Tuesday, February 24, 2009


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.


Jay Livingston said...

I CAN TAKE YOUR FILM Film? A dead giveaway that she didn't know much. Either that, or she had slipped onto Fifth Ave. through the time warp. Or were you really carrying a Nikkormat?

Anonymous said...

I was indeed shooting with a film rangefinder. That's why I believed her about being a photojournalist...who the hell can recognize a film camera at ten paces?

AC said...

So how did you resolve the issue? Did you finally have to walk away and leave her ranting?

I've stopped taking pictures on the street for this reason. Too dangerous in my neighborhood. That's why most of my photos are tiny closeups of the flowers in my yard, or odd corners of my home.

rmellis said...

See -- I don't like the sneaky part. I think if you take pictures of people on the street, you should have a giant lens and an umbrella and a little birdie in your hand. I know you won't get as many good shots, but at least it's honest! Writing is inherently public -- everyone can go read about themselves if they want to. But if they don't know you took their picture, how can they check out your Flickr page?

Of course, I'm biased, having to tolerate you and your snap-happy friends ambushing me in my pajamas, at work, while eating, in double-chin mode, etc.

Anonymous said...

AC, I agreed not to use the photo, and she left me alone, and I her. Which is how come the Alfred E. Neuman head.

But I'm with Rhian, really, the sneakiness makes me uncomfortable. The problem is you get a different kind of picture when people know you're taking it. Sometimes those pictures are very good, of course, but they're different. Our friend Franklin has been striving to do 100 portraits of random people, with their permission, and posting them on flickr, and they're really excellent--perhaps I should follow his lead.

Unfortunately I have gotten him hooked on street, so now he's following mine. Indeed, he's the guy trying to photograph Rhian at work...though not in her pajamas thank goodness.

Rich said...

Interesting post!

my two cents for what its worth: you seem to advance 2 arguments for why its ok to take pictures of random people on the street. first, if you're dorthea lange your picture "will affect positive social change." this doesn't strike me as a very compelling argument for a number of reasons. one, what's the evidence that these photos actually "affect positive social change?" i really like that photo a lot, but i can't say its changed me or how i think/act in any way. i suspect photojournalism has an argument to be made in its favor on this count. the picture of the vietnamese children being napalmed most likely did affect some social change. but street photography of everyday people? second, what this would seem to imply is that if a photograph causes 'negative social change,' then the photographer shouldn't be allowed to take the photo. it seems a rather slippery slope and not a particularly persuasive argument.

your second argument is that even in the absence of the 'social change' argument, its ok to take pictures of strangers because its a 'benign' invasion of privacy. i disagree. on at least three occasions, i've gone for walks with my young daughter and had complete strangers start taking pictures of us. in no way, shape or form is this 'benign'! it irritates me to no end: first, it takes my mind off what i'm doing, and what i'm doing (spending time with my kids) is far more important than a photograph (and yes, these people were shooting from the hip and trying not to be intrusive...but they were...that even makes it worse in a way). second, i always spend the rest of the day wondering, "ok, was that guy a pedophile?" i fully recognize how improbable that is, but still, if you have kids i suspect you can understand the kid-oriented part of the brain that constantly obsesses over everything kid-related.

i strongly disagree that there's anything benign about it. you probably ruined that lady's day. that may be benign to YOU, but it probably wasn't to HER. So when you say your "calculus comes out on the side of doing it" this pretty much sounds like an argument that how you feel is more important than how she feels.

by the way, Night Work was incredible! thanks! it was nice to see someone recognize that the scariest thing about zombie films was never the zombies!

Jay Livingston said...

Google "street photography," and you get nearly 40 million hits. Legally, in the US at least, you can take photos of people in public -- even if the picture isn't going to change the world, and even if the your motives are not benign. People do it in NYC all the time. Look at Bill Cunningham's work in the NY Times. He doesn't seem to make any secret of what he's doing. Nor did the guy who had the now defunct Subway Photo Blog (http://www.travisruse.com/). There was just a case recently of NYC cops arresting a guy for taking pictures in the subway. The cops thought there was a law against it, but they were wrong. The guy will probably sue and win a bundle, as has happened in the past.

If you're concerned about the subject's reaction, you can be nice and ask permission either directly or just by pointing the camera and having a questioning look on your face.

(jrl, I assume that "a film rangefinder" is a modest way of saying "Leica.")

Anonymous said...

I agree, the positive social change thing is a lame argument, and does indeed beg the question of the inverse. And again you're right that my argument is, in general, self-serving.

