Category Archives: 01 The unaware

Exercise 2.2 Covert

The brief
Closely consider the work of the practitioners discussed above, then try to shoot a series of five portraits of subjects who are unaware of the fact they are being photographed. As you’ve seen, there are many ways in which you can go about this, but we can’t stress enough that the objective here is not to offend your subjects or deliberately invade anyone’s privacy. If you don’t have permission to shoot in a privately-owned space, then you should only attempt this work in a public space, where permission to shoot is not necessarily required.

This is a very interesting challenge, which some students will find incredibly difficult. Remember that the creative outcome of the practitioners discussed above has come about through a sustained approach, which is then heavily edited for presentation. You’ll need to shoot many images in order to be able to present five final images that work together as a set.

Think everything through carefully before attempting this exercise as the responsibility for the outcome of the portraits rests entirely with you. If during the course of this exercise you are challenged in any way, be prepared to delete what you have shot. If you can see that you are annoying someone, or making them feel uncomfortable, stop shooting immediately. You’ll be required to operate with a degree of common sense here and not take unnecessary risks. There are ways of completing this exercise without incurring risk, such as shooting the work at a party you’ve been invited to, where all the guests have been invited for a particular celebration.

The reflection about your methodology will be as important as the final five images, so be prepared to write about how you found the experience (around 500 words) and present your findings via your learning log or blog.

As a rule I don’t have any problems doing street photography but lately I have been in a bit of a funk and seem to have lost my mojo. Being a senior on the street with a camera seems to pose little threat to those I photograph. I’ve only ever encountered a homeless person, probably high on something, shout at me once when he saw the camera, even though I wasn’t even taking a photograph at that time.

I took some street images when I was in South Africa and during my stopover in London and thought initially that I could do a theme of different cities, as I had a few good images from both locations and would just need to complete with some from Vancouver. So I headed downtown yesterday to work on my Vancouver images. I didn’t go out with any specific idea in mind, rather just hit the streets to see what was happening.

I first roamed around taking photos of people on buses, waiting for the bus, street musicians, folks walking going about their weekend business in general.  Some people realised I was photographing them and looked straight at the camera and I excluded those shots when making my selections. I tried to take some shots with the camera just hung around my neck and aimed at people I was passing by or approaching, but that method is very hit and miss for me. I was on the verge of heading back home when I heard loudspeakers so went to investigate and came across an Arabic protest march – still not sure what it was about though. After taking a few record shots of the protest, I then turned to photograph those watching it. Subconsciously I think Lukas Kuzma’s work (reviewed here) influenced me quite a bit. Looking through my contact sheets I realise that the most successful images were those taken at street corners where I was simply waiting for the subjects to flock around me while they were waiting for the march to pass so they could cross the street. Returning home and reviewing the images, I realised that I had a better theme in my collection than my initial idea of three cities. My series is all about “watching”.

Below are my contact sheets for the exercise:

Covert Contact Sheet 1
Covert Contact Sheet 1
Covert Contact Sheet 2
Covert Contact Sheet 2
Covert Contact Sheet 3
Covert Contact Sheet 3

My final five images:

Fig 1
Fig 1
Fig 2
Fig 2
Fig 3
Fig 3
Fig 4
Fig 4
Fig 5
Fig 5
Reference List

Kuzma, Lukas (n.d.) Transit London [online] http://www.lukaskuzma.com/transit-london/ [Accessed 10 October, 2016]

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Reflection – Parr vs Wood

Parr and Wood were photographing new Brighton at the same time during the early 1980s. Parr claimed ‘I am a documentary photographer, and if I take a good photograph in the process, that’s a bonus.’ Wood stated ‘I’m interested in good photographs, and if they document something, so much the better!’ (Wood, 2005, p.33).

Which of these approaches most closely reflects your own experience?

Course manual p. 46

After watching the video on Tom Wood I think that my own experience definitely leans more towards that of Tom Wood than Martin Parr. When doing street photography I tend to go out and try and get interesting photos. I don’t always realise it at the time, but when I get home I do sometimes find that I have some images that would fit into a documentary category. But I really just start out with a blank slate in my mind and go with the flow of whatever is happening on that particular day and try and have some fun.

