Sorry for the long delay--we've been, god help us, writing.
So. I took that picture (sans Alfred E. Neuman head) last week while shooting more or less at random on Fifth Avenue, in New York City. I'd been trying my hand at "street" here in Ithaca for a few months, and though I've enjoyed doing it, and gotten some nice results, it was a little like shooting animals at the zoo. New York, of course, is big game country. The strangers are stranger, and there are more of them, and I was having the time of my life until I spied this woman, with her groovy serape-like woolen wrap, approaching from the direction of 47th Street. She looked confident, intense, well dressed. I shot from the hip without even looking in her direction. She was up in my grill in seconds.
"I can take your film. I CAN TAKE YOUR FILM!"
If there's one thing I know from hanging around on internet photography forums, it was that she could not take my film. Indeed, taking pictures on public property (e.g., a city street) of people on public property is, at least in America, at least for now, perfectly legal.
I argued as robustly as possible with my subject (while Rhian stood over by a bus stop pretending she didn't know me), and continued to endure a barrage of mis-, or perhaps disinformation: she was a photojournalist, so she should know, but what I'd done was illegal, she could seize my camera, I was obliged to destroy the negatives, etc. "I used to be a member of Magnum! And I can tell you it is illegal to photograph people on the street!!"
Well. Magnum, as you may know, is perhaps the world's largest photogrphers' cooperative, and many of its members are, in fact, street photographers. Take, for instance, Bruce Gilden. As you can see in that excellent Street Shots mini-documentary (that's a YouTube link), Gilden is as street as they come, and he isn't shooting from the hip. He's up in people's faces with his flash, and screaming like a madman when they complain. He is also, not surprisingly, way better at street photography than I could ever hope to be, or, to be honest, would want to be. I admire the man enormously, and think his photos are excellent. But I don't want to do what he does. I don't believe I'm capable of it.
Indeed, one of the reasons I started trying street was to overcome some of my natural social inhibitions. Most shots, I sneak. But sometimes people notice I'm shooting and stop to talk to me. I've talked to more strangers in the past six months than the previous five years combined, most of them due to my photography habit. Of course, there are more efficient ways of meeting people, and if meeting people was what I really wanted, I would walk up and introduce myself.
So what do I really want? Simply, to steal.
I'm already stealing, of course, in my work as a novelist--though I don't make a habit of fictionalizing real people, I'm borrowing personal quirks, habits of speech, facial features, etc., from everyone I know, and a lot of people I don't. Like a photographer, I'm observing, documenting and recontextualizing things that don't belong to me, and turning them into something new, that does.
But there's something different about the image, isn't there? Your face is your identity. I can describe your face to a hundred people, and those hundred people will imagine a hundred different versions of you. If they passed by you on the street in New York, they would not recognize you. A novel, ultimately, is created by its reader as much as it's created by its writer. This is why we novelists are afforded so much license to represent, and distort reality...most of the time, anyway.
Take a photo of someone, though, and they are recognized forever. Katherine McIntosh was 4 years old when Dorothea Lange snapped that iconic shot of her migrant mother. Later, McIntosh told CNN (click that link), the photo shamed her family--but it left them determined to improve their lives, which they did. The face of Florence Owens Thompson, the mother in the picture, became the face of hard times. Her identity was taken from her (though she intially did give Lange permission to shoot), and lent to a social cause.
Of course, would we have it any other way? I don't think we would. What Bruce Gilden steals from those around him, he gives to the rest of the world. And we're grateful for it.
Not every street photo, on the other hand, will affect positive social change. Indeed, none of mine will. So again, how come I keep making them? I think I enjoy taking street pictures for the same reason I enjoy writing fiction: as a tribute to the endless variety of human beings. When you take a good picture of a stranger, even a half-decent one, you capture a human moment, a fleeting emotion that will never otherwise be precisely reproduced, not for the subject's family or friends, not for anyone. If you're skillful, or lucky, you might capture something great. But even if you don't, you got something: something real and temporary, that you managed to make permanent and, ultimately, less real.
Less real? Sure. Because every photo is a lie, as well, and herein lies part of the problem with street. The fleeting emotion isn't always representative of the context. Hell, everyone looks like a psycho killer at least five times a day. Paparazzi, for instance, are in the business of making the superhumans look subhuman, and it is because of their intrusiveness (along with the mindless paranoia the era of terror has given us) that the law has of late been striving to limit the rights of photographers. Increasingly, photography itself, as a hobby, as an artistic venture, is considered suspect by some, and even the most innocent of snappers knows better than to hang around that most deeply alive of human environments, the playground.
In the end, though, the major problem with street is that it's a kind of taking. A benign taking, of course, that leaves its subject fully intact and unharmed, but a taking nonetheless. And depending on the kind of person you are, this might not sit right with you. Personally, my feelings are mixed. I wouldn't mind, I tell myself, if somebody was sneaking photos of me. But my privacy, in public, is not important to me, and to some people it is. Of course, those people may be the ones most worth photographing--the ones who are vulnerable, whose faces have the most to say.
For me, for now, that calculus comes out on the side of doing it, and respecting after the fact the requests of any subject who would have preferred not to be photographed. This is an imperfect solution, but photography, like fiction, is an imperfect art, and its excitement lies, in part, in the friction between what is and isn't permissible. Presently, the law is on my side, and my conscience isn't quite. But maybe, for the purposes of art, that's where one's conscience belongs.