Originally written for Open Eye Gallery, 08.05.2015
In 1884, The New York Times published a feature called The Camera Epidemic. New, portable cameras were bringing photographers out of their studios and into the city, and the journalist despaired at the “disease” trailing closely behind. Catching unsuspecting city-dwellers within its snare, the camera was an encroaching menace. “Even when walking quietly in the street a person is not safe. He is constantly made the victim, his actions forever perpetuated in gelatine emulsion as enduring as brass.”
Since the early warning signs of its ailment, the camera has become increasingly more apt for covert pursuits. Walker Evans’ series Subway Passengers (1938) is perhaps one of the most memorable examples. With his 35mm Codex nestled deep inside his coat, Evans took to the underground, a secret lens peering out through his button holes. “People’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway,” he wrote. “The guard is down and the mask is off.”
Street photography has long sought to capture ordinary people going about their day, oblivious to the camera’s presence. This endeavour to document people unaware is part of a perennial artistic pursuit, a desire to capture the world as it really is, to seize an authentic, unsentimental record of humanity. Photographers’ attempts are often met with aversion, condemned with no less gravity than the 19th century disease. In her famous critique on photography, Susan Sontag goes so far as to align it with calculated, cold-blooded murder, drawing upon the ‘shooting’, ‘capturing’ and ‘stalking’ of ‘prey’ integral to both the gun and the camera. For the photographer, any subject in a public space is ‘fair game.’ Being in public is being in the ‘public eye’ for all to see; the prying camera lens is no different from any other prying eye that moves through the crowds.
Lauren Moffatt’s quasi documentary, Not Eye (2014), tackles this very issue in FACT’s current installation Group Therapy. Mediating on the anxiety that the intrusive gaze of others can trigger, the unnamed protagonist constructs an unsettling helmet to subvert their looks. “I can’t take it anymore—I feel constantly violated,” she laments. With is clearly visible, inbuilt camera she is able to reclaim control in the public space, its aptitude for voyeurism overpowering that of watching eyes. We’re reminded again of the camera’s predatory nature, as Sontag stresses, “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have.” Perhaps this goes some way to explain the very early trepidation towards the camera and the fear that it would steal the subject’s soul.
We often long to retreat to the comfort and privacy of our own homes, a space freed from the protocols of public behaviour. Yet the recent court case involving American photographer Arne Svenson has sent this assumed divide between the public and the private into dubious territory. Using a CT-501 500-mm Nikon telephoto lens, Svenson was able to peer straight into his neighbours’ apartments across the street to create his series The Neighbors (2013). Upon finding themselves and their living room sprawled across a magazine, one couple subjected to his lens took the photographer to court. The final ruling proved to be in Svenson’s favour, with the judge concluding, “An artist may create and sell a work of art that resembles an individual without his or her written consent.”
Has the private realm now been offered up as fair game too? In an age where public personas are crafted and preened so meticulously online, how genuine is the person we exhibit to the world? Life lived in the public has perhaps been exhausted, prompting us to turn away from the streets to the private realm. Undeniably hazy in its ethics, yet Svenson’s motivation seems no different to Evans, an endeavour to find and capture an authentic slice of life. “I find the unrehearsed, unconscious aspects of life the most beautiful to photograph. Truth can be diluted when action is being directed. I prefer to wait until a scene has fallen into place organically and then let serendipity takes its course.”
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