Early and Later Street Photography Through the Lens of Walker Percy’s “A Semiotic Primer of the Self”


 The essay requires a brief introduction for readers not familiar with the writings of Walker Percy.

 Still Lost in the Cosmos was the title of the 2013 conference put on by Loyola University’s Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing. Walker Percy (1916-1990) was an American novelist whose first novel–The Moviegoer–won the National Book Award in 1962.  In 2011, Loyola’s Walker Percy Center hosted its first conference, which invited papers on The Moviegoer.  For the 2013 meeting, the focus was Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983).  Lost in the Cosmos is an unusual book.  It is both profound and hilarious, containing some of Percy’s most important ideas.  As the title suggests, it is a parody of self-help books, consisting, in part, of “thought questions” and multiple-choice answers.  It also includes two short science fiction pieces.  Finally, at the heart of the book is Percy’s “A Semiotic Primer of the Self”, forty theory-packed pages about humans as sign-using creatures and the by-products of sign using, particularly self consciousness and the accompanying compulsion to understand their place in the cosmos. Throughout the book, Percy, a Roman Catholic, satirizes three approaches which fail, in his opinion, to adequately explain humanity’s place:  “sophomoric scientism”, psychotherapy, and fundamentalist Christianity.   The paper below applies some of Percy’s comments on novelists, poets, and painters to selected street photographers.

Early and Later Street Photography Through the Lens of Walker Percy’s “A Semiotic Primer of the Self”

by Larry E. Fink

                        In Walker Percy’s “A Semiotic Primer of the Self” (in his Lost in the Cosmos), he uses a special set of terms to describe the motivation and behavior of persons in a “post-religious society” who lack access to what he calls the “traditional modes of self-placement” (Totemistic, Eastern Pantheistic, Theistic-historical).  Some such individuals attempt to content themselves as “immanent” beings.  On one end of a spectrum, they function merely as consumers, “organism[s]-in-an environment”.  At the other end, they function as “autonomous sel[ves] . . . savvy to all the techniques of society.”   They make use of these techniques in “discriminating transaction[s] with the world and with informed interactions with other selves” (113).  At best, this immanent approach is “problematic”, according to Percy, but it does not involve the challenges of achieving the transcendent state he calls “orbiting’ or the difficulties that accompany what he calls “reentry”.

“Transcenders” seek to temporarily escape the self and its demand to be placed in one way or another.  They do this through the pursuit of science or the practice of art.  Percy borrows language from the space program—”orbit” and “reentry”—to help describe these actions.  While In orbit, the scientist experiences a pleasant sense of sovereignty; he “stands in a posture of objectivity over against the world”, making objective statements to his fellow scientists (116).  The orbiting artist, similarly, experiences exhilaration while practicing his art.  He is the sovereign creator, joyfully making something beautiful.  As reentry is dangerous for astronauts, it is problematic for scientists and artists.  Once back on earth among mere mortals, some–not all–scientists and artists, are famously difficult to live with.  Percy asks, “How do you go about living in the world when you are not working at your art, yet still find yourself having to get through a Wednesday afternoon?” (145).  And how does the artist’s or scientist’s wife or husband get through that afternoon?

In section thirteen of Lost in the Cosmos, Percy describes “A Corn Dance at the Taos Indian pueblo in the 1940s.”  He includes what he calls the “Cast of Characters”, ten very different people.  Note the word “Characters”—as in characters in a novel or short story.  He describes the Corn Dance scene from each character’s point of view.  Then he proposes the following Thought Experiment:

“Draw up an existential-semiotic self-profile or diagram indicating the self’s relation to its world (transcending? immanent? intact self among other selves?), identity of self (success or failure of self to perceive itself as a self), self’s relation to other selves (world community? elite community? loss of community?) movement of self vis-a-vis world (types of orbit, difficulties of reentry), placement of self in world as evidenced by mood and utterance” (134).  Then he offers sample profiles of four of the characters, closing with the suggestion, “Chart your own semiotic profile” (140).

I have applied this kind of semiotic profiling in the discussion of characters in modern literature.  Characters in works as diverse as Moby-Dick, To the Lighthouse, and Percy’s own The Moviegoer can be illuminated by such an examination.  For instance Queequeg’s self-placement mode is totemistic, Starbuck’s is theistic-historical, and Stubb revels in the simplicity of his immanence.  Mellville’s narrator Ishmael transcends, alternately, through science, as a cetologist, and through art, as a story teller. Ahab?  Ahab is insane.  He has not-so-much transcended his self as has surrendered his self to the demons of hate and revenge.

