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The Returned Gaze

Last month I looked at the classic ideal of reportage (and especially street) photography — the unobserved moment. No-one in the image is looking at the camera, so we have the sense, though it may sometimes be an illusion, that the photographer and viewer are privileged secret observers of the life that is going on in the scene. Privileged because here in this picture is a special opportunity to see what is actually going on — a true version of a slice of life.
It’s more complicated than that, naturally, as I suggested then. You as a photographer might have managed to become accepted by people in the situation over a period of time, with the result that although no-one is looking, they do nevertheless know that you’re there. And if they know that you’re there, why would it matter whether they were looking at the camera or not? This month I want to look at the (seemingly) opposite situation — when someone in the scene you are about to shoot suddenly and unexpectedly spots you, turns and looks. As I suggested last week, the most normal reaction for most photographers is to give up the situation with or without good grace. But it doesn’t have to be that way, The moment when when both the photographer and the viewers of the photograph later realise that they are no longer in the position of being unseen, but instead are now fully, if uncomfortably engaged with the subject and situation, can actually give the image life.
Cartier-Bresson, whom I’m happy to quote and re-quote because he had so many good, straightforward things to say about this kind of photography, likened it to hunting. “I prowled the streets all day,” he wrote, “feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life…”  And indeed, the same situation that we’re discussing can happen in hunting. You stalk an animal, and the idea is to get as close as possible without it’s noticing. This is the same for a camera, which is what I use, as for a rifle, which I don’t use but have a good friend who does, and we’ve talked about this at length. If what you had in mind was an ‘unobserved’ shot, then you’ve lost it. Many photographers, including me on many occasions, just write the situation off with a shrug and move on. Naturally, few professionals keep examples of this kind of thing because they didn’t bother to take the shot. Here is one I did keep — the bystander definitely spoils it for me, and he wasn’t about to look away!…

But it’s not all necessarily lost. In fact, this ‘accident’ may even make the image. For instance, the situation here below. The occasion was a function in the Philippines, in Manila, attended by Imelda Marcos when she was the First Lady. Some young performers were waiting in the wings, and the light was good, so I prepared to shoot. As I did so, one
of the girls looked my way, with this provocative expression….

It is, naturally, the character of the expression that decides whether or not you shoot. In this case, it animated the image for me.
Maybe I should break off here for a moment and explain why this article is underTechniques. I realise that many, perhaps most, people think that photographictechniques are to do with operating the camera and lens. Of course, these are included, but techniques are really the methods for getting the shot, so that absolutely embraces all the on-the-spot decisions and the reactions that translate into how you frame the shot, expose for it, time it according to what’s going on — the dynamics of the situation. Whether or not your subject in a reportage shoot looks at the camera makes a huge difference, but I’m nit at all sure that it should be an excuse for a navel-gazing discussion. What counts is how and if you deal with it, ideally turning it to your advantage.
The difference between the unobserved moment and the returned gaze is what you’re hoping to achieve. In other words, it’s a matter of the photographer’s perception more than the event itself. The unobserved moment, as we saw last week, is very easy to appreciate, though not at all easy to achieve, and this is one of the things that have made it a respected form of photography. It also meshed with the modernist principles that photography — particularly European photography — absorbed in the 1930s. The camera,  since the invention of the Ermanox and the Leica, was now capable of doing its own, completely modern thing of capturing fragments of life, and so this was seen as its natural and rightful function. In, well, I suppose you could say the philosophy of photography, this is no longer the only path. Since post-modernism invaded photography, there has been more questioning — at least at a fine-art level — of the relationships between photographer and what is being photographed.
Now of course you can intend this kind of shot, and even encourage it or set it up, but in that case it crosses the line into a kind of portraiture. This particular situation is when someone looks at you and you’re not expecting it; when it actually spoils the shot you had in mind. In this case, the issues are:-

  1. Very quickly deciding the purpose of the picture now that the situation has been turned upside down, and on whether it works for you.
  2. Adjusting the framing (the composition) to take into account the direct gaze of a subject, which will naturally command attention.
  3. Waiting, or not, for the expression to change.
  4. Dealing with the potential embarrassment at getting caught out.

Let’s take them in order…

1. Change of purpose

You might question whether the first really is a technique, but fast decision-making is at the core of reportage, and the ability to switch modes in an instant is as far as I’m concerned, very much a technique. The shot was fly-on-the-wall, but has suddenly become one of engagement. What kind of engagement depends on the subject’s reaction, and on whether that suits you. They could be curios, amused, irritated or annoyed. Look at what Erich Salomon, who made the Ermanox (see above and ‘The Unobserved’ from last month) famous in the early 1930s. He made good use of the relatively discreet camera with a very fast lens by photographing politicians and statesmen in unguarded conversation — something startlingly new for the time. But arguably his most famous picture is this one, taken in 1930, in which he is caught out. He had become well-known by this time, and is being pointed out, good-naturedly, by one of his intended subjects. The reaction, pose, and amusement all combine to make the picture memorable, and Salomon clearly knew this when he pressed the shutter release instead of smiling apologetically and walking off…

2. Adjust the framing

The second issue is taking into account the new, different dynamics of the composition now that you have a direct gaze. Visual weight is something I covered in The Photographer’s Eye,  and I’ll take it up later on this site. Basically, different subjects and situations are stronger or weaker at grabbing the viewer’s attention. The face is very strong, and in particular the eyes, and even more so when the eyes are looking straight towards the camera. In other words, if your subject looks at you, this will act like a magnet in the picture to the viewer’s attention. For this reason, you may need to re-compose to take account of this strong visual weight. Notice how, in the following picture, of young monks on Mandalay Hill, Burma, the eye-lines from statue to boy at right to nearest boy to us move in sequence. As for composition, the frame needs (to my mind, anyway) the extra space and objects in the lower part to carry the eye-line out to the viewer.

3. Wait for an expression

The expression may change — for better or worse according to how you interpret it. This is a judgement call individual to each photographer.

4. Embarrassment?

Well, certainly these can be moments when you feel caught in the act. Robert Frank, featured recently in Observations (‘Wonk’), had this to say in an interview with National Pubic Radio about one well-known image, a favourite of his actually, taken from a  viewpoint in San Francisco. Frank, instead of going for the Kodak Moment as most tourists do, chose to shoot a couple lying on the grass. However, he was spotted and the man turned round, fixing him with an annoyed and challenging stare. Frank later said, “All I could do is just stand there with my camera and just keep photographing, but a little bit away from him so he could think and accept that maybe I photographed the panorama of the city. Those are the difficult moments every photographer has to get over and get away with it and not be discouraged,”

Frank was indeed trying to get away with the technique of pretending to photograph past and beyond the subject, which may explain the framing being dead-centred on the buildings, but in this case the subject was not being fooled one bit. Interestingly, Frank’s continuing influence on contemporary photography stems very much from his willingness to experiment and challenge the accepted way of shooting reportage.


Posted by author: Michelle Charles
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