“In street photography, the lightness and the darkness around us fascinates me. The questions of how our outer world can reflect our inner world and can somehow be intuitively an extension and expression of ourselves”
—Lee Atwell, in conversation with LensCulture Contributing Editor, Joanne Carter
To many, street photography is not a pre-meditated act and it is not reportage. Instead, it is defined by intuitive seeing, by a natural reaction. But in looking at Lee Atwell’s street photography, we begin to see a different side to the genre. Atwell approaches her street photography from a spiritual place, a place of internal reflection—an approach which seems initially at odds with our stereotypical experience of street photos.
Atwell has been a yoga practitioner since childhood, a background which strongly informs the rest of her artistic endeavors. Her experience of taking photographs is part of a mediative experience that enables her to be present within her surrounding environment. This sense of connection reflects Atwell’s deep-set empathy with her subjects and her surroundings—an empathy that is borne through her images.
But Atwell’s photography is not only internal. Her best work conveys the sense of external intimacy and shared personal space that are the hallmarks of all great street photography. One of Atwell’s cherished images is of an angel walking through the streets of Seattle [image #20 above]. The shot is reminiscent of the classic film “Wings of Desire,” a film in which the normally invisible angels who watch over us become visible and offer the possibility of hope. The idea of these angels, like Atwell’s image, support the intuition that we are not completely alone—that there is lightness within the dark.
The reclusive and intensely private street photographer of the 1950’s, Vivian Maier, also holds a strong influence over Atwell’s photography. Atwell’s images, like Maier’s, are as unpretentious as the life they document. There is no unnecessary visual drama added; no single shot is staged; she never uses flash and never asks. Instead, her images offer us tangible instances of her observation of the world around her. She brilliantly blends herself into the environment, capturing candid moments whilst the subjects are oblivious to her presence.
Atwell’s images have great clarity, they need no explanation. In Atwell, we are looking at a photographer who has a deep-rooted and profound view of the world with an intuition that allows her to treat the street as theatre, witnessing the dynamics of life with the gaiety of poetry.