“Lettering and signs are very important to me. There are infinite possibilities both decorative in itself and as popular art, as folk art, and also as symbolism and meaning and surprise and double meaning. It’s a very rich field… I think in truth I’d like to be a letterer. And then broadly speaking I’m literary. The sign matters are just a visual symbol of writing. – Walker Evans
“I capture reality but never pose it. But once captured, is it still reality?” – RIchard Kalvar, ‘Street Photographer‘
Having had looked at lots of it over the years, I’ve concluded there are three types of ‘Street Photography’: 1) photos of people on the street (go to any popular photo forum – and a lot of street specific websites – and you’ll see endless variations of this); 2) gimmicky photos of people in public spaces e.g people caught in awkward poses or fallen in the street etc; or 3) photos that attempt to say something about a person in the street, or something about the person’s relationship with someone else in the street, or or something about the person’s relationship with the built environment. (It helps as well if it also has a pleasing or interesting aesthetic i.e. it’s not completely dependent on its subject matter to generate interest). It’s only this latter type that holds any real interest…for me.
My problem with ‘street photography’ as it’s practiced by most is that it invariably falls into the first category – photos of people in the street that have no inherent interest beyond what they depict i.e. it’s just a picture of someone in the street. Below is my contribution (New York City, 2013): people in the street and not much more. While it may possess some marginal aesthetic interest, it doesn’t say anything. At most it relies on a gimmick, the juxtaposition of three people looking three different ways. So what. As a younger photographer, less aware of the subtleties that create real interest in a photo, I’d likely have picked it out and published it. Hey, look at my photo of people on the street!
New York City, 2013
Compare it with the photo below (Edinburgh, 2015). The two photos make for an enlightening juxtaposition. Same formal aesthetic – three people on the street similarly positioned. From a textbook perspective, the Edinburgh photo is a failure – bad framing, no faces. Yet, to me, the photo has a power the New York photo doesn’t, something about those rumpled clothes that talk about the lives of the people who wear them. You don’t need their faces to read into the photo a deflating reality about about the people shown; it’s there in their clothes, goods that promise so much while in the shop window but look like this once we’ve fallen for consumerism’s conjuring tricks.
New York City, 2013
A larger question is whether street photography can be ‘documentary.’ The legitimacy of ‘street photography’ is premised on the assumption that capturing a millisecond of arrested time in an image can reveal something true. Art critic Lincoln Kirsten thought this debatable. “The candid camera is the greatest liar in the photographic family, shaming the patient hand-retoucher as an innocent fibber. The candid camera with its great pretensions to accuracy, its promise of sensational truth, its visions of clipped disaster, presents an inversion of truth, a kind of accidental revelation which does far more to hide the real fact of what is going on than to explode it…It drugs the eye into believing it has witnessed a significant fact when it has only caught a flicker.” That kid above: did the camera catch something meaningful, or is that just a throwaway glance the camera insists is something more?
So, assuming we’re talking about interesting street photography of the third type, can we say that what’s being shown us is truthful, or is it trickery, an artificial reality created by the camera isolating in time something that requires a larger temporal context to be represented accurately?
“The shadow’s most striking feature is its confirmation that the photographer was there, a reality not generally evident in photographs. We take it for granted that photographs were made by someone, a person with a reason for making them, but that observer – who by extension is also us – is rarely acknowledged so overtly in the pictures themselves.
It’s safe to say that this photographer did not see his shadow. The mind has a stubborn tendency to see what it wants to see, and with a camera it tends to acknowledge only the concrete objects in front of the lens: the car, the kids, the mountain. It usually chooses to ignore the shadows and other less substantial elements that fall within the edges separating the picture from the rest of the world, no matter how undeniable the shadow may be.
…Only in photography could such a phenomenon exist (a painting depicting the painter’s shadow could only be made with intention, the very intentionality of which would certainly make it less interesting).” – Jeffrey Fraenkel, The Book of Shadows
‘Who sees the human face correctly: the photographer or the mirror?’ Picasso
I love this quote. It gets at something paradoxical about mirrors. I got thinking about mirrors for two reasons: first, I’m currently reading Jorge Luis Borges’ Labryrinths, a collection of his short stories that deal with time, identity and imagination. Borges was intrigued by mirrors, finding them “monstrous,” shot through with deep philosophical paradoxes; second, given I’m pretty much confined to the house these days, I’ve been going through my photo archives and trying to put some order to all the chaos, and I’m uncovering lots of photos of me in the mirror. Mind you, most of them were taken when I was young, long before the selfie was a thing. At the time they were just throwaways, last exposures on a roll that needed to be developed. Now they’re the keepers. Funny what time does. I’m glad I had the foresight to take them, and thankful that photography gave me the means to do so.
I was 17 when I took that picture. I still have a vague remembrance of doing it. (The fact of the memory says something about a continuity between that 17 year old and me.) Some young lady had written something in lipstick on the mirror and I thought to preserve it with a photo. I ended up getting the photo above, which to me is much more interesting than what was written by someone long forgotten. Apparently, that’s ‘me’, although I feel at most a tenuous connection to the person shown. What that connection is I’m not sure. Is that really me? I do remember the camera – a beat up black paint Nikon F body with a scruffed up chrome FTN Photomic prism, my first ‘real’ camera. I remember being so proud of it, as if it had some magical power to produce better photographs than the consumer grade cameras my parents had heretofore given me. Ironically, it probably did allow me better photos by giving me a confidence in a vision that was capable of being revealed by such a sophisticated instrument.
