Monday, April 9, 2018

Smile!: Unscripted Reactions to Candid Photography

"There are only two styles of portrait painting: the serious and the smirk."  – Charles Dickens 

Who can get enough of  personal imagery, especially if it’s of you? Rembrandt painted nearly eighty self-portraits; Frida Kahlo, fifty or so.  Online, some folks claim to have hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs of themselves. I myself have rather fewer, alas, none of them any good. But given so particular an affinity for one’s own physiognomy, it seems  ironic, indeed  lamentable, that the latter be treated as a peculiar possession so reluctantly parted with as to begrudge others even the occasional copy. Most folks, it turns out, are  not enthusiastic about having their picture taken, especially impromptu or candid ones. More about this in a bit. 

Under African sun, 1976
Portraiture emphasizing facial likeness was little known until the time of 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century BC.  The first portraits to appear in a truly natural or realistic modern-day style were probably the Fayum mummy portraits from Greco-Roman Egypt in the 3rd- 4th centuries.

During Europe’s Medieval period, having one’s portrait painted was considered vanity, jeopardizing one’s standing in the grace of God. The diminutive figures of donors in the sacred art of the Middle Ages often seem tenuous, a little precarious – obeisance on all fours symbolizing at once penitence yet vanity, or penitence as vanity, a sort of blurring of the line between hubris and humility, punishment and reward. One never knew when one’s piety might be in question, one’s soul at risk. Better to pay the Church – or at least an artist.

Even in today’s world, some members of the Amish community consider photographs to be “graven images” that violate the Bible’s Second Commandment. Other Amish feel that active cooperation in photography of oneself smacks of pride and is a sin for that reason. 

During the Renaissance, such attitudes began to change dramatically – the personal likeness or portrait eventually becoming fashionable not just amongst royalty but the middle classes as well. Portraiture of one sort or another, especially photography beginning about the middle of the 19th century, has been more or less on the rise ever since.

"You brought me a potato, and you expect a peach!"– Gilbert Stuart (to a client dissatisfied  with his wife's portrait)

A “decisive moment” of sorts. New York City, 1974
With today’s smart phone camera, however, this trend may be reaching an apogee of sorts. Camera-computers you wear on your face like Google Glass, the technological successor to the smart phone, have been roundly condemned as over the top for intrusiveness. Early adopters were ignominiously dubbed “glassholes.”  Larry Rosen, an expert in the psychology of technology, offers an analysis of this.

On the other hand, most new technologies to varying degrees have had to weather the travails of unfamiliarity on the path to popularity, and the same may be true of Google Glass (Google hasn’t thrown in the towel on the device). Even so, one might wonder if patience with today’s avalanche of personal depiction, or at least with the turn it’s been taking, may be starting to wear thin.

Fingers do the walking – and the talking. Rye, New 
York, 1977
Personal imagery or depiction of people has always had something of a numinous quality about it that taps into the human psyche. The sympathetic magic of the voodoo doll is perhaps a good example. Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, in a novel treatment of the same idea, imagines how one might preserve untrammeled youthfulness by outsourcing the decrepitude of age and ravages of debauchery to a likeness of oneself painted on canvas. To the devout, depictions of Jesus’ sacred heart such as adorn those crimson votive candles or hold center sway in some household shrines have similar import – never mind the plethora of iconography to be found in houses of worship.

Fashion model on a photo shoot focuses 
on the other photographer. Piazza di 
Spagna, Rome, 2002
At the extreme, the personal image or photograph has been imagined, not merely to engage the psyche, but actually make off with the soul! The Lakota leader Crazy Horse famously refused to be photographed because of such a belief, as did other Native Americans who thought photography showed disrespect for the spirit world. The same was true for some of Canada’s First Nation peoples. In Central Africa, fear of the photo was found amongst the Yaos people (page 90), as it was in 19th century Japan (which has come a long way since). Even today, some Aboriginal cultures forbid the display of pictures of the deceased for at least a year after death. For others, it’s disrespectful to show such images at all or even utter the names attached to them. 

Not surprisingly, it's difficult to separate the fear of photography misunderstood as a medium of sympathetic magic from its twin bugaboo, alarm over a photo's imagined power to literally hijack the spirit or soul. In either case, many pre-industrial folk have been wary of having their pictures “taken.”

Relying on some imaginative notions about quantum mechanics, Michael Fryd proposes an amusing tongue-in-cheek explanation of the supposed physics of photographic soul snatching. If his theory is correct, though, you could end up kidnapping your own soul, or at least unplugging it, by taking a selfie, so beware.

Quite apart from primitive notions of imagery’s magical properties, people today for various reasons are still chary about being photographed, especially if it’s a candid shot done on the fly without their permission. One woman has even posted a shrill manifesto listing her objections and premeditated responses.

In a report published in 1980,  Guile et al. noted that study subjects reacted to candid or impromptu photography as an invasion of personal space – typically responding to the photographer by either smiling or running away. Interestingly, no aggressive responses were observed.

