Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Theater of Indifference

Berger wrote an essay with the same title as this one, although of course he spelled Theater wrong. The subject of his essay is, more or less, the difference between the way we present ourselves, the way we interact, move, emote in the city versus our village. Not all of us have a village, and in particular I have been fairly itinerant all my life. I had to extrapolate and ponder a little to make any sense of what he was saying.

His point is, it appears to me, that in the urban environment we are as a rule acting or as the kids might say frontin' to one degree or another. In this environment, surrounded by people we do not know, we present ourselves as cooler, smarter, prettier. Or we present ourselves as more closed, less approachable, more aloof. Or we deploy any number of other facades.

In our village (or, as I think of it, my neighborhood) we present ourselves at least a little more directly, authentically. There is no point in presenting ourselves as smarter, or cooler, because everyone we meet knows us. While we might well conceal or exaggerate the thoughts, emotions, and reactions of the moment, our essential nature is well known and to try to cover it would be ridiculous.

You can probably cast it into your own terms. How do you feel, how do you walk, how do you imagine yourself: walking in a place where you do not know most people; walking in a place where you do know most people.

An anecdote by way of illustration. An attractive young woman walks. A young man notices her, and attends to her. She, noting his attention and finding it unobjectionable, throws a slight wiggle in her walk, and finds an excuse to turn around and take a second pass. He continues to notice her. All at once, they realize almost simultaneously that they know one another, and the charade collapses into something else entirely. Laughter all around.

The switch from strangers acting, to friends being friends, is the point, here.

This speaks, I think, to that entire genre of photography we know of as "street", both contemporary "street photography" and the so-called "street portrait."

This strikes me as specifically about photographing that theater that is this urban street. You are photographing not authentic people but rather the performances they put on in this environment. The lone figure in the distance, head down, a mere silhouette with the attractive shadow play, is closed to the world, fending off unwanted attention. They are not the warm, three-dimensional human they are at home, or in their local park, or even in the office.

The pretty girl crossing the street might be shouting with the set of her mouth and shoulders "don't talk to me!" or she might be whispering "look at me" or somewhere between the two or something else entirely. She is certainly not Marie who loves cats and has tried and tried but never mastered the macarena.

The street portrait, the closeup Bruce Gilden, these are likewise not real people. These are people acting out their fluid urban persona, suddenly confronted with a camera and donning what they hope is a good role for that moment.

Diana Arbus, as I have noted in the past, seems to have been acutely aware of this, and photographed neither the urban persona, nor the urban persona-for-the-camera, but rather the moment in between the two, for reasons I cannot really fathom.

This is not to say that street photography is bad, or flawed, but merely to recognize it for what it is.

1 comment:

  1. I consider myself a "street photographer" (among other things) and have no issue with anything you've said here. In fact, I came to the realization early on that what people see in a photograph is seldom what was really happening -- assuming it's even possible to know for sure. For example, one of my favorite photos shows what appears to be a seated teenage girl covering her face with her hands and weeping. In fact, she was a friend who was laughing and covering her face because she was embarrassed by the prospect of my taking her picture.

    This is a problem if you profess to be a documentarian or photojournalist. It's beside the point if art or even simple enjoyment is what you're aiming for.