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Right here, right now…second thoughts

© Eileen Rafferty
© Eileen Rafferty 2011

Yes, I knew I would have second thoughts about some of the bodies of work on display at Format Photography Festival. I knew that no matter how shocked I initially was when I first saw the slideshow by Peter Dench, I would eventually say something positive about his work. “Don’t do it”, I said to myself, “you are from Barcelona”…well, I’m not really, but even though the UK is my country of adoption, I’m still, strictly speaking, a foreigner.
And that poses certain challenges when it comes to doing cross-cultural analysis, which is why I wanted to remain neutral about Denche’s work. But sitting on the fence is pretty uncomfortable, and the opportunity to stir controversy too attractive, so I’ll take sides, for the better or the worse: I actually like his work. I’m not talking about his photographs of drunks, on which I totally agree with Gareth, I mean the other set of images shown on the slideshow, those tackling the topic of multiculturalism. I find them visually unsophisticated, and that’s precisely why I like them so much. Slanted, unbalanced and off-the-cuff compositions add a layer of instability to his work which perfectly matches the subject matter. I look at his photographs and I get a sense of a precariously unstable exercise in multiculturalism. I’m not making a judgement here; but that’s what I felt when looking at Denche’s images.
© Jim Smith 2011

There were many more controversial displays at Format Photography Festival. The idea of authorship was challenged by Michael Wolf in his ‘A series of unfortunate events’. A collection of images regurgitated by Google Street View made up his exhibition. His photographs – they’re not his,  are they? – highlight nothing if not the fact that we all like looking at things. It’s called scopophilia and it is hard wired in us. And if you’re thinking that the sexual connotations of the term are not relevant within the context of Michael Woolf’s work, well, think again because by looking at his work at Derby’s QUAD you – like me –  became a voyeur. BJP magazine interviewed Michael Woolf at Format; worth watching to know more about the photographer’s motivations behind his work.
Which leads me to the topic of Street Photography, the main theme of Format and a genre which I love and hate in equal measure – you can read an older post on street photography here. Photography heavy-weight Joel Meyerowitz said that:

“Street photography is pure photography because it never borrowed from the vocabulary of painting in the way still-life, portraiture, genre-studies and landscape did. Most people now carry a camera-phone, and through the agency of the internet, a new generation has the potential to show us raw genius from the ranks of the millions of people now photographing this way.

(you can listen to an interview with Joel Meyerowitz on BBC’s Front Row – fast forward to 17′)

And with all the respect that I have for someone like him, I can’t help thinking that that’s a scary prospect, if not a dystopic one. No matter how compelling some street photography can be, as demonstrated by the In-Public collective exhibition at Derby Museum, I still find some of it slightly creepy. Millions of people with easy-to-conceal cameras observing us, stalking us. Did I say observing us? Street photography, with all its potential for communication, uncomfortably resonates with the Mass Observation Project.
We don’t know any more who is observing and who is being observed. Photographers in the shadows capturing the image of passers-by who are totally oblivious to the fact that they are being watched – see Katrin Koenning’s Thirteen:Twenty Lacuna.
I, for one, became a photographer to interact with people.
Call me old-fashioned if you wish…

Posted by author: Jose
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30 thoughts on “Right here, right now…second thoughts

  • I’ve recently been looking at observation and surveillance as part of UVC, so this is all hugely relevant (1 cctv camera per 14 people in the UK and panopticism anyone?). As is the appropriation of Google images by Wolf and a growing number of others (I’ve even had a go myself). As far as my studies are concerned, I’ve yet to put my thoughts on the blog, just a summary of the visit as a whole (pretty much as above). There’s a lot of ammunition taken from the day, that’s for sure…
    One thing that I found interesting is in the Meyerowitz quote, that “a generation has the potential to show us raw genius…”. In the Gilden interview on the BJP website (http://www.bjp-online.com/british-journal-of-photography/feature/2030422/exclusive-video-bruce-gilden-goes-head-derby) he states something along the lines of “there is no genius in photography, some have talent, some don’t” It’s not an exact quote, but the flavour is there. Interesting opposite views from two respected street photographers…
    Thanks for the thoughts and questions during the day and the notes afterwards, very much a catalyst for my own thinking.

    • I was tempted to comment on the Meyerowitz quote but I thought I’d let someone else have a go first.
      I don’t buy the theory of genius as applied to photography; as if it separates out those born with a talent for it that acolytes can only aspire to but never achieve because they lack the genes.
      I don’t want my students to believe that; it’s a major block to learning and a ‘get out’ clause.
      In my opinion the work that we see that’s celebrated is there because the people who authored it have worked single mindedly, in some cases risking health, wealth, relationships and security to achieve the work, which sometimes includes stumbling into the occasional ‘moment of clarity’ that moves the medium on, and then they, or others who have spotted an opportunity, have worked tirelessly to promote their brand.
      Also it has to be remembered that we only see what someone considers to be the very best of someone’s work, we don’t see all the stuff that goes in the bin.
      For me commitment is the key, not genius.
      The range of work and response to it in street photography indicates to me what a broad church it is as a practice and with the ubiquity of cameras in mobile phones that church now includes a vast swathe of the population of the planet.
      To me street photography is pure in the sense that it’s the most democratic; you don’t need expensive equipment, glamorous locations or beautiful people to practice it in a sophisticated way.
      In a democracy we very often don’t like what other people are saying when they speak out of their experience; too bad.

