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Sunday, 22 November 2009


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This article reminded me of Joe McNally's experiences highlighted earlier this year in his blog article titled "Getting High..." There are photos there where I ask myself, "Why did it even enter his mind to go there for that shot." Of course, I am not entirely persuaded that I would not go to those heights, but I would definitely think about it long and hard first.

I've always thought the car mirror shot was even more of a cheat -- the window of the car is rolled up, yet the two faces are clearly lit, with no reflections over them -- I suspect the mirror was pointed out, so that the couple are posing left of the camera's field of view.


An interesting essay Mike - thanks. I am guilty of not being to edit objectively in the way in which you describe, i.e. I find it hard to delete pictures that were hard to get even if they are poor in quality. At some level I know they are poor but deletion means the effort of making the picture was wasted (at least in the sense that there is no end result - often I'll have gained a little something in the process, even it is just an incremental move towards being able to approach people to take their portraits, something I find incredibly hard to do).

"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."

I know!!
It's shocking, and makes you wonder how we function as a species at all.
Several times in connection with my commercial site (the one your "Joyful Nudes" banner point to) I've had people say things like "I didn't like how sad the model looked in this picture". And I look at it, and I don't see any sadness at all, and I say "it's not sad, it's *soulful*!"

There are two aspects of this that bear mentioning: permission and attunement. Implicit in my presence with a camera (I am primarily a commercial assignment photographer) is that there is a reason I'm there. And people know it. Carrying two big honking cameras also tends to grant you a lot of authority.

If I do a candid, I make contact afterwards, usually when they notice me taking their picture. Digital is a great boon for that now, as the prevailing social contract with cameras is that you share what you saw. It's a "hey, I just got this cool picture of you," moment.

The other part is attunement to the moment. I'm extremely sensitive to the energy in a room, and how close I can be to what is going on. And, the closer I am, the more people accept me as part of the situation. The middle is the most inconspicuous place to be. Everyone notices the guy with the camera trying to be inconspicuous on the edge. No one thinks twice about me, because I'm part of the moment.

Especially when it comes to journalism photography, it is also important to keep in mind that the people in the picture might not be doing what they are doing had there not been a photographer.

"It's just what you have to do."

No, you don't have to do it. You choose to do it if you place your priorities over and above those around you. Which of course, is what most photographers do most of the time. It's a choice we make and most photographers who do this know they are intruding but simply don't care.

Mike, I'm not sure this is to your point, but it seems to me the best candid photographs are taken by photographers who can somehow disappear into the crowd if their subjects don't particularly want themselves to be photographed or become very self-conscious or shy when a camera is pointed at them. In other words, it's better for the photographer to not seem to be part of the "scene."

A good example would be nature photographers who go to great lengths to construct "blinds" in which to hide themselves while taking shots in the wild, right?

So is this in fact Erwitt with his free hand out he window of the car grabbing the shot of himself?

If you had been straddling the sleeping girls as they awoke, it would have shown that 2 out of 3 criteria...eyes and camera....couldn't save the third.

I was going to respond with the same album cover as Andreas. I loved that album and this is a reminder to get it on my iTunes. That cover image was burned into my memory long before I appreciated photography.

Ahh, post football, nothing like some thoughtful discourse from TOP.

Wow. To me, both stories show an astonishing amount of disrespect for the subjects. It's not lack of balls or lack of confidence that would stop me from taking Szabo's photograph, but rather a recognition that this is one of the most important days of these people's lives, which is not for a stranger to wander into.

I'm not interested in any photography that requires me to do that.

"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."

Perhaps I am misunderstanding your meaning here, but I am surprised by the apparent arrogance of this statement. It suggests that photographs can be read objectively and absolutely if one has the wisdom and experience to do so. It is my belief that once the picture is taken and presented to others, it takes on a life of its own.
When I taught photography classes I always made the point that when portraits were presented, the student who laughed and the student who cried were both right and responding appropriately. All of us, with no exceptions, approach every photograph with whatever experience and baggage we bring to the moment.
And regarding where the photographer was standing, in my experience most exceptional photographs place the viewer, not the photographer, in the image.
Thanks for your continued dialogue on image making.
Joe Cameron

The inability to read facial expressions is one of the marker posts along the Autism spectrum and I recommend a read of Simon Baron-Cohen's book The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain for further insight into this and much else of interest.

