It's fair to say that unposed or candid photography has rarely been as harassed as it is today. Spanning the medium's proud history from the invention of the camera through the majestic careers of masters such as Sutcliffe, Stieglitz, Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, Levitt, Klein, Frank, Winogrand et al. The historians of tomorrow tracking photography's path will note the earliest years of the 21st century as a period filled with challenges as street photographers are confronted by an aggressive public riddled with paranoiac suspicion. In an age of dry conservatism, the pursuit of the largely misunderstood will always meet with frenetic opposition.
Australian photographic history has a thin record of candid, street photography. Apart from the more journalistic elements of David Moore's portfolio and the wonderful work of Roger Scott, Trent Parke and a handful of others, the art of the stolen moment has gone largely neglected 'Down Under'. This is wholly at odds with the American and European experience, where cities such as New York and Paris have at various periods seemingly had legendary snappers on every street corner. In Australia we don't have a natural culture in this genre and as a result it's fair to say the general public have little knowledge of the aims and traditions of the practice. So when we find ourselves, post 9/11 and Bali, living through an era of suspicion and paranoia, a backlash against the misunderstood is apparent. Heaven help the candid photographer. Photographing in shopping centres, public buildings, railway stations, airports and the like, you can just sense those dark bubbles on the ceiling reacting to your every move and within minutes the big serious guys are in your face, onto your case and if you're lucky, pushing you gently back out into the street. If you're not so fortunate you get to sit in a dingy office for an hour trying to explain the history of street photography to a handful of armed security guards whose idea of fine photography is the latest J Lo calendar.
It's not only the terrorist threat that is riling contemporary candid photography. I recently took a few photo's at a local surf life saving carnival on a sleepy Saturday morning. An iconic Australian setting, photographed throughout the past century by legendary local photographers from Cazneauz through Dupain to Roger Scott and beyond. As always I used a standard lens and a relatively subtle style. Within half an hour I'd been subjected to a dozen seperate cases of children (through to early teens) letting fly with any number of accusations, hate darting from their eyes. The similarity of the concerns making it apparent these children had been specifically warned by their surf clubs to be on the lookout for strange men wielding camera's, ie paedophiles. I'd been given the OK by the carnival's officials yet these kids had been so conditioned to equate photographers taking unstaged, behind the scenes pic's, with the lowest form of human existence, that their bile and the hateful looks of many of their parents continued until I'd finally had enough and left. The whole experience was disturbingly Orwellian.
Neo conservative periods in history are always loaded against true freedom of expression. Swiss born photographer Robert Frank whilst compiling his classic 1955 book, 'The Americans' experienced just such harassment. Travelling across the US during the infamous McCarthy era, Frank was arrested in McGehee, Arkansas and locked up in the city jail overnight. The local authorities found it suspicious that a strange little foreigner was taking photographs in and around the Ford Motor Plant in Detroit. Despite having written permission to do so. The Arkansas lawmen began to see a deeper shade of 'red' when they learnt of the decidely 'unAmerican' names of Frank's children, Pablo and Andrea, and the legendary photographer was forced to endure a night behind bars. It was a period of high propaganda and knee jerk reactions, communists were the Muslim extremists of the day and Robert Frank felt the wrath of a mainstream lack of understanding when it came to candid photography. If you don't understand it, I guess it becomes a threat and people living in stressful times, whether real or manufactured, are want to lash out at the unknown.
In the current environment the contemporary candid photographer needs not only an unerring belief in the practice but a thick hide and a good turn of speed.
See you out on the street.
Andrew Stark. 2004
Vol 1, 2004
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Sydney Bus Terminal. 1999.
Vol 2, 2005.
No Reason, No Rhyme: the irrational pursuit of a little poetry. Last year I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art and was confronted by two walls dedicated to some guys huge photographs of white goods placed out in the scrub. Kind of 'fridges on safari'. The photo's were absolutely dead emotionally, and could only be described as pretty pointless. Yet they did get me thinking. It would seem the buzz word in contemporary art photography at the moment is 'BIG'. Giant computer print outs of flawless definition tower over unsuspecting gallery visitors, bringing gasps of appreciation in much the same manner the latest Hollywood 'special effect' garners a 'jeeez' from fans of the blockbuster. Fine definition and the resultant ability to upsize is a natural attention grabber, and given that the layman's brush with the medium is usually confined to a bubble camera at end of year family gatherings, it's hardly surprising. Even before the actual contents of the gigantic image have been digested, a platform of respect has been built between viewer and the work, based wholly on the superficial. The legendary former Director of Photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, during a 2004 interview with 'Modern Painter', touched on the 'Big' phenomena laying it solely at the feet of commercial sensibilities, adding "most of the best photographs are smaller than 11x14".
