Critics

Sydney Unposed and the Critics

It is fair to say that not everyone responds positively towards my Sydney Unposed project. Indeed it can sometimes draw abuse, especially from fretful parents, misguided zealots or people with fine-art sensibilities.

So presented below are a few objections raised over the years, with replies from yours truly. ( FWIW / grain of salt etc. )

Words, words, words. What's with all the verbiage? I just want to look at photographs!

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but not when it comes to context, background or motivation. "Words" are necessary to give each image context and help dispel misunderstandings. They are also essential for search engines, since web-crawlers cannot index the pictorial content of images, only the ASCII text which accompanies them.

So if you wish to deflect misinterpretation and simultaneously improve your ranking in Google and the like, then "verbiage" it has got to be.

Many of your images would work much better in B&W. Use colour if you want to photograph people's clothes, but use B&W to capture their souls!

A truism for many of the 1950s generation, but I disagree.

Let's be honest about this: B&W is still popular is because it is cheap and easy to shoot, home-process, RAW develop, scan, correct and print. The End.

As for capturing souls — nonsense. What about the colour work of (say) Alex Webb; David Moore; David Alan Harvey; Keld Helmer Peterson; William Albert Allard; James L. Stanfield; William Eggleston; Sisse Brimberg; Saul Leiter; Ernst Haas; Emilio Morenatti; Martin Parr; Bruce Davidson; Susan Mieselas; Steve McCurry; James Nachtwey; Ruth Orkin; Winifred Parks; Sebastião Salgado; even the Farm Security Administration or Garry Winogrand et al.? Is all this stuff merely fashion illustration too?…

Of course not. Reductionism has its place, but lets not rationalise it into something transcendental. As Russell Miller noted with some exasperation at p.4 in Magnum: Fifty years…:

[W]hy would anyone want to photograph an indisputably colourful world in monochrome? If colour film had been invented first, would anybody even contemplate photographing in black and white?…

There is more to music than its loudness; there is more to light than how bright it is. Ultimately the decision to use colour for this project was a desire for authenticity and a simple question of personal taste.

It only makes sense to shoot in colour if you make use of colour. Otherwise they may as well be in B&W

At first this sounds impressive, but the reasoning is hollow. You could just as easily flip it around to say: It only makes sense to shoot monochrome if you make use of black & white. Otherwise they may as well be in colour

Why restrict colour photography to ghetto of Yellow Umbrella Against A Blue Sky shots? Do musicians always limit their compositions to only three chords? Is every B&W image solely concerned with the chiaroscuro arrangement of blacks & whites?…

No. You see in a broad spectrum of colour, you shoot what you see.

Short answer — because it's neither illegal, unethical or immoral. In fact it is part of a long tradition of social documentary photography.

Long answer — …

Why photograph strangers?

Because as a hobby in my spare time I wished to create an honest, realistic, anthropological record of the environment I lived in — Sydney at the beginning of the 21st century.

Despite recent anxiety about "unauthorised" photography, who other than candid photographers faithfully capture, in a visual way, the everyday historical context of who we once were?…

We spend every day in a glut of images, yet only a tiny fraction of them have anything to do with the way we actually live. Journalists forever chase the next story; Boomers wallow in nostalgia; Curators shill their favourites; Yuppies cocoon; Parents fuss over their kids and cars and pets. Commercial media has something to sell, non-commercial alternatives are self-righteous propaganda. Fine-Art is cliquish plagiarism, Advertising is white-bread idiotic crap.

And so on. Do we only wish to be remembered as sports-stars, magazine celebrities or people who leapt into the air because they bought a certain brand of car? Is the only valid way to photograph a person one where they are stand-up-straight posing? Do we only wish to leave behind A faked portrait of our generation?…

There is nothing dishonourable, underhanded or "creepy" in what candid photographers do. Each of us, in our own small way, are chroniclers and social observers of our time. Despite all the nay-saying and harassment, we draw inspiration from Riis, Evans, Kertész, HCB, Brassai, Lange and many others, to create a cultural record of who we once were.

Consent

Fine-art academics endlessly stigmatise this kind of thing as "stolen" photography; a Washington Post columnist imagines that […] engagement with a subject is always — always — better than, in effect, taking something without permission; online forum contributors repeatedly balk at sneak shots or a failure to connect with the subject

Bleh. Candid photography boils down to two competing approaches: one which emphasises the role of the photographer and insists on subject interaction (and by inference always obtaining permission), or the other — which does not.