Puerto Vallarta - Lynda Kuit 2016
Puerto Vallarta – Lynda Kuit 2016

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Tom Wood

Tom Wood was born in County Mayo, Ireland and he works in England. He is best known for his street photographs of Liverpool and Merseyside. He gained the nickname “Photie man” from the children he passed on a regular basis who clamoured for their photos to be taken. Foam Museum regards Tom Wood as one of the top English street photographers, placing him alongside Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones.

I came across this interesting video on Tom Wood, explaining his working methods and various projects he has worked on.

Our course manual instructs us to look at his body of work entitled Looking for Love. This is covered quite well in the video. In it Wood explains that he first used to go into the night club and just mingle, explaining his project to the clientele, letting the people get used to him. After a while no one really noticed him and he says that it also helped that many of the youngsters that were in the night club were familiar with him, having come across him on the streets when they were much younger (giving him the nickname Photie man). By being able to blend in with his surroundings and move among the crowd, Wood was able to make colourful, garish looking photos of the nightclub scene. ‘His observations possess a raw closeness without being voyeuristic’ (We English Blog). From the video it seems that he relies on his on-camera flash. Looking at the photos, one can almost hear the noise, feel the vibe, the heat and the smells.

Last Dance, Chelsea Reach, 1985 by Tom Wood
Last Dance, Chelsea Reach, 1985 by Tom Wood

I just love this image above. It epitomizes the carefree attitudes of youth. Old, forgotten memories surface just looking at this. The randy boys clutching of the girls’ bums and the girls draped romantically around their boyfriends necks, not a care in the world, lost in their own space. Who cannot smell the pheromones in the air?

Wood is first and foremost a photographer of people. Sometimes they pose for him, and sometimes they seem unaware of his presence. Sometimes they are shot in close-up, and sometimes from afar. But, most of the time, Wood’s photographs convey much more than they literally depict. He not only shows us the people who make up the fabric of his day-to-day existence, but his manner of photographing forces us to recognize his subjects as sentient individuals.

Jan-Willem Dikkers (Issue)

Reference List

Admin (2010) The Work of Tom Wood [online]. We English Blog Archive. Available at: http://we-english.co.uk/blog/2010/03/09/the-work-of-tom-wood/ [Accessed 1 August, 2016]

BBC World News. What do artists do all day? [online] BBC Scotland. Dir. Maurice O’Brien. 22 April, 2014.  27 mins 12 sec. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1H7UjpOEzGw (Accessed 1 August, 2016)

Fletcher, Jane (n.d.) Tom Wood: Making Sense [online] Issue. Available at: http://issuemagazine.com/tom-wood-making-sense/#/ [Accessed 1 August, 2016]

Bibliography

Redactie, FS (2005) Tom Wood in Foam [online]. FashionScene. Available at: http://www.fashionscene.nl/inspiratie/161569/tom-wood-in-foam [Accessed 1 August, 2016]

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Lukas Kuzma

Lukas Kuzma is a Czech photographer, currently studying for his BA (Hons) at the University of Chester in the UK.

Like Walker Evans, he has a body of work which was taken on trains, inside and outside stations in London. We see the familiar “blank” stares and the “caught up in own thoughts” expressions that are evident in Evans and DiCorcia’s work. I was particularly drawn to his images of people going up or down the escalators. The inquisitive glances at fellow passengers behind as they descend into the bowels of the earth and the bored stare of a little boy looking at people behind him, probably going in the opposite direction. But we also see people grimacing as they stare at something out of frame and I am intrigued as to what they are looking at. Is it a station busker like we have here in Vancouver, or is it something unpleasant?

My favourite image in this set would have to be the one with the mother, cell phone in hand, bending over a toddler who is intent on throwing a tantrum on the platform floor, while another woman stands to one side watching the mother, her fist clenched into her sleeve, and a little girl holds out her arms as if she is clapping, her eyes squeezed shut. I can almost hear the poor mother threatening the little boy that she is going to take a photograph of his screaming face if he doesn’t stop his nonsense and get up and behave himself.

Kuzma’s images feel more real to me than those of Walker Evans. It is probably due to the fact that they are obviously more modern than Evans’ work, but also I feel more empathy with these images having been in similar scenarios myself. There is also a sense of the hustle and bustle that one finds in these types of places. Kuzma’s photographs also show more movement and actions.

Reference List

Kuzma, Lukas (n.d.) Transit London [online] http://www.lukaskuzma.com/transit-london/ [Accessed 24 July, 2016]

Philip-Lorca DiCorcia

I researched Philip-Lorca DiCorcia’s method of working while doing Context and Narrative (posting can be seen here) so I will only be adding a few points here that I may have missed back then.

