Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Public Photography

First, set aside the legal situation. The law's job is to produce reasonable answers which we can use to get on with it. The critic's job is to unravel some of the complexity of the situation, to clarify what is. I am, in addition to being a crazy old man shouting at my hallucinations, a critic. My interest here is in our attitudes.

Consider the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. It was made, let us simplify for the purpose of discussion, by a bunch of masons. If you write a novel and describe the building, the hand of the mason is at most gently present in your book. If you paint a scene including the cathedral, the mason is more present. If you photograph the same scene, most will agree that the work of the mason is indeed present in the picture. The picture contains a literal copy, in some sense, of the mason's labors.

You could argue at this point that the picture is a collaboration between the photographer and the mason. Few would refuse to wrap themselves in that mantle, were it offered them.

Nobody sensible would propose that the descendants of the masons are owed royalties. Neither would anyone suggest that the mason's contribution is irrelevant. And, I venture to suggest that almost nobody would propose 'screw those guys, this us all about me'. Our attitude toward the fellows who designed and built the church is positive and charitable. We hold them in some regard, with some respect. If we think of them at all, anyways.

Suddenly, when a rude rent-a-cop rolls up, the self-styled street photographer holds quite a different attitude. You might think that a mall's architect sucks, or that the designer who made the latest Nike logo sucks. The rent-a-cop is certainly rude and ill informed about the law. None of these things ought to change our attitude about who has what rights. Rights, whether there legal sort, or the sort where one is owed a modicum of regard, of respect, ought to be more or less immutable, surely.

Now, suddenly, our legalistic rights become huffily asserted. Not usually to the security guard, no, we scurried away from him. Later, on internet forums, we wax strident. We become smug assholes, falling back on the letter of the law (or rather what we have collectively decided, with the legal expertise of a forum, what the letter of the law is).

The warm feelings of respect have gone away somewhere, what remains is disdain, anger, and a wonderfully shallow sense of entitlement. What is left is a resentful sense that everyone else involved ought to be grateful that we are here with our big camera, and a bunch of weak-sauce arguments about why they ought to be glad. Social media! Exposure!

Maybe the masons just aren't comfortable having their work photographed. It is, frankly, none if your goddamned business why they'd prefer you photographing elsewhere. And perhaps that doesn't mean you shouldn't photograph. I carry on, myself. But how dare you get on your bully pulpit and berate them for it.

If photography is to matter at all, we should have some respect for what's in front of the lens. It's not just a bunch of shit to exploit in order to build up our social media following. Like Soylent Green, it's people.


  1. No one is annoyed with the masons after the arrival of the security cops. One gets annoyed with the cops, who don't know what they're doing but may enjoy being bullies. One may be annoyed with the person who sent them (the bishop?). I think what one (at least me) is most annoyed with is pointless interference with an attempt to celebrate the artistry of the masons and architect - not to appropriate it - by photographing it, commemorating its overall structure, its details, the life moving within it. Indeed, we are attempting to show respect for what's in front of the lens, but our attempt is being interfered with.

    1. My observations differ, Victor, which is not to say that yours are wrong.

  2. "But how dare you get on your bully pulpit and berate them for it." - Interesting argument. But it can be said, and should be said that you seem to be quite happy doing the same when it comes to LuLa and Ming Thein. Hypocrite much?

    1. O anonymous one, if I had said one should never berate anyone, you would be perfectly correct. As it stands, you need to show some rationale for equating Michael Reichmann with the men who built Notre Dame. Feel free to take a crack at it.

    2. Ah, but you criticized people for berating men who built the mall(s). Not the Notre Dame. Unless your own writing confuses you.

      But regardless, the issue here is not comparing Reichmann to the men who built the Notre Dame. It's to point out that you are guilty of the very thing you denounce. Your view on this matter is equally as subjective as the photographers you criticize.

      Plus, your tone has the same high-handedness and entitlement and pettiness that you claim to detest in whiny photographers on internet fora.

      You're welcome to your opinions of course, but you seem to be blind to your own hypocrisy.

    3. Yes yes, I'm an asshole. Your argument still doesn't work. While I probably am a hypocrite, you have failed to demonstrate it. Have a nice day.

  3. To change the subject, if only slightly: Michael Reichmann certainly doesn't need any help from me, but I thought I would like to list a few of the reasons why I've found his work on LuLa so valuable to me over the years.

    * He was one of the first to demonstrate, and publicly announce, that digital cameras could take photos that were indistinguishable from film under normal viewing conditions (including gallery-size prints). I think that persuaded a lot of people, me included, to take the leap to digital.

    * A few years later, he similarly showed that good small-sensor digital cameras could produce prints largely indistinguishable from large-sensor, much more expensive cameras under practical viewing conditions. He has definitely not been just a fan of PhaseOne and its ilk.

    * He provided a regular forum for other writers, notably Mike Johnson of TOP, before they established their own sites.

    * In the first decade of this digital century, LuLa was a uniquely broad and deep resource for photographers. Nowadays there are lots of other places to get useful information and opinion, but that wasn't the case earlier.

    * I found his videos with Jeff Schewe very helpful in learning the early versions of Lightroom.

    * I happen to like his aesthetic choices, and often wish that I had taken the photos that he displays.

    I am frankly puzzled that you consider his influence so damaging, since I think there is so much evidence to the contrary.

    1. Lula absolutely was a valuable resource to many in that interval from, I don't know, say 2000 to 2010. I shan't quibble about dates.

  4. u stir up an the pot. all pots need a stir even if the stew cooking is not ur favorite dish. i dont even have to agre. taste is not objective. just to calm down readers like Anonymous. u cant argue taste. but u can stir ur personal stew. it will help both ur cooking n the people that taste ur cooking to. I promise ;) Personaly i just like food!

    my english spelling is shit. but i still use it

  5. There's a lot to be discussed regarding public photography. My major gripe is that 'the rules' (as perceived by the 'cops') are not applied evenly. I've never seen anyone told off for using a cell phone in a mall. I live in Europe, so it might be different.
    As a project, I had an idea - never implemented - to walk down a major street and photograph every surveillance camera I could find, and then request an image of myself being photographed by said camera. Any non-provided images would be intentional (and reported, commented) blanks in the final project, whatever its format.