As soon as she boarded the 22-Fillmore at 16th & Guerrero, I wanted her picture. I wanted dozens of them.
Though perhaps five foot six inches tall, this Hispanic woman, about 45 years old, might have weighed more than I do (six foot two, 225). I mean seriously, dangerously, morbidly obese. She wore a black leather jacket several sizes too small, very tight black yoga pants, black leather ballet slippers, and a white top that was also a few sizes too small. This same top stretched so much and was made of such thin material that one could clearly see the push-up bra printed with a leopard-skin pattern except the bra was black and white like a zebra.
The finishing touch? The tiny pink Victoria’s Secret paper bag she clutched between her knees (each almost as wide around as a soccer ball).
In other words, a perfect picture that captures in a single frame the stories of obesity and bad taste in America.
Here is that perfect photograph:
I didn’t take any pictures of her.
The issue consists partly of the aesthetics of street photography and partly of the morality of street photography. I remain torn and undecided on both subjects.
I still can’t figure out what constitutes good street photography versus unsuccessful random snapshots, but I have some ideas. Actually, no ideas–more like hypotheses. Actually, no hypotheses–more like wild guesses. About 1 of every 100 street photographs will turn out well because it will capture the character of the person(s) portrayed. About 1 of every 100 street photographs will turn out well because it will capture the situation, action or story portrayed. About 1 of every 10,000 street photographs will turn out well because it will capture the situation, action or story and the character of the person(s) portrayed. Consider Dorothea Lange’s best work during the Depression.
Anyway, those are wild guesses, and they probably aren’t very good ones.
But the woman on the 22-Fillmore would have constituted a perfect subject for this week’s Challenge, and I chose not to photograph her. And that’s where the morality of street photography comes in.
First of all, the legality of street photography is not an issue in the United States. I had every legal right to photograph her.
But did she deserve that?
I mean, we’re not discussing something like Daumier’s Gargantua or Les Gens de Justice (which inspired an inspired animated short film called Daumier’s Law, well worth the search), in which he savaged public figures who had worked rather hard to earn his abuse. For all I know, this woman could be a perfectly decent human being who has a man who calls himself the luckiest guy on the planet. Does she deserve exposure to mockery?
And that’s why I didn’t touch my camera.
Some art repulses me because it doesn’t explore, study or portray everyday people, it mocks them. Ever hear of a photorealistic sculptor named Duane Hanson? I first discovered his sculptures at a major retrospective held at the Wadsworth Atheneum, where my dad worked during the Seventies. I met Mr. Hanson at a reception; he treated everyone kindly, even this teenage kid. But about half of his work seems to exist solely to mock people who might not deserve it. His best work? Brilliant and profound, like the construction worker eating lunch who has paused for a moment because he just realized that he hates his life. But Mr. Hanson also seemed to enjoy making fun of obese people, like the sleeping sunbather at the beach working on a cherry red sunburn, surrounded by empty junk food wrappers and bags, plus one empty can of diet soda.
Hey, don’t let me stop you; if you like this kind of photography, go for it. I won’t impose my prudery on your work, and I’m probably wrong to condemn mockery: you probably take brilliant pictures exposing the foibles and follies of ordinary people. I only want to describe my own evolving and ever-changing aesthetics, my own set of rules of what photographs I should take–aesthetics and rules that will likely change with time. I have simply grown leery of taking pictures of private individuals if it risks exposing them to mockery they don’t deserve.
Daumier attacked the powerful, even serving six months in jail for ridiculing the King of France (a man who deserved the ridicule more than Daumier deserved the jail cell). A woman wearing a black-and-white leopard skin push-up bra might not deserve the same attacks.
Vonn Scott Bair