Street Photography: And The Movies

November 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

I love movies!  In particular, I love movies that are shot on the streets of the city where the story takes place.  Yesterday, I again watched François Truffaut‘s great film, The 400 Blows.   From the first frame it is apparent that street photography is an integral part of the film.

The 400 Blows was shot on the streets of Paris, from La Tour Eiffel to Montmartre and in the 9th Arrondissement, a seedy working-class neighborhood at the time (1959).  Truffaut’s first full-length film, it was a very personal, raw story of a neglected boy barely out of childhood.  Shot with a handheld camera capturing everyday moments, there is a sense of realism, of the grit and magic of Parisian streets for a young boy.  It is an intense viewing experience.

Directed and written by Truffaut (along with Marcel Moussy), photographed by Henri Decaë (well-known cinematographer who also worked with Melville, Malle and Chabrol), it is a gem of a movie and a must-see for anyone interested in street photography and movies.  It was part of the beginning of French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) cinema.  The auteurs had limited budgets and shot on the streets of Paris not only for atmosphere but because it was free.  However, just as important, New Wave films were also a rebellion against the traditional movie narrative.

While watching The 400 Blows I thought of another film I had seen called Little Fugitive.  After a bit of research I found that Truffaut credited “the American director Morris Engel and his film Little Fugitive with helping to start the French New Wave, when he said ‘Our French New Wave would never have come into being, if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel who showed us the way to independent production with (this) fine movie.’”*

Little Fugitive is a 1953 movie that is the truest portrait of Brooklyn that I have ever seen.  That’s saying a lot since I am a native Brooklynite.  The story is simple and straightforward — two little brothers are left to their own devices and they get into trouble.  What makes the movie brilliant are the non-professional actors and the use of a handheld 35mm camera on the streets of Brooklyn and in Coney Island, a Coney Island which disappeared within a decade.

The photography in Coney Island is extraordinary, in particular:  the rain scene, the scene under the Boardwalk with sunlight through the slats, the couple necking, the amusement rides including a pony ride, the crowded beach, and the fairways teeming with people. Coney Island shot at night is top photography.  All of it was enormously magical and frightening from the child’s point of view.  All of it for the viewer is charming and just a little sad.

Fugitive was written, directed and photographed by the team of Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Raymond Abrashkin.  Engel and Orkin were both photographers and Abrashkin was a writer.  Both Engel and Abrashkin were born and grew up in Brooklyn; I am sure this highly influenced the very intimate nature of the film.  An absolute visual treasure.

I want to mention one more movie that has an incredible story and great street photography — The French Connection.  Filmed in 1971 it has dynamite photography of dozens of locations in New York City, a city that was then a lot grittier, tougher, and on the verge of bankruptcy.  The electrifying chase scene under the elevated train is one of the all time great movie moments.  Another movie I’ve watched many times.

In all of these films, street photography not only creates an authentic geography, the city itself becomes one of the characters.  Through the visuals of the streets, we see layers of society, history, the culture of that time ~~ as if encapsulated in amber.

Which movies shot on city streets are your favorites?  Look forward to hearing from you.

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