Exploring the nature of collaboration between subject and artist is not the goal here. Those who know how to photograph strangers without fuss — do. We capture images we want and then move on. We seldom give a person an opportunity to say "no", not because we are afraid or want to steal anything, but simply because we and we alone decide the content of our work. This has nothing to do with insensitivity, patriarchal hegemony or an unwillingness to connect, but a simple desire to capture authentic moments in everyday life, without meddling or artifice.

Those who cannot bring themselves to do this, must seek permission from their subjects and (inevitably) pose them. Fine. The results are obviously set-up and choreographed, but what do I care? You do your thing, I'll do mine =)

Privacy

None of the prohibitions discussed in my Photography Rights legal issues article apply here.

The images fall outside the scope of the NSW and Commonwealth Privacy Acts because they were created and displayed by a private individual. All the photos are one-offs taken in public places (hence no Trespass). There is little chance of them being construed as defamatory, indecent or offensive (thus no Common-Law or Statutory relief). Finally, none of the images have or will be used commercially in Australia, so photography-release issues do not apply.

What's the point here? This stuff is b-o-r-i-n-g!!!

The point?…

To take candid, unposed, in-close, colour photographs of a broad cross-section of Sydneysiders — indoors and out; young and old; rich and poor; chicks and homies; goths and hipsters; singles and parents; rectangular-spectacled yuppies; flannelette westies; ferals, suits & bogans — throughout the sprawl of the entire city, often in photo-hostile environments where other photographers tend not to go.

Although it started out broadly as Street Photography, over the years it has morphed into a kind of unposed urban portraiture, with an increasing slant towards anthropology and Sydney cultural history.

While some may scoff at this, there wasn't much of this kind of thing being done at the time (1999-2005). Aside from a handful of others, few people photographed indoors, without "collaboration", in retail environments and in colour.

Boring?…

Every single shot? Compared to what exactly?

It doesn't make sense to whinge about it anyway, as the web-design doesn't force anyone to look at anything they don't like. Unlike other photo-sites you don't have to wade through bloated PDFs or Flash movies; take pot-luck with microscopic thumbnails; or have hundreds of images dumped into your lap in one gargantuan hit. Nor are you forced into viewing every… single… image… in… a… one… at… a… time… unalterable… sequence, whether you want to or not.

So… Mundane? — literally of course. Banal? — for some perhaps. But Boring? — never! Especially if you have tried this sort of thing and can appreciate the difficulties involved =)

These shots could have been taken anywhere — there's nothing particularly 'Sydney' or 'Australian' about them

An astute observation, but we have come a long way since The Sundowners or They're a Weird Mob!

Over the last three decades Sydney has developed into a truly cosmopolitan city. Its architecture, fashions, fads, racial mix, consumerism & culture resembles that of any other Pacific Rim city. This shouldn't be surprising. In fact one of the many themes of this project is just how internationally generic Sydney has become.

Occasionally the results may appear indistinguishable from photos taken in Rome or London or even Pyongyang, but surely that is part of the point.

There is no engagement between photographer and subject here — this is just voyeurism

Maybe I should stand everybody in a line and have them waving at the camera…

Filtering the Artspeak, this "engagement" stuff is just a rephrasing of the Photography Without Consent Is Always Wrong fallacy. In which case:

  1. See my earlier remarks about consent
  2. Understand that ContrivanceAuthenticity
  3. Read more widely than the theoretical musings of Dead White Womyn
  4. Not every Photographer is a Collaborator
  5. Acknowledge that there is more to people-photography than Daguerreotype Homáges, arms-length self-portraits or carefully scripted and staged fictional narratives with actors and art students

Sorry to labour the point, but this project is about respect and empathy for people without disturbing what they were doing when the photograph was taken. The goal is to capture natural, spontaneous, unrehearsed images of people as they really are — not as "gotcha" victims or self-conscious tableaux or mates hamming it up for the camera.

As for the hauteur accusation of "voyeurism" — nonsense. Some might imagine there is no ethical distinction between candids and uρskirting or dοwnblοusing, but they are wrong. For even in this age of skittishness and paranoia, not every form of candid photography is illicit.

You appear to have a reactionary attitude towards contemporary art. Why don't you take an Art History course and open your eyes?

On the contrary I have read quite a few Art History books and also follow (and have even contributed to) the art life blog. Why I've even been to Danks Street. So what's the problem? That I'm not interested in the latest twists and turns in Academic Art Scholasticism ?…

Anyway, I'm hardly alone in being less than enthusiastic about Neo Postmodernism =)

This stuff is pretty lame — many of the images wouldn't be out of place on a chocolate box lid

What appears to upset some of my critics is that I make an effort to photograph people with respect, and even on occasion, empathy. Which I guess is unacceptable to those who equate Street Photography with cynicism, alienation and even misanthropy.

