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Women Street Photographers: Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Book Review Women Street Photographers Edited by Gulnara Samoilova Reviewed by Blake Andrews “Street photography and Instagram are a match made in heaven. Within the democratic immediacy of this platform, the genre has finally found its ideal expression. No gatekeeper, no CV, no pixel-peeping perfectionism, no conceptual burdens or waiting around. Just post a picture and move on to the next one. For those pacing busy sidewalks with a camera, the medium mirrors the process..."

Women Street Photographers. By Gulnara Samoilova.
Women Street Photographers
Edited by Gulnara Samoilova

Prestel, Lakewood, 2021. In English. 224 pp., 9x9¾".

Street photography and Instagram are a match made in heaven. Within the democratic immediacy of this platform, the genre has finally found its ideal expression. No gatekeeper, no CV, no pixel-peeping perfectionism, no conceptual burdens or waiting around. Just post a picture and move on to the next one. For those pacing busy sidewalks with a camera, the medium mirrors the process. So perhaps it’s inevitable that street photography has mushroomed on Instagram over the past decade.

No place has the explosion been more evident than @womenstreetphotographers, the site founded and curated by Gulnara Samoilova. By providing a daily platform for women street photographers, WSP has identified and filled a former void in photoland. Since launching in 2017, the account has quickly gained more than 100,000 followers. Women around the globe have been inspired by WSP not only to submit pictures, but also to possibly rethink their career paths and photographic opportunities. Although Instagram remains the base, WSP has generated spinoffs along the way, including two group exhibitions in New York, and now a bright orange book from Prestel. Like the IG handle, its title shies from grand overture. Instead, it is simplified to a matter-of-fact description: Women Street Photographers.
A Dance Of Joy, 2019. By Regula Tschumi.

Women Street Photographers
is edited by the indefatigable Samoilova. In it she has collected 100 favorites from women around the world, representing a variety of locations, backgrounds, ages and approaches. For those who follow @womenstreetphotographers, almost all of the photos here will be familiar. Most appeared on Instagram initially, which served as the initial cut in Samoilova’s selection process. Indeed, the bios make repeated reference to Instagram as an impetus to photography. “Her work has emerged through Instagram,” writes one. Another woman “started taking photographs in 2013, when she bought her first iPhone and started posting on Instagram.” “After she started using Instagram,” proclaims another bio, “she began to take street photos.”

The comments above come from the informative descriptions that accompany each photograph. The pictures are generally interesting on their own, but they take on a new dimension when paired with first-hand accounts by their creators. The texts describe a bit about the process and what was happening at the scene, along with a short author bio. Each pairing — picture/text — fills a one-page spread, with the images generally confined to the right page (although a few spill across the gutter) and text on the left. This layout leaves plenty of negative space to keep the reader’s eye actively moving through graphic forms. The result is a book that feels inviting. It can be browsed like a coffee table survey, in short dollops, a few pages at a time, or read straight through in one sitting.

Setting up an Instagram account is one thing. But making a book is something else. For Samoilova, there was the matter of finalizing the edit, then gaining hi-res files and reproduction rights. Not to mention commissioning author texts, two introductory essays (one each by Melissa Breyer and Ami Vitale, both excellent), a designer, proofreader, publisher, and funding. If coordinating all these efforts seems like a massive task, it was just another day at the shop for Samoilova, who has proven herself a whirlwind of can-do energy. And oh yes, did I mention that every bit of the book’s production was executed by women?

Cloud Eaters, 2018. By Gulnara Samoilova.

For her efforts, no one will begrudge Samoilova for claiming the book’s pole position. Her photograph of kids eating cotton candy (or is it clouds?) kicks things off. From that point, the sequence follows visually, in a series of one-off pairings which meander gradually through themes and forms. Samoilova’s clouds cue the white wedding dress on the following spread. The formal attire in that shot (by Birka Wiedmaier) leads to three sharply dressed Orthodox Jews in the next picture, captured delightfully in mid-leap by Efrat Sela. On the next page, Graciela Magnoni carries the uniformed motif forward. And so on. This sequencing style continues through the entire book in ways that are sometimes surprising and occasionally predictable. By the end, the photographer stew has been thoroughly mixed. Fortunately, the opening contents list each contributor alphabetically by name and page number, so they can be easily tracked.

The Serpentine, 2017. By Efrat Sela

If the decision to sequence visually seems facile compared to more nuanced curations, it’s in keeping with the spirit of street photography. This is an art form that values the moment and the singular image. A street photograph is expected to explain itself and stand on its own outside of any text or project, a facet enabled by Samoilova’s strictly visual choreography. In other words, flipping the pages is somewhat akin to thumbing a carefully sequenced Instagram feed. The emphasis is on quick visual power, not conceptual or academic undercurrents. Several bios make proud reference to lack of formal training, mid-life career changes, and a quest for “soulful” reverie. Francesca Chiacchio’s bio — “an architect who decided to abandon her profession to follow her dream: photography” — might be a manifesto for street photography in general, but especially women, for whom such opportunities have historically been restricted.

Samoilova’s definition of street photography is deliberately inclusive: “unplanned photos taken in public places”. Within that broad boundary, what distinguishes the style of women shooters from their male cohorts? In some ways, not much. One can find in this book all of the tropes and patterns that have become staples of street photography, regardless of gender. There are silhouetted figures, funny characters, obscured faces, and dramatic lighting. Such motifs will be familiar to fans of @streetrepeat (run by Julie Hrodova, a contributor) or anyone tracking SP on Instagram. That said, the book carries divergent strains. Many of these pictures reveal a degree of patience and empathy less common among males. Photos by Karine Bizard, Amy Touchette, Suzan Pektas, Marina Sersale, Catherine Le Scolan-Quere, Natela Grigaliashvili, Suzanne Stein, Jane Zhang, and Margarita Mavromochalis reveal interior worlds more typical of portraiture than candid snapshots. At the same time, the book has excised photographs that rely solely on formal sterility. Thankfully there are no poster/pedestrians, clever postures, or exotic rainbowed chiaroscuros present.

Young Old School, 2019. By Dominique Misrahi

It’s admittedly simplistic to mark these traits as masculine or feminine. Let’s just say that the photographs here connect with their subjects in ways that past street photo surveys have not. It’s no coincidence that those to date have focused primarily on men. Perhaps the closest cousin is David Gibson’s 2017 survey 100 Great Street Photographs, featuring a similar format but with texts authored by himself. There must be something special about the number one hundred, for it also formed the basis for Szarkoski’s Looking At Photographs and Stephen Frailey’s recent follow-up Looking At Photography. Both were aimed at the general photography audience.

In street photography, the gold standard is Bystander, the standard text by Meyerowitz and Westerbeck. The book is excellent in many ways but it’s beginning to show its age, even with its recent revamp in 2017. Perhaps the title which bears the closest relation to WSP is 2013’s Street Photography Now by Sophie Howarth and Stephen Mclaren. Designed to capture the zeitgeist of the early 2010s, this book featured a handful of talented women active then (Polly Braden, Melanie Einzig, Narelle Autio, Carolyn Drake, and Ying Tang). Strangely none are included in WSP. It’s unclear if this omission is a deliberate refutation of the old guard, a sign of rapidly shifting tastemakers, or perhaps just a natural outcome of Instagram’s curatorial process. In any case, the separation from SPN, Bystander, and other predecessors mark WSP as worth acquiring. Most of the photographers here can be found in no other book. SPN was notable in that it managed to capture the energy of its era, which was then based in Flickr, blogs, and early social media. WSP does the same thing for the current Instagram moment.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at