Melissa O’Shaughnessy, Perfect Strangers

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Aperture (here). Hardcover, 11.5 x 9.75 inches, 144 pages, with 91 color reproductions. Includes an introduction by Joel Meyerowitz. Designed by Jeanette Abbink. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Street photography has an identity crisis. Among amateur hobbyists, the genre has surged post-millennium. Spurred by digital tools, social media, and accessible subject matter, it has never been more popular. But this enthusiasm has not carried over to the fine art world, where its critical reception has been in general decline in recent decades. If contemporary street photography is shown in upper tier galleries, it is often parsed through an imposed narrative. Treatments have run the gamut from intentional provocations (Haley Morris-Cafiero) and virtual candids (Doug Rickard) to rephotographic studies (Peter Funch), stagings (Clarissa Bonet), reconstructions (Jeff Wall), composites (Chris Dorley Brown), and cool metaportraiture (Beat Streuli). But street photography in its essential form, i.e. practiced by an urban flâneur reacting in the moment, is typically considered passé. Among the recent wave of year-end book lists celebrating 2020 titles, virtually none featured pictures in this style. 

The recent monograph Perfect Strangers: New York City Street Photographs might stir the pot. The book is published by Aperture, among the most respected and influential institutions in photography. Its pictures are by Melissa O’Shaughnessy, a petite 60-year old who practices street photography in its fundamental form. She puts in hours on foot, observing the pedestrian life around her and shooting with discretion but rarely interacting. Dressed in black with a small camera—“I really do look like a tourist,” she explains—she is hardly noticed. Her subjects remain perfect strangers before and after exposure. 

O’Shaughnessy’s method is challenging enough on its own, with an inherently slim hit/miss ratio. But she has stiffened her task by taking on history as well. Her primary working space is the most hallowed ground in street photography, mid-town Manhattan: 5th Avenue, 34th Street, Broadway, Times Square, Union Square, etc. Virtually every New York photographer from Stieglitz to Arbus to Wagner has taken a stab at these corners. Their features have grown familiar. But even if shot to death over the years, their daily potential for renewal is inexhaustible (although a pandemic might dilute it for a period). Perhaps there is life in the old dog yet. At least that is the wager placed by Aperture, and O’Shaughnessy’s pictures indicate they may be on to something. 

In its broad outlines, Perfect Strangers follows street photography tradition. The pictures are sequenced through the book in a varied layout of color candids. The frames are generally intended as singular moments. The primary story they tell is of photography itself, and they owe more to observation than conceptual theory. The galvanizing thread is New York. Whereas daily tasks in most American cities are walled off behind car doors and shopping centers, Manhattan life is largely transacted in public. The fabric of the city is woven in broad daylight here, on its sidewalks. Pedestrians shuffle along, either to work, shop or play. We see kids carousing, groceries being carried, appointments met, all of it forming the daily grist for O’Shaughnessy’s camera. “There are things that happen on the streets of New York that you just can’t make up,” she says, in something of an understatement.

The conceit that truth might prove stranger than fiction centers around people. Like all good street photographers, O’Shaughnessy is something of a visual sociologist. Her practice necessitates a degree of voyeurism, peering in on private affairs, eavesdropping with eyes, and imagining oneself in another’s skin. O’Shaughnessy generally captures her subjects in daytime with available light, waist up, at middle distance. When successful, a specific exposure can be generalized to offer insight into humanity. Her photo of a family on Broadway is a starting point. It’s a complete household straight out of central casting, mom, dad, and three teens. Each person stares in a separate direction, lost in thought. Each person’s hands are engaged in some sort of itch. In their distracted unity, they might be a metaphor for domestic life everywhere. Another picture of three turbaned men under a subway platform could express the multitude of opportunities and backgrounds forming the fabric of Manhattan. Several photographs of windblown hair might be a metaphor for chance events or the daily bustle of busy sidewalks.