      • I’ve just listened to the Meyerowitz interview (excellent link, Jose, thanks – and Polly Braden is on there, too) and watched the Gilden film. One says ‘genius’ (though not in this interview) and the other says ‘talent’, but I think you could interchange those two words between the two and it wouldn’t make any difference to what they are saying, However, I do think they are saying different things, whatever terminology they use, and I think their comments may reflect two different types street photographer (and specifically, their different styles).
        I see Meyerowitz as an observer, flaneur, whatever – a watcher of people and situations, with a real interest in life and its inhabitants. He waits for something to happen and looks to frame it – preferably several things happening in the same frame. Gilden looks to make things happen. He walks the street as a hunter (he says that in the film), capturing people, surprising them and fixing them before they know what has happened.
        For me, the Meyerowitz quote is ‘inclusive’ – he wants there to be new ‘talent/genius’ emerging in a new generation of street photographers; whereas Gilden’s comment could be seen as ‘exclusive’ – some have talent and some don’t (with the implication that if you don’t have it ‘tough’).

    • That’s a good distinction between the two in their practice Stan and I had the same thought about the equivalence of genius and talent.
      Although you’re now giving Meyerowitz the benefit of the doubt I think either still implies an exclusivity that can’t be breached by mere mortals; and very nice too if you’re already on the right side of the red rope.
      How difficult can photography be? It only needs someone to strangle a cat and you’re there! Hahahaha

      • Am I giving Meyerowitz the benefit of the doubt? I’m not so sure I am. I think, in this interview, he is genuinely welcoming the democratic outcome of technological development and the means it puts into the hands of all potential photographers. Don’t you see Meyerowitz in the humanist line of development that we discussed in Derby?
        (Don’t get me wrong, though, I can also observe the promotion of brand ‘Meyerowitz’ in there!)

      • Oh I’m not anti-Meyerowitz by any means, and perhaps it’s just the form of the words, but geniuses don’t dub themselves in the ordinary way of things and the category doesn’t normally include everyone, it would be self defeating, so who is to do the knighting and what does it mean anyway?
        I thought the House of Lords had been categorised as an anachronism in our modern democracy. ‘ }
        Perhaps he just means that there are greater opportunities for everyone to fall victim to the photography virus! Hahahaha

      • “Perhaps he just means that there are greater opportunities for everyone to fall victim to the photography virus!”
        I think thats it exactly – “Photo-flu” – the new pandemic!!

    • I agree with Clive; I don’t buy the genius/talent theory either. Who decides on the criteria on which someone is deemed to be talented or not? Talking about talent as a kind of innate gift is even worse. I’d rather talk about sensitivity, attention, engagement, alertness, commitment and all those qualities that are necessary to become a competent photographer and produce compelling images. Surely we can all develop them.
      In Gilden’s case, I would say that the quality which he has developed is that of a pretty thick skin. I wonder how many times he’s had to cope with abuse and even run for his life after catching his subjects in fraganti.

  • Since Meyerowitz, unsurprisingly, looms large in our discussions about Format – I would like to flag one concern I have about Street Photography. In that with many of the practitioners pronouncements you get a sense that they are saying ‘I just wander about and if something interesting happens I’m there’. I think this is problematic. When I look at the Meyerowitz Aftermath image (see here ) I don’t see what is there, I see Meyerowitz composing a shot which talks of the dignity of labour, which conveys layers of values. Social Documentary photography confronts these meanings – well at least some of the time – whereas Street Photography can have a tendency to ignore them.

    • I think that’s the problem with labels; we’re taking a continuous spectrum of output and arbitrarily chopping it up into a discrete chunks and then wondering why there are inconsistencies.

    • Personally, I don’t see the aftermath image as being “street”. It’s social documentary in the truer and perhaps more traditional sense and yes there’s obviously a high degree of overlap between the two…
      Having said that, by the look of the exhibition, street is changing and can be done in many different ways, and with or without people and the streets themselves (trees and sheep come to mind – the Larsen and Shindelman photo comes to mind). Can street actually be categorised?

      • Can Photography (Art – or is that taking it too far?) be categorised? And, of what value are these categories?
        As some of you know, I used the Meyerowitz ‘Aftermath’ images as a lead into my final Landscape Assignment. So now we’ve got them in Street, Social Documentary and Landscape.