I didn't mean to be arrogant. I was referencing not so much a viewer's response to a picture but to instances of a photographer's claims for a picture that nevertheless seem blatantly at odds with the evidence of the picture itself. I've come across some pretty incontrovertible examples.

And actually, this does bring up one weakness of TOP...despite the many instances of a particular sort of weakness or foolishness I might encounter repeatedly on the web and wish to talk about, I never actually post specific examples. It's easy to characterize such failures verbally, but it would be hurtful and rude to take one or a few individuals' actual work and hold it up as an example of some negative point.

There were times I've been tempted, though. To name just one trivial example--the other day I came upon a JPEG that was being presented as an "example picture" showing the quality of a certain very expensive camera lens. The picture was ludicrously banal, but more to the point, at the largest image size you could clearly see that it was affected by motion blur. Despite this, the single comment was some word like "Stupendous!" To which the photographer had responded, "Thanks so much for your kind comment..." followed by a long, lovingly detailed explanation of how he took the picture. It was really very funny. But I would never post it. It would be too unkind.

This response might be arrogant, too, I realize.... :-\ But in the immortal words of Huey Lewis and the News, sometimes bad is bad.


(So others know, Joe and Steve Szabo team-taught my second year class at the Corcoran School of Art Photography Department. No small amount of the wisdom you read from me, came originally from him.)

Having a place to stand drives me nuts. I drive through the Adirondack Park twice, every two weeks. The vistas from the superhighway can be stunning, especially as weather and time of day cast fantastic, and fleeting, light on the mountains and clouds. And where to put my tripod? In the passenger seat at 72 mph? Pull off to the side and risk a ticket, or getting flattened? I get tempted to take exits, simply hoping for a place to stand that gives me something just a ghost of what was seen from the driver's seat. Sigh. It just never happens. I more likely end up in a creek, shooting the leaves and moving water. The reality is that the expanse of bare ground cut down for I87 cannot be duplicated in the East short of climbing up the mountains to get a similar vista from the peak. I envy the western traveler, above the tree line, no canopy of trees, leaves and branches. Thousands of places to stand. I wonder if that is part of the reason that dry, treeless western vista so dominate the landscape photos we readily see.

Dave Ralph

I had the same reaction to the Erwitt photo as John taylor - thinking of the photographer photographing himself at arms length. But that I think is a product of the digital age - it's much more common to see people taking photos in that manner today than it ever was in the days of film.

I believe this is why so many photographers like a 200mm lens as a perfect "street" or "candid" lens (in some cases, even on APS!). I know I'll probably get a lot of flak for this generalization, and I freely admit that it's a generalization, but... If you're using a 200mm in that way, that's not "street" photography anymore, that's practically voyeurism.

I like the kind of grab shots and candids that I make in the 28-75ish range. Of course this means that I usually take pictures of friends and acquaintances that know me and just accept me as that quirky guy with the camera. A big problem then though is that people notice the camera and start mugging and posing which is a whole 'nother can of worms. One thing I have noticed is that those same people I'm close to, those who have gotten used to my antics with the camera, eventually just relax, and then I can get some really wonderful shots.

This more or less goes without saying, but perhaps one of the universal traits of good portraitists is that they can get to that last step above and that level of rapport instantly with their subjects, but in all my reading on the subject no one can explain *how* they do it. Thus all of us untalented schlubs are stuck fumbling along.

Just where the hell WAS he shooting from? (I've wondered about this ever since I got the book many years ago.)
Maybe the whole thing wasn't spontaneous at all, but completely set up? I've always trusted Eliott, (like HC-B), as an honest photographer but this makes one wonder.