Not so. Admittedly there is a fine line between "respect" and "sentimentality", but I believe I never cross it. At any rate just because you empathise with your subjects, doesn't mean you also have to be mindlessly uncritical.

All this stuff is so fanatically clean and precise. You appear to have learned nothing from Klein, Frank or Winogrand

I agree. If you haven't guessed already, I am far more interested in anthropology than aesthetics. What little stylistic inspiration I have drawn from other photographers has mainly been from the following:

Although I have never fussed over the greatness of these images, they did make an impression on me as a teenager. I remember thinking: Wouldn't it be great if I could do this sort of thing — only indoors, up-close and in colour!. Decades later I still consider this, rather than KFW-lite, as the kind of thing I want to do.

So what? — you've rounded up a bunch of your mates and taken shots of them. These photos were taken so close that many are obviously posed anyway

Incorrect on both counts.

Unless noted otherwise, I have no idea who these people are. The pictures are fleeting glimpses of strangers from around the city, nothing more.

If I thought I could get away with it, I simply took the photo I wanted and then moved on. If the subject noticed then I occasionally smiled and waved a thanks, but that's it. I didn't pretend to be friends. I didn't discuss, persuade, confer, consult, collaborate or plead. No coffee-shop pick-ups, no classified ads for amateur models in the local paper.

As for posing — aside from a couple of exceptions, everything was taken as-is, if for no other reason than to avoid the fabricated set-ups you see in so many other projects.

The posed exceptions? In the spirit of HCB, Martin Parr, Robert Doisneau (link2) or Ruth Orkin, for fun I have included a couple of images which are deliberately bogus. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to find them. One should be trivially easy to spot, the other — not so easy =)

Your subjects are so static, there is little sense of movement or dynamism. If you must shoot static subjects, why not try tilting the frame?

For the first part I agree, and yes it frustrates me too.

Unfortunately I was hampered by the kind of environments I worked in. When indoors the light was so dim that I could rarely go beyond 1/50th — which greatly limited my ability to freeze motion. When outdoors, places where people congregated also tended to be places where they either sat or stood still.

As for "tilt", I know many imagine it is "fresh" or "dynamic" or somehow follows a Jazz Aesthetic — but not me. Despite the curatorial approval and academic overhead, the "shaky-cam" you see so much nowadays is — for me at any rate — little more than rationalised sloppiness.

You must have used a concealed camera to get this close. There's nothing new in that!

Indeed, except I didn't use a concealed camera.

Every image was taken with standard-sized equipment, kept in the open and visible at all times. The only innovation here — as such — was that I used a low key approach. Although people could see my camera, most of the time they never knew exactly when I took the shot.

Which is no big deal. There was no need to resort to subterfuge or "concealment". Any photographer with a bit of imagination can do it.

Most of your shots appear to be from the hip — isn't this dishonest!?

No — why should it be?

Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Joan Colom and Ken Heyman have all shot material from the hip. All of NASA's Apollo lunar surface photographs were taken using chest-mounted Hasselblads; all of Matthew B. Brady's Civil War images were done with a view camera bolted onto a tripod. What about all the millions of images created with TLRs or waist-level fold-out LCD DSLRs, all done without a viewfinder pressed to a face. Are all these images therefore "dishonest" too?…

Hardly.

For this project, for about half the time, I did work with the camera away from my face.

Most of the time it was at chest-height. Other times I held it over my head or a few centimetres off the ground. From May 2003 I often shot with my eye at a viewfinder. Heck, from June 2005 I also used a Hasselblad on a monopod with a 45° prism finder — now you can't get more "honest" than that.

In other words, I tended to use a variety of framing techniques and held the camera all over the place. How this is wrong or "dishonest" escapes me.

While I'm at it, let's demolish a few other myths…

It's done purely out of cowardice and fear — of either being discovered or how subjects will react

Although this accurately describes the thousands of from-behind pictures you see in art galleries and Street Photography forums, it doesn't apply here. As noted earlier, this project is about spontaneous and unobtrusive images of a cross section of Sydney's society. This just isn't going to happen if you always raise a camera to your face. Theorists who complain Winogrand Didn't Do It!, often forget that their other hero, Robert Frank, did.

It is inherently 'sneaky' and 'dishonest' and the results are soulless

Translation: No Consent → Wrong. Incorrect again. I have addressed this issue enough times already, see the discussion above.

