stein opted to walk along with the crowd and shoot candidly like most street photographers do. The result is a book — the third about New York — that is unlike any of his previous work. There are no posed street portraits, and few smiling faces, but as Stein has said, “This is not a happy book.” He wanted to show the anxiety and discomfort that comes with being part of the crowd during peak times, and in that regard, he succeeds.
Stein explains that the idea for Briefly Seen, like most of his projects, evolved over time…“I tend to 'think book' when I go back to the same places all the time and amass a body of work.” About three years ago, he looked at the candid images from his “NY Street Pictures” archive, some dating back to 1974, liked many of them, and returned to favorite midtown corners to shoot some more.
Photo by Harvey Stein . Source:
"Untitled" (p.81), Harvey Stein

He says, “The photographs are my response to the rough, raw, charged and even magical energy of New York City street life.” Many of the pictures are packed with people filling the frame, to enhance the sense of feeling crowded. Stein used a variety of techniques to make his point….”I'm in the crowd, crouched down; I use grain, blur, off the camera flash, skewed perspectives… wide angle views…I want a hallucinogenic effect…I'm moving at a frantic pace with the crowd to capture the craziness…I'm shooting over shoulders at faces that don't look very happy, annoyed at being in the crowd…people are pushing their way through…I take one shot and I'm gone, hence the title, 'Briefly Seen.'”
Photo by Harvey Stein . Source:
"Untitled" (p.105), Harvey Stein

Some of these grab shots include cropped heads and shoulders, accidental juxtapositions and double exposures that Stein feels help convey the congestion, confusion and energy of the streets. Sometimes he gets really close and the tight shots of shoulders, backs, chests and neck enhance the sense of what it's like being stuck in the crush. One example is the image on page 82 (Stein has omitted titles, locations, dates) where a woman is squeezing between two men in suits; the guys' shoulders are in your face. The picture works in context with other “squeeze” shots like the one on page 105 where he captures two women peering out from behind a man's shoulder. In fact, the more crowd pictures you look at, the more you appreciate the artist's thesis. (In fact I experienced the huge St. Patrick's Day crowds at 49th and Fifth Ave this year from a new perspective.)

What I didn't understand at first was Stein's desire to have viewers “peer into the book.” To encourage them, he stipulated that "Briefly Seen" be printed darker than usual to “give it an edgy feel.” Why? The pictures speak for themselves — particularly the first 55 because they were all shot at night, many with low angle flash (also called “Monster Flash” since it creates deep shadows.) That technique worked well in a number of photographs, including the one on page 22 of two women who look totally oblivious. What were they thinking? Another favorite is on page 51, this time the artist held the flash overhead to light the big crowd in front. The faces in the middle are, well, faceless since they're darker and barely visible. I realized that the darker printing intensified the picture's ominous, eerie feel.
Photo by Harvey Stein . Source:
"Untitled" (p.85) Harvey Stein

The darkness also makes you look closer at the image on page 85 where Stein crouched down to capture three women in their Easter bonnets. One of them looks like she's wearing a veil until you realize that it's actually a beautifully patterned shadow covering her face. Very nice. (And if you're looking for edgy, this is it.)
Many of Stein's photographs here are both eye opening and consciousness-raising; many are timeless; many show the diversity and complexity of street life. Then again, Stein hinted at his intentions with a quote by legendary photographer Bernice Abbott on the title page: “Photography helps us see.” And so it does.
Briefly Seen New York Street Life by Harvey Stein
Schiffer Publishing, New York, 2016
172 b/w photos 184 pp $45.00
ISBN13: 9780764349799

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