How far away do you have to stand to respect a stranger’s personal space? Hailing distance? Talking distance? Handshake distance? How about close enough to hug? In public spaces–on the street or in public transportation where people crowd together–respecting another’s privacy has to do with optical as much as actual distance: stop staring; keep your [...]
How far away do you have to stand to respect a stranger’s personal space? Hailing distance? Talking distance? Handshake distance? How about close enough to hug? In public spaces–on the street or in public transportation where people crowd together–respecting another’s privacy has to do with optical as much as actual distance: stop staring; keep your eyes to yourself. Don’t make eye contact.
Some of the “Unseen Photographers” violate such mannerly or self-protective norms with the help of hidden cameras and without the cover of social reform. They’re walking around the city, riding on the subway, catching strangers on the fly, letting the lens do the staring, indulging, perhaps, simple human curiosity.
Walker Evans. (Subway Passenger, New York), 1941. Gelatin silver print. SFMOMA
This duped subway passenger and I connect only through this stolen image. She had no chance to agree or object to the snap of a hidden shutter. So stop staring. Or keep looking? Just for the sake of curiosity? That might not be so aggressive: meaning something like eagerness to know, curiosity is rooted in an old word for “care” or “heal.” But I’m not sure that my looking enacts some visual version of caring.
Some years before Evans made this photo a French film director said of snapshots that he’d like to offer friendship or even love to people that he didn’t know and didn’t want to know. I’d back off from such emotion; this unknown woman sitting a handshake away is too prickly to invite me to linger. Yet I do want to redeem our unbalanced relationship where I have the power to look and she had only the power to be herself. I want to think that her ordinary otherness together with her self-possession claim from me a nod of respect and that respect is a just response.
The unseen photographer today still deals with the problem of curiosity and dignity. Contemporary takes on the theme of strangers on a train can leave subjects the privacy of their inwardness; catching drivers unaware keeps their anonymity safe for now, (until face-recognition software outs us all, all the time). But is preserving privacy, a kind of freedom from disturbance, the same as respecting dignity?
It’s easier, I think, to respect people you’re not hiding from. Garry Winogrand’a street scenes read like mini-dramas performed by camera-wise, street-wise people who can take care of themselves, thank you very much.
Garry Winogrand, New York, 1969. Gelatin silver print. Collection SFMOMA
The image, which is both connection and the distance between us, speaks to the subjects’ autonomy. Out in the open, I feel more comfortable facing the girl’s resistant scowl than trapped on the subway inside Evans’s hidden camera. I’m happy to visually re-live the photographer’s moment of chutzpah, to enjoy the ease by which a poised multitasker can shoot a look and take a kiss at the same time. If this image enacts dueling gazes between the camera and the subject, the fight seems fair. This middle, arm’s length distance which prevents both identification and othering, seems a safe enough space for all of us.
Many of Alec Soth’s photographs exhibited recently at the Walker seemed to open up a more poetic, less combative space for looking at strangers–with their permission. Is an open exchange between the photographer and the subject necessary for ethical looking?
Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency appears in the Exposed exhibition under the theme of “Voyeurism and Desire” a subject matter that surely challenges the process of giving respect while capturing images.
Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, 1983; detail from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; 1979-1996. Whitney Museum of American Art. © Nan Goldin; image: courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
But Goldin is no stranger to the community of friends that she photographs: her subjects, including herself, are her equals. Often she puts the camera inside hugging or hitting distance. Somehow though she leaves enough room in the room to leave her photographed people their dignity and mine, too, as long as I don’t get swept away by the soundtrack that goes with the slide show. As long as I remember I’m on this side of the photograph.
Postscript: Even though the people he happens upon seems like local color rather than individuals, Frank O’Hara’s lunch hour street rambles seem like an appropriate accompaniment to New York street photography. Any other suggestions?