Kevin Franke

"Other People: Some Thoughts on Photographing Strangers"

A while back I was showing some out-of-town friends around New York for a few days. One of them was constantly falling behind the rest of us and we would pause and wait for her to catch up. I figured out that she was stopping to take vacation photos, but I couldn't begin to imagine what was taking her so long; we would wait several minutes or more each time, and it was continuous. Her method, as it turns out, was to choose a scene that she liked, frame it up in her camera, and then wait for all the people to be out of the shot. To her, the presence of strangers in the scene would have spoiled her picture, and she was willing to wait, as long as it took, for all of them to vacate.

Apart from the logistical problem (she had far more patience for this than the rest of us, especially one who oftentimes doesn't even stop walking to take a photograph), I found the concept somewhat puzzling. This is New York City after all; people here are a part of the landscape, as intrinsic to the look of it as the tall gray buildings and the yellow taxicabs. Pictures of the city with no human presence at all look empty, sad and lonely (which it sometimes is, of course) and at the extreme, like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Most of the time there are people everywhere you look. Sometimes they are simply a part of the mix, just another visual element providing background, or scale, or a touch of anonymous humanity. Other times though, they march right into the foreground and become the theme, or the subject itself. Then it becomes a kind of people watching, which is something everyone likes to do. We find other people endlessly fascinating, whether they are like us or quite the opposite; whether they are beautiful, or perhaps, not so much so. People pictures are, in a way, pretty much the same thing as people watching, only recorded for posterity and edited for ease of viewing.

But what about the subjects- their assumption of privacy, their ostensible right to not be photographed? There is much to be considered. What if the person remains blissfully unaware of ever having been photographed? Or what if they never become aware of the photograph itself (whether or not they ever knew of it being taken)? Could their rights or their privacy still have been violated? One might wonder, for example, whether any of the men at Robert Frank's drug store lunch counter ever saw the photograph of themselves, or were cognizant of it's significance, even though a couple of them appear to be looking at Frank taking it. (They probably figured he was just some weirdo and never thought about it again.) Or the Miami Beach "elevator girl"? She appears to be unaware of Frank's camera; did she also never know how Jack Kerouac was smitten by her image? Or what about the children at Alfred Eisenstaedt's Parisian puppet theater? One would assume that any of them would have been charmed to have seen themselves at that magical moment, but who knows if they ever did? Furthermore, most street photographs are never seen by anyone but the photographer anyway, because they are edited out. Can being photographed by a stranger in public be anything worse than just a minor annoyance if the resulting picture ends up on the cutting room floor?

Another consideration, of course, is the subjects's recognizability. It would be hard to make the case for privacy if the person registers in the photograph as a silhouette, if they are in dark shadow or their back is turned. And, of course, recognizability also depends on the picture being seen by the subject or someone else who knows them (you can't recognize someone you've never seen before). It is unlikely that many people feel guilt when looking at published photographs of unrecognizable strangers. And if the person is recognizable (even just to themselves), then what consideration should be given to how the person looks in the photo? Is the offense greater if the person is caught in an awkward or embarrassing moment, looking unglamorous or silly, than if they appear noble, confident and beautiful? And does it matter if the depiction is true to the person's real nature if nobody even knows who they are, or does it just matter to the photograph itself, that is, what it looks like or what it might suggest?

What about the passage of time? Is a photograph of someone from many years ago less of a privacy violation than one taken last week? (Last week's photo will be old someday too.) Nowadays, people who are involved with the on-line social media networks have tossed most of their privacy out the window already, even if they don't know it, but what about the days before that- Walker Evans' subway riders for example? Are there any privacy concerns whatsoever for them (most of whom are certainly dead by now). The pictures weren't published in book form for twenty five years, at which time many, if not most of them were probably still alive. What if someone shot a similar series today (the subways and the subway passengers are still, of course, quite thoroughly photographed- I've got a few myself)? What is the current waiting period to assure that no one will be bothered or offended?

