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Gary Stochl (part deux)

I’ve been revisiting Gary Stochl’s On City Streets recently. (Stochl, previously on 2point8.) Specifically, I was thinking about the recurring tropes in the book. The pictures span forty years, but during that time, Stochl stayed obsessively true to his format (35mm, black & white, the streets of Chicago) and kept a steady approach. Consequently, there are unifying themes and ways of shooting that recur throughout.

Dorkily, I wondered what it might look like if I sketched out a map of which types of photographs Stochl tended to take, and how often they appeared in the book.

Per Bob Thall’s introduction, Stochl’s pictures “rarely contain the dramatic moments or the weird, ironic juxtapositions that often attract street photographers”. Without mining either of those veins, what are Stochl’s pictures about, and what might we learn by analysing what (and how) Stochl saw?

On a quick pass, I found nine buckets into which I could place the pictures. Some pictures dipped into more than one bucket. Here are rough descriptions and examples for each. (all examples Copyright 2005, Center for American Places, Gary Stochl, used without permission)

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Reflections: Pictures shot through glass, near glass or beside glass and generally containing a reflection of the subject. Sometimes distortional.

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Solitary Thinkers: People, often isolated and away from the crowds, generally trapped by the look of thought on their faces.

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Signs: There are signs in these pictures but they are not clever, silly or juxtapositional.

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Separate Geometries: Stochl seems most comfortable when he’s dividing up a particular frame with poles, streetlamps, walls, anything that gives his subjects their own particular place within the frame, separate from someone else’s particular place. Separate but equal.

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Backs: Photographs of people’s backs. The chocolate milk of street photography. So good on the way down, but kinda bad for you.


Masses: Crowds, hordes. Often with one person singled-out via motion or depth of field.

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Duos/Trios: Pictures of two people (or three!) who are similar enough (maybe even twins!). Human mirroring.

Two categories only had one entry each; “Unusual Old People” and “Parallax Kissing”.

If you have the book, I made a quick list of page numbers to highlight which pictures fall where. Follow along!

Reflections: 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 30, 33, 36, 44, 45, 49, 51, 52, 53

Solitary Thinker: 7, 16, 23, 26, 27, 29, 30, 33, 32, 36, 45, 46, 51, 53, 54

Signs: 32, 34, 35, 39, 46

Separate Geometries: 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15, 17, 18, 20, 54, 55, 44, 45, 51, 52

Backs: 10, 11, 27, 28, 54

Masses: 3, 15, 16, 18, 20, 43, 46

Duos/Trios: 25, 40, 42

What does any of this tell us? Not really sure, other than it’s interesting to see not just how a particular book was put together, but to take a quantitative look at a photographer’s fascinations. What moves them? How does their vision change (or stay the same) over the course of 40 years?

Ultimately, what Stochl was shooting over those 40 years was not necessarily that impressive. How he did it was pretty remarkable. His persistance helped to create an admirable piece of work. The pictures are pretty quiet, and they won’t make you jump up and down, but they offer-up new things when you return to them, which is one of the few things I demand from art in general, not just photography.

While it might feel like everything’s already been done before in photography (it has), it pays to learn that there is infinite room within the forms (just as in writing, a sonnet is a sonnet still) and no one’s got a stopwatch keeping track of how much time you spend photographing people’s backs.

So get out there. Go out and take pictures of them, if that’s your thing. Do it like there’s no tomorrow.

Tag: Anatomy, Second Look