Saturday, May 9, 2009
The narrative as fiction - 1
Children in the Mist, San Francisco, January 2009.
This picture of a child running in the mist has been called magical, eerie, sinister, even troubling. I've been asked if the children were in harm's way or if they were running away from a fire. The reality of the picture is nowhere near as dramatic as it appears, but that's what makes pictures so pleasurable. They can create narratives in the viewers' heads that exceed the photographer's intention.
What, for example, are we to make of Joel Meyerowitz' 1967 picture of a commotion in a Parisian street? Is the man dead? Did the man with a hammer strike the fatal blow? Again the truth may be more banal than what the image suggests: the fallen man was having a seizure and the man with the hammer was about to come to his aid. Yet Meyerowitz' picture doesn't need this kind of clarification because it's not meant to be reportage; the power of its narrative comes precisely from its enigma.
Documentary photographers, on the other hand, are not expected to be ambiguous. People expect reportage to portray the truth, even though truth itself can become a fuzzy concept because of the innate subjectivity of the medium. In any case, photojournalists are held to a higher standard of objectivity compared to other types of photographers. Some photojournalists have been accused in the past of staging a picture. The veracity of Capa's 1939 picture of the falling soldier in Cordoba was questioned for many years. Critics claimed that the picture was staged during a lull in the fighting. Capa's silence and the loss of negatives and contact sheets merely served to fuel these doubts. Only recently was the matter of authenticity finally put to rest when relatives of the dead soldier corroborated the man's identity and death at the moment Capa took the picture.
When manufactured narratives masquerade as reportage, ethical questions come into play. Robert Doisneau's iconic picture, The Kiss at the Hotel de Ville, has long been regarded as a candid and poignant moment that epitomized the romance of Paris. It is now known that Doisneau himself created the scene using hired models, a detail that was withheld when it was originally published in Life Magazine. Weegee's 1943 photograph of a chance encounter between a bag lady and aristocratic socialites attending a Met Gala was similarly staged. The picture was also used to illustrate a news report in Life Magazine. But Weegee's assistant has since revealed that the bag lady was pulled out of a Bowery bar, offered free drinks, then strategically positioned in front of the Opera House for her "spontaneous" encounter with the fashionable duo.
Sometimes the combination of staging and spontaneity can create classic images. For young girls in America in the 1950s, Ruth Orkin's picture American Girl in Italy became a cautionary tale of what it meant to be young, female and alone in a foreign country. Published by Cosmopolitan Magazine, the picture was part of a photo series called "When You Travel Alone." The woman in the picture, however, was not a traveler but a fine arts student in Florence who was asked by Orkin to play a role for the photo series. The lecherous looks of the men in the picture may have been completely spontaneous, but the unexpected appearance of the woman in their midst was certainly not.
Next: Philip-Lorca diCorcia and the staged narrative.
Joel Meyerowitz, Untitled, Paris, 1967.
Robert Capa, Falling Soldier, Cerro Muriano (Cordoba Front), 1936.
Robert Doisneau, The Kiss at the Hotel de Ville, Paris, 1950.
Weegee, The Critic, New York City, 1943
Ruth Orkin, American Girl in Italy, 1951.