After I featured him in "Random Excellence" a few days ago, Matt Weber very kindly sent me a copy of his book, The Urban Prisoner: Photographs by Matt Weber. It's a insider's view of city life by an outsider artist.
To cut to the nitty grit: I don't suppose it makes for a recommendation, in a general sense, to the generalist hobbyist—but for anyone passionate about street photography in any of its myriad aspects it's probably as close to a must-see as a book by a lesser-known photographer can be. Matt made most of these pictures when he was a New York City cabbie. The pictures lack prettiness and don't even try for slickness: his cabdriver's New York is overcast and gray, closed-in, seen in detail (even in the broader views, the detail is often what's important). It conveys the brooding sense of foreboding of the mean streets, like you'd better stay wary if you want to stay safe. As street photography it's really rather masterful, conveying the sense of quick cuts and glimpses—scenes that exist for a moment or two, gone as quickly as the startling spectre of a jetliner as it takes off past the roof-peak a row house. Some guys have the knack.
The book is well printed, well-sized, honestly laid out one picture per page with no fluff or gee-whiz, and kicks off with a brief essay in English* by Ben Lifson.
I've only been through it once, but I got two impressions from this work—one was that it seems like it was put together from a much larger body of work that must be just as strong. At least, the editing eschews the single, self-contained, self-congratulatory image in favor of those that build with cumulative effect. This is most noticeable in the mirroring and shadowing of subject matter between facing pages. On pages 64 and 65, for instance, a standoff in a grubby alley between two black men clutching each other by the sleeves is mirrored by the facing picture of a rat and a cat staring each other down nearly nose-to-nose. There's a lot of that, the picture on one side of the spread informing and amplifying the one on the other.
My other impression is that, like good jazz, The Urban Prisoner is going to endure repeated encounters without exhausting its rewards.
A fine and good book of "street," then, unpretentious yet confident, balanced between the plainspoken and the virtuosic like the pictures themselves balance the despair of dire straits and hard circumstances with the joys of observing, and appreciating, the city's moments as they pass. Matt Weber's Leica shows us a lot, but I'll bet he sees a lot more.
*I.e., not artspeak.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Harrison Cronbi: "Purchased. I don't know Matt Weber's story, but I look forward to exploring it. I like to imagine it's a cross between David Bradford (of Drive-By Shootings: Photographs by a New York Taxi Driver fame) and Gary Stochl (of On City Streets: Chicago, 1964-2004 fame). If I had to collect only one genre of photo books from here on in it would be street photography from previously little-known photographers with a long history of insightful and original unpublished photos."