Black Man Pender by Fred Herzog (Equinox Gallery)
Yesterday, the article “The Ethics of Street Photography,” was published by Joerg Colberg. For those following the Conscientious blog, it doesn’t take long to discover the writer is not a fan of street photography. But, mostly, Colberg has it right. Of course, the article did not condemn the entire act of street photography. After all, the writer is a fan of Fred Herzog. But perhaps before we put the definitive “The” in front of ethics, it’s worth reiterating the importance of the practice of street photography.
What is discussed in the article is the bravado attitude that some street photographers carry as a point of pride. Like an old time Western flick, street cowboys carry thirty-six-shooters into the urban canyons, ambushing subjects, and shooting anything that moves. The bigger the flash, the more bang. Perhaps the approach isn’t surprising in such a male dominated discipline. I’ve been guilty at times, too. To a limited degree, I think this machismo attitude is part of a confidence building exercise to gain courage to turn a camera towards a complete stranger. But more importantly, I suggest having the freedom to explore varying approaches is valuable. Deleting an image is altruistic, but I’m not sure if it’s an act that forwards the art, as the writer implores elsewhere.
Street Photography is a valuable addition to the historical, sociological, and anthropological fabric of society. Nobody admonishes Vivian Maier’s photos or how she photographed her unwitting subjects. In fact, few seem to have noticed her at all, not photographers or major institutions, let alone the public. Nobody gave her the point-and-wag of a sharp finger. Instead, we relish what she made in her photos, buy her books, and crowdfunded a Kickstarter documentary. The basis of street photography isn’t, in practice, any different than photojournalism and is directly connected to democracy. It’s important. As Nick Turpin points out: we are all street photographers now and, with smaller less intimidating camera phones, it’s easier than ever - and more normal! - to take photos of strangers. Regardless, ethics enters the equation as should any human interaction. Colberg understands this and the importance of candid documentary photography as art and how it supports democratic principles. But from an ethical standpoint, should photographers delete an image if asked?
Before answering, consider the above Fred Herzog photograph taken in 1958. To the Georgia Straight weekly, Herzog said:
Many, many people have sent me letters—I have a whole folder full of them like, for example, the black guy who is walking on Pender Street with the child and the dog. I got a letter from the sister of the girl, and she was very happy to find that picture because she didn’t have any other pictures of her dad and her sister.
A touching story, for sure. If Fred had the luxury of digital, should he have deleted that frame on request from the man? The daughter? The dog? The other man in the frame? The guy across the street? Should Herzog have ripped the entire roll of 36 from his camera? While Fred was a photographer, above all, he was a documentarian. What he did was not so different than a writer or a journalist for the local paper. He documented a very plain scene on Pender Street in Vancouver. Of course, it was a camera that he used and not a typewriter. Maybe that makes his “story” somehow more revealing. But taking pictures of people in public doesn’t make this an unethical act, even if he turns a blind eye to their request. I’m not sure about you, but when I leave the house I try my best to prepare myself. Do I leave the house with my hair unkempt? Without pants? No. There are a thousand reasons why subjects would want a picture deleted and a thousand others why a photographer might not want to. Whose viewpoint is more valid? And, when?
While many citizens in Vancouver, the adopted home of the German born photographer, are not familiar with Herzog’s name, they do know his pictures. These people are, without regard, are appreciative of his contribution whether his work is considered artistic or historical. Herzog’s 60 year old candid Kodachromes say something to everyone here and it seems abroad: the neon lined Granville/Robson streets, peeling paint on wood slatted homes of the New Pontiac, and of course, those Two Boys sitting on a street corner drinking soda. There is also the Magazine Man with his, perhaps, embarrassing ‘Stag’ magazines. Everyone in this now modern and progressive cosmopolitain city I see looking at Herzog prints is appreciative. Nobody scolds him with that sharply pointed finger, at least, not when they are looking at his work.
While Winogrand has been associated with callousness and, worse, those stalker-esque behaviours, we don’t need to condone everything he did. Yet, the fact remains street photography gives something tangible back to a place and to the people living there. I know this because viewers, even those who are not photographers, laugh, smile, and cry when they see the prints, read the books, and watch the documentaries. Street photography is a human endeavour after all so we should expect numerous emotional reactions. The contribution of street photographers may not be realized today or even tomorrow. But someday, somewhere, someone will appreciate these pictures. Street photography is a time capsule and in 50 or 100 years from now, our children and grandchildren will appreciate the photos handed down to them by Fred Herzog and, before him, Foncie Pulice, and a host of new photographers today. If any doubt remains of how it binds a community, I encourage you to visit Foncie Pulice on Facebook and at Foncie’s Corner.
Personally, I have deleted a photograph or two when asked. I’ve also not deleted photographs when asked. Perhaps knowing when to do this is a fine line. But it is this letter above to Herzog that reminds me: these photographs are important, whether permission is granted or not. And, like Herzog, I have received letters. The following came after connecting randomly to a commuter on a Translink bus:
Hi John: Your daughters are gorgeous. Thank you for the information. Photography is my hobby, and even I am not a professional I like very much the way you touched each site of the world. It seems that until they build Safeway we all have to go to Extra Foods at Denman Mall – I was surprised to see my husband picking a green shopping basket in front of the store in your slideshow – good shot.
Best wishes for you, your wife and the twins. -Sxxxxx
To me, that’s justification enough to keep on taking pictures of strangers – no bravado about it.
Last but not least, I encourage you to read what Joerg Colberg writes with an open mind. Because, like it or not, he’s correct. Mostly. Since photography is a language, and street photography is about people, photographers should know how talk about what they are doing to those they picture. And if it isn’t the subjects who are doing the inquiring, it will be the police. Thus, in this brave new world, it’s a good idea to understand what we do. Street photography helps us maintain our freedoms. It also helps us express certain ideas about art, society, the landscape, and the people within it. With the gaze of security cameras watching on one side and the public watching on the other, street photographers are in, no doubt, an awkward position.
Act responsibly. Be Conscientious.