What ARE They Looking At?

When you photograph people in close-up on the street the result can fall into one of two categories: the subjects are doing something, or they’re doing nothing.

Yet there’s probably a third category which I might call “just looking.” In this case, the subjects are not doing anything in particular, they’re just staring at something outside of the frame.

In other words, they’re not absorbed in “doing” but in “looking” — which is a state of absorption that requires no action.

woman with hand over her mouth, wondering where to go

The Fake and the Real
The American art critic Michael Fried talks a lot about the virtues of depicting absorption in photography and I agree with him. In his great book “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before” (Yale University Press, 2008) he argues that the act of absorption is key to creating the impression that the figures within an image really do exist in a world of their own. If they acknowledge the camera, or appear to pose for it, they become actors in a theatrical world — and the picture loses its authenticity as an art object.

Michael Fried doesn’t discuss street photography, as such, but he does give detailed analyses of those constructed imitations of street photography made separately by Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. I think many street photographers will be dismayed that the art world, as represented by Fried, chooses to accept fake street photos instead of real ones — when the two are utterly indistinguishable, except in technical image quality.

In fact, I would go further. I think Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia do indeed fall into the theatricality trap, by using actors to recreate street photography scenes. Surely this is the very definition of theatricality: the imitation of real life by people who normally enjoy a very different existence of their own.

Show Us Reality
In Four Quartets the poet T.S. Eliot wrote: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Maybe that’s why we tolerate the fake and reject what’s real.

I insist on showing real people leading real lives; I photograph them in candid moments when they’re unaware of the camera; and I like them to be absorbed in some activity because, as Fried says, it places them in their world without intruding into ours.

Is this the only way of doing photography? No. It’s what I feel is the right way to take pictures on the street. After all, back in the day (the 1960s) everyone said: “Keep it real.” No one said: “Keep it fake”.

Two women, looking out of frame

Leave a Comment