IT TAKES A THIEF
In this composition, people become mere design elements, or props. To get this look, a single exposure was duped, the two images were re-contrasted, and then blended in the HDR program Photomatix for a wider tonal range than in “nature”.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE GREAT STREET PHOTOGRAPHERS OF OLD WERE ALL WILY, SLY THIEVES, capturing their prey in emulsion. Yes, I know that the old superstition isn’t literally true. You can’t, in fact, imprison someone’s soul inside that little black box. And yet, in a sense that is very personally felt by many of our subjects today, we are committing an “invasion” of sorts, a kind of artsy assault on the self. Oddly, the same technique that gets you admired when you successfully capture a precious quality of someone else’s face makes you despised when you’re sneaking around to get my picture. Whether street shoots are inspired or reviled is largely a matter of who is being “violated”.
We’ve all heard about Henri Cartier-Bresson, covering the bright chrome trim of his Leica with black electrical tape, the better to keep his camera “invisible” to more of his subjects, as well as the through-the-overcoat candids shot on the New York subway by Walker Evans. And then there is the real risk to personal safety, (including being arrested, jailed, and physically threatened) undertaken by Robert Frank when taking the small-town shots for his legendary street collection, The Americans in the 1950’s. And while most of us aren’t risking incarceration or a punch in the snoot when framing up a stranger, sensitivity has accelerated, as cameras have proliferated into the millions, and personal privacy has, in the digital era, been rendered moot.
Every street shooter must therefore constantly re-negotiate the rules of engagement between himself and the world at large. Is the whole of society his canvas, or is he some kind of media criminal, seeking to advance his own vision at the expense of others’ personhood? I must admit that, at times, I tire of the endless calculation, of the games involved in playing “I’m-here-I’m-not-really-here” with individuals. When my fatigue reaches critical mass, I pull back…..way back, in fact, no longer seeking the stories in individual faces, but framing compositions of largely faceless crowds, basically reducing them to design elements within a larger whole. Malls, streets, festivals…the original context of the crowds’ activities becomes irrelevant, just as the relationship of glass bits in a kaleidoscope is meaningless. In such compositions, the people are rendered into bits, puzzle pieces…things.
And while it’s true that one’s eye can roam around within the frame of such images to “witness” individual stories and dramas, the overall photo can just be light and shapes, arranged agreeably. Using color and tonal modification from processing programs like Photomatix (normally used for HDR tonemapping) renders the people in the shot even more “object-like”, less “subject-like”(see the link below on the “Exposure Fusion” function of Photomatix as well). The resulting look is not unlike studying an ant farm under a magnifying glass, thus a trifle inhuman, but it allows me to distance myself from the process of photostalking individuals, getting some much-needed detachment.
Or maybe I’m kidding myself.
Maybe I just lose my nerve sometimes, needing to avoid one more frosty stare, another challenge from a mall cop, another instance of feeling like a predator rather than an artist. I don’t relish confrontations, and I hate being the source of people’s discomfiture. And, with no eager editors awaiting my next ambush pic of Lindsey Lohan, there isn’t even a profit motive to excuse my intrusions. So what is driving me?
As Yul Brynner says in The King & I, “is a puzzlement.”
(follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye and on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mpnormaleye)