      • I agree with Rob that the Aftermath photo is not Street. Meyerowitz worked at Ground Zero for 9 months documenting the clearance work.

        • Not quite following the ‘not street’ argument. It is of course incredibly difficult (and possibly not that profitable an enterprise) to define street photography, but the organisers of Format say that ‘FORMAT 11 ‘Right Here, Right Now’: Exposures from the public realm, is curated around the theme of street photography.’ So presumably they said to Meyerowitz something along the lines of ‘this is what we are doing, can we have six images?’ and Meyerowitz sent one from Aftermath.

          • Perhaps he was doing what we encourage the students to do, be creative in the interpretation of the brief. ‘ }
            It seems to me that in Britain this Format was the culmination of the long march back from the dead for ‘street photography’; whatever that is.
            I was assured by people who have a say in these things that post-modernism killed street photography, or perhaps that’s code for saying they got bored with it.
            I was at a presentation at Photofusion, some years ago now, where a few photographers, who thought of themselves as street photographers and wanted to rekindle recognition for the form, began a push, or should that be putsch, to resurrect it.
            This Format is the proof that photographers don’t have to take it lying down and can influence their future. ‘ }

    • From my point of view you’re a photographer and you do the work you do; it’s the only work you can do when you’re shooting for yourself.
      The categorisation is a function of ‘the business’; it’s academic when you’re making the work.

    • ‘I just wander about and if something interesting happens I’m there’
      For me though the problem is that despite saying the above there is little link made to psycho-geography or the Society of the Spectacle so the outcome is often lacking coherence.

    • Thanks Cedric:-)
      I enjoyed our discussions outside the QUAD, particularly the one on Alex Webb’s images. There’s nothing like looking at others phtoographer’s work to realise our own artistic potential and the possibilities of the medium.
      I hope to see you on the next OCa study visit.

  • Jose’s comments on the voyeuristic aspects of street photography remind me of an aspect of the genre that I have problems with. One the In-Public film at the museum I listened to an interview with Richard Bram. At one point he described taking cover to watch people moving about in the rain and showed some of the pictures he had taken at that time. Of those he selected this one as his favourite – http://www.richardbram.com/index.php?i=WallStFall&f=101 It’s a picture of a man falling over. He calls it Wall St Fall. I’ve tried really hard to see a positive side to this image but to me it is an unkind invitation to laugh at someone else’s expense and an example of the downside of the genre.

    • I must say that I am not a fan of the slapstick type of street photography which pokes fun of random people in the street because they suffer an unfortunate event or are made to look ridiculous through juxtaposition with with other elements in the frame. This is why I am a fan of work by photographers such has Constantine Manos. His American Colour makes the ‘colour’ itself the subject of the series. You never see the faces of his subjects directly. They are in shadow, wearing sunglasses, cropped or facing away from the camera – a much more sympathetic approach and far less exploitative. I also like the way there is a linking theme to this series.

  • Hi Rob,
    Always enjoy reading people’s thoughts on photography.
    I made Thirteen:Twenty Lacuna – just wanted to make clear that in fact, all those images are made from a very close distance to the subject, hardly ever more than 2 or so meters away, with a 50mm lens, in a tiny weeny alleyway (very tight and squeezy!)in the middle of the day. I guess what I want to point out is that everyone and anyone could see me at all times. I too love photography that is captured with respect and transparency to any subject.
    Thanks so much,

  • Every time I read other peoples comments on photography exibitions or photography topics, I always look forward to hearing Eileen’s. She is always there and always gives her honest view.
    As on this occasion. I agree laughing at some one else’s misfortune is not funny.I did street photography myself during the people and place course and found it very hard to begin with. But you get more confident as you progress, most of the public feel awkward at being photographed. You need confidence and courage to be able to photograph in the open.

    • Thanks for leaving a reply on our blog Katrin. I’m sure our students welcomed your comments on the Thirteen:Twenty Lacuna photographs. It’s always interesting to know about other photographers’ motivations and methods. Your images are beautiful and intriguing; they made me reflect on the isolation that many of us sometime experience in large cities, surrounded by people yet still feeling lonely. Perhaps street photography, with its trademark disengaged approach, is symptomatic of that malaise.
      Well, that’s photography isn’t it? It elicits strong, often contradictory reactions from us.
      Keep an eye on our site; we’ll be delighted to have your contributions from down under.

  • Reading this 10 years later it would seem things have only accelerated in the push for mass surveillance and the deterioration of personal and private space. We didn’t really sit down and agree to this it just evolved. That doesn’t mean it can’t be changed despite being built-in to our modern systems of society if enough people reject them. Some interesting thoughts by Jaron Lanier on this – various books available worth a read. Questions whether the move towards being more anonymous online has had a significantly negative shift away from the original intention of the internet. Likewise we need more people detached from the global net, social media for people to reflect on the things that are wrong with it other wise we just start to accept them as the norm. Turn off your phone put it in a drawer and go outside in the fresh air.

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