As DiCorcia explains in his short video below, when making his Heads oevre, he made use of scaffolding on a sidewalk in Times Square. He mounted two flash guns on the scaffolding which he triggered wirelessly. He used a telephoto lens on his camera and did not particularly conceal himself. Having set up his “stage” he would then wait for an interesting character to walk into the lighting zone where his flashes were set up and make his photograph. He took over 3,000 images to obtain the 17 that makes up the body of work. At no time did he ask permission from any of his subjects. He did not converse with them at all. Years later he was taken to court by one of the subjects who stated misuse for commercial and advertising gains, but the judge ruled in DiCorcia’s favour stating that one could not expect any level of privacy in a public place (especially nowadays with all the surveillance cameras that abound).

As seen on the video DiCorcia’s subjects all appear to be emerging from darkness into the light – beautiful chiaroscuro so reminiscent of the Renaissance painters like Carvaggio and Gerrit van Honthorst (see below). The subjects are caught up in their own thoughts, flickers of various emotions crossing their faces. Not much can be gleaned from the background. We now know that the photos were ‘staged’ inside a scaffolding tunnel and as such can hunt for further clues to collaborate this and we do find a few: the out of focus strip neon lighting overhead in a few of the photos; the condensed crush of bodies in others and of course the all encompassing darkness in all of the frames. Any one of the subjects that passed through DiCorcia’s zone of light could be one of us. Recognition is triggered by looking at their expressions.

By Gerard van Honthorst - Unknown, Public Domain
By Gerard van Honthorst – Unknown, Public Domain

 

Reference List

Tate Modern (2010). Philip-Lorca diCorcia – “Heads” (2010) [user-generated content online]. Tate Modern. 15 September, 2010. 4 mins 41 secs. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpawWn1nXJo [Accessed 23 July, 2016]

Images

Gerard van Honthorst – Unknown, Public Domain. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=403558 [Accessed 23 July, 2016]

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Martin Parr

Gerry Badger1 describes Martin Parr as “not quite an out-and-out modernist, not quite a postmodernist.” Parr is someone who is a successful photojournalist, who also works conceptually and exhibits in galleries and museums. He is comfortable working in all facets of life, in all cultures, but is probably best known for his tongue-in-cheek photography about modern culture. When Parr switched from doing black and white photography to making colour photos in the 1980s his vision changed  from “gritty romanticism to hyaline realism2.”

Martin may deploy humor, in a typically English, somewhat mordant fashion, but at root he is commenting upon modern mores, from a sharp, edgy, ironic, critical, yet consistent political point of view.

Badger, Gerry3 (2010 :9)

Parr is a critical observer of consumer culture which he uses to playfully and ironically depict his subjects.

In his series Japanese Commuters which the course material points us to, we can see that Parr has photographed all his subjects unaware. The fact is they are all asleep. The set of images is a humorous typology of Japanese commuters on a train, all but one, almost doubled over in their sleep, as if deep in prayer. They are definitely not flattering portraits: the subjects’ vulnerabilities on show for all to see. We notice the thinning hair on some, noses that appear distorted or even almost non-existent. Only a few of the subjects have visible mouths.

How often have I not sat on the bus watching my fellow Asian travellers take a seat and within a minute of the bus moving off from the stop find them nodding off into oblivion. Or be in the unlucky position (or seat) of having such a person sitting next to me and have him/her nodding off on my shoulder! Take it from me – it is not a pleasant experience! So in my mind’s eye I am watching Parr’s subjects for clues as to which way they are going to lean when the train changes direction around a curve or comes to a halt at the station.

What a difference in style from Walker Evans’ subway portraits to Martin Parr’s Japanese commuters! As Geoff Dyer4 (2007: 7) states in The Ongoing Moment “To see if style could be identified in and by … content. The only way to do this was to see how different people photographed the same thing.” Evans shows us engaged passengers or passengers deep in thought in their own private world in the context of the carriage. Parr shows us obscure angles of people’s heads, rendering them almost featureless and totally anonymous, completing overflowing the frame. The lone figure in Parr’s set who is not doubled over in sleep is sitting upright, but we cannot see his face. Parr has cut off his head at mid neck level and all we see is the gold knot of his silk tie, the pinstripes of his dark suit and white shirt. He becomes even more anonymous than his sleeping counterparts. We can make out no context whatsoever in Parr’s images and have to rely on his captions to anchor the context of his images.

