Posted by: annegab | November 10, 2012

Street Photography towards Style

I was particularly struck by Ryan’s Picturing the Empire Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire and the issue that Thomson had in documenting the natives on his travels. Reading about Thomson’s difficulty in getting consent was because the camera was seen, as taking a picture of someone’s soul: powerful indeed, particularly in a social reform context. But the power of the camera is its ability allow the viewer to “see without being seen” as Ryan writes: “This concern with securing photographs without the knowledge of the subjects being photographed is perhaps an appropriate metaphor for the ambition of regimes of colonial representation: to see without being see” (pg. 144). I immediately thought about the question “How do you legitimize yourself as a street photographer–do you ask the person, ‘may I take your picture?’ Or do you stealthily observe and take pictures without asking?

 As we talked in class it is interesting to compare Thomson and Doré, because Doré as an artist using a very different medium, was able to recreate spaces that Thomson would not have been able to capture at the time. We know from Thomson that he interacted with his subject abroad and in London because due to the technology he had to have cooperation. I don’t know how Doré worked. Was he able to sit down in the middle of a street and sketch? Or maybe he went into buildings and observed from above? What about the fact that London was so populated that he probably couldn’t see much anyway?

 As always I’m amazed how these questions around consent and “who is viewing whom and for what purpose?” continue to be pertinent today. The street photography that we have studied in Thomson evolved to include much more than documenting the poor.

The term is now mostly associated with; you guessed it, fashion photography. I particularly have in mind Bill Cunningham and Scott Schuman, both photographers in New York City with very different styles at approaching their subjects.

Cunningham doesn’t appear to interact with his objects as much as Schuman does. Through interviews and his pictures he doesn’t necessarily ask permission to take a picture. He’s more like the paparazzi, quietly observing, except for one important factor—that everybody wants to have their picture taken by Bill. Even Anna Wintour mentions in the documentary film that if Bill doesn’t take your picture then you know what you are wearing is not sensational.Image


Meanwhile, Scott interacts with his subjects, asks if he can take their picture and stages them the way he wants–looking directly in at the camera. He is consciously creating a conversation between subject and viewer whereas Bill is more likely to take people in action; crossing the street with their backs to us, walking by as they go on their daily commute. Image


Street Fashion Photography also brings a host of different issues concerning the representation and objectification of bodies. With Bill Cunningham, there is more often a sense of voyeurism. With Scott Schumann, there is more often a sense of scrutiny on both the subject and viewer. But the question still remains how would you legitimize yourself as a photographer? Because these photographers then can change these images to fulfill their vision.



Pictures of Bill:

Pictures of the Sartorialist:


  1. Having been a big fan of Bill Cunningham’s photos in the NY Times for years, I have often wondered about these nameless people whose photos he takes. He photographs people who love and are either having fun with fashion or showing off their style very deliberately. I had not considered before your final statement, however, that these photographers can change the images at will. I saw the film “Bill Cunningham’s New York City” (I think that is the title) and I saw a kind man who does not seem to have any motive beyond photographing stylish pedestrians as they go about their business. However, your post brought to mind another, more sinister form of voyeuristic photography. I am talking about the hideous “People of WalMart” photos that are posted regularly to the Internet. These people are victimized in cruel, not humorous, ways. Yet the site has a huge following. The fact that the photos are snapped by fellow shoppers with their cellphones and then uploaded to the site makes the whole thing even creepier, in my opinion. Last week a woman publicly complained that her mother had been made to look ridiculous by one of these cellphone “photographers” and she was angry, wanting to know if her mother had legal recourse. We are all vulnerable to this kind of scrutiny and public embarrassment. We lose all right to privacy by simply walking out our door and into a store like WalMart or any public place. There does not seem to be any control over content on that site, which I find disturbing. I am not missing the point of your post and I found it enlightening and intriguing. It’s one thing to be snapped because you look wonderful or whimsical in your clothing. It’s quite another to be snapped because someone wants to make you look ridiculous.

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