Back in 2011/12, when I first got (back) into photography, Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyrowitz’s Bystander: A History of Street Photography was an oft-mentioned bit of unobtanium, with copies of the 2001 edition running a few hundred dollars. I wrote it off as one one of those books I’d just never see and quickly forgot about it. Years came and went, and if not for the Laurence King Publishing email list, I might never have known of the 2017 expanded edition, which I believe I got on sale. If you’re a capital-S, capital-P Street Photographer or Street Photography aficionado, Bystander is a must have. Insofar as I’m neither, well… I am (or was) something of a photobook collector, and it therefore makes total sense.
First off, Bystander is a History book, as the subtitle suggests. It might be a bit too image-heavy for educational use, and it’s sized more like a coffee table book—which it also is—but its main aim, or those of its authors, is to lay out a concise through-line sort of history, to set (or prop) up a canon. I didn’t really expect this going in, and detected a rather pedantic, professorial tone in the Introduction, “Now and Then: In Defense of Traditional Street Photography,” that really put me off.
I got over it, and the rest of the book was interesting and might be more informative for someone who had less knowledge of photographic history. I’ve read so many photo history books I’ve lost count, and most of the information was… I’ll hesitatingly call it a “welcome refresher,” but given the slight distaste I still have for one or two word order choices in “Now and Then…” I still sorta wonder if my time—several weekend mornings—I spent reading it.
Your mileage will vary, of course, and Westerbeck’s* view just is that of a huge chunk of the photo cognoscenti, and that any misgivings I have are too far in the minority to be worth mentioning. That said, the name of this website/blog is “jamescockroft.com” and I am James Effing Cockroft, so…
There’s nothing wrong with the book, and as ‘A History of Street Photography’ Bystander is excellent and perfectly serviceable. It has everything: from Atget and Evans, through Frank, to Winogrand (where the fist edition mostly ended) to more contemporary practitioners, like Alex Webb and Matt Stuart. The new edition accounts, with some hints of discomfort, for newly- and re-discovered mid-20th Century practitioners like Vivian Meier and
Fred Herzog.** There are some, in my mind, odd inclusions that veer well into capital-A Art Photography and don’t really qualify as “street” in any sense, in my mind anyway. Think Diane Arbus. Arbus maybe started out on the street, but her main work is portraiture and lacks the movement and spontaneity of most Street work.
Given Arbus, I was a bit surprised to find no mention of Stephen Shore, who worked on the street for much of his long and varied career, or Alec Soth, whose work isn’t necessarily Street, but it’s certainly “street” in the same or a similar way as Arbus’s most known work.
Writing that jus now, I get it. Westerbeck is/was a photography history professor, in 2017, at UCLA. I bet Shore and Soth were in a different section. Bystander could easily serve as textbook, maybe even for a whole, semester-long course, and expanding it to include the New Topographics and similar 1970s-90s work would really dilute the content too much. (But, then, why Arbus?) Anyway. Bystander really is a decent History book, well printed, well written, and deserves its place in the “10 Photobooks That Will Transform Your Street Photography” lists of the early 2010s.
First edition copies of Bystander have gone way down in price. At time of publishing—January 2023—you could find used copies for under $30. The revised edition isn’t much more new, direct from Laurence King or at fine retailers worldwide.
*I suspect most of the book was written by Westerbeck, with Meyeryowitz contributing to the Conversations that appear at the end and perhaps some image choices, through I don’t really know.
**I know they mentioned Meier… but am not sure about Herzog… and after checking the Index: nope. No mention of Herzog.