learning to pay attention
Photography, for almost 200 years, has enabled people to record and share their own vision of the world. More recently, the convenience and pervasiveness of digital photography has transformed most of us into a potential and constant photographer. And in the last few years, we have become empowered with the ability to exhibit these images nearly instantly via online platforms like Instagram, facebook and twitter, contributing to the shared culture of what Marshall McLuhan described as the global village.
However, the great tragedy of these last evolutions is that, by making the act of taking and developing pictures so easy and accessible, digital photography and social medias have also made them worthless. As digital photography became painless and forgiving, the sorting process is now a dreaded task, one that we rarely get around to doing. The cost of storing large amounts of photographs is now much less than the cost of reviewing and eventually deleting some of them, so we tend to archive huge folders with thousands of pictures in them, most of them pointless.
Social medias have also changed how we deal with our past self in photographs. Most of our online profiles, by default, keep a permanent trace of all the content we share through them. Photographs that are now 4 or 5 years old end up on the same page as ones that were shared a few minutes ago. Pictures in which we have been tagged also appear in this personal timeline, for all our friends and friends of friends to see. This leads to two opposite reactions to being photographed: the first is when we try to stage these images, anticipating what they will say about us in a form of identity performance where the audience has yet to be determined↓. The other reaction is where we mistrust the photographer and his intention and flat out refuse to let some truth and honesty shine out as a protection mechanism, instead withdrawing into ourselves. Both of these behaviors are not new to photographers. They are close to Susan Sontag’s pre-internet description of the photographer as aggressor↓ and can equally be traced back to the origin of portable film cameras (“those damn camera lunatics!”↓). But it is safe to say that the internet and its public platforms fuel our suspicion toward photographers of all kind.
For these reasons, I believe that film photography still makes sense. Aesthetic considerations aside, shooting film means paying extra attention to the scene, knowing that each picture counts whatever the output may be — in terms of time and money, buying rolls, processing them and printing/scanning the film is infinitely longer and more expensive than shooting with a digital camera. Futhermore, from the subjects point of view, a film camera is usually perceived as less threatening than a modern DSLR. Its potential for damaging the reputation and dignity of the person that’s in the frame is much more limited, since taking the pictures out of the camera and on the internet is such a tedious process. On another level, when shooting in the street, smiling and acting naturally is a fantastic way to go unnoticed but a DSLR usually blocks most of the face of the photographer because of its size (while also being noisy). I have found that using a small and old-looking cameras is perfectly suited to blend into the surroundings. While there is definitely a “hipster bias” toward a young person using a Rolleiflex or a Lomo camera, this actually helps to be accepted in someone’s direct environment. One proof of this is the great success among street photographers of digital cameras such as the Fujifilm X100, whose design is clearly inspired by the earliest models of 35mm film cameras.
One summer a few years ago, I worked in an activity centre for toddlers to afford my first film camera. I was really enjoying photography as a tool for expression and a means to see the world in a different light. I had just been introduced to Alexey Brodovitch’s Design Laboratory and some of its students, among them Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand and I was struck by the honesty of their work, the way they seemed to just document the world around them with a low degree of involvement. But in retrospect, I don’t think any picture should — and could — be labelled as “true”. Rather, a photograph is the subjective mark of an experience at a precise moment in time shown through a specific framing. It is an image that both the photographer and the spectator invest with their knowledge, their passion and, hopefully, a message. Some photographs may look like documents but, in the words of Walker Evans, they merely adopt a style↓.
Anyhow, Arbus and Winogrand’s work fascinated me to the point where I got a similar setup to Winogrand (Leica M camera+fixed lens+black and white film) and started shooting frenetically. I spent about a year living with a camera around my shoulder, which amounted to 99 rolls of processed film (11 in color and 88 in black and white, most being 36 exposures long). Of these 99 rolls, the vast majority was Kodak TRI-X 400 ISO pushed at 800 ISO with Tetenal Ultrafin film developer. Each of the 3378 resulting negatives was scanned with an Epson v400, then edited in Adobe Lightroom. Among these 3378 scans, 96% depict people in unstaged settings (mainly, the street). Finally, of the remaining 3250 pictures with people, I estimate 80% to be featuring people whose name I don’t know, and nearly all of them unaware that they were being photographed.
The street contained most of the raw material with which I composed my images. Making these photographs was all about arranging what I could find to phrase a message↓. I started by asking people if I could take their pictures because I wasn’t too comfortable with shooting first. Of course, it didn’t work but it helped me see that what I wanted from them was honesty and authenticity, two traits that are very difficult to act when asked. My approach was then to be as visible and natural as possible while looking for pictures. My camera was usually in clear view in order to state my intentions to potential models, and I adjusted the settings — speed, aperture and focus — constantly to always be prompt to frame and shoot.
Experimenting with the frame led me to discover different composition techniques and how they can change the interpretation of an image. The rule of thirds, as simple as it is, works wonder to guide the eye and make something pop-out. I have found that symmetries create an image that is more pleasing and stable, while using diagonals helps add energy. Tilted framing is also interesting but difficult to work with, it is often too much or not enough. Repetitions add rhythm, which in turn can enhance the message. Another tool that I enjoy is an emphasis on negative space to stress on the rest of the composition. I also remember reading this tip from french photographer Jeanloup Sieff about enclosing the picture with darker zones, to keep the eye from drifting away. This can be done when editing but it is more impactful when this comes from the composition itself.
The other thing is inspirations and references. I remember a few times where, while framing, I had a déjà vu of another image. Brodovitch’s advice in this case is “not to click the shutter”, which is reasonable enough, but I think using references to other pieces of art (paintings?) or to photography itself is both powerful and expressive.
