In Your Face: Street Photography and Jeff Mermelstein’s “Hardened,” by Robert Dunn

What do you do if you’re into Instagram, but want to move beyond selfies and shots of food truck delicacies? How about becoming a street photographer? I mean, everybody carries a phone, which of course has a camera, and there the streets are, with people on them, sometimes doing something kind of interesting; so why not snap, snap, snap? Google around, there’s a whole new world of street photographers, and Instagram to immediately publish your quick shots to that online world. As readers of my Photobookstore magazine pieces know, I love photographs taken on the street, especially those of Japanese masters such as Issei Suda and Daido Moriyama, and that I practice the calling myself, always creating new books (all visible on my website, Ecstatic Light Photo). Yet I worry that these days it’s too easy, the term street photography itself becoming too common, even banal.

As one website puts it, “Street photography is something anyone can learn,” and while that’s true, almost anyone can learn to play the piano, too. (And should! I can easily argue that being a musician, or at least loving music, is a key to becoming a better photographer.) But the deal is that calling oneself a street photographer is like saying “I’m a pianist,” as opposed to the more-often truth of “I play the piano.” Pianists are Arthur Rubinstein or Emanuel Ax or Professor Longhair, piano players are legion.

And the greatest of street photographers don’t really seem to be street photographers at all. Sure their shots are taken out in the world, mostly while walking around cities, but in their work there’s another dimension, a forcefulness of art, the power of personality, a strain of the visionary … I’m talking about photographers not just shooting people having lunch on a bench (unless it’s Garry Winogrand) or folk bunched up on a street corner. Robert Frank took pictures on the street, but nobody thinks of him as only a street photographer. There’s too much going on in his work, every photo transcending its street (or elevator or barroom) subjects, every composition revealing, every shot imbued with mystery and personality and profundity.

The simple truth: Most street photographers shoot the street. The masters, the artists, make the street their own.

All of which is a long introduction to “Hardened,” the monumental new book by the masterful street photographer Jeff Mermelstein (who, I understand, is also ambivalent about the term “street photographer”). “Hardened” is a 330-page compendium of photographs Mermelstein took on the street, all with his iPhone (replacing his Leica), over the last few years. They seem mostly to be taken in New York City, where Mermelstein resides, though I’m sure he takes his iPhone everywhere he goes, and snaps what he finds along the way.

What makes for a signature Mermelstein shot? One aspect we see over and over in “Hardened” is the extreme close-up, whether it’s a man hugging his roll of belly fat or a dog’s front paw with brilliant red nails on a gray street. For me a classic Mermelstein shot comes three quarters of the way through the book: a close-up of a half-smoked cigar in a mustached man’s lips. An eighth of the picture are the lips, most of the rest the brown cigar with almost an inch of gray, crumbling ash, all with a sea of car windshields behind it. The shot is startling, personal yet abstract, telling yet wholly anonymous. It has some of the power of the cover of Mermelstein’s earlier book “Sidewalk,” with the elderly woman chomping down on a ten dollar bill, though with perhaps not quite as much cheeky wit as the earlier shot.

Yet wit is another signature aspect of Mermelstein’s work, and there’s an abundance of humor and hard-bitten joy in “Hardened.” For instance, a woman gazes through a window at the back of a hula girl doll, her ratty straw skirt billowing. The next photo is of a puppet of an old straw-hatted man in ragged overalls hanging mysteriously above the sidewalk, and then, on the next spread, a cheery sight: a brightly laughing Robert Frank before a green wall.

Throughout the book the pairing of the full-bleed photos is almost always just right. (David Campany edited the book for the always thrilling publisher Aron Morel.) You can usually see or feel why two photos are joined in a spread, but it’s never too obvious; or if you do get the reason (a harmony of shapes, a winking juxtaposition of people), there’s most likely quite a bit more going on. As with the best books of this type, the matching of photos makes each one richer than it would be standing alone.

The book also seems broken into chapters, noted by a blank page on the left. Chapters appear to have loose themes, but, again, none seem too obvious or programmatic or forced. They’re simply there to help organize and make effective the huge abundance of shots. (Aspiring street photographers take note: Just because you’ve found a couple matching circle or triangle shapes on the street, and put them next to each other, you’re not really telling us anything at all.)

And there are many, many photographs of wonder and richness. I’d say every shot in the book is worthy of being there, but some, of course, are better than others.

