Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Posts, poles, signs, and signals

Father and daughter walk a pole lined streetThere are two main approaches to documentary art: 

1) documenting the here and now; and 
2) documenting the human condition which happens to also exist here and now.

The first group tends toward social commentary. Think Robert Frank’s criticisms of “Middle America Consumerism.” This is the realm of “pop art.” It takes the signs and symbols of the now and attempts to leverage them into a larger message. But that message is always dependent on the symbols remaining within the experience of the viewer, and the symbols must retain the meaning commented upon.

The second group tends toward humanism. Think Robert Capa or Cartier-Bresson, whose pictures retain their relevance to the human condition no matter how many years pass. Photojournalists document the human experience. Being human isn't a function of the now—it's parallel with it. The symbols of the present are merely incidental to the moments, and the commentary is historical instead of social.

A major issue in trying to document in the style of the second group is that our society has become littered with the symbols of present day concerns: prohibitions against parking, smoking, dogs, skateboards, bicycles, and loitering litter the walls and occupy sign posts. Parking regulations and warnings and meters and concrete poles to prevent parking line the streets. These are the signs and symbols of present concerns, and they interfere with capturing the parts of humanity that exist and occur despite current traffic snarls and social opinions about what we ingest. 


The primary role of a photographer is to document, and to some extent including the visual detritus of the Streets Department is not only unavoidable, but necessary to explain the moment. 

It’s important, however, to make that a decisive-choice. Framing a lasting image requires as much attention to ground as to figure, and it’s easy to let the noise of the present day make you visually numb. Fight it. Look for the ghastly signs, and if they don’t add to the moment you are capturing, move around until they are reduced or excluded. Otherwise the unintended noise of the present day will distort the signal of your lasting images. 

Paris waiters