Martin, this i so true (about the armslengthdigitalness we currently live in) and reminds me that when i was taking pictures in the 70's peoples attitudes about personal space in general where different then, more naive in a way, and friends of mine generally knew i was taking picture,s its what i did… sometimes they'd care, mostly not. Certainly there was a lot less photographers angst! So in the case of the picture of Erwitt's friends i can completely imagine he felt he had complete license, just as most of my friends teenagers and twenty-somethings do with the million and one armslengthdigital snaps they take in any given week.

Perhaps they reversed-parked on Erwitt's foot, and he was just passing the time until they moved on.

Why does the photographer's standpoint bother you, Mike, don't you read novels and short-stories? The two basic PoVs of the narrator are omniscient and involved, that is, one tells the story from high above, knowing everything. This would be the classic stance since it goes back to the very first epics. The second stance is often associated with the first person narrator though it need not be 'I' telling the story. This is a modern development ['modern' not as in 'current' but as in 'non-classic', 'movement'].

Why should pictorial art not try to come up with different narration techniques? And don't forget, the two I mentioned above are only the basics, there's a lot of variation possible, just look at James Ellroy's LA Trilogy or hie Underworld U.S.A novels.

A great picture can be a toss-off, and one you work and work to get can still suck.

Oh, how true... It's a disappointment when the latter happens, but it does happen. With some frequency, I have to say. :-) My guess is because you're trying too hard or you're too aware of the situation and the awkwardness sets in.

BTW, Mike, was it you or somebody else quoting "You can't be a Nice Nellie and be a photographer" comparatively recently? I don't remember to whom the quote was attributed to.

"...was it you or somebody else quoting 'You can't be a Nice Nellie and be a photographer' comparatively recently? I don't remember to whom the quote was attributed to."

That was Weegee, from the old vinyl LP "Great Photographers Tell How."


You know, the initial response when viewing the picture today would most likely be "Photo-shopped". Wrong I know, as such antics weren't around in those days.

However I can recall taking 'Trick' photos where a cut out image was set into a scene then the whole re-photographed. When done right it could be quite convincing.

Just saying

Paul Mc Cann

"He'd have to have been virtually a stalker in order to take such a picture naturally."

That comment makes the hair stand up on my back. Well, I don't have any hair on my back, but still! Look, just because YOU do not how to work with stealth, does not mean NOBODY does. Yes, I know the couple were his friends, and he probably used a long lens to get the image (the spacial compression certainly indicates that). Still assuming anyone who is able to get close, and get the image without being detected is NOT a stalker!!! I've sure been called one, and all I do is get close so I can get the damn picture! Stalker. Sheesh!

"Just where the hell WAS he shooting from? "

I don't mean this to sound flip, but it seems pretty obvious he was standing on the driver's side of the car, at the rear. Based on the compressed perspective and shallow depth-of-field, I'd guess he was also using a telephoto lens. Based on the angle of the driver's side window (which appears to be rolled down) I'd say he was standing at roughly a 30-degree angle relative to the car (0-degrees being parallel).

BTW, it's not surprising to hear that Mr. Erwitt knew the couple in the car. Given the basic principles of reflection, if he could see them in the mirror, they could see him. Good thing for him they were a bit, uh... distracted.

Hi Mike:

I am linking a photo I took in France in 2006. You will have no difficulty locating the photographer in this shot. The woman is my wife (so I’m not a voyeur) asking directions somewhere in France (that’s why we needed help, we only knew we were somewhere). I like this photograph for a few reasons: my wife was not yet accomplished or comfortable speaking French and I can see the mixture of nervousness and the joy of being successfully engaged in a conversation on her face; the man is supplying much more information than was required and doing so with great relish replete with hand gestures (he is French after all); finally the sun is shining.



Michal said "Still assuming anyone who is able to get close, and get the image without being detected is NOT a stalker!!! I've sure been called one, and all I do is get close so I can get the damn picture! Stalker. Sheesh!"

Yes but, Elliot was using a Leica and you are using a PDA. People know you are taking "pictures" when they see a Leica pointed at them, people think you are checking your schedule when staring at a PDA.

I'm not sayin' many of your images are not engaging, effective and enjoyable.

