I had a brief conversation with Cheryl Jacobs Nicolai the other day about how bad many people (even photographers) seem to be at reading facial expressions in pictures. We both agreed it's something a lot of viewers seem remarkably blind to. Another thing people seem especially bad at reading in photographs is the participation of the photographer in the scene and the implications of where exactly he or she had to have been when the picture was taken.
The exception seems to be photographs taken from tall buildings or from flying machines, looking down. "Now where were you when you took that?" is the usual response to the only aerial shot in the portfolio I show most often. Otherwise, it doesn't seem to be something most people concern themselves with*—the common assumption seems to be that the camera is an omniscient eye and it's perfectly explicable, if not natural, for it to have been where it was.
I thought about this again yesterday when reading about Elliott Erwitt and encountering again his once-famous picture of the laughing lovers in the rear-view side-mirror. (I say "once famous" because I don't think it's particularly well known any more, except perhaps among older photographers—even though it's on the cover of his Personal Exposures.) I've never liked that one, particularly. The first time I saw it, many years ago now, I blurted out something like "who is he, the hook?"
My friend who showed me the picture said, "what?"
I was referring to an old campfire story that circulated widely when I was a boy (and may still, I don't know) about a pair of lovers in a car in the woods where an axe-murderer with a hook for a hand is known to be roaming. In one variant of the story, they end up falling asleep in the car and, in the morning, awake to find the hook hanging from the door-handle. (I guess you know this is an older story, because only old-fashioned car door handles would have a place for the hook to hang.)
Anyway, that's why this picture has always struck me as unsatisfying—because I instinctively place the photographer in it. He'd have to have been virtually a stalker in order to take such a picture naturally. The picture was a setup, not a candid. That seems obvious to me at a glance.
If it's not a setup, then it's disturbing, rather than all happy, sunsetty and romantic.
Eyes, balls, and a camera
One of the funniest—and most cogent—answers to my question the other day about the three things you most need to practice your photography was provided by a reader named Nick, who said "eyes, balls, and a camera." Amen, brother Nick. A little crude, but that nails it.
My teacher and mentor Steve Szabo, who had been a top photojournalist for The Washington Post before retiring to become an art photographer with a view camera, once showed us a photograph of a Central or South American peasant wedding that amazed me. Nobody else in our class responded the way I did, but all I could think of when I saw it was "where were you when you took that?" The picture was taken during the ceremony from directly over the priest's shoulder, with the bride and groom and all the guests in attendance. When I put Steve in the scene it just stunned me. Steve answered my question by saying he'd just walked right to the altar as if he had every right in the world to be there, and started photographing. He said it almost with a shrug: "It's just what you have to do." I've mentioned before that I could never have been a photojournalist because I would never have the stones to do things like that. Or, more accurately, the confidence to pull it off without creating an unpleasant spectacle. Some people can; not I.
A lot of the work of photographing is getting yourself to where the picture was taken—whether that's Simon Roberts setting up his tripod on top of his strategically-parked motor home, or Jim Nachtwey wandering the scene of 9/11, or the indefatigable Robert Cameron, who died last November 10th at the age of 98, up in a helicopter above a big city in good light. But most viewers, most of the time, are perfectly happy to collude in the illusion of the omniscient camera, and simply ignore the implications of the photographer as a presence in the scene.
Candid photography as misdemeanor
Another story I think about in this context is one I had occasion to tell the other day when I had a lunch with a local reader, Jack McD. (Jack also let me "unbox" his new gray Leica M9—way cool—but that's another story.) It was a picture taken with a wide-angle lens, looking directly down on two sunbathing young women dressed in bikinis. The women were both asleep on the grass, and they each had the back strap of their bikini tops open so as not to ruin their tans. The picture was taken by a woman I taught with briefly many years ago. She was small, quiet, and unprepossessing in her manner, even though she was actually quite assertive in terms of how she actually acted. Here's more or less how that conversation went:
Me: Do you know these girls?"
She: No. They were just sunbathing in the park.
Me: Were they really alseep?
Me: So how did you take this?
She: I just walked over and put one foot in between the two of them, and leaned in.
(In other words, she was straddling one of the sleeping young girls in order to get herself in position to take the picture.)
Me (laughing): Do you realize how fast I'd be arrested if I tried to do that?
I'm 6'2", and I weighed 200 lbs. at the time, and if it's been a while since I've had a haircut I somewhat resemble Ted Kaczynski's post-capture mugshots. If I tried to take a picture like that of two sleeping teenage girls who were strangers to me, it would practically constitute assault. All I could picture was one of them waking up to find me hulking over her, and the scream she would have let out as a result!
As photographers, we're preoccupied with where we were and how we felt when we took our pictures. In fact, I think a lot of photographers often allow their memories of how hard the picture was to get to affect their editorial judgment about how good a picture it is. (A clue: it has nothing to do with it. A great picture can be a toss-off, and one you work and work to get can still suck. You've got to detach yourself from all that when you edit.) But it's not something you get much credit for from viewers. They take it for granted—if they even think about it at all.
*There's one other exception—the moralistic and unreasonable one that we discussed recently about the common kneejerk reaction to a photograph of a crime or atrocity in progress—"how could he (or she, or you) just stand there?" In a sense, though, that also assumes a sort of omniscience—it assumes the photographer as omniscient actor, as if anyone who could intervene in a scene enough to photograph it should also have the power to alter the event, whatever it was—even though that's seldom the case.
ADDENDUM: Doug Boller sent me this, an outtake from a late '70s project of his, calling it "a confluence of reflections"...the man in the mirror is Steve Szabo! Quite a coincidence considering the contents of this post....
Featured Comment by Ben Rosengart: "Movies and television have trained us not to ask about the camera-wielder. IMHO."
Featured Comment by Ed Nixon: "I always thought that Erwitt picture was a self-portrait (with friend). Still do, even after reading this post. My interpretation does a better job of explaining where he was than a 'stalker' theory. Why would he have to be looking through a camera, particularly given the obvious attributes of the lady in question?"
Featured Comment by David Lykes Keenan: "Elliott told me that this particular picture was not immediately seen as he reviewed his contact sheets. He 'found' it some time (years?) later. He also told me that he knew the couple in the car."
Featured Comment by David Brookes: "I like your Steve Szabo story, Mike. Before I retired I was an Anglican priest, and I was taking a wedding service one day in a small church in the North of England where I was Vicar. It was a small church with no side aisles, so it was impossible for a photographer to move to the east end unseen: for that reason no photographs were ever taken from behind where I was officiating.
"One day, however, a vestry door had been inadvertently left unlocked, and the wedding photographer sneaked his way in. Unfortunately this particular fellow had a bad limp and walked with a stick: he also used a Mamiya RB67. You can imagine my surprise when I heard this three-legged creature clumping across the church behind me, followed by the crash of the Mamiya's shutter (which, for your younger readers, sounded like someone dropping a tray of cutlery).
"Needless to say this particular photographer was banned from my church after that!"
Featured Comment by Andreas Manessinger: "The image is also on the cover of one of the best albums ever made, Fairground Attraction's glorious 1988 debut 'The First of a Million Kisses.' I knew the image long before I knew the photographer."Featured Comment by Robert: "This is a quote from a recent Erwitt lecture I attended, regarding said photo: 'The story about this picture is that I discovered it 25 years after I took it. I happened to be looking through my contact sheets and thought that it might make a nice print. I advise everyone to look through their contact sheets.' Later he related how the couple were friends of his, and someone tried to sue him claiming to be one of the subjects. He produced the contact sheet with the rest of the photos and never heard from the person again."