However, describing photographs purely in terms of technical refinement and composition is missing the point. These elements are just part of the studium↓, the generally universal, rational and easily explainable reasons for a good photograph. But what makes a photograph great is the affect, the empathy that the viewer feels and how it touches him/her, how he can relate and mix his personal experience with what he is shown. Barthes describes it as the punctum that hits you, the accident (“ce hasard” in French) that grabs your attention for good. My experience is that the more I try to add a punctum to my pictures, the less it is there. As cliché as it sounds, shooting when it feels right — not when it looks right — is the best way to get an image that has the potential to connect with somebody and trigger an emotional bond.
This is probably the most rewarding thing: when someone comes up to me to tell me that this one photograph made an impact on him. When it happened, I was fascinated to discover that I had clearly never looked at my images before. I am so used to them that I can’t get enough distance to just see them for what they are. Winogrand was adamant that you should never look at your pictures right after you shoot them. In his words, you need to wait a least a year to distance yourself from the original scene and just see the photograph as it is. I don’t know of any digital photographer who can afford that luxury, though. At least, with film, you take the picture and go on with your life and roll — the reviewing process has to happen at least a few hours or even days later.
Photography is the perfect medium for empathy: see what I saw, think what I thought and feel what I felt. A photograph is the testament to an intent, where the trace of the reality that was captured becomes a mean to convey a message. The situation, the framing, the moment, each parameter is chosen meticulously in order to best express a particular meaning. What is more specific to street photography, though, is the absence of set-up. Compared to a studio photographer, the street photographer has almost no control over the material he is working with. He has to catch it on the spot, make something out of what he is given. It is ingenuous to go out in the street with a precise idea of what it is that you want to say because the chances that a situation that fits this message happens in front of the lens are incredibly slim.
During the course of this life-as-an-experiment kind of project, I discovered a few things about myself. First, I am obsessed with hands. I love their incredible variety, how they can tell stories just by the way they look and how meaningful their postures can be — hands really say a lot about their owners. Second, I am definitely a detail-oriented type of person. Most of my pictures start with a small detail and expand out of it. Indeed, the photographs I like most are the ones where my eye jumps from one detail to the next and tries to make sense of them as a whole. I only care about composition as a tool to get some elements to stand out and become more significant than others. Pictures where I am visually told what I should look at bore me. And last but certainly not least, I am fascinated by other people. Taking pictures of strangers is a way for me to try to understand them — who they are, what they like, what they are thinking about… This is what I like to think of as the second kind of empathy through photography: the will to contemplate what the people in the photograph feel, their desires and beliefs, and see the world from their point of view. Forget the photographer and focus on the authentic reality of the scene (or at least the apparent authenticity).
Which brings me to think of two paradigms in unstaged photography. The first one — let’s call it witness photography — is the act of using the camera to record and share the genuine everyday life. In witness photography, the frame is an enemy, one that threatens to change meanings and twist our comprehension of a scene. This is the kind of photography that fits both smartphones and the internet best: social medias selfie↓, Instagram #food or reddit /r/pics/ photography. And this is probably what the Google Glass will most excel at: showing real life as close to how we perceive it as possible.
But there is another paradigm, one that is not concerned with objective reality. It could be called looking-glass photography in reference to the following quote by the late english photographer Tony Ray-Jones:
This is the description that fits me best. Framing, in this approach, is just one more tool to explore this other world. Similarly, shooting in black and white instead of color helps take a step back from reality and assume the transformative power of photography, while film grain is an element to remind the viewer that this is just a picture, photons hitting a light-sensitive, silver-coated film in a specific arrangement, one that depends on a huge number of parameters.
However, what seems to be the most enduring lesson when learning to see “through the looking glass” is not about photography. Photography itself becomes the excuse to start being aware of what is so essential yet hidden in plain sight. It helps us operate in a different mode, a mode where we see the world not as our usual, boring everyday routine but as a foreign place that is at once captivating and appalling.
And this, of course, is a necessary step to learning to design. But more than that, it is a necessary step to appreciate life and enjoy its intricacies, its deceptions, annoyances and grievances as much as its wonders, astonishments and bliss. During the writing of this article, I went through two dozens different tag lines before realizing the very first one, the simplest, was the most accurate. And it really is what most of my projects and this life-as-an-experiment-in-photography is about: learning to pay attention.
↑ — See this great research paper on performing identities on early social media platform Friendster: boyd, danah and Jeffrey Heer. “Profiles as Conversation: Networked Identity Performance on Friendster.” In Proceedings of the Hawaï International Conference on System Sciences(HICSS-39), Persistent Conversation Track. Kauai, HI:IEEE Computer Society. January 4 — 7, 2006. Available here: danah.org/papers/HICSS2006.pdf
↑ — See Susan Sontag’s seminal “On Photograpy”. Excerpts here: susansontag.com/SusanSontag/books/onPhotographyExerpt.shtml
↑ — Excellent research by Bill Jay on the public indignation following the apparition of portable cameras at the end of the XVIIIth century: billjayonphotography.com/PhotographerAsAggressor.pdf
↑ — From an interview by Leslie Katz with Walker Evans: “You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, although it can adopt that style.” See memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fachap04.html
↑ — This is obviously a nod to Charles Eames’ definition of design: “[Design is a] plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose.” Neuhart, J., Neuhart, M., “Eames Design; The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames,” Abrams First Edition, 1989.
↑ — See the classic “La Chambre Claire” by Roland Barthes.
↑ — Some expressions were borrowed from DFW’s excellent This is Water monolog: moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words
Most of these photographs depict people in public spaces. They are not used for any commercial purpose, nor are they shown in order to harm the reputation or dignity of the persons portrayed (as required by the french law). Please contact me if you would like me to remove a photograph.