I'm just sayin.'

Wasn't it Alfred Hitchcock, in his marvelous interview to François Truffaut, wondering who the hell the camera eye embodies? And how could possibly this "someone" find himself in the middle of an ocean storm, peeking at the movie's desperate heroes? Or how could "he" be in the bottom of a fridge looking at a woman taking out a bottle of milk? Or behind the fire in a fireplace, as the two lovers kiss.
I think this is where photography as a documentary medium verges on photography as a visual art.
Hitchcock also couldn't explain the presence of an orchestra in the middle of a storm. That's why Mel Brooks put one in the middle of a desert in "Blazing Saddles."

Interesting essay, thanks Mike. Your comments about the reaction to a photograph of a crime or atrocity in progress immediately brought to mind the 'Bang-Bang Club'.

The Bang-Bang Club was a name associated with four photographers active within the townships of South Africa during the Apartheid period. The 'club' consisted of Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, and Joao Silva (a number of other photographers such as James Nachtwey and Gary Bernard worked alongside them).

Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer in 2003 for his photo of a starving Sudanese child seemingly stalked by a vulture. The photo doesn't show that the child was in fact closer to the feeding center than to the vulture. Wherever he went, Kevin was dodged with questions about what happened to the little girl in the photo, and why he didn't help her to the feeding station after he had taken the photo, and whether she had made it at all (he didn't know).

All of the Bang-Bang Club faced simliar questions but Kevin Carter began to question his own humanity. The self-doubt, self-loathing, fear of failure after winning the Pulitzer and the death of his colleague and best friend, Ken Oosterbroek, led to Kevin's suicide.

Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva wrote a book also by the name The Bang Bang Club. In the book they grapple with the question of how far should one go to pursue an image. I can highly recommend the book. (read an excerpt at http://digitalfilmmaker.net/Bang/chapter1.html)

There's an interesting dichotomy here. The photographer is supposed to assess his image without regard to what he had to do to get it, but others can feel the shot's worthiness is in part dependent on how it was acquired.

I shoot mostly sports. If the viewers of my images never give a thought to how I managed to get them but are thrilled by the shots themselves, that's the ultimate compliment to me.

I'm happy to say the Hook tale is still alive and well. I'm 26 and most people my age know it. I think it's one of those immortal urban legends that will never die, like the Babysitter receiving calls from inside the house (though maybe that one has less impact in the age of cell phones).

Interestingly, it would never have occurred to me to interpret the couple kissing seen in the rear-view mirror as a candid shot.

I figured out back in highschool that, when acting as a photographer, I could walk in front of people, go outside the usual boundaries, climb on things, and so forth, and people would let me. I've never tried walking up to the altar during a wedding, though; I use long lenses and a tripod instead.

@ Dierk,"The two basic PoVs of the narrator are omniscient and involved, that is, one tells the story from high above, knowing everything. This would be the classic stance since it goes back to the very first epics. The second stance is often associated with the first person narrator"

The Sci-Fi writer Joe Haldeman uses:

First person from at least three characters experiencing the same events.
Omniscient or third person.
The text of legal agreements and bills.
The text of newspaper cuttings.

All are used in the one book The Long Habit of Living, (1989) and I think in other works. The text of printed matter is just presented; No characters read them out.

this variation of viewpoints/standpoints reminds me of the way a set of old pictures, documents, etc. showed aspects of the presenter's late father's life. It was linked to from here some time ago.

So for a given project, say, you don't have to stick to one technique.

Makes yer think.

***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.***

What a disturbing comment! That photographer seems to lack any respect for other people, possibly ruining their very important and personal celebration just to get the photo he wants. As someone above posted, I agree it's not about stones but decency as a fellow human.

I wonder if a succesful candid photographer needs to be a sociopath or slightly autistic so that s/he won't feel too much compassion or empathy to ruin the perfect picture?

"That photographer seems to lack any respect for other people, possibly ruining their very important and personal celebration just to get the photo he wants."

Or, possibly they were flattered and it made them seem important in the eyes of their guests. Or maybe everybody took it for granted. How do you know? Was there a photographer at your wedding?


