It’s taken me a while to make up my mind about this topic, but I think we need to be realistic about reality. We have to acknowledge an important fact about it. It’s there.
Most professional photography consists in rearranging really to suit the purposes of the photographer. Whether its portraiture, fashion, wedding, friends-and-family, advertising or corporate — the subject in front of the camera is primped, prettified, fussed over, and generally rearranged to look good in the eyes of the world.
Only landscape, travel, and truly candid photographs are (mostly) free of such deliberate distortion. Not incidentally, they are also more likely than the others to be free from the demands of commerce, taken by people for love rather than money.
I have no objections in principle to rearranging reality for the purposes of art, but I don’t think it has any place in street photography. Any interference with the scene — such as attracting the attention of a person within it, or moving an object to suit the composition — destroys the illusion of the invisible camera. Without this illusion street photography has no magic and no identity. It is nothing at all.
Oddly enough, the artist who inspires me the most was one who acquired a reputation for obsessively altering the reality in front of the camera.
In the Movies
I have always admired the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially his later ones which were made in full colour with cinematography by Carlo Di Palma. It was Antonioni’s film “Il Deserto Rosso” (The Red Desert) which, several years ago, set me on a path to accepting the reality of the modern world.
In the movie, Giuliana (played by Monica Vitti) is the beautiful protagonist whose neurosis is brought about by having to cope with the hostile world of industrial Italy. She seems to be alone in responding negatively to the factories and shipyards where her husband’s work has taken her. She is a stranger in a strange land.
Only towards the end of the film is there a kind of resolution for her, when she reassures her young son, Valerio, that the birds in the area survive by learning to avoid the poisonous yellow smoke emitted from the chimneys.
The message of acceptance was underlined later by Antonioni when he said: “The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing.” To get this feeling across, he used every possible photographic technique, including the use of telephoto lenses to foreshorten the distance between the central character and her environment.
The technique of melding subject and environment lies at the heart of street photography. That’s right. The film director who most exemplifies the aesthetic (as opposed to the candid spirit) of street photography was also one who liked to manipulate reality for photographic effect.
For this, his first colour film, Antonioni wanted to compose the colour relationships, so he gave us white steam, red pipes, blue railings, and painted the trees and grass white and grey to suppress any lingering colours of nature in this largely man-made world.
Antonioni’s films positively invite us to see reality in photographic terms. He embraces photography at the expense of theatre by undramatising his scenes, making them appear to be slices of life, although, of course, everything is meticulously orchestrated.
If you’re wondering how Antonioni himself saw reality, here’s another quote: “Every time I enter a strange office, public place or private home, I get the urge to rearrange the scene. I go out to meet someone and the conversation puts me ill at ease. Because I feel that neither of us is properly placed in the room.”
He adds: “Is this professional distortion or the instinctive urge to feel myself in physical harmony with my surroundings? I believe more in the second hypothesis. In fact, I cannot shoot a scene without first being alone in the room, or the set, in order to understand it and sense the various possible camera angles.” (Esquire, August 1970).
A Shared Neurosis
I must say, I’ve always shared the same neurosis: of wanting to feel in physical harmony with my surroundings and being uncomfortable with the “wrong” position.
Watching “Il Deserto Rosso” made me give up art history and go to film school, but I’ve since found that I don’t want to change the reality in front of the camera — I just want to change my viewpoint. In fact, working in environments where I feel out of place is of real benefit in compelling me to look for accidental or hard-to-find arrangements of forms, colours, and contrasts that make me feel better.
Street photography depends on our personal feelings about our relationship to reality. Do we love it? Hate it? Admire it? Do we feel dwarfed by it? Or do we feel superior to it? In awe of it? Amused by it? Puzzled by it?
There are endless questions we can ask, but we probably shouldn’t verbalise them. The extent to which we humanise the camera by controlling where and how we point it is a measure of how well we answer those questions without ever posing them overtly.