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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Commissioning a portrait

Full-length semi-profile portrait of a sitting young man. He sits on an ornamented wooden chair, next to an ornamented wooden table, on which his right arm rests. His legs are crossed. His hair is parted on the left. He wears a dark-coloured tweed suit, a white dress shirt and a dark-coloured tie.
Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Cobie Hijma. (front)

For ages, when you felt important enough to be portrayed, you had to commission a painter to paint your mug. A costly and time-consuming process, that automatically generated careful consideration before even taking the step of contacting painters and perhaps looking at some portfolios of sketches. And in the process, during the many sittings it might take to finish the product, you too would have loads of time to consider the painter’s first outlines and perhaps adjust as you went along. Just like the painter would. 

The photographic portrait was different from the get-go. Even in the early days, when photography was still a relatively “slow” medium with exposure times running in the minutes, it produced results considerably faster than painting and drawing did before. In the decades following the “birth” of photography at the end of the 1830s, photography as a medium just got faster and faster. Enthusiasts such as Fox Talbot spent enormous amounts of time experimenting, adjusting and perfecting chemical compositions used to capture the “light images”, and perhaps more importantly and for a long time the greatest struggle, also retaining or fixing these.  

Over time, photography evolved from being a medium of the happy few elitists to a medium of the masses. This did not happen overnight, but rather over decades. In the many histories of photography that have been composed to this day, it is often recited that the turning point was when George Eastman’s Kodak found a way to produce a small, easy-to-operate camera that could basically be operated by anyone. In addition, Kodak took the labouring process of developing the film and printing the images in the darkroom out of the customer’s hands, steps for which many different chemicals and appliances were needed, as well as specific knowledge. “You press the button, we do the rest.” The consumer handed in their camera at their local store with a full film roll still in it, and in some time received in return their camera loaded with fresh film and a folder with prints of their previous roll. 

Another step in photography’s democratization has most definitely been the inauguration of the digital age. In the first five to ten years, digital photography might have sooner been a step back rather than forwards in relation to availability to all. As with all brand-new techniques, the first specimens of digital cameras were extremely expensive, making it available only to wealthy early adopters. However, as we all know, development in the digital era has been crazy fast, resulting in what is now an everyday practice that almost everyone walks around with a digital camera in his pocket that is over a thousand times better than those first, super expensive models.  

Literally, anyone can take a photograph anywhere. This practice has reduced the “commissioning” of a portrait to a simple question: “Hey, take my photo, will you?”, which can be answered with a few simple “swipes” and clicks. In a heartbeat, one can produce a portrait, crop it, adjust the lighting and other edits, and send it to the person who “commissioned” it. The whole process has become so effortless, that anyone can do it and as a result, professional photographers struggle to validate their practice and pricing. They are priced out of the market by the fact that everyone thinks they are, or at least know what it entails to be, a photographer. A modern-day example of “my three-year-old could do that”, as was already the critique in the days of Modern art in the 19th century. 

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Photography’s eye

Unknown photographer, probably 1930s. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Réka Szentirmay. (back)

Photography has a complex relationship with its subject. It was the first medium that derived its imagery from the physical world around us, rather than the artist´s imagination. When portraying a person, that also meant that the person in question was physically confronted with the apparatus. The camera looked the subject in the eye, or vice versa. 

However, it has finally been accepted that a photograph is not necessarily an objective representation of what it faced in the world. Even in the early days of photography, manipulation of the final image was practise in many ways. When portrait photography became more widespread in the early 1900s, photographers already employed photoshop-avant-la-lettre by giving subjects some healthy rosy cheeks or reducing a waist.  

Looking into photography’s eye and being confronted with the (objective?) result, a representation of the self, can be scary. It lays bare parts of ourselves that we might not always be happy to see. Looking at yourself from an outside perspective is alienating in itself, but the camera can also emphasize what you might consider your flaws. Some culture critics have even described photography as stealing (part of) the soul of the portrayed. 

Another aspect of photography is that it eternalizes something that occurs at a specific moment in time in a permanent image, thereby emphasizing it. This moment might otherwise have been fleeting, but because it was seen by photography’s eye, it gains meaning. As a result, it might also be seen by a much bigger audience. A photograph can circulate for way longer, in different places, among far more people. 

To quote General Hammond in Stargate SG-1 S07E17, “cameras don’t just record things. They change what they record just by being there”. When photography just emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, this was true because the technique was new. This both intrigued and was met with suspicion. People were not yet sure how this medium worked. Nowadays, most of us are very much aware of the power of the photographic image and how easy it is to manipulate. This makes us suspicious as to why an image is taken. And because photography’s eye has become smaller and smaller over time, we are also always weary if our image is taken without us knowing. 

The camera, photography’s eye, can be a torturous instrument. It can turn the private into the obscene; force its subjects to perform a role in front of the lens, to show a better version of themselves. This is very much the case nowadays with social media. Vloggers, bloggers and influencers are creating a perfect online life through images, which perhaps blurs the boundaries between fiction and real life a little too much. An example is the mommy blog, in which parents document their children’s whole lives to share with their followers, and the world. These children cannot yet give their formal consent and are sucked into this world involuntarily. If they grow up with the constant presence of photography’s eye, will they ever know what is real and what is for the show? Will they know who they are when not in front of a camera? Or will photography really steal their souls? 

Tired of looking at my backside? Check out my front!

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