Where O’Shaughnessy differs from some predecessors—e.g., Ken Schles, Jill Freedman, or Jane Dickson—is in her generally upbeat view of Manhattan. Her subjects might not smile openly but they still exude a mood of proud defiance. Businessmen strut briskly toward some office out of frame. Families buckle strollers in preparation for a supply run. A man secures his poncho against a cold snowy day. Perfect Strangers was shot pre-pandemic, and it reflects the broad sense of purpose which characterized New York before 2020. The old lyric was a mood beacon: if one could make it there, one can could it anywhere. That seems the guiding principle for O’Shaughnessy.

The flip side to the equation is that she has excluded subjects which might tarnish the buoyant impression. Her Gotham contains no graffiti, no bums or broken dreams, no encampments or open construction sites, no squats, chain link, vice, or litter. There seem to be no blue collar laborers in this iteration of New York, which is surprisingly white and wealthy. If trash is included, it is carefully framed. A picture of a dirty newspaper takes a shot at easily demonized Donald Trump under the headline: BIGGEST LOSER. A scrap of cardboard on the sidewalk expresses a handwritten ray of hope: “Seeking Human Kindness”. Those pictures are about as negative as O’Shaughnessy is willing to venture. 

To some extent, O’Shaughnessy’s contemporary vision reflects the shifting tenor of Manhattan, which has been gentrified—some would say sanitized—in recent decades. Matt Weber’s 42nd Street of the 1980s was lined with peep shows simply because that’s what he found there, just as Richard Sandler’s Metro subway cars of the era were riddled with graffiti. In Helen Levitt’s generation, Manhattan might still contain a child in plain sight pissing on a hubcap. But such scenes have been largely scrubbed from the current landscape.

Perfect Strangers reflects the transition. But its kinder gentler Manhattan also represents a choice by O’Shaughnessy to consciously break from the street photography canon. The genre has been justifiably criticized for sneering down its nose at subjects. A snooping sense of derision and exoticism clings to public candids, fostered by contemporary trends favoring clever juxtaposition, shadow play, and a fascination with seediness. At its worst, street photography can be crudely exploitative, treating humanity merely as aesthetic fodder. O’Shaughnessy steers well clear of such these dangers. “I’m not out to make anyone look bad,” she says. Perhaps she gives the underbelly too wide a berth, and some will view her distillation as Panglossian sugarcoating. But others will view it as she does, “ a celebration of New York and its people.”

Perfect Strangers diverges from the canon in another important way. It is executed by a woman. In the scope of published street photo monographs, which have been male dominated despite a plethora of woman photographers, this is a breath of fresh air. Aperture’s press blurb positions gender as a human interest byline—“a growing number of women street photographers contributing to this dynamic genre”—but I think it is more important as it relates to the actual subject matter. By O’Shaughnessy’s own reckoning, womanhood has its perks when shooting. “I realized I was at an advantage on the street. People don’t ascribe a creepy vibe to an older woman taking their picture, as they might to a man…As a woman, for example, I could take a picture of a child on the street, but I don’t know any male street photographers who would do that.” Several photographs of children in the book prove her point. Joel Meyerowitz, who mentored O’Shaughnessy and has witnessed her in action, describes her physical interactions in more florid language: “a ninja-like sprite, darting, feinting, melding, and slip-sliding her way through the crowds.”

On a practical level, O’Shaughnessy’s feminine frame colors her aesthetic. Barely five feet, she must pay attention to sight lines among taller bystanders, and her lens level captures a lower vantage point. The cover image is an example. It depicts a woman approaching O’Shaughnessy at close range, wrapped up in a fur coat and urban accessories. From O’Shaughnessy’s perspective, her focal point isn’t face to face, but instead mid torso. The woman’s chest and head fill the upper part of the frame, along with background buildings and a bit of blue sky. This arrangement —with the camera tilting upward at close range subjects— is a continuing motif throughout the book. It’s a compositional device which subtly places O’Shaughnessy as a presence in all her photos, even as their putative attention is trained outward. It’s been said that all photography contains an element of self-portraiture, and that applies here. The title Perfect Strangers might be verbal selfie, referencing the fact that O’Shaughnessy is a transplant to New York and a relative latecomer to street photography.

