Approach this exercise with care and a diligent awareness of health and safety both for yourself and others.
Closely consider the work of the practitioners discussed above, then try to shoot a series of five portraits of subjects who are unaware of the fact they are being photographed. As you’ve seen, there are many ways in which you can go about this, but we can’t stress enough that the objective here is not to offend your subjects or deliberately invade anyone’s privacy. If you don’t have permission to shoot in a privately-owned space, then you should only attempt this work in a public space, where permission to shoot is not necessarily required.
This is a very interesting challenge, which some students will find incredibly difficult. Remember that the creative outcome of the practitioners discussed above has come about through a sustained approach, which is then heavily edited for presentation. You’ll need to shoot many images in order to be able to present five final images that work together as a set.
Think everything through carefully before attempting this exercise as the responsibility for the outcome of the portraits rests entirely with you. If during the course of this exercise you are challenged in any way, be prepared to delete what you have shot. If you can see that you are annoying someone, or making them feel uncomfortable, stop shooting immediately. You’ll be required to operate with a degree of common sense here and not take unnecessary risks. There are ways of completing this exercise without incurring risk, such as shooting the work at a party you’ve been invited to, where all the guests have been invited for a particular celebration.
The reflection about your methodology (your approach to how you have achieved the images in relation to why you chose what you have chosen), will be as important as the final five images, so be prepared to write about how you found the experience (around 500 words) and present your findings via your learning log or blog.
[11Nov20] During EyV I noted (fig. A1) that my local McDonald's at dusk had a faint air of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and I had at the back of my mind running with a selection of such images for this exercise. But now all the cafés and fast food emporia are closed for a month, even for outside tables. Back to the drawing board.
Rocky's 45° mirror
I have always been tempted to photograph people sitting on benches waiting for trains. I raised this during C&N, reminiscing about doing the same in the 70s while commuting from Cardiff to Newport (and to Bristol if I fell asleep). I mentioned in the course notes for Part 2 the 45° mirror lens attachment for covert photography, sold decades ago. I contacted Keith Rock ('Rocky' the s/h camera dealer) and he dug one out for £15 (fig. B1): tragically, he has terminal cancer, but is still trading at the moment. That should be here soon and I'll see what it fits.
And don't forget Peter Funch's repeated photographs of commuters on the same NY street location and time and his search for the same people on different days.
The comment, "The reflection about your methodology (your approach to how you have
achieved the images in relation to why you chose what you have chosen), will be
as important as the final five images, so be prepared to write about how you
found the experience (around 500 words) and present your findings via your
learning log or blog" is important — regular readers will be aware of my views on street photography and its ill-use.
[8Dec] A first wander with the X-T4, replacing the X-T2 and without the right angle attachment. The probable location and subjects will be exterior customers at an Eltham cafe. It would be easy to rattle off five images to tick the box, but I will regard it as an opportunity to explore techniques, particularly the right-angle finder. The contact sheet for 5th Dec is below and it also incorporates an idea for Exc. 2.4..
[13Jun21] This exercise stayed on hold for 6 months while the Covid-19 restrictions closed all indoor and outdoor eating. Now it is summer and a decision will be announced tomorrow on whether restrictions are finally relaxed or whether they will be extended for the latest (Nepalese, following the Indian) variant.
The lens was chosen as I thought it about the correct focal length for what I had in mind and precision focusing, as this is difficult using the attachment. The 'film' setting was intended to provide a grainy surveillance note. Both choices worked pretty well.
I have expressed at some length, on this page and elsewhere, my general disapproval of street photography as demeaning and often ill-intended, but I allowed myself this outing.
It is not easy to track or focus with the device and this is largely because it uses a mirror and everything is reversed as with a twin lens reflex, see figs. D1 and D2. I have reversed and straightened figs. D2-D5.
Fig. D5 is rather good with some pleasing characterisation. The rest will suffice and I have marked this exercise as complete.
[14Jun21] There are three aspects of this exercise to consider: the choice of subject matter, the technology used and the ethics of the project.
As regards the subject matter, this might have been the last day on which the issue of Covid-19 restrictions would have to be mentioned, but if the rumours are to be believed, Boris will be announcing a four-week extension an hour from now.
The fact that the project began in December 2020, rested for 6 months and was completed in June 2021 suggests that circumstances have been unusual. The subject, customers outside a coffee bar on my local Eltham High Street arose largely because travel was restricted and inside consumption was banned when I started. The six-month hiatus resulted from the closure of this and all food emporia to all but takeaways and deliveries until late April. The resumption reflects the fact that summer has arrived at last.
Whether I would otherwise have selected a radically different location is a moot point. I did mention people on benches, or a particular bench in early considerations – I used to photograph these in the 1970s on railway stations as I have always been fascinated by the way strangers distance themselves, normally maximising the available space. I used this subject as a backup assignment for C&N but did not spend much time on it. Dieter Meier ran an interesting bench project in 1970, 29 pictures within 5 minutes, London, 14-October-1970, 17:00-17:05, in front of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Peter Funch devised an interesting variant on photographing strangers by doing so repeatedly with commuters at the same time of day and location and looking out for the same individuals recurring, 42nd and Vanderbilt, 2017 – that’s a cleverer idea than most photographers can muster, but not practical to try in this period with commuting at a halt.
So the Eltham High Street coffee shop it was, and that only when allowed.
On the technical side, I hit upon the rather jolly notion of using a mirror attachment on a long lens.
Walker Evans' late 1930s Subway project is mentioned in the course material (Boothroyd & Roberts, 2019, p.60) and how he 'went to great lengths to accomplish these covert portraits, painting out any chrome on his camera with black paint and hiding the instrument within his overcoat'. I recently read the Bill Jay memorial edition of Lenswork (Jensen & Gallagher, 2009, p.63), where he recalls a lens attachment with a 45° mirror that enabled covert photography of subjects at right angles to the photographer's apparent view. He claims, 'Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz and Helen Levitt, among other photographers, renowned for their street photographs, commonly used these gizmos'.
I remember these being on sale 50 years ago and my favourite once-itinerant camera dealer, Rocky now of rockycameras.com had one to hand and I bought a number of Series VII adaptors so that I could fit it to various lenses.
The attachments are difficult to use, not least because, as they use a mirror, the image is reversed and so tracking is completely counter-intuitive, as with a twin-lens reflex camera.
As noted on the exercise text, “I set out with the mirror accessory (fig. B1) attached to an old Pentax mount 90mm macro lens (not used for probably 20 years) on a Fuji X-E3 running a custom 'film' setting designed to imitate Fuji Superior 800... [t]he lens was chosen as I thought it about the correct focal length for what I had in mind and precision focusing, as this is difficult using the attachment. The 'film' setting was intended to provide a grainy surveillance note. Both choices worked pretty well.”
The ethics of this sort of photography is another matter (see C&N exercise 1.2, Blackburn, 2019). I disapprove of most of the image-making that falls under the category of street photography. While Cartier-Bresson’s innovatory approach with an early Leica, subsequently described in Images à la Sauvette, The Decisive Moment (1952), set the stage for a generation of imitators, nowadays most of the genre and sub-genres are superficial and either patronising or demeaning when covert; facile, self-congratulatory and superficial when overt.
Overt street photography is largely harmless, but covert is often hurtful and always dishonest. Nevertheless, I indulged in it for this exercise, enjoyed playing with the equipment and did not enjoy photographing people without their consent.
I conclude that I will only make street photographs when required to do so, never of my own volition without an authentic purpose and that when doing so I will endeavour not to demean those photographed. This limits my choice of Level 2 courses, but so be it.