IN ITS FIRST DAYS, photography took on the inward, personal aspect of painting, both in its selection of pictorial subjects and in its method of presentation, which was designed to legitimize the new science by aping the look of the canvas. Only by actively engaging the world and invading every corner of it in an outward search for truth or beauty did picture-making break free of the painter’s constraints. Once Matthew Brady’s stark images of the Civil War froze that conflict’s horror on glass, at least one leg of the photographer’s stool rested on a confrontation of reality.
In the 20th century, as shooters toggled between deliberate, arranged images and pure documentation, the “face” of the public became an unwitting tool in the artist’s toolbox. Human manifestations of delight, horror, revelation and ruin told the story of the new era even more graphically than the correspondent’s pen, creating some of the most indelible images of modern times. Indeed, there seemed to be an unspoken pact between the artist and his “prey” to the effect that their lives, like ours, could be endlessly recorded, interpreted, interrupted and enshrined for the sake of our “art”.
But is that era coming to an end? And, for photography, what lies beyond?
In recent years, both public and private institutions have begun to disallow photography in some venues that had historically been open to it, including retail stores, parks, malls and other previously “free” spaces. Some of this is the inevitable aftermath of our recent obsession with security, a kind of whoa-slow-down against the pervasive replication of all aspects of one’s identity. Perhaps, several gazillion camera phone snaps and gotcha YouTubes later, we have reached a tipping point of sorts, a world in which people desperately seek a firewall around their secret selves.
Even as certain nondescript individuals shamelessly seek the spotlight of reality shows and paparazzi-fed ego gratification, many more are feeling an unfamiliar new yen for shelter from the ubiquitous flash of fame. In such a time, the concept of commentary or “street” photography faces one of its most daunting challenges. What is permissible in an image, now? Are what were once the eloquently revealing truths of spontaneous snaps now a kind of voyeurism, a “reality porn” peek into peoples’ lives to which we have no right?
Without the harrowing chronicle of Dorothea Lange’s dust-bowl refugees, would we understand less of the horrific impact of the Great Depression? Was she underscoring an important message or exploiting her subjects’ suffering? Absent Larry Burrows’ grunt’s-eye-view of Vietnam for Life magazine, would we have missed a valuable insight into a war our government might just have gladly kept under wraps? We may have already reached the point where some of us, embarrassed for the intrusive nature of our craft, have begun to self-censor, to mentally de-select some images before we even shoot them. Such prior restraint may be the height of sensitivity, but it spells paralysis for art.