At the level the literal image, the text replies … to the question: what is it? The text helps to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself: it is a matter of a denoted description of the image … the caption helps me choose the correct level of perception …

Barthes5 (1977, p. 39)

Reference List
  1. Badger, Gerry (2010). The Pleasures of Good Photographs, Essays by Gerry Badger, published by Aperture in June 2010 [online]. Available at: http://www.gerrybadger.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/ParrByBadger.pdf [Accessed 19 July, 2016]
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Dyer, Geoff (2007). The Ongoing Moment. New York: First Vintage Books Edition
  5. Barthes, Roland (1977). Rhetoric of the Image in Image, music, text. London: Fontana Press
  6. Parr, Martin (1998) Tokyo Commuters [online]. Magnum Photos. Available at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2S5RYD12J76K [Accessed 20 July 2016]

Walker Evans

Walker Evans was born in 1903 and was recruited to work in the Farm Security Administration during the Depression years producing some of his best-know work. He later became a professor of photography at Yale University. Between 1938 and 1941 Evans made a series of portraits of passengers which he shot on various subways. The series was called “Many are Called”.

Evans used a concealed camera and ran a remote shutter release down the sleeve of his coat into his hand. He was literally shooting blind. Often fellow photographer, Helen Levitt would accompany him on the subways.

Dyer (2007 p. 19) states:

The idea, … was to affirm that certain people ‘had come along and, without knowing it, placed themselves in front of a fixed and impersonal apparatus for a given time, and that all these individuals, … were photographed without the slightest human intervention at the moment the shutter clicked’.

All the subjects were oblivious to the fact that they were being photographed and Evans noticed that, alone in a crowded rail carriage, people tended to drop their guard. I have observed similar expressions when taking public transit. It is as if people think they have an invisible barrier around themselves that no one can penetrate. The blank stare at the person sitting opposite where one does not really see the person: one is simply so lost in thought that one doesn’t realise one is staring.

© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evans also captured tiny dramas – little interactions between passengers. Two people sharing a joke or reading a newspaper together. Dyer (2007 p 20) states that “it is precisely this detached quality of their conception and composition that gives Evans’s subway pictures their intense human appeal.”

Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jeff Rosenheim reflects on Evan’s subway portraits here.

Evans’ subway portraits give credence to Barthes’ notion in Death of the Author where he dispels the idea that the author’s identity and views dictate the meaning of the text.

… the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.

Barthes (1977 p. 145)

Evans was shooting blind – he had no way of knowing what he was capturing until he developed his film. The only control Evans’ had over his image was when to press his shutter release and then hope for the best. The absence of any directional prompts is something that is central to traditional documentary photography.

Evans stated that the roles of “seer” and “the seen” were reversed in his portraits. The photographer or viewer (us) is being observed by the subway passengers and and has to give up control. As Jonathan Schroeder in Daniel Chandler’s Notes on the Gaze states:  ‘to gaze implies more than to look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze’.

© Walker Evans Archive
© Walker Evans Archive

Now who would be the gazer in this photograph? Clearly the couple is looking directly at the photograph, totally unaware they are being photographed. Their gaze is quite direct and compelling. When I look at the photograph I have the distinctive feeling that they are looking at me.

Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1977).  Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press

Chandler, Daniel Notes on The Gaze [online] Available at: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/gaze/gaze02.html

Dyer, Geoff (2007) The Ongoing Moment. New York: First Vintage Books

Rosenheim, Jeff. (2013) Stare. [Subway Passengers, New York City], 1938–41 Walker Evans (American) [online]. 82nd & Fifth Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available at: http://82nd-and-fifth.metmuseum.org/stare [Accessed 13 July, 2016]

Images

Evans, Walker (1938-1941) Subway Portrait [online] Minneapolis Institute of Art. Available at: http://collections.artsmia.org/art/2179 [Accessed 14 July, 2016]

Shepard, Annie (2012) Photography: Walker Evans’ NYC Subway Portraits [online]. Untapped Cities. Available at: http://untappedcities.com/2012/11/20/photography-walker-evans-subway-portraits/ [Accessed 14 July, 2016]

Bibliography

Angier, R. (2015) Train Your Gaze (2nd edition). London: Bloomsbury

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