Candid camera

Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Réka Szentirmay. (back)
Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Réka Szentirmay. (back)

Look at this photograph of a woman with her two children. None of the three seems to be particularly invested in the taking of this photograph. Mom is busy fussing over her youngest, perhaps with the idea in mind that this moment will be eternalized and it would be nice if the baby behaves at least presentable. The baby itself has a look in its eyes as if it isn’t present at all, but far away in fantasyland. The second child, in the foreground, is playing with some kind of book or folder and doesn’t pay any attention to the photographer, even though they are not far apart. The group of three hardly fits in the frame, so the photographer almost feels like a part of the scene as a whole.

Even though this shot feels haphazard and unforced, I wonder if it qualifies as a candid shot. Or if any photograph would qualify as a candid photo, for that matter. Isn’t every photograph, in one way or another, orchestrated or staged? To quote the wise lieutenant general George Hammond in Stargate SG-1 as I have done before: “Cameras don’t just record things. They change what they record just by being there.”[1] Considering this scene, we have to take into account that the camera was present in the scene and has therefore influenced the scene.

Subconsciously, I already referred to this fact when I described the image, hinting at the mother’s concern with the act of taking the picture. Of course, objectively speaking I am unable to have any clue what she is thinking. But as you might have noticed before, that is what this blog is all about: we muse, unlimited by too much contextual information. So I look at this woman, holding her young child close to her face, affectionate but observant too, and a story forms in my mind as always when I look at a photograph. In this case, perhaps because not one of the three protagonists makes eye contact with the camera, I immediately feel some discomfort and a bit of haste. As if mom beams her thoughts at me: “Dad has finally set up the camera now, all behave and look at the camera. Don’t make faces. Is my dress okay, and my hair?”

The framing, quite crammed for the party of three, also makes the presence of the camera (or the photographer?) more tangible. As viewers, we are almost shoved into the scene, against our will, because the camera’s viewpoint is so up-in-the-face of the scene. You’d almost try to get out of the way because you feel you are in the frame, or because the photographer behind you is urging you to move. In this case, the world in the image isn’t harshly separated from ours. The lines of the “frame” between the two are severely blurred, paradoxically by the framing of the scene itself.

Following this train of thought, the question arises if there is a difference between photographs that are clearly separated from our world, either physically or content-wise, and photographs that seem to blend in more easily. For that would imply that there is also a difference in “candidness” between photographs, depending on the distance between the world of the image and our world. This distance too can be either physical, a photograph being separated from our world by a heavy frame on a clinically white wall, or due to the content. And that too, I feel, can fall into two categories; images that separate themselves from the viewer’s world (which itself can differ greatly) because of the content, and images that form a hiatus with our world because of the in-image framing. A very formal, static full-length portrait with a lot of space around it doesn’t easily blend in, as the scene in this blog’s photo does so much more easily, feeling more “taken from life”.

[1] Stargate SG-1. Season 07, episode 17: “Heroes: part 1”. Airdate 03-04-2004.

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