But I guess what I'm saying is that every artist is a borrower, every artist takes a little of the world for himself, and there is something furtive in all art. With street photography, it's more openly greedy. But it's in most other art as well, at least art that's about people.

I am not pretending I don't annoy people. I'm sure I do sometimes. And I'd be annoying people who make their way into my fiction, too, if they could see me doing it. So yeah, you're right, I am pretty much saying that how I feel is more important than how my subjects feel. Which is fundamentally false, by my own moral standards, and the source of my ambivalence about street photography.

And yet making some kind of art usually wins, for me. It's not calculated, it's compulsive, and morally ambiguous. (And of course it has its limits. I would never slander anyone, or explicitly, and intentionally, hurt anybody. Nor would I take pictures in their windows.)

However, about privacy, out in public, you have none. And I do maintain that the intrusion is largely benign. I don't believe it's all right to harrass somebody, or block their path, or frighten them, much in the same way it wouldn't be right to invent a thinly-veiled version of somebody for a novel, drop broad hints as to their true identity, and then say nasty things about them. But if being photographed on a New York City street really, really, really bothers you, you should be living out in the country. There is no block of New York that doesn't have a camera trained on it 24/7, and a camera on every cell phone. And the stretch of Fifth Avenue I was on that day is probably the most photographed 30 blocks on earth.

As for pedophiles, I find the whole notion a form of middle-class paranoia, a largely imaginary fear that we all should be stronger than to succumb to. I realize that such people do exist, but they are few and far between, and there is nothing you can do to prevent some sicko from going home and masturbating while they think about your child. That said, I've taken a few pictures of children in public that I like, but I've more or less decided not to do that anymore, simply because it would make me a little uncomfortable to have my own kids photographed that way. I don't worry about pedophiles, but I do feel that kids are too powerless to complain, and thus at the world's mercy. They don't need the likes of me disempowering them further.

Anyway, consider this post a confession, not a justification. Artists steal, is what I'm saying. And perhaps this is one reason that so many of us are jerks and/or alcoholics.

Glad you liked Night Work!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Jay, it actually wasn't a Leica, though I do have (and love using) an M2. It was one of these, a Bessa R4A:


Great camera, and hell of a lot cheaper than the Leica equivalent, the M7.

Jay Livingston said...

The Bessa looks a lot like the Leica. And I notice that one of the cameras shown has a 28mm lens -- my favorite, especially for street photography, back when I used my old Spotmatic. The other has a 21mm, and I would imagine that if you want to take pictures of people with a 21, you have to be so close that you can't really do it surreptitiously.

Anonymous said...

Ha! Not to turn this into a photo nerd thread, but I was indeed using a 28. Gary Winogrand favored the 28 as well...I guess I was trying to emulate him. It's true, you can't shoot from across the street with something that wide...you have to be close.

bloglily said...

I've never thought much about the legal part of taking pictures on the street -- I've just always assumed it must be okay, because it happens in the public sphere and doesn't harm anyone in any obvious way. (I get the arguments about how it's an annoyance and even can see the "it steals your soul" thing. But that's the cost of living in an open society, right? Your soul is at risk all the time.)

But what I love about your post is the suggestion that writers and photographers are thieves -- and that their substance abuse problems can be traced to their sneaky lives. I'm going to have to go and think about this over a bottle of wine while I try to figure out how I'm really going to skewer my brother in the next story I write.

Anonymous said...

You know I'm kidding about that. Mostly. ;-)

Matt said...

Interesting thread. I take photos in public-view, but rarely of the public - generally nature within urban settings. I do feel awkward when I pull out my rangefinder (yes, another rangefinder user - I use a Zorki-4 w/ a 28 or 50mm lens) in public. I can sense that some people feel uncomfortable (or perhaps it's just me feeling uncomfortable around them).

What's odd is that, for lack of a better term, "tourist photographers" don't elicit the same apprehension. I can walk by people posing in front of city hall and I could care less if I'm in the shot. But if I see someone hanging around my neighbourhood, say, leaning against a wall waiting for the right shot, then I tend to want to avoid their lens.

That said, I support photography in public of the public, and all the potentially nasty, ugly, beautiful, inspiring aspects of it.

rmellis said...

To sort of contradict what I said before: I think people are beautiful, and pictures of people are the most interesting ones, and, yes, unposed pictures are usually better. So. I contain multitudes.

k. said...

