When I was in my twenties two of my great loves were documentary photography and experimental film. Seeing Jem Cohen’s work Lost Book Found (1996) made me realise how the two could come together in a heady mix. Cohen wanders like a street photographer gathering Super-8 and 16mm film material through his direct observation of the urban world around him. Lost Book Found is his modern day homage to Benjamin’s Arcades Project relocated to New York. It attempts to find another layer of meaning to the city through its traces, fragments and neglected spaces. The narrative alternates between the city’s hard streets and a hidden reality beneath the kaleidoscopic distractions and phantasmagoria of its capitalist space.
Contemporary Issues Around Making Work in the Street
“I gather images and sounds. Sometimes, I go out with a camera and recorder simply to document, without any preordained agenda. There’s a tradition of street shooting that goes way back, based primarily on direct observation, pioneered by photographers and filmmakers like Helen Levitt, Leon Levinstein and Robert Frank, and going further back, Jean Vigo, August Sander, Eugene Atget… In 2005 I was on a train from New York to D.C., occasionally shooting from the window. I’d shot from train windows for 20 years, many times on the same route. But this time I was told to stop, and then the train was held in Philadelphia while uniformed police boarded and demanded my film. In D.C., I was met by other authorities. My film was eventually given to the Anti-Terrorism Task Force and from them, to the FBI.
With the help of a New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer I did eventually get them to declare that it had been “cleared” and would be sent back. Months later, they returned the empty can without the film. I never did get the footage. Meanwhile in New York, there had been separate attempts to ban photography and filmmaking in the subways, and to restrict it on the streets as a whole. On one level, as was ostensibly the case with my train incident, this stemmed from concerns about terrorists documenting “infrastructure” for nefarious reasons. But on another level, it was about controlling public behavior and instigating new restrictions over free expression in an increasingly conservative political climate. I would eventually devote a great deal of time to fighting these regulations, which were particularly threatening to the tradition of documentary street photography. (I am pleased to say that we won the fight.)” from The Politics of Documenting the Urban Landscape.