The first spread that really hit me hard comes twenty or so pages in. On the left is one of the trademark extreme close-ups: this time part of a man’s hand, lying flat on a pocked sidewalk, three unhealthy fingers with orange nails visible; and in the extreme foreground of the photo, two copper pennies … just out of reach. Across from that unsettling shot is a city street in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, a photo that looks down through a car window on two people in the front seat of a black sedan (taken from the back of a bus?), the driver holding up his left hand in a Stop! gesture, the woman next to him hiding her eyes with her hand. A great photo, of surprise and manifold unknowns.

And both shots ones I wish I’d taken.

And the thing is, I might have. I, too, wander the streets of New York (or wherever I am), always with my beloved Fuji X100F. (I haven’t yet figured out how to take a good photo with my iPhone; don’t really want to.) I’m always looking for the photos I know I’m there to shoot. I take many photos that are far different from Mermelstein’s, but I also have some similar shots. The odd thing is, I found photos in “Hardened” almost the same as ones I’d previously taken. Indeed, Mermelstein shoots a line of plastic grooms ascending a set of steps in a store window. In my book “Sorrow Street” I have an ascending ladder of plastic brides in green dresses also in a store window. (I recall a line of grooms in the window of the photo I took, so who knows, maybe the same one?) In another “Hardened” photo, a winter sidewalk is two thirds walking boots, one third shirts and pants reflected in a large puddle. In a couple of my books I have sidewalk-puddle reflection shots, including my “New York Street” and the cover of “Sorrow Street.” (Oh, and one more connection: There’s a wild photo in “Sidewalk” of a monkey atop a dog all while sitting on a smoking dude’s left shoulder. That shot was taken a block from my apartment, right by my subway stop. And, like, how come I wasn’t there that day?)

But photos both Mermelstein and I have already taken isn’t the full extent of photographic connection. A curious note: As I was walking down East 57th Street, on my way to Mermelstein’s gallery to get a copy of his book, the last shot I took, after a day taking my own kinds of photos, was very much in Mermelstein’s mode: a bright redhead looking back over her shoulder at me, and pointing to her right, eyes dancing with youth and color and mystery. Was I falling under his spell half a block from picking up his book?

Another curiosity: When I first got “Hardened” home, I thumbed through it, took it in, admired it, and let just a whiff of its power into my head. Then I went out with my own camera to do my own work, but for the first half hour all I saw were Mermelstein shots, oddly telling moments on the street, quirky juxtapositions, a layer of comedy, a strong note of its opposite. Like a fog, Mermelstein-vision, as I think of it, lifted after half an hour, and I was able to see the street my own way.

But, again, that’s what makes any street photographer great. We see their vision, over and over, in every shot. Of course there are quirks and tics. Daido Moriyama owns red lips (though to my delight, Mermelstein has included in “Hardened” two pages of lip shots that feel like his own, comfort to me since I also like to shoot a good pair of colorful lips). Mermelstein himself has great purchase on the intensely in-your-face street portrait, that close-up of mouth and eyes that is his alone (different, indeed, from other in-your-face masters such as William Klein and Bruce Gilden). In “Hardened” we get some memorable ones: an older woman, photographed only from mascared eyes to wrinkled chin, with a bulbous nose and red lips reminiscent of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. A page later, a black man’s right eye and a white woman’s pursed lips, a pimple on her nose … just that, in a close-up so tight it’s hard to imagine how Mermelstein got it. (Not to mention a whole lot of shots of nothing but bristly leg hairs or eyebrows over skin.) Oh, wait, there’s also a hint of the perils of in-your-face street photography: a dumpy woman with a takeout coffee cup in her right hand, and with her left a raised, jaundiced-looking middle finger flipping the photographer off.

Compared with “Sidewalk” (and the somewhat one note of Mermelstein’s last book, “Arena,” photos all shot at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn), “Hardened” is less determinedly clever and witty, though the wit does shine. But in its essence “Hardened” is richer, wilder, more suggestive, more mysterious, and in these benighted times, far more cultural and political. Another striking shot: a wide-eyed dark-haired woman with her palms up before her, “HANDS OFF” written on her right one, “MY BODY” on her left. (This shot hopefully paired with a slab of writing over an ad shot of black and white hands: “LOVE STILL WINS.”)

I always judge photobooks as if they’re works of art and/or literature, and “Hardened” is a long, powerful novel of images, like an “Underworld” or an “Infinite Jest” in photos. As with any great book, it rewards rereading; you always see something new, get taken on a different journey each time through. Photos pop in new ways, pairings yield new meanings, new characters appear, the plot twists and turns.

And all the while Mermelstein, and his editor, Campany, are in control.

So there we have it, that simple truth, again: Most street photographers go out and take pictures of the world. The masters, the true artists —like Jeff Mermelstein—go out and use the street to make worlds of their own.

Hardened by Jeff Mermelstein can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.