There's a stream of jokes to attest to the fact that people at least wonder whether the really driven photojournalists aren't perhaps sociopaths. "If you saw a little girl fall off a dock into the river, and you had to choose between shooting a Pullitzer prize-winning photo, or dropping your camera and going to rescue her, what focal length would you use?" (Or "what film", and I'm sure people HERE would get the joke in that form, but mostly these days I hear it in the "focal length" version.)

I find it funny. Not because I think actually letting a little girl drown is funny, but because of the surprise of assuming the answer to what one initially thinks would be the question, and asking a different question. And the joke isn't about telling people they SHOULD let little girls drown, it's about reminding us that we shouldn't.

Me, I don't swim nearly well enough, so I'd go for the 70-200mm myself.

"despite the many instances of a particular sort of weakness or foolishness I might encounter repeatedly on the web and wish to talk about, I never actually post specific examples.

T.O.P. Gold Membership, Mike. You get a chance to name, they get a chance to shame. Definitely worth a few extra dollars a month for a few people I've bumped into on the forums.

mike, composition in erwitts shot refers to an abstract photography taken walter peterhans in 1929. please compare (http://www.mkg-hamburg.de/mkg.php/de/sammlungen/fotografie/~P3/) you'll find a stunning similarity despite of the difference in subject


The window in the shot looks more like a quarter vent window in front of the driver side door. If it were the main window, the mirror would be in an awkward location at the driver's shoulder. I'd always assumed that the car was a convertible, allowing all sorts of lighting opportunities.

"The window in the shot looks more like a quarter vent window..." -- right, this is 1955 when cars had such things, and the main portion of the window is indeed rolled down. It's hard to tell from the web cut above, but clear from the cover of Personal Exposures.

I would assume EE was using a 90 mm lens and standing behind the rear of the car about 3 feet out from the left side, since the figures would have to be 1-2'inside the door frame. The good light on their faces can be accounted for by the direct sunset, and perhaps a little careful dodging in what we now call "postprocessing."


I couldn't disagree more with the comment that the picture was unsatisfying because one could imagine the photographer's location. I was not familiar with this photo but when I saw it hung in a gallery in New Orleans, it stopped me in my tracks. It had a feeling of time and place that was extremely strong. While it occurred to me that the Erwitt must have been placed extremely close to the scene or may have even staged it, that didn't influence my emotional reaction to the print. I didn't take it as documentary photography, to which we might apply completely different "rules." It is a danger for anyone who is particularly connected to an art form to analyze the details to such a degree that the emotional impact of the art is missed. Talk to an audiophile about a recorded performance of a terrific symphony, and he may tell you about the "imaging" of the instruments, or how the highest frequencies were "strident," but not comment on the performance itself. Over analysis can take the joy out of anything, and this commentary strikes me as that.


" Over analysis can take the joy out of anything, and this commentary strikes me as that."

No, it's just my response to the picture, which doesn't in any way conflict with, much less invalidate, your response. There's no right answer with art or photographs.


I've been thinking about this from a couple of different... angles (heh)... so coming on this post felt really timely.

The first angle was that I was thinking about how hard it was to find an image for my fiancé's and my website of the two of us - as my family long ago learned with regards to my father, the photographer is the person who's never in any of the family photos! My dad solved the problem by teaching his kids how to use cameras, but my fiancé's unlikely to ever do much with a camera, in no small part because he's a very polite soul and the kind of self-centered confidence that drives a lot of photography is just not his style.

The other was thinking about the picture that's been showing up around the 'net lately, of Obama standing "alone" on the Great Wall. (If you haven't seen it, he's standing to one side, turned away from the camera, looking sideways up a long slope of empty wall.) The thing is, you know that there's a huge mob of people standing behind the photographer at that point - his bodyguards, his interpreters, other photographers, members of the press corps, etc. - and yet, there he is, looking as if no one is there, not even the photographer. It fascinates me, how almost no one has commented on this.

(Or on the fact that the White House has a flickr account, but that's another topic entirely.)

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