Me and you (annoyingly subtitled Permission and Power)

To the annoyingly subtitled exhibition An Urban History of Photography (surely the photography is urban not the history thereof) Street and Studio at the Tate Modern with Hg (and the already holidaying FirstSpawn).

The blurb is similarly annoying:

Street & Studio brings out the contrast between the photos taken in the carefully orchestrated studio, and images captured in the changing and uncontrollable street, whilst highlighting the crossovers between the genres and their influence on each other…

Focusing on photos taken in buzzing cities, with their cosmopolitan cast of hipsters, businessmen, beauties and criminals, Street & Studio builds an engrossing urban history of photography, ranging from early black-and-white pictures from the late 1800s, to elegant fashion photography from the mid twentieth century, to cutting-edge portraiture by contemporary artists.

How many adjectives can one be expected to take in such a concentrated space?

However the exhibition itself is fascinating but its hugeness means repeated viewings will be necessary in order to absorb all the photoyumminess.

What most interested me on this, the first pass, was the concept of permission in terms of images of people. In other words the perennial question of whether it’s “ok” to take pictures of people in public without asking them. Although Room 2, Passers-by is where the issue is most clearly demonstrated but discussion avoided, as far as I could see. However I find the tone of the accompanying text interesting:

DiCorcia takes striking close-ups but goes to extreme lengths to ensure his subjects are not aware of being photographed. Using a long lens and flashlight, he sets up a complex apparatus above the street and is able to illuminate and isolate passers-by. Ed van der Elsken’s tactics were more aggressively voyeuristic. He followed an anonymous woman around the streets of Hong Kong, creating a sequence of pictures that is reminiscent of a tracking shot from a movie. ‘I followed this babe around for a while. She knew I was doing it, and didn’t like it one bit’, he confessed.

“…more aggressively voyeuristic”… “he confessed”… hmm… a tadette, a mere whiff of the pejorative, perhaps?

knitting, spawn, bee, beer

(Gratuitous portrait interlude to break up the blocks of text and pejorative only to beer-seeking bees inhabiting the buzzing city)

Perhaps this issue just isn’t controversial any more, it’s merely my continuing considerable unease with the practice in a tide of acceptance which makes me feel it’s so. It certainly has been in the past though. There are a couple of pictures in that room by Philip-Lorca diCorcia from his series Heads which prompted a lawsuit from one of the unwitting subjects and much debate on blogs. The photograph in question is not in the exhibition which could be entirely unconnected with the subsequent litigation but I did wonder whether there might be worries about further action under a different legal system.

Meanwhile, and relatedly, over in Room 9, Liberation: 1960s – 1980s there’s a piece by Laurie Anderson called Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which is described as a “photo-narrative installation”. Back in 1973 Anderson got sick of being harassed by men as she went about minding her own business so she decided to retaliate by taking a picture of the harassers.

The piece consists of an introductory text statement explaining the background followed by a number of photographs of men with their identities obscured in time-honoured newspaper journalistic fashion (a bar over the eyes) and beneath each picture is a short account of the event around the photograph. In the introductory text she compares taking someone’s photograph to mugging them.

This project was apparently the inspiration for a number of web-based “fight-backs” against street harassment – Holla Back New York City (not annoyingly sub-titled If You Can’t Slap ‘Em, Snap ‘Em) and Blank Noise in India for example.

The piece explicitly and the effect it has had demonstrates clearly the fact that one person taking a photograph of another person is an act which involves a significant power relationship and it is this which I think lies at the heart of my unease with some, possibly a lot, of street photography.

This twinning of permission and power is delightfully exemplified in a showcase in Room 5 (Ordinary People and Celebrities). One half is occupied by a hundred or so photographs of women taken in photobooths in 1928. The women, alone, entirely in control of what is happening, pose in exactly the way that appears on such pictures today. One even holds a telephone receiver to her ear which presumably she had brought with her for the purpose of appearing to converse animatedly.

The other side of showcase has a series of police mug shots – individuals without any control or power at all.

lunch

(Second gratuitous portrait interlude to break up the blocks of text, having nothing at all to do with mug shots)

The issue of permission emerges in the “public contribution” section of the exhibition. Street and Studio is following in the footsteps of last year’s How We Are at Tate Britain – which invited the public to contribute to the exhibition via a specially-set-up group on Flickr – and has set up a Street or Studio group. There’s an interesting discussion thread about “permission” centred around the Tate’s rather vague terms and conditions:

For legal reasons, the main subjects of the photograph should have consented to being photographed and not have received any payment in return.

Tate do not require evidence of written consent from the subject of the photograph…

The condition applies where the subject is the main focus of the shot, as in a staged studio portrait.

A snatched street shot would not require this permission as the subjects may be incidental.

The main thing is that the subject of the photograph has not been paid for being featured in the photograph.

Clear? Yeah, as mud.

I was disappointed not to see the Flickr photographs anywhere in the exhibition itself, unlike How We Are Now which included several screens showing pictures from the group pool and later 40 of those submitted were chosen for display in the gallery for the end portion of the show’s run. It seems counter-intuitive to invite public participation in a themed exhibition and then not incorporate those contributions in the gallery itself.

True, the involvement is billed as “Your photos in print” but there’s a para which claims “All submissions will be posted and shared on Tate Online and displayed on a screen in the gallery” so maybe I missed it. I’m a cynic, of course, but this does look more like a marketing opportunity for the project’s publishing partner to cash in on a new variant of vanity publishing rather than exploring the richness and variety of responses to the theme.

I shall look carefully for the screen in the gallery on my next visit, which shall be very soon indeed.

5 Replies to “Me and you (annoyingly subtitled Permission and Power)”

  1. Well it certainly inspired you. I like these portraits as well as any in the exhibition.

    Did you see the text accompanying one of the very early photos (was it Riviere – I can’t remember) where he gleefully described ambushing a posy lady in a big hat in the park, and her indignation. At least there was no question then of photographing someone without their knowing it.

    The quote from DiCorcia is disgusting – whereas I never am when taking covert photographs, of course…

  2. I shy away from taking recognizable pictures of people because I value my own privacy.

    I was a yearbook advisor for many years, though, and kids just loved to have their picture included in the yearbook, and the idea of permission never seemed to come up. I suspect it’s sill that way, despite the fact that kids are probably those that most need to be shielded from their own stupidity at times. (As advisor, I was the only one deleting photos of kids I didn’t think were appropriate.)

  3. I often want to take photos of people in the street, but feel uncomfortable about it and dont. Now, why I feel uncomfortable, I am not able to exactly define…

  4. Jean, that’s such an amazing compliment given the quality of some of the images there! I saw a piece of text about someone who took pictures of women in the Tuileries and how the men accompanying them would get very angry about it…

    Loren, I think my reluctance is for similar reasons. I absolutely hate having my picture taken when I haven’t, either overtly or tacitly, acceded to it.

    However I do now occasionally pluck up the courage to *ask* people… and sometimes they say yes!

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