Garry Winogrand Had It Easy! (A Serendip of San Franciscans, Part 2, 11 March 2015)


Good Evening:

So did Gordon Parks. So did all of those New York photographers in the post-WWII era who roamed the streets, letting their cameras dangle at their side, using what I call The 30 Shot technique to capture the lives of ordinary people around them and proving that neither they nor their lives were ordinary.

In those days, people looked around themselves, they engaged themselves in the world around themselves. In many photographs from that era, the subjects look directly into the camera, which makes me suspect that very large ones drew people’s attention.

Today, people on the street do not engage themselves in the world around themselves.

Market Near Van Ness, San Francisco, California, 3:01 p.m., 11 March 2015.

Market Near Van Ness, San Francisco, California, 3:01 p.m., 11 March 2015.

They absorb themselves in their own.

This is not a nice thing to do to second-rate hack amateur photographers such as myself.

Upper Haight, San Francisco, California, 2:17 p.m., 8 March 2015.

Upper Haight, San Francisco, California, 2:17 p.m., 8 March 2015.

How does a second-rate hack amateur such as myself capture The Decisive Moment as described by my boy the HC-B (Henri Cartier-Bresson, or however he spelled his name) where no decisive moment exists for the capturing? These next three pictures took less than 30 seconds and captured scenes no more than 50 feet apart from each other.

San Francisco City Hall, 12 March 2015.

San Francisco City Hall, 12 March 2015.

DSCN7945 DSCN7943

What the heck is interesting in these?!

Cell phones have not become the photographer’s friend, they have become our enemy. Sure, it feels good to know that when you need a camera you already have one, and yes, the best camera in the world is the one you have in your hand right now. The trouble is that cell phones, especially the ones smarter than us, make our potential subjects less interesting because their faces look downward, you can hardly see them..

Look at these two.

Upper Haight, San Francisco, California, 2:19 p.m., 8 March 2015

Upper Haight, San Francisco, California, 2:19 p.m., 8 March 2015

Yes, they are friends, yes they are together, and yes they are hanging out with each other on a perfect weekend afternoon in the Upper Haight, but are they really together, are they really hanging out with each other–or are they hanging out with their phones and treating each other like accessories?

See what I mean?

Never mind that people nowadays do not present themselves as ideal subjects for random street photographers–even if that does pose problems for second-rate amateur hacks. They live in of the most interesting cities on by far the most interesting known planet in the universe (know anywhere else you might find chocolate ice cream or a duck-billed platypus or chocolate duck-billed platypus ice cream?)–and yet they do not live in suitably interesting fashion.

Missing out on the world in which they live means more than just missing out–it also means almost getting themselves killed. Yesterday I espied a woman who walked into Market Street traffic against the light and nearly walked into the bus taking me home from work. She had no idea that cars swerved around her, and I strongly believe she never saw nor sensed the 50 foot long bus into which she nearly walked.

Come on people. Put the phone down.

And smile. I might be taking your picture.

Vonn Scott Bair


One response »

  1. “Come on people. Put the phone down.”

    Ah, but wait! I tend to agree, however…

    “How does a second-rate hack amateur such as myself capture The Decisive Moment as described by my boy the HC-B (Henri Cartier-Bresson, or however he spelled his name) where no decisive moment exists for the capturing?”

    (Ignoring the self-deprecating comment,) You don’t, because you live in a time where *you have it easier*….

    “What the heck is interesting in these?!”

    You, my friend, are **documenting a moment in human history**: one which has never existed before, and may never exist again! Winogrand, Parks, et. al. captured visual vignettes of life in their time (i assume… i’m ignorant of most well-known photographers’ works). You are doing the exact same thing. Their subjects, engaged with the immediate physical world around them, challenged them with a wider range of visually palpable behavior, requiring timing and luck to capture The Decisive Moment. Your subjects deny you this nostalgic challenge of the past, yet don’t overlook the opportunity they’re handing you: noticing and documenting this stage of human development, especially our coming to terms with powerful socially-connecting technologies of unprecedented portability. Will the majority of humanity continue in this direction, with this being an awkward intermediate stage before Kurzweil’s Singularity? Or if not exactly that, some further melding of human/machine beyond Google Glass, which embeds the ability to be in-the-moment somewhere other than our current physical location more tightly into our beings than holding something in our hand? Will disruptive events my small mind cannot even imagine send most of humanity some other direction? Will there be a nostalgic backlash, as with vinyl records and paper books?

    None of these things we know, now. We can, however, guess that what may be mundane or annoying to us in the present may be interesting to those in the future. At least some of us (well, *me*) are fascinated looking at old photographs of street scenes and stationary objects (especially ones which are now rare or no longer exist). In many of the ones in my (tiny) collection, people aren’t looking at the camera any more than they do for you: they’re not the focal point of the image. Usually they’re not interacting with those right next to them, any more than your two subjects in the last photo. In these old photos, i can see fashion (clothing and otherwise) and a microcosm of their lives and times: streetcars, horses and buggies, traffic officers in intersections (sometimes along with rudimentary traffic signals), newspapers folded under arms, and *much* more.

    Maybe you don’t need quite as many different subjects as your mentioned photographic mentors, given that they’re all doing basically the same thing… or are they? Let’s look again at your photos above.

    Right away, a significant difference: some are making voice phone calls, whereas others are in a silent visual/typing mode. Your fire hydrant sitter’s sitting informs us that he’s engaged in a long(-ish) conversation—one which might only have taken place in a home or office (or other building) before mobile phones (too long for standing at/in a phone booth). Contrast that to the talker of your pair of women, who appears to be on a brief enough call that standing is no hardship. Is she making arrangements for a get-together? Checking up on someone? Two people doing the same boring, disengaged thing—differently.

    Let’s look again at your screen-starers. The casual croucher with the bright green device case could be doing almost anything, though probably not for a long time in that position. Looks like an “information drop”: dropping into a position for some moments to use the tech to look something up or contact someone or reply to someone.

    The seated gentleman with the blue shirt is highly engaged: both hands on his device. Unlike our friend above, he’s in a position in which he can remain for a long time (as long as me typing this long comment). It will take something dramatic in the immediate physical environment around him to pull him out of his other-place focus.

    The next seated man in all-dark clothing is our modern-day Thinker, obviously contemplating something away from his immediate physical reality, deeply. Is he a web designer, puzzled why a bit of HTML or CSS is not operating properly? Maybe he’s a programmer, momentarily stumped by an unexpected bug? Perhaps he’s somewhere in government or law, vexed by a social problem needing delicate handling to maximize wins for the majority of stakeholders? Whatever it is, he’s deep in thought, as so many before have been and after him will be.

    Our friend with the baseball cap and the colorful arm has what appears to be a heavily decorated device case, and an expression of puzzlement or disdain or… i don’t know what. Given his earbuds, i posit that something displeasing came up on his playlist. Maybe he’s wondering why on earth he put that song in the playlist. Maybe he didn’t, and he’s wondering why his housemate or lover pranked him by sneaking it into his library and playlist!

    The woman not speaking on her phone is holding her device farther away from her than those in the photos above. More comfortable? Un-addressed presbyopia?

    Such a richness of not-really-subtleties you’ve documented!

    Hoping you keep on clickin’ on (and save at least a few like these, for posterity),


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