on photography

The Legendary Collection Polaroid 18. 8. 2012 The Finnish Museum of Photography, Cable Factory, Helsinki, Finland

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A “To Polaroid with Love” exhibition includes all forms of polaroid process and materials

(Photographers include Mary Ellen Mark, Jan Hnizdo, Nelli Palomäki) The Legendary Collection Polaroid 18. 8. 2012 The Finnish Museum of Photography, Cable Factory, Helsinki, Finland

the polaroid in Finland

What are we doing when we take a photograph of a stranger in the street? Capturing how others live and engage with the world, revealing bodies, consciousness, intimacy, power– I’m wondering how a brief photographic encounter can be responsible for all this? Photographs are accessible, easy to take, easy to share. The street however is unpredictable strolling out a living in the random to the exotic. I want to look more closely at the geometrical hot spot between street and photography by comparing the fashion photographs in Vice Do’s and Don’ts 10 Years of Vice Magazine’s Street Fashion Critiques and Street Boners 1,764 Hipster Fashion Jokes with the street photographs of Juergen Teller, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank and Nan Goldin.

First, the terms “street” and “social” photography need to be clarified. Street photography is here and there, capturing all people, places or things: widespread, anonymous. Street photography is not about reporting the news, “there is no specific subject matter only the general issue of ‘life’ in public spaces”[i]. A definition of social photography by wikipedia states: “it is a subcategory of photography focusing upon the technology, interaction and activities of individuals who take photographs and use digital cameras, photo sharing websites and Internet enabled methods of social networking”.[ii] According to flickr it is: “Your photos – everyday captures and extraordinary sightings, local scenes and exotic moments – are central to our DNA because they reflect your individual stories”.[iii] Both definitions stress the “individual you” not unlike the ads for the first personal Kodak cameras “You press the button, We do the rest”.[iv] But I prefer this definition on social photography by art writer Joanna Lowry “a contemporary photography that is highly conscious of documentary modes of solicitation and address”.[v] I think she means that both photographer and subject are complicit makers of the social photograph. Or more simply social photography means you go to parties and photoblog about them after. If we narrow it further down it is a form of “play”.

The photograph “purple track pants” [vi] in Do’s and Don’ts was my doorway into social photography (language warning! captions from Do’s and Don’ts and Street Boners ):

"Nice !^#* purple track pants, you fat bitch. What the !^#* are you, the !^#* Michelin Man? Nice gay hat, too, you !^#* little loser bitch."

followed by: “play through”[vii]

"How you gonna !^#* with this? They are so far over any of our heads, all we can do is step to the left and say "Play through.""


"Voyagers from other planets have not idea what a bum-out their balls are. Look around you, Jean-Francois 3000; your leopard nuts are the End of Days".


"This girl is so out of your league, your only hope would be to befriend her tits first and hope they put in a good word for you."

“mods and rockers”[x]

"It took about half a century but now that mods and rockers are done fighting, we can finally see how breathtakingly gorgeous they are."

and “punk rock”[xi]

"Harley has such a stranglehold on the !#^* biker scene it's nice to see some bitches rocking a Suzuki without a second thought. That's more than heavy metal. That's punk rock."

After I stopped laughing I heard the taboos breaking: swearing at a baby, sexual comments about the subjects, availability of the subjects, mocking and flattering fashion critiques…ok, where did this begin?

In Montreal 1994 Vice Magazine started as an independent arts and pop culture magazine founded by Suroosh Alvi, Shane Smith and Gavin McInnes. McInnes (b.1970) wrote the fashion/style critique commentary in Vice Dos and Don’ts (2004) and now in his independently published Street Boners (2010). Wait a minute, doesn’t powerful, dominant Vogue editor Anna Wintour along with creative director Grace Coddington and their most oft appointed court photographer, Annie Leibovitz, monopolize fashion? Vogue may deserve a blog post of its own but for now I’ll sum it up as: a power crazy fashion magazine that features branded designers and tries really hard to sell you something. An August 21, 2007 the headline from associated content reads, “Vogue Announces that September Issue Will Have the Largest Amount of Ads Monthly in the Consumer Magazine History: 840 pages”. [xii] Didn’t Adbusters, the not-for-profit, anti-consumerist magazine organized in 1989 in Vancouver, reveal that all advertisements are a form of pornography?

Vice Do’s and Don’ts and Street Boners are a different sort of fashion book; both use humor and satire to sidestep the mainstream’s seriousness of fashion. “Fashion is like a board game or a dance,” says McInnes. Both Do’s and Don’ts and Street Boners stumble upon peoples’ weird experiments in second hand clothing, their re-purposed accessories, homemade failures and fashion imagination. The subjects in the Do’s and Don’ts and Street Boners are often caught at street clothing markets (alternating with doorways, street cafes, house parties and clubs). The subjects are diverse but most are young adults perhaps in the process of leaving family and recreating themselves. The photograph “play through” depicts a deliciously adorable couple, a young man on the