Grain and an overall lack of sharpness are contemporary photography's take on working without a net. Sprinkle in a pinch of subtlety, a non formulaic, purely observational approach, and your odds of plummeting to failure shorten even further. So it's little wonder the vast majority of 'photo artists' today opt for the insurance that is definition and size. That the actual photograph may or may not work as a creative image, in many cases really doesn't appear to matter. It's big, it's glossy and it's self proclaiming ! A grainy, blurry, diminutive Robert Frank classic hung on a gallery wall next to a monolithic Bill Henson Cibachrome, and to the vast majority, judgement is rooted in the gospel according to Hoges ... 'that's not a knife, this is a knife !'. The little black & white gets lost in the hype. Bill Henson is a well respected contemporary artist, yet few photography historians would disagree that Robert Frank is one of the great poets of the medium.
Is it perhaps a symptom of our times ? The unhealthy respect for technology, an even more disturbing adherence to market forces and the resultant, proportional lessening of true humanitarianism ? A microcosm of life today where people are terrified to simplify, to clarify. They chase (or are pushed) the latest in almost everything; no sooner do you need a DVD player to replace a perfectly good video recorder than your TV has to be upgraded to digital and you just have to have a mobile phone that glows ultra marine. Layer upon layer, cluttering up lives. Technology and marketing. People consumed with the trivial, moving further and further from self discovery, further from truth, further from genuine art. An almost souless population of ravenous consumers, charging blindly into debt for the latest wizz bang flashy thing that Bill Gates, in collaboration with NASA, have whipped up just to make your life bearable. Not much poetry in all that !
The rash of 'BIG', and more precisely it's use in many cases as a means to an end, is a sad reflection of these, our times. Art dictated to by market forces and technology is hopelessly conservative and very often numbingly trite. Worthwhile art is a truth absolute. A process of stripping away, reaching deep within, desperate to find a higher level of honesty. It invariably involves risk. A bucking of trends, fads and current thinking to pursue a personal ideal, however indefineable that may be. Brushing away criticism, ridicule and ignoring common sense. Accepting poverty as a likely dance partner: the market place is rarely enamoured of a gentle whisper. Most of all be prepared to be ignored. Your destiny is almost certainly that crumpled and broken body at the foot of a mighty fall. That you work with no net is seen as foolhardy by most, yet you've known from that first wobbly step that timidity dilutes achievement, and great poetry never rhymes.
Andrew Stark. 2005.
Manly Beach 2005
Vol 3, 2009
Extract from the soon to be published ... "Escape Into Life"
Traipsing through the intricate detail of street photography and the day to day ways of its more polished practitioners, I've been alerted to this recurring proclivity: a strong preference toward being alone. And then by grabbing the beast by its mangy tail, I find a higher percentage of people presenting to psychologists with social phobia issues have an interest in photography than do those suffering other conditions. Now I'm not going to start discussing under aged domestic fowl and their natural order in relation to the roundish reproductive pods in which they were once housed, however the topic does jump into ones thoughts.
I've always seen my role as street photographer a little in the guise of a nutty guy wearing a straw boater, chasing butterflies at a leisurely nineteenth century picnic using a long net fixed to a short pole. The pure collecting element of the process is not to be underestimated. And yes, street photographers are attempting to make; art, document a time and a place, or give us an ironic chuckle - however to reach this end point, they must first collect. I would suggest that people who enjoy the 'collecting' hobbies or pastimes such as; stamps, coins, cats etc - invariably house a much higher proportion of socially reserved, or shy individuals within their ranks.
I know that in my case; the continual collection of photographs from the streets, the chase for images, pictures with a poetic and understated vein of pathos, so elusive as to hardly warrant more than nonchalant attention in a sane man's world. Yet a routine now spanning a quarter of a century which has helped give a certain structure to my life: underpinning all other facets of me. -The process itself is a; discipline most valuable, a humbling quest … a reason.
Recently I read a comment from a street photographer who was talking about the Magnum Master Josef Koudelka, describing him as a 'lonely photographer' - adding, that the lonely way of life can teach a man to watch and to write with light and with a camera.
The title of Milan Kundera's magnificent novel, 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' refers to a process of totally stripping away: of constructing a life with so few responsibilities as to render it absolutely devoid of any tangible worth. He who worships the purely hedonistic is in danger of being blown away in the next breeze. Yet on the upside, a life of such thinness can leave the space for moments of pristine clarity. No clutter: no cares. For the spiritual journey of the true loner is an existence seeking greater simplification. Shunning social appointments; small talk, unconcerned by a general lack of inclusiveness, without respite the loner is left unhindered, to focus on whatever he or she deems important - or failing that, they are left to drift, often aimlessly.