Does anyone remember the wedding at the beginning of The Godfather? Someone takes a picture and gets his camera smashed. Seems pretty clear that it was the same situation with this woman. She didn't want her picture taken because she is involved in some sort of high-level criminal activity. She probably has the FBI or CIA after her. You said she was coming from 47th Street. Everyone knows that's where mafioso-types hang out and hold all their secret underground meetings.

zachary cole said...

k.: You make Manhattan sound VERY exciting.

Jay Livingston said...

Not in the Godfather, but in Marathon Man, 47th St., a couple of blocks west, has an important part.
And I don't know why it took me so long to figure out the obvious caption to this photo -- Who Did JR Shoot? I think it came to me after I listened to a podcast of This American Life, with jr doing the closing number, which I liked very much.

Anonymous said...

Ha!, thanks! That piece aired several times before, but I've never gotten so many comments on it. People were just more receptive this time, I guess...maybe it's Bush being gone.

Dana said...

This is off-topic from the photography, I s'pose, but I was interested to find out that Katherine McIntosh, the girl in the photograph, is currently living in Modesto. I didn't know anything about Modesto prior to meeting Justin, but it crops up a lot in descriptions of the Dust Bowl. It's a big agricultural area, so it's where a lot of migrant workers settled. Interesting that she stayed there, all these years.

Jay Livingston said...

I've heard of Modesto, mostly because a couple of brothers, Ernesto and Julio somethingorother settled there too.

k. said...

Yeah, I forgot about Marathon Man. This woman is clearly a Nazi war criminal.

re: Modesto, the great (and now sadly defunct) band Grandaddy is from there.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, what the hell has Jason Lytle been doing with his time?

k. said...

According to Wikipedia, he has a solo album coming out in May called "Yours Truly, The Commuter." Can't wait for more of those sad robot songs.

Dana said...

George Lucas is also from Modesto - American Graffiti is based on it, and there's a little American Graffiti statue in Modesto's downtown. Of course, Lucas hated the place (which you can probably glean from the film), and refused to return, even when they dedicated that statue to him.

And I can't think of Grandaddy without thinking of Jason Lee's poor son.

estelle said...

Oops, I meant to comment on this when it first appeared, but other stuff got in the way.

Just wanted to offer some words about my recent trip to north-west Africa -- in most of the countries I visited (Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana) allowing someone (a tourist) to take a photograph of you (an inhabitant of one of these countries) is something for which you have the right to expect payment. This means that taking a photo of someone in West Africa is a service/good which needs to be negotiated, hence creating a sense that taking a photo of someone without their permission is definitely taking, from the sovereign shop of the self, if you will.

(What happened is that I hardly took any photographs at all, because I was too intimidated and harassed by the idea of approaching every single person I wanted to take a photo of or around, which is a testament to my weak-willedness, and a little bit of a loss to (my) art and memory.)

I'm not saying this tradition necessarily applies in a western context. Of course there are plenty of things at play in this state of affairs -- wealth imbalance, cultural particularities, etc.

I'd say that technologically-advanced western society is pretty divided on the public privacy issue, at least in a legal sense. Look at the Facebook outcry recently: tons of people don't want some huge internet organisation owning 'their faces', especially if their faces are likely to be used in some advertisement which allows them no agency over how it's used. But there's no tort of privacy in Australia, where I live, and although there is one in the US and a breach of confidence cause of action in the UK, I don't think they're so good on faces and images. So yes, the law is still on your side. (A good overview.)

But I also think that people value the benefits of street photography, including both the near-deifying 'fashion' street photography that is recognisably informing the way people dress and interact with fashion, and the breathful, penetrating, sociological sort of photography I think you're describing, JR.

I think I agree with your "doing, then respecting" principle. It's contextual and flexible, the way a response should be in an ethically murky situation. Although I think I would personally be irritated by someone taking a stealthy photograph of me, it's nothing that couldn't be assuaged by a little ex post facto consultation.

E. said...

I worked in TV news during the last century, and never went out with a videographer to shoot in public places without someone or other demanding that we turn off our camera, claiming we had no right to "film" them. That, or they'd just attack the camera.

I always felt creepy. Always. Especially when the story was about obesity or smoking or homelessness; imagine the shots we tried to get. Sometimes, judges presiding over high-profile cases tried to prevent us from getting shots of family (victims' or suspects') outside the courthouse, even from across the street, which was (and is) legal. That's what I told myself at the time: it's my right as a journalist, and I'm doing my job. True, but icky.

I think maybe it wouldn't feel as exploitative if it were art I was producing, rather than (cough) TV news. Glad to be done with that jazz.

Anonymous said...

estelle and E., thanks for these excellent late comments...