The argument can be made for both sides; the rights of an individual to not feel harassed or intimidated or somehow violated by strange photographers taking their picture in public places, and the rights of the artist to free expression. My allegiance falls with the artists of course, but even so, in the end it all comes down to this; you cannot ask permission to take a candid photograph. And all the honest candid photographs of the world we live in, including all the other people around us, constitutes a rich treasure trove, socially, historically, emotionally and aesthetically that we would be profoundly impoverished without. An art history, or a social history for that matter, without the work of Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Bernice Abbott, Ben Shahn, Helen Levitt, Elliott Erwitt, Tony Ray-Jones (and the list goes on...) would be unimaginable. And one can then make the case even further- for the rights of the society as a whole to that heritage, that visual archive that so enriches us, and then to the photographer's right, the photographer's duty no less, to produce it (usually for scant reward). Street photography, and the photography of anonymous strangers, is more than just a noble endeavor, it is an invaluable public service.

I was aware of this heritage when I got my first serious camera (a Nikkormat, around 1970 I think) and I never wondered what I would do with it. I would simply walk out the door and start photographing whatever I encountered in my own environment; the streets and the trees, the buildings and the clouds, the light and the shadows and the reflections, and of course, the people (and I would leave the mountains to Ansel Adams). I was showing a few of these people pictures to an acquaintance once, and they were curious about why I would be interested in taking pictures of people I didn't even know, who were neither friends nor family. They would, no doubt, have been downright baffled by the fact that I didn't take a single photograph at my daughter's wedding last year, an event where I knew practically everyone, and where no one would have minded in the least if I photographed them. But as soon as I put a camera in my hand I tend to drift into detached observer mode, which is not the mind-set I wanted to be in at my own daughter's wedding (and I knew the event would be well documented without my input anyway).

Speaking of detached observers, Garry Winogrand was a visiting artist for a few days when I was in art school back in the early seventies, and I remember someone asking him whether he didn't feel uncomfortable photographing strangers in public. He considered it briefly and responded, "Who said you have to be comfortable?". (Winogrand never flinched.) While some photographers are quite aggressive, even confrontational, either by nature or by design, I myself am not one to seek out confrontation, either in my life or in my photographic practice. But I'm not one to sneak around and hide in shadows either. Be that as it may, I learned in the seventies that when you are out photographing in public, it is definitely to your advantage to keep a low profile, to not be the center of attention, the one that everyone is conscious of. Given the problematic nature of achieving physical invisibility, we can however, make ourselves less noticeable by diminishing our "vibe", by minimizing our psychic presence. I got pretty good at this; I can remember photographing people face to face sometimes, without even being noticed. But that was the seventies and things are a little different these days. I think most street photographers who've been around for a while will confirm; it's a much edgier world out there. People used to be less guarded, less suspicious of others, less fearful. If they became aware of being photographed, they would often react with wonder, or sometimes even amusement. Now they are more likely to be annoyed, agitated, sometimes angered, or worse. (God forbid you should be dumb, or just unfortunate enough to photograph the girlfriend of a jealous thug, or the child of an irrational paranoid.) So one tries to tread lightly, to be quiet and unobtrusive. But nevertheless, sometimes someone will suddenly become keenly aware of you, aware that some total stranger has a camera pointed right at them, and you find yourself momentarily frozen, eyeball to eyeball. The thoughts race by: "is this any longer a candid photograph?"…"is this even the photograph I wanted?"…"or is it better with the subject's gaze?"…"is this someone famous with bodyguards nearby that think I'm a paparazzi?" (I know little and care nothing about celebrity culture, by the way)…"or maybe they're a desperate fugitive"…"or a psychopath!" All this happens in a fraction of a second and, in the heat of the moment, sometimes you balk. Most of the time though, you just pull the trigger and move on.

Kevin Franke