27
Aug
07

street photography, voyeurism, and walls

While idly surfing about the ‘net, I ran across a conversation about whether to use a Nikon 85mm or a 80-200mm zoom for “street photography”.  Many users argued for the long zoom, a position I find more than a little disturbing.  I have a number of problems with it.

First, I am somewhat of a traditionalist.  To me, “street photography” means something in the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson – not so much the subject matter as the sense of intimacy and immediacy. Cartier-Bresson used a Leica with a 50mm lens (still the classic “street photography” rig), which has implications. First, it meant he had to get in close to his subjects to capture detail and motion. Second, he captured a lot of the surroundings as well as the people – and the surroundings provided context, and often meaning to his photos.

Punk girl at Nicollet Station

Long lenses like the 85mm (127mm equivalent on a modern Nikon DSLR) and the really long zooms have two effects – first, they isolate the subject from its surroundings.  Second, they allow (even require) the photographer to shoot from longer distances.  The first effect is a largely aesthetic problem for me – for “street photography”, I want to see context.  Without context, it’s just portraiture.

The second effect is where I start feeling really uncomfortable. Long lenses give the photographer the opportunity to take photos without the subject being aware, or having a chance to be aware, or even having a chance to interact with the photographer if notice is taken.  This crosses into voyeurism.  It’s an intrusion, and related to theft.  This also ties into the isolation of the subject from the environmental context, and frankly, the subject itself – far too many long-lens “street” photographers are just snapping photos of pretty girls.  The physical beauty alone provides the meaning as well as the subject.

Of course, Cartier-Bresson was a furtive, secretive photographer as well.  If permission and intrusion is the question, we won’t get a good answer from the father of the style.  But I think this leads to another issue I have – the wall.  When taking photographs, the camera acts as a wall between the photographer and the subject.  A small camera such as a Leica is a small wall.  But a big cannon-sized lens like an 80-200mm zoom is a BIG wall.  I think this has psychological relevance for both the subject and the photographer.

Additionally, a really large camera/lens combination starts to dominate the photographer’s senses. It’s heavy and bulky and needy. It gets in the way of involvement with the surroundings, with people and things.  A small camera can hang unobtrusively, or even be pocketed, allowing the photographer to participate fully in the scene being photographed.

It’s hard for me to say where I’m going with all this.  Ultimately, I think long, large lenses contribute to an unhealthy, uninvolved relationship between the photographer and the subject, and between the photographer and the world.  At worst, this can lead to morally questionable photographs. And politically, it also contributes to the sense of surveillance and the lack of privacy in our modern world.

Once again, I need to contemplate this idea more, and maybe revisit the subject in the future.

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