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Saturday, May 2, 2020

Well, This is Bad

Here's a recent photo essay thing on The Phoblographer: Bed-Stuy which is the usual sort of thing.

Fujifilm Ambassador Jens Krauer goes on and on about what it truly means to be a street photographer, and how he just keeps coming back and back to New York over the years and he's doing this study of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. You'd be forgiven for thinking that he claims to have been working on his "Bed-Stuy" project for a long time, but I don't think he actually says that, and as we shall see he, um, hasn't been.

The first thing we might notice is that it is always nighttime in Bed-Stuy, that all the citizens are black, all the cops are non-black. Jens gives us a kind of noir-meets-hip-hop fantasy here. He leads with a gun, then shows us what we're probably supposed to think is drugs (is that pigeon shit in that guy's hand, or what?) what we are probably supposed to think is a hooker with her pimp, a cast of Characters, some police activity, a shrine to a murder victim, and some random urban shit.

The look is gritty and urban, standard nighttime "street" and, honestly, pretty solid examples of the genre. Spill a little gin on the ground for Weegee.

It turns out there are non-black people in Bedford-Stoyvesant, some people hardly do crime at all and daytime happens there from time to time, so this is a fantasy we're looking at, and a fantasy which is trafficking in unsavory stereotypes. This is more or less exactly the kind of thing people who worry about "representation" in photography worry about, and not without reason. This is in no meaningful way Bedford-Stuyvesant, it is at the very best a very very narrow slice of the culture there, and it is largely a construct.

But wait, there's more!

Let's run through the photos quickly and establish their locations:

Gun — no idea
Inside Shop — could be any shop, but I have a guess
man on bench — bench outside the NBA Deli at Nostrand & Halsey
window shrine — no idea
man in shop doorway — NBA deli
man on bench — bench outside NBA deli
drugs(?) — no idea
pointing guy — NBA deli
hulking silhouette — NBA deli
two rings — no idea
pointing guy — NBA deli
guy in doorway — NBA deli
people hugging — crosswalk outside NBA deli
guy getting out of car — 1-2 storefronts up Nostrand fron NBA deli
couple — NBA deli (shop door is 10 feet frame right)
dude with R — NBA deli
girl — NBA deli
police tape — NBA deli
police tape — NBA deli
police tape — NBA deli
police activity — Arlington St, 1.5 blocks from NBA deli
broken bottle — no idea
shrine — across the street from NBA deli

A few more interesting facts. The guy in the THIS IS WHAT NEW YORK LOOKS LIKE tee is the same as the guy in his undershirt in the shop doorway. The guy getting out of his car is pointing guy, and I think also the guy holding the gun. The police action around the NBA deli is in response to the murder for the young man memorialized in the shrine. The police action on Arlington might have been the same activity (the news reports indicate they were looking for the shooter, and note that it is raining in the shot.)

These photos, which masterfully appear to be of a number of locations, are all actually taken in pretty much the same place. For more than half of them, the photographer is in the same 20 foot circle, just pointing his camera differently. The graffiti, the stickers, the foliage, and often the trash, remain the same frame to frame. These photos were, for the most part, shot within a few days of one another, on a single street corner. The cast of characters is somewhat smaller than it appears at first, you don't notice all the dupes unless you're really paying attention.

Not only is the culturally a very very tiny slice of life in Bedford-Stuyvesant, it's geographically miniscule as well.

This is some mook who's got an AirBnB for a week around the corner, and headed down to this shop two or three nights to bang out some snaps. There was a shooting one night, so he got some shots of cops doing cop shit, went out the next day to photograph the victim's shrine across the street and a few doors up Nostrand.

What really appalls me here is that he's fairly skilled.

He's taken a small set of lazily made snaps from a single street corner, and somehow managed to convincingly tell a story of crime and poverty about an entire neighborhood. Without the murder to spice things up, of course, he wouldn't have had anything much, but with it he can hang his shitty story on it, and sell it.

I mean, it's on The Phoblographer, so you know it's gonna be kind of s shit show, but seriously. This is awful.

Yes, I spent too much time on Google Street View, and reading old news reports yesterday, but honestly, it wasn't very hard to assemble all this stuff. You just have to open your eyes and look.


  1. I do kind of love this as an example demonstrating the lie that photography is objective.

  2. Bang to rights as we say in olde England. He's at great pains to establish his street cred - he is "known"and "welcomed" - and his deep familiarity with the area but you're right, it doesn't look deep or wide from these photographs. He does say "what I can show now is the first part of a larger context" so maybe he has more in the bag or plans to have soon. But it still looks like a rehash of the usual pejorative tropes conflating blackness with crisis.

  3. My favorite bit, by the by, is the two pictures of two different men sitting on that nifty metal bench. In both pictures there's a single artfully placed bit of trash on the center seat. The men are placed at opposing ends, and the light in the first one is odd, as if it was either burned heavily in post, or someone/thing out of frame to the right is casting a weirdly soft shadow over the seat frame left.

    I, fancifully, imagine these being shot within minutes of the other. "Ok, Jim, stand there to cast some shade so it looks different, oh, and we better use a different bit of trash." I make no accusations, but the photos are completely consistent with a concerted effort to make one bench look like two different benches.

    It is absolutely the same bench, close inspection reveals identical graffiti, which makes it Strange that the left hand seat is brightly lit in one, and buried in shadow in the other.

  4. Sounds like standard journo m.o.

    1. But but but he's a STREET photographer!

      "You dont become a streetphotographer, you realize you are one..."

      He wears a funny hat and everything.

  5. Has anybody noticed that Bed-Stuy can further be abbreviated as BS!?

  6. The guy is shilling for Fujifilm. His job is literally to make Fujifilm digicams look sexy, cool and serious. Booth bimbo of photography. WTF cares?

    1. Me, and I think Fujifilm probably ought to as well.

  7. Spot on analysis. Crap photos. Crap site. But here's the thing. You may have noticed all the little ads on Phoblographer clogging up the sidebar and occasionally the text itself? That means every time you visit the site you notch another pageview in their stats, funneling a tiny bit of $ their way. Why contribute? Just ignore Phoblographer, let it dry up and wither away. Pleeeez. It's just awful.

    1. I don't notice the ads at all, because I use an adblocker.

      I use an adblocker on The Phoblographer a) because stealing from Chris Gampat arouses me and b) the web site is usually so infested with ads that it literally won't work without an adblocker.

  8. I love your detective work. It shows that (some) photography is objective enough after all because it furnishes the very evidence that undermines the photographer's story.

  9. I'd actually be OK with someone presenting a collection of work and simply saying "it was all done on one street corner/square block/etc." or "shot over a weekend" or some variant of that. That'd actually be interesting and valid IMO. But it wasn't really talked up as that, in the interview.

    1. There's probably a dozen ways to contextualize it that would be fine. A hip-hop fantasy. A street corner at night. A murder in Bed-Stuy.