Could this approach to describing characters in fiction be applied to discussing other kinds of art, to the visual arts?  I think so.  And Percy’s comments on art give us, I think, leave to do so.  He observes that “most serious novelists since Tolstoy”, “most painters since Millet” and “most poets since Tennyson hold dark views of modern life” (120).  The artists he describes express dissatisfaction with life, and a common subject of their art is this dissatisfaction.  Their temporary exhilaration comes not from making objective statements about the chemistry or physics of the universe like the scientist, but from “seeing and naming what had heretofore been unspeakable, the predicament of the self in the modern world”, “that the self can be as desperately stranded in the transcendence of theory as in the immanence of consumption” (119-120). Percy implies, it seems, that in a largely-religious society, more of the novelists, painters, and poets held positive views of life than negative, that more of their art was about something besides themselves (or art itself)–perhaps nature or everyday life or significant figures or events.  As a photographer and a student of the art’s history, I find Percy’s ideas and terminology helpful in understanding a dramatic shift in approach, in the general tone of street photography, from the first half of the twentieth century to the second, at least among its most celebrated photographers.

Street Photography began in the 1920s, with film and lenses that allowed for proper exposure at relatively brief shutter speeds, brief enough to overcome the unsteadiness of the photographers’ hand, and to “freeze” at least some of the movement of subjects. Briefly, the primary subject of street photography is people, at rest or in motion, alone or with others, going about the every-day activities of life: walking, sitting, standing; waiting, meeting, and parting; working and playing; reading, eating, talking, listening, laughing, daydreaming, shopping, sightseeing, etc.–ordinary life, usually in public settings, often outdoors.  The emphasis is not on the subject’s personal identity, as in portraiture.  And unlike strict photojournalism, there is no news here, rather, the commonplace.  Unlike travel photography, that aims to entice the viewer to visit a certain place or to fondly remember it, location is relatively unimportant, though busy cities with interesting architecture are commonly seen in these works.  And while street photographs can serve to document clothing styles or automobile design, these details are subordinate to the artistic elements; in strict documentary photography, content trumps art.  The street photographer strives to capture a fleeting composition–a brief, interesting, sometimes-meaningful, arrangement of lines, shapes, and tones–within a rigid frame.

Two general approaches emerge from a close examination of the work of great 20th-century street photographers.  I group them under the headings “first-generation” and “second-generation” street photographers.  Below, find listed some of the major figures of each group and a summary of the major stylistic elements that characterize each group:

Selected “First-Generation” Street Photographers

ANDRE  KERTESZ  (1894-1985)  Hungarian;

first great street photographer:

“Whatever we have done, Kertész did

first.”  –Henri Cartier-Bresson

ROBERT DOISNEAU  (1912-1994)  French;

traveled little; Paris based; square format

for earlier work; wit & humor

HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON  (1908-2004)  French;

world traveler; photojournalist; perhaps

the best known photographer in the

world, the most admired and imitated by

other photographers; obsessed with

geometry and timing

WILLY RONIS   (1910-2009)  French

EDOUARD BOUBAT   (1923-1999)   French

VIVIAN MAIER    (1926-2009)    American

HELEN LEVITT    (1930-2009)   American


  • “cool distance” from subjects  [“invisible” photographer]
  • “undeniable  empathy” with subjects
  • “classical sense of composition”
  • “implied narrative”
  • “anecdotal detail”

–Ferguson, Russell. “Open City: Possibilities of the Street”, in Open City: Street Photography Since 1950. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 2001, 9-21.


Selected “Second-Generation” Street Photographers

 WILLIAM KLEIN   (1928-   )    American

ROBERT FRANK   (1924-   )    Swiss

GARY WINOGRAND   (1928-1984)   American

LEE FRIEDLANDER   (1934-   )   American


  • closer to subject; wide-angle lens; “in-your-face” presence (especially William Klein)
  • imbalanced, chaotic composition
  • tilted framing (blind shooting–especially Gary Winogrand)
  • cluttered, multi-layered, sometimes obstructed views (especially Lee Friedlander)
  • darker themes; less empathy; more satire


Andre Kertész (1894-1985) can be considered the first great street photographer.  Kertesz was Hungarian and spent the years 1925-1936 in Paris, before moving to New York.  The more famous photographer, Cartier-Bresson wrote, “Whatever we have done, Kertész did first.”

Perhaps the photographer most widely known and admired by other photographers is the French artist, so famous that his initials alone identify him:  “HCB”, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004).  There have been four major exhibits of his work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art since 1947, the most recent in 2010.  He was a photojournalist who covered many of the major news events of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, but he is most admired for his so-called humanistic pictures, his pictures of everyday life, his street photography.  He was the quintessential humanist, but as the following quotation suggests, he was obsessed with geometry and composition, with intuitively capturing harmony and balance within the rectangle of his viewfinder.  He wrote, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”

Another great Paris-based figure is Robert Doisneau (1912-1994).  Unlike Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau did not travel the world photographing but concentrated on Paris, creating many of the most iconic images of life in the city.  His best-known pictures tend to exude a bit more warmth and humor than Cartier-Bresson’s.

Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau—one trained as a painter, the other as an engraver—were both deeply involved in WWII, one a POW who escaped after three attempts, both active in the French resistance effort.  Their post-war vision of French life helped rebuild the country’s morale after the humiliations of occupation and collaboration, by celebrating the beauty of quotidian life and the meaningfulness of civility of public life.  I think they can safely be described as leading immanent lives, stemming from their identity as Frenchmen and as humanists who respected the rights of individuals and the distinctiveness of other cultures.  The stay-at-home Doisneau, especially, might be compared to novelist Eudora Welty, as Percy describes her:  “. . . a writer who, though performing at a very high level of twentieth-century art, nevertheless manages to live on one of the few remaining islands of a more or less intact culture, . . . to enter into an intercourse with the society around her as naturally as the Chartres sculptor, to appear as herself, her self, the same self, both to fellow writers and to fellow townsman . . .” (146).


            As successful and popular as the first-generation of street photographers became, their style became recognizable, reasonably easy to imitate, and for the next generation of street photographers, passé.  The generation, that began working in the post-WWII decades, felt a need to do something different and to express their post-modern concerns.  William Klein describes his attitude in the 1950s as follows:  “I was very consciously trying to do the opposite of what Cartier-Bresson was doing.  He did pictures without intervening.  He was like an invisible camera.  I wanted to be visible in the biggest way possible . . . .  I saw the book I wanted to do as a tabloid gone berserk, gross, grainy, over-inked, with a brutal layout, bull-horn headlines” (qtd. in Ferguson, Russell. “Open City: Possibilities of the Street”, in Open City: Street Photography Since 1950. Oxford: Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 2001, 13).

          John Szarkowski, the late Director of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, writes of this period:  “Sometimes the gritty, graphic simplicity of the badly made photograph had about it an expressive authority that seemed to fit the subject better than the smooth, plastic description of the classical fine print. . . .  The notion that such pictures represented areas of photographic potential that photographers of artistic ambitions might exploit was simply not entertained. This situation changed in the 1950s with the rapid increase in the sensitivity of new films, which allowed pictures to be made in almost no light at all.  . . . The pictures produced were especially useful to the magazines, which were meant to be flipped through rather than lived with, and in which a picture’s first impact was more important than its staying power.  It must be admitted that not many of the photographs of this genre were of great interest the second time around.  The experiment, however, taught photography much about the basic and ancient issue of . . . the way in which an artist describes what he sees.  And the most talented photographers involved—such as William Klein—extended our sense of what might be meant by a clear photograph” (Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, 180).

The first-generation photographers named above did not hold dark views of life.  They were committed to affirming life, its value and beauty. They were productively and cooperatively involved in causes bigger than themselves and their art careers.  They weren’t alienated from society.  They were, as Percy writes, “autonomous sel[ves] . . . savvy to all the techniques of society.”   They made use of these techniques in “discriminating transaction[s] with the world and with informed interactions with other selves” (113).  The general tone of their work affirms the meaningfulness of human relationships and civil public life in their orderly, balanced, often joyful compositions. The photographs of the second generation, rather than quietly affirming, seem to be seeking “exhilaration . . . from naming the unnamable and hearing it named” (120).  Or, more literally, showing the unnameable and seeing it shown–showing us alienation, loneliness, and the threat of danger on inhospitable streets.  What happened?  Why are many of their pictures dark, sad, disturbing?  To oversimplify, the Enlightenment happened; a failure to integrate spirituality and science happened (and is still happening); overconfidence in human reason and the scientific method (poor tools for dealing with our deepest questions about existence); a new distance between humanity and nature developed and grew.  In such a world, naturally, meaningful human relationships and public civility become scarce, and artists, like canaries in a coal mine (to use one of Percy’s metaphors) call attention to the danger.  The undeniable sense that Western culture is rapidly decaying explains why much contemporary art, generally, is disturbing or trivial or tedious?  The only positive comment to be made about some works–of those that exhibit mastery of the medium, anyway–is that at least the artist cares enough about life to make art and hasn’t killed himself out of total despair with modern life. Isn’t life still mysterious, beautiful, and inspiring?  Yes, but for fewer and fewer artist, it seems.  Aren’t there artists who still celebrate these qualities?  Yes, but at the risk of being labeled “sentimental,” “unoriginal,” or–worse yet–“illustrator.”

Percy repeatedly expressed the belief that his “Semiotic Primer of the Self” will be remembered, perhaps after his fiction is forgotten.  Only time will tell, but I’m convinced the “Primer” does provide practical language for describing the behavior of scientists, artists, and the rest of us.