Mike Smith, Streets of Boston

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Stanley/Barker (here). Hardcover, with 63 black-and-white photographic reproductions, no supporting text. The images are unpaginated and primarily arranged as two-page spreads with a single recto. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: This book of previously unpublished 1970s street portraits by Mike Smith is presented without amplifying texts. The photographs have neither captions nor a separate page listing dates or locales identifying the year, season, or Boston neighborhood the pictures were taken. Autobiographic notes are also lacking. We are left to guess why Smith made the photographs then, put them away for decades, and has decided now to bring them out again. There are no page numbers.

The publisher’s website offers some help but not much. In a couple of typo-ridden, ungrammatical paragraphs, they disclose that the pictures were made in 1976 with a Linhof Press 23 camera.

The absence of standard background information is of course an artistic tactic: the format not-so-subtly forces us to appreciate the photographs without any interference from words, to dispense with confession, anecdote, geography, or history as interpretive aids.

The choice of a press camera was the first step in this more deliberative process. Considerably bigger than a 35 mm., the instrument cannot easily be hidden. Its conspicuous bulk increases the odds of a more direct and collaborative, or at least lengthier, encounter. Subterfuge and sneak attacks are tempting options for photographers with smaller cameras. Not here, where mutual acknowledgement is the more common outcome. There are no furtive or fugitive glances in these pages, no ambushes. Shooting in black-and-white at a time when color had finally become respectable in art circles—Eggleston had his breakthrough show at MoMA in 1976—was another way to lend dignity to the occasion of a street portrait, and perhaps to lower costs.

To judge from the pictures, Smith was met with a minimum of friction in his wanderings. With the exception of two photographs—an early one in the layout, of a middle-aged man on a bench dressed in a swimming suit and reading a sheaf of papers; and the book’s final one, of a sleeping youth dressed in a winter coat and lying prone on a beach—everyone in these frames has assented to having his or her portrait made. Indeed, many appear to welcome Smith’s attention.

Before cell-phone cameras, a request from a photographer to take your picture was often interpreted as a cordial gesture. Now, the sight of a camera arouses automatic suspicion. Post-George Floyd, the taking of photographs and videos by people in the streets is just as likely seen as a prelude to legal action—as evidence of wrong-doing or as protection from accusation. The three men who chased and murdered Armand Aubry would probably not have been convicted if a video of their actions had not later been revealed. The comedian Larry David helped to free a man from arrest for murder when footage from Curb Your Enthusiasm proved that the suspect had been in the stands at Dodger stadium at the time of the crime.

If the date on the website is correct, Smith amassed this body of work in 1976, the year of the country’s bicentennial. A flag-waving occasion in much of the country and a pivotal year in the history of American photography—Eggleston made his travelogue Election that year and Lee Friedlander published The American Monument—the mood around the event in Boston was not so celebratory. Racial strife divided the city in the 1970s. Opposition to court-mandated busing of black and white students was vocal and violent, especially in the Irish enclave of South Boston. Radicals from the Left and Right bombed courthouses and airplanes to make their points.

Smith was an outsider in this time and place, a young Vietnam vet in a city where students his age had fomented at anti-war protests. His photographs, surprisingly, do not reflect any sense of alienation or hostility. His high rate of success depends on the trust that he elicited during these brief concurrences. He covers a broad spectrum of humanity. Subjects are of various ages, ethnicities, incomes, sexual orientations, and occupations. Nor are his eyes intrusive or prying. In only one instance—a couple on the grass, the woman wearing curlers and sunglasses while lying atop a younger man—did I sense that his camera had overstepped, and he may well have sought their permission.

None of the portraits was taken from far away. Most register a cooperative distance of 6 ft. or less between subjects and Smith, who usually has positioned himself directly in front. The near-square proportions of the press camera negative allows bodies to press against the frame. For the most part Smith seems to have photographed outdoors during the day, although 6 of the final 7 images were done inside with flash. The clothing worn goes from cool-weather jackets to t-shirts and shorts to down jackets and raincoats again. In fewer than half-a-dozen images is snow on the ground.

The cover photograph (repeated inside) was taken on a sidewalk downtown piled with dirty snow: three scowling male teens in bell-bottom jeans, leather jackets, and opulent bangs—future body doubles for The Ramones—pose near a duplex movie theater that at the time was featuring the new releases In Search of Noah’s Ark and King Kong (the 1976 remake starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange). Smith has captured the accidental individuality of the three at a glance – two of three may be brothers and exhibit a toughness and swagger while the unrelated one is smaller (he stands higher up on the snowbank to better equalize his shorter height) and he appears less confrontational. The book’s frontispiece is of a smiling boy pushing an empty shopping cart—stolen from a supermarket?—down an empty sidewalk in Lower Roxbury. A study in childish aimlessness, he’s as curious about Smith as Smith is about him. The first image after the title page is a three-quarter portrait of a middle-aged man in a plaza. He is singing and holding a button accordion, with a pedal-drum at his feet. He and a man standing beside a dump truck (in the middle of the book) are the only people in these pages who are seen at work. All the others have been caught on their way home or to their job, out shopping, plotting their next move, at ease, sitting on a bench, or in the midst of transitory pleasure.

Whether by design or accident, Streets of Boston focuses almost exclusively on the working class. Only one man is wearing a suit and tie—seated against a tree, his panama hat at his side—and even he does not appear well off. Smith recorded a time in the U.S. before the traditional gap between rich and poor expanded into a chasm, visible because of Yuppie consumption and investment bankers depicted as Masters of the Universe. It would be a safe bet that no one in this book earned more than $25,000 a year, and most about half that.

Other photographers in the streets of Boston during the mid-‘70s included Nicholas Nixon who wielded his view camera with a similar ecumenical compass of humane concerns. After finishing this series, Smith ended up studying at the Massachusetts College of Art, graduating in 1977 before earning his MFA from Yale in 1981. If he had any contact with the so-called Boston School of Photography (Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Mark Morrisroe, Gail Thacker, Jack Pierson, and others), it’s not apparent in his work.

Smith’s approach to portraiture has evolved. He was closer at the time to what Mark Steinmetz became in his recent Atlanta trilogy and to Dawoud Bey in his street portraits around Black neighborhoods. He no longer presents himself as an objective or a friendly witness and is unafraid to mock his subjects if he feels they deserve a thrashing. His book Warning Shots (Kehrer Verlag, 2019) was a savage indictment of the gun culture in East Tennessee where he taught photography for more than 35 years.

Streets of Boston takes us back to Smith’s beginnings, when he was working through an Arbus phase and before he decided to concentrate on landscape. As one of the last projects overseen by Alice Rose George, the Mississippi-born, New York-based photo editor and advocate for artists—she preceded me as editor at large at DoubleTake magazine—it is sadly also an ending. She died in January of 2021. Countless books, essays, and photograph collections were improved by her taste, stubbornness, historical intelligence, and foresight, and this one is no exception.

Collector’s POV: Mike Smith is represented by Lee Marks Fine Art (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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