Likewise, photographer Eric Kim has said that in the course of taking an estimated 300,000 candid street shots, he encountered aggressive reactions on only three occasions, none of them serious in his view. His discussion of how to go about doing this kind of photography is instructive.

As distinct from the general public, police and the military are notoriously wary of and often belligerent about being photographed.  In many foreign jurisdictions, it’s illegal and/or dangerous to do so. Given the nature of their professional duties, some sensitivity at having any sort of device with a barrel, sights, or rangefinder pointed at them might seem understandable. But unfortunately the reluctance of these groups probably has more to do with issues of public accountability and how to avoid it.

When it comes to candid photography, no figure looms larger than the late Heni Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004), still considered by many the doyen of his genre. Publication of his photo anthology The Decisive Moment in 1952 set a standard that in many respects still prevails today.

As phrased in the book’s title, the “decisive moment” expresses Cartier-Bresson’s idea that the photographer must be able to recognize the precise moment in which multiple elements of a scene come into equilibrium, then instantly seize that moment – the “decisive moment” – to capture the image on film. As he put it, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization the forms that give that event its proper expression.”


In reality, the famous expression has become a shibboleth of candid photography that makes much better sense put in context. Like most serious practitioners of the genre, Cartier-Bresson would “work the scene” (he was also a photojournalist), taking multiple shots of a situation, then choosing the best one(s) from a contact sheet. Yet every exposure in the collection, even if discarded (a contact sheet for “Seville, Spain, 1933” is extant, but most were destroyed after vetting), would still represent a decisive moment in its own right. The famous photographer would sometimes shoot an entire roll of film to get a single publishable (in his judgement) image – it’s selection a sort of definitive moment for the collection as a whole. 

Moroccan guide Omar Kyam gamely posed for 
pictures but strongly warned against photographing 
“any kind of police.” Marrakech, 1976
Thus understood, “decisive moment” contains less of an idea of preternatural, almost superhuman graphic acuity-cum-reflexive responsiveness on the part of the photographer and instead takes on an element of trial and error. Cartier-Bresson himself once said “Of course it’s all luck" – but then he was notorious for this kind of self-deprecating hyperbole, having also once declared “As for photography, I don’t know the first thing about it.

Despite such pronouncements, Cartier-Bresson’s talent was formidable. For me, a better understanding of his technique and methods makes his work that much more accessible.

As for the “decisive moment,” surely it’s an ideal for which one strives.

“The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!”Henri Cartier-Bresson 

Though Cartier-Bresson claimed not to manipulate his subjects, he often staged portraits, either through stylized composition or by using props. Some of his street photos, like “Barrio Chino, Barcelona,1933” or “Behind the Saint-Lazare Station, Paris, 1932” are so extraordinary that doubts about staging still linger. In point of fact, he was well-known to lay in wait for passersby to walk into a pre-composed frame – which might be considered staging of sorts.

Curiously, photographic self-portraits by Cartier-Bresson are rare, perhaps reflecting his unassuming personality and predilection for privacy. Only three are known to exit. He disliked publicity. 

To me,  the most compelling aspect of candid photography like Henri Cartier-Bresson's is its strong people-centeredness. Whether in a studio or on a street corner, people, I believe, are the photographer's greatest challenge by far.  Naturally, it would be simpler to snap pictures of, say, trees or rocks but apart from the likes of Weyerhaeuser or a few antique Freemasons, who could abide the monotony? Artistic treatment or interpretation of live creatures, especially people, through photography is invariably more intimate, more complicated – and that much more interesting.

Sometimes even when your subject objects.

Too agitated to notice photographers, a  groundskeeper berates a pet owner for encouraging his dog to 
cool off in the Venus fountain. Gardens of the Villa Borghese, Rome, 2017

Filming policemen from the rear or with their eyes shut reduces the risk. Left: minor traffic accident,
Hanoi, Vietnam, 2009; Right: lunch break,  Santa Lucia de Tirajana, Gran Canaria, 1976

Capturing this corpulent pair with a telephoto
lens kept the photographer well out of notice.
Montego Bay, Jamaica, 1977

A concerned policeman fends off tourists from snoozing pooches. Puerto Montt, Chile, 2014

Having compelled a photo to assure the camera
was not an infernal device, an airport security official
flashes a smile. Munich International Airport, 1994

Photo fatigue. Three Rivers Campground, Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, 1997

Defeating  the photographer’s stratagem, a street vendor blocks the camera.
Varanasi, India, 1999

Too stoned to care, an enormous Indian bull elephant stares impassively.  A
mahout had foolishly tormented the intelligent creature while he was in musth,
whereupon the bull seized the man and taking him to the nearby Narayani River,
drowned him. Remorseful, the elephant then returned the lifeless body to camp and
laid it on the ground. Thereafter, handlers took care to feed the big male industrial
doses of Valium whenever he went into musth and confine him to quarters. Tiger Tops,
Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal, 1999

With almost Tantric detachment, a Himalayan domestic yak strikes a placid pose. Outskirts of Thimphu,
Bhutan, 1999

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