You lose all control over framing and end up shooting at random

Not so. With practice you can judge framing with surprising accuracy. Indeed if you use an accessory AUFSU or Zeiss waist-level finder, then framing is almost as precise as looking through a camera's built-in viewfinder.

You can only shoot with wide angle lenses set to a hyper-focal distance

Again, no. I worked this way for years, with a 50mm lens at ƒ1.4—5.6 and a focus distance of only 2—3m. Yes you have to focus by scale and learn how to eyeball distances, but with a bit of practice it isn't too hard. After all, cinematographer focus-pullers do it every day!

Many of these shots appear to be cropped — I hate to crop my images!

Some people imagine that if Cartier-Bresson never cropped his images, then neither should anyone else.

Well HCB did crop, and often. The most obvious example is Derriere la gare Saint-Lazare, Paris (1932) — the famous man-jumping-puddle shot — where a fifth of the negative is missing because HCB wanted to remove the foreground fence paling (see this online discussion).

Other examples of HCB crops are even easier to find. Browse through his contributions to the Family of Man exhibition (1955) book. Examine the height to width ratios of his prints — more than half of them deviate from the strict 2:3 aspect ratio required for uncropped 35mm images (!)

But why pick on Cartier-Bresson? Other famous photographs are also the result of cropped negatives. Have a look through the book 100 Historic Moments: The Photos of the Century (Marie-Monique Rodin ed., Evergreen Publishers, 1999) — Alberto Korda's Portrait of Che (uncropped) (img #037), Robert Doisneau's Le Baiser de l'Hotel de Ville (img #033) and Margaret Bourke-White's Gandhi (img #031) are all products of cropping, sometimes severe.

For the first two examples, the book reproduces the photographer's original contact sheets, so you can see how much of the negative is missing from the final print. For MBW's Gandhi, she took the image using a press camera with individual sheet film holders, yet the W:D ratio of the final print is close to 2:3 — hardly typical for sheet film.

So Crop Prohibitionists should lighten up. It's purely just a question of taste, and a little trimming to clean the periphery of an image is neither dishonest or misleading. Along with selective focus and depth-of-field, it has been a standard part of a photographer's tool-kit for over a hundred years. (FWIW Reuters also regards image-cropping as perfectly legitimate, see their A Brief Guide to Standards, Photoshop and Captions, Oct 2008.)

Everything's all mushy and out of focus!

Not everything, only the back and foreground. The subjects are (nearly!) always in sharp focus.

Shallow focus is part deliberate, part necessity. Anyone can shoot at ƒ11 and 1/500th in bright sunshine with a wide-angle lens set to hyper-focal distance, but it requires effort to obtain useable — unposed! — images indoors, in photo-hostile environments, at ƒ2.8 and 1/30th with a 50mm lens set to 2.5m.

The light is so flat and uninteresting

The following, ranked in order of importance, gives a rough outline of what I think about when taking a photo:

  1. Subject → expression?, body language?
  2. Composition? Framing?
  3. Background → cluttered?, overexposed?
  4. Escape routes? Security guards? Hostile bystanders?
  5. Colour?
  6. Light direction and "shape"?

As you can see, worrying about The Light is far down the list. Often I'm only mid-way through Option "iii" when I realise I have to take the shot immediately or lose it. After all this isn't landscape or architectural photography, you don't have hours to ponder each frame =)

If this sounds like a cop-out, then consider Sebastião Salgado's famous Gold miners, Serra Pelada, Brazil (1986) photo essay. Taken in overcast conditions in dull, directionless light, can you imagine him, near the edge of that crater sprawling with mud-smeared peasants, not even bothering to unpack his cameras because the light was so flat and uninteresting?…

Your project is spoiled by the rant on your Critics page. Why waste so much energy justifying yourself?

This is a good point and I half agree.

Thing is, the abuse all but vanished after adding the page in August 2003. No more whinging about a lack of engagement, invading people's privacy or your images would look much better in B&W. No more finger-wagging by anonymous posters in photo forums. No more nasty-grams from fellow candid photographers who really should know better.

Moreover, some of this material is actually useful. Many don't know about search engines issues, or that HCB cropped many of his photos. Then there is the blurb on candid photography legal issues in Australia, which is perhaps the most detailed and up-to-date summary of our legal position anywhere, written by someone who is both a candid photographer and qualified (ex) legal practitioner.

Obviously the trick is to keep the ripostes light-hearted and not spiteful or alienating. Okay at times I admit to getting a bit carried away, but hopefully after years of revision and rewrites, I never descend into insults and abuse!