Whether a nod to self portraiture or not, O’Shaughnessy has a fondness for strong female characters in the city, or “grand dames,” as Meyerowitz calls them. The cover image is the first in a recurring series of such figures in the book. After the introduction, the opening photo shows an elderly woman on 42nd Street, isolated against a busy backdrop in plain white sweater and floral hat. Her posture says to anyone who might be curious, don’t fuck with me, I’ve seen it all. Several pages later, a young woman in earbuds and black camisole seems content supervising her own universe. A barrel chested redhead on Fifth Ave parts a wall of pedestrians, followed by a noble matron on Sixth Ave in scarf and furs, whose dignified remove invites comparisons to Lartigue’s famous Avenue des Acacias, 1911. On the very next page is her counterpart, a dogged senior in earmuffs grinding her way through the crowd. Like the scarfed matron, she stares directly into O’Shaughnessy’s camera. She smiles slyly, as if sharing a secret. Finally a buff woman on 42nd Street looks like a Vogue model in glamorous sunglasses, choker, and bold whites. 

Collectively these women assume a starring role which is unusual in a street photo book. Certainly it is miles away from the male gaze of Women Are Beautiful. If these photos have a patron saint it is not Winogrand but Bill Cunningham. The sartorial instincts of the men in Perfect Strangers create a noteworthy contrast. Unlike O’Shaughnessy’s women, they appear rather frumpy and lost. One gentleman wears a sad looking “Birthday Boy” tie pin. Another sports a 5-year beard and a vacant look to match the proselytizing message on his T-shirt. Another crouches awkwardly at a display case. He looks old and weary.

The primary challenge for any street photographer is to impose some structure on the fleeting chaos of urban life. One way to cut through the clutter is through repeating pattern, and O’Shaughnessy is drawn in particular to twin forms. Like her grand dames, they are a persistent subject throughout. She captures women together making the same gesture, girls with paired hairdos, and twin ballerina outfits. A picture of Strand bookstore patrons is perfectly matched in posture and concentration. A particularly striking photograph miraculously finds two sets of matching kids, passing quickly in the moment. When twins aren’t readily available, O’Shaughnessy constructs them whole cloth, as with a businessman paired with his own reflection. This picture’s visual continuity is so seamless that it takes a long moment to untangle what’s happening. A pairing might even happen outside the frame, as with two similar photos of men at Union Squared, sequenced into a duality. When done to excess such a device can fall into trope, but O’Shaughnessy’s application is subtle enough not to dominate.

Perfect Strangers is the first contemporary street photo book to be published by Aperture in recent memory. Without the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to know if this will be a one-off, or a foretaste of future trends. But it is worth placing in historic context. The introductory essay by Joel Meyerowitz goes some measure toward this effort, outlining past currents and slotting O’Shaughnessy in the new wave of Manhattan shooters. “Just as the young Jacques-Henri Lartigue was fascinated by the new motorcars, airplanes, cyclists, fashionable people, and chance itself—as measured by his camera, his revelations show us, today, his immediate present and our past—so O’Shaughnessy takes us along on her daily rounds looking at contemporary life in New York City.” 

All well and good. But from a contemporary perspective, nothing dominates our interpretation like the pandemic. These pictures were shot just a short while ago, but they portray a world which seems alien. No one is masked. Strangers rub shoulders, touch their faces, and pass through doorways in a way that is currently unimaginable. The coronavirus has affected every place on Earth, but its visual residue is perhaps most evident in the formerly busy sidewalks of Manhattan.

Published on the heels of the past era, Perfect Strangers is immediately dated, resonating with an antediluvian undertone that O’Shaughnessy could not have anticipated. “Now,” writes Meyerowitz, “…cities everywhere have been emptied of street life…Everything will now be seen as before or after the coronavirus pandemic. O’Shaughnessy’s work has quickly, brutally, been torn from our ongoing present and will forever serve as one of the lasting impressions of what life looked like just before the fear of the unseen microbe took away our uninhibited freedom of movement.”

That is true for now. But at some point Manhattan will return to something approximating normal. The visual fabric of that future is impossible to project, but assuming that sidewalks refill with activity Perfect Strangers will shed its pandemic-linked time stamp. And O’Shaughnessy’s urban expeditions will recommence, in a New York City which is once again inexhaustible.

Collector’s POV: Melissa O’Shaughnessy does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar)

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