I love the serendipity of the picture too, the off-kilter framing with the window and curtains hinting at something other than a mere reflection of who I was. That 17 year old kid, learning about what made a compelling photo, I’m sure would have passed this one up when reviewing its contact sheet, everything about it being wrong from what Popular Photography told me made a good photo. Now, I find it a really compelling photo, which should tell me something about the relationship of that person and the person I’m now.
I’ve just got done with a marathon reading of Sigmund Freud. Well, maybe not “marathon” but an extended reading including The Future of an Illusion back to back with Civilization and its Discontents, two of his sociological works published in the late ’20s. Freud is a remarkable intellectual figure, so clearly full-of-shit about historical specifics yet endlessly thought-provoking in his larger worldview. As W.H. Auden wrote at Freud’s death, “if he often was wrong and, at times absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our different lives.”
Freud says that we differ from other animals in that we consider ourselves to have a purpose ( you won’t find your dog wondering what his purpose in life is). The purpose and intention of human life is pretty simple: we strive to be happy. This endeavor has both a positive and a negative aim. On the one hand, it aims at an absence of pain, on the other the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure. ‘Happiness’ relates more to the second aim. Unfortunately, the intention that we should be happy isn’t shared by the world we find ourselves in. We are threatened with unhappiness from three directions: from our body, which is doomed to inevitable decay and dissolution; from external forces of destruction over which we have no control; and finally, from our relationships with other people, all of them pursuing what they think will bring them their own happiness and often getting in the way of ours.
Clever animals we are, Freud says we’ve developed a number of ways of trying to be happy, or at least, fending off the inevitable unhappiness reality forces upon us. The first, and most obvious, is the unrestricted satisfaction of every need (e.g. you buy yourself a Lenny Kravitz Leica and enroll in a Thorsten von Overgaard seminar, thinking somehow that’s going to make you happy, because Leica and Mr. von Overgaard tell you it will. It doesn’t work, obviously, after you soon realize you’ve been conned into spending 40 large for an M240 with fake lizard skin covering and are spending an extra 3 grand to learn about ‘bokeh’ from a carnival barker who thinks he’s royalty).
Second, there is the happiness of quietude, i.e. voluntary isolation against the dreaded external world. You withdraw from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to seek a quiet space within ( e.g. you get yourself banned from the the photo forum you’ve compulsively visited because it’s nothing but a bunch of assholes all chasing their own ego-centric happiness, all talking past each other, and you’re better off not indulging such nonsense). Included in the pursuit of quietude is intoxication, introducing chemical substances into your system that alter the conditions of your sensibility (e.g. developing a fondness for bourbon neat.) Third, there is the attack against nature, attempting to subject her to the human will via science. We send people to outer space to learn its secrets or we embark on medical attempts to control and eradicate disease, all in the name of seeking our immortality as a means of continuing to pursue pleasure (e.g. I subject myself to the ravages of chemo because I’m being told that it’ll “cure” me in the end, irrespective of the fact that if cancer doesn’t get me soon, something surely will).
Finally, Freud sees our striving for beauty – our inborn aesthetic sense – as a defense against suffering in that, like quietude or intoxication, it seeks to master the internal sources of our needs by re-creating the world we perceive, building up in its stead another world in which the unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by a view that corresponds to one’s wishes. This is ultimately what our quest for happiness via an aesthetic outlook entails for Freud. Your attempts at developing a unique photographic vision are, for Freud, a result of attempting to remold reality in a more pleasing image. I do it by shooting stuff out of car windows. Thorsten von Overgaard seeks his bliss in bokeh. For Freud, your aesthetic strivings derive from the same cause as do your religious beliefs; they are both attempts to correct parts of reality unbearable to you by construction of a wish.
Unfortunately, for Freud, the program of becoming happy via seeking pleasure, whether via sex, or intoxication or knowledge is bound to failure. We will always find our efforts at happiness to be fleeting at best. This is because the satiation of our desires only makes us happy when it’s intermittent and experienced against a larger backdrop of deprivation. Unrelenting pleasure soon loses its appeal, as anyone who spent too long in bed with an overly available partner can attest. As for the means by which we seek our happiness, “there is no golden rule which applies to everyone: every man must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved.”
And yet, there is in Freud a certain admiration of, and humbleness, before man’s quest for happiness via the enjoyment of beauty that you don’t see in his analysis of other forms of human pleasure-seeking. The beautiful temporarily takes us outside ourselves, having no obvious use except as a tonic for what would otherwise be a life of chronic discontent. This, actually is much the same argument for aesthetics that Schopenhauer makes. And, unlike finding solace in religion, Freud doesn’t see the joy of the beautiful to be a delusion; beauty does exist, and we can access it to satiate our desire for pleasure. Beauty’s efficacy as a means of happiness is something, Freud admits, that ultimately isn’t explainable by psychoanalysis. “Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization cannot live without it.” This is because, unlike other forms of pleasure, there is no satiation in our perceptions of beauty. Unlike sex or drugs, accessing beauty continues to give pleasure no matter the amount we indulge in it. According to Freud, this path to happiness, humble though it is, may be the best we can ask for.