Over at Gizmodo, Jack Loftus (if that is his real name) is getting all alarmed about people taking pictures in downtown Boston:
It’s totally legal and entirely creepy. A gaggle of gentlemen, armed with cameras and an absence of shame, have taken residence in Boston’s Downtown Crossing snapping what they claim are artful “street photography” pictures of everyday people.
Right off, I love the way he puts scare quotes around “street photography” to suggest it’s somehow not legitimate, when in fact it’s one of photography’s most dynamic and original forms. After all, you can paint a landscape or do a charcoal sketch portrait, but you need a camera to capture something as dynamic as a city street scene.
Robert Frank’s book The Americans is arguably the single most influencial work of American photography, and it’s all street photography. Other influencial street photographers include Eugène Atget, Robert Doisneau, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand.
Oh, and upskirts.
Only in his imagination.
Again, it’s totally legal, but apparently the difference between what’s legal and what’s pervy is about as gray an area as you’re going to find in the public photography world. In a WBZ News tipster’s video, for example, one of these totally normal gents bends over behind a group of young women and snaps a picture of what the reporter describes as areas of bare skin. So, just some good clean wholesome photography fun going on in my state capital, is what it is.
Actually, as you can see in the video here, a couple of the photographers do bend over to take pictures, and the reporter speculates that it’s to take pictures of their bare legs, but to me it just looks like a photographer trying to get a low-angle shot of something. It’s basic photogrphy. If you are taking pictures of subjects that are low to the ground (such as children or pets), you will get much better pictures by getting your camera down to their level.
In fact, even if you’re taking pictures of an adult-sized subject, you’ll get a subtly better picture if you lower the camera to avoid the slight distortion that comes from having someone’s head slightly closer to the camera than the rest of their body. Alternatively, if you want a photo to look just a little unusual, you need to use an unusual angle.
(Not actually a street photograph.)
Hypocritically, many of the men…did not appreciate having their pictures taken, nor WBZ video being made of them, and asked repeatedly for the cameras to be turned off. Which doesn’t make them look creepier or ashamed in the least.
I gotta admit, that does seem a little goofy. If you’re going to take people’s pictures, you really ought to tolerate other people taking pictures of you. After all, part of the fun of street photography is catching other street photographers. It’s like when a sniper shoots another sniper.
On the other hand, if you watch the video, one of the photographers points out that the reporter has been repeatedly asking them if they are taking pictures of women and children. There’s a clear implication that this is something creepy rather than an art form that is as old as portable cameras. Perhaps the request to turn off the camera came after a rude accusation.
I’ve done a little street photography, and that part gets tricky sometimes. I’ve been careful not to take pictures near playgrounds or swimming pools, and I don’t talk to anybody’s children. Still, several people have accused me of “taking pictures of children.” I find that a frustrating accusation: I’m taking pictures in a public place, and there are children around. Of course I’m going to get a few of them in my photos. It doesn’t make me a perv.
But that’s a long way from what they’re worried about. I’ve only been questioned by a cop once, and I had no real trouble explaining myself. I could have fallen back on my right to remain silent, I could have pointed out that taking pictures is not a crime, and I could have refused to let him see my photos without a court order. Instead, I just let him look at that photos while I explained that I like to take a few pictures while I’m walking for exercise. He was a decent guy. It ended well.
He had stopped me because one of the parents in the park had complained that I was taking pictures around children. Prudence kept me from saying anything, but I wanted to point out that I’d lived near that park for fifteen years, and before that I’d gone to high school just a quarter mile away, and before that my mother used to take me to the public swimming pool. All in all, I’d been coming to this park for 30 years. If those parents didn’t want me around their children, they should get the hell out of my park.
Anyway, the news story is really pretty bad journalism. If you pay attention, you’ll realize that the story is almost entirely about what other people suspect these photographers are doing, along with some commentary from the on-air personalities that it’s all so strange. There’s very little attempt to figure out what’s really going on. And it’s kind of ironic that the frickin’ news media would get upset about people taking pictures in a public place.
I don’t want to sound like an anti-TV-news snob, but I’d like to think that a newspaper reporter would not have done a story like this. Not because newspaper reporters are smarter or better, but because a newspaper reporter would have brought a photographer, who would have recognized street photography. After all, photojournalists and street photographers use almost exactly the same techniques, and many street photographers were also photojournalists. I’m thinking here of guys like Weegee or the entire Magnum photo agency.
And listen, I’m all for street photography and the art of that practice. The Sartorialist, one of my favorite photo/fashion sites, has made a name and a business out of it. But, if you’ve ever seen the behind the scenes of how that site works, he’ll always ask permission and identify himself to subjects, whether he’s already snapped the pic or it’s a staged one.
Well, that’s how he works, but that’s not how all street photographers work. If you ask people for permission to take their picture, many people will pose for you, and that’s not going to be the candid photo that so many street photographers want.
Also, when you’re doing this kind of photography, you end up taking a lot of pictures just for the heck of it. The scene is changing so fast that if you stop to think “Is this a picture I should take?” the opportunity will be gone. To get good street photographs you pretty much have to take the picture the moment you even suspect there might be something worth photographing.
Broadly speaking, there are two basic approaches to getting candid pictures of people in public. One approach is to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible and use a small camera to sneak pictures when they don’t notice. Garry Winogrand used a relatively compact Leica film camera to take something like a half-million pictures this way. Modern stealthy street photographers just use small digital cameras.
The unobtrusive approach doesn’t work for me. I’m a big guy, so sneakiness is not a possibility. My approach has always been to just blatantly walk around taking pictures. After working an area for a few minutes, people just start ignoring me and I can get some natural photos.
In fact, the more obvious I get, the less people are bothered by me. Hardly anybody seems to care what I’m doing now that I have a rather professional-looking Nikon D200 camera, and I make a point to have a lens hood, a flash, and a bag full of gear. If I tried to be sneaky with a compact camera, I’d get questioned by the cops every few weeks. But with all that gear, people just assume I must be there for a good reason.
On the other hand, some street photographers would spit at my pictures because I’m using a long lens. They believe in getting in people’s faces with a wide-angle lens, because the reaction to the intrusion is part of the image they want. It’s not my style, but I have to admit, sometimes the reaction to being photographed is half the picture.
Women street photographers have it especially easy in this sense, because hardly anyone ever questions them. Heck, when I bring my wife along, people offer to pose their children for me. If these guys in Boston had brought along a couple of women, the story would probably have morphed into a friendly lifestyle piece about a fun photographic hobby.
So, on that note my fellow Bostonians, I propose this fun social experiment: Descend on Downtown Crossing yourselves, armed with cameras, and complete my next social photography art project. I call it “Pervature: The Lost Art of Capturing Horny Old Men Taking Pictures of Girl’s Naughty Bits, 2011.” We should probably set up a Tumblr or something.
Yeah. Do that. Really, it’s a great idea that’s truly in the spirit of the artform. Except for the bit where you lie about them taking pictures of naughty bits. As I pointed out at the top of this post, there’s nothing like that anywhere in the story.
What they’re doing is all totally legal. Did I say that yet?
Yes, it’s all legal because of this obscure piece of law called the First Amendment to the Constitution. Check it out sometime.
(Hat tip: Rick Horowitz)