Sunday, February 11, 2007

Street photography: years of wasted time, split seconds regained.

“Paris est un théâtre ou l’on paye sa place avec du temps perdu.”
Robert Doisneau

Doisneau was a humble man, and a great photographer. The time he spent on the streets of Paris, observing the life of his city as it went by, he would regard as wasted, were it not for the split seconds in which the shutter of his camera was left open. Those significant instants alone would matter to him. On that account he would estimate to have worked only a few minutes in the course of his lifetime. If we consider that these few minutes were all it took him to create his unique brand of urban photographic poetry, hundreds of moving and beautiful pictures that have come to be everlasting symbols of his city, his people and his culture all over the world, we can begin to grasp what a massive understatement this is on his part. He worked hard and was eventually to be recognized after long years of toil as he truly deserved.

“On ne devrait photographier que lorsque l’on se sent gonflé de générosité pour les autres”.

Typical of his work and his attitude was a keen eye, and an interest in his fellow men. He was more than sympathetic to his subjects, in a way he was one of them and regarded the opportunity to meet new people as one of the true joys of his life. In their midst, often simple people in the outskirts of the capital, he would find a sense of poetry that was to become his trademark. You will not find one image by Doisneau less than respectful and loving to his subjects, sometimes with friendly irony but never sarcastic or detrimental of their dignity. And this attitude was possibly felt by them and rewarded with trust, as can be seen by their candid poses unaffected by the camera even when, as we know, some of the shots were obviously staged. I do not mind that at all. He has made enough real snapshots, possibly missed thousands more, and developed a sense of which image would be more tale telling. Look at his work, you know immediately that you are not on the set of “Irma la Douce” (no Lemmon and McLaine in cardboard streets here) but in real life Paris. Authenticity galore. So when LIFE magazine and his agency RAPHO asked him to do kisses, as a theme of Parisian life possibly suggestive to the American public, they got among others the legendary “Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville”. If it was staged, at least in part, then it was very skilfully done. The shot feels spontaneous, real, full of love, and we “bought” it by the millions.

“Les photographes sont devenues suspects.”

By 1992 Doisneau confessed to a friend that he felt the magic had gone. Photographers were not welcome any more, somewhere along the line the trust had been broken and he was not to collect the treasures of the street any more. He might steal a few, possibly, but that wouldn’t have been his style, would it? NO, to him the joy was gone by then. He would die two years later.

So where does this leave us?
At the beginning of the sixties a new word was coined by the famous film director Federico Fellini: Paparazzo. Originally it was the name of the photographer attached to the journalist played by Marcello Mastroianni in the film “La dolce vita”. At that time Hollywood found it cheaper to stage productions in Rome. As the American film stars spent their evenings in the fashionable Via Veneto, they would be pestered by a new breed of photo reporters, keen on feeding the sensationalist press with saucy shots that would command high fees. Fellini thought of the name “paparazzo” for their sort because in Italian it sounds vaguely like some annoying insect, always buzzing about and most irritating.
They prowled at night, often in packs as wolves on scooters, armed with their cameras and flash guns to stalk the film stars, ignite the occasional fight – often on purpose – (one of the photographers would provoke an attack and suffer a broken camera by some butch male actor so that his friends could photograph the incident and make the news). Ethics were gone for good, these guys played hard. Their bunch still has acolytes and recruits, and they are all around. Worldwide.

I guess the profession of photographer never recovered from their damaging image. It went all the way down to the death of princess Diana as the absolute lowest point. Now I want to reveal to you my theory about her death: she died in a tragic accident caused by her careless driver going too fast in a tunnel. No secret service conspiracy, no murderous paparazzi in hot pursuit.
Yet, as I happened to be taking photographs on the streets in the evening two days later, perfectly innocent architecture shots, I was to suffer verbal abuse by passers by as one of the alleged murders of their darling Princess. And this in Amsterdam! Globalization for you.

If we ever are to regain some of the lost paradise of street photography we should work from two different directions: on one side photographers need to be more respectful and ‘loving’ of their subjects, like Doisneau was, and refrain from the visually sadistic, harsh and vitriolic style that has been adopted by so many lately, in the wake of the good but to me needlessly cruel Martin Parr. Their work, crudely flashed in instants of people mercilessly frozen in mid action exactly when they look at their worst and weakest, is not likely to spread goodwill among potential future victims. Let’s face it: if you have ever been photographed like that, and seen the results, you are probably ready to wave a baseball bat at the next photographer ever to cross your path, and with good reason (!). Are these ordinary people the bad guys, to deserve such a treatment that makes them look a lot worse than they actually are? What is the point, really? To create a sensation at the expense of those who can’t help being what they are or living like they do? Are they to be deprived of their dignity in the photographs as well as so many other things in life? It is an exacerbated description of reality that is wont to awaken a cynic laugh maybe, or a sense of humiliation, but never could any good come from it other than the commercial success of the photographer. This is a predatory way of going about the business at the expense of others, based on an arrogant assumption that we are somehow superior, and have a right to do so. It may be the way things are, but it seems unethical to me, and ugly. To stress the grotesque is a responsible thing to do only when you are defacing the pretence and arrogance of the privileged and the powerful. Exposing their true weakness, undermining their authority, challenging their accurately staged self image could do some good. It is also more dangerous, since these people are more likely to protect themselves with either real or legal fences. They should be fair game for sarcasm, not the poor. Come on Mr Parr, aim higher and higher up the absurd social steps that make up the British class system! Take on the big guns! That would purge your own ethics in the process, and avenge the poor seaside dwellers and working class people to whom you owe so much of your present success. Make them laugh, for a change!

On the other end the public should be a little more patient with these “annoying insects”, people who put themselves through a tough life of cold hands and feet, and endlessly long hours, not to mention the uncertain income, driven by a genuine fascination with life, people and light. Just think that the pleasure we all feel at looking at good photographs, either news, documentary or archive, largely out weights the irritation caused by a few occasional flashguns or bad photographers.
I find it quite hypocritical of people to complain about the present situation when both the stars and the public either benefit or seem endlessly to enjoy the products of the very attitude they pretend to detest. If everyone were to stop buying the magazines, the paparazzi would very soon disappear. And so, possibly, would the stars fade a little.

I have a feeling that the quality of our photographer’s life on the streets as well as the results could change according to our attitude, and for the better. Let’s try wearing our hearts on our sleeves, be honest and direct and “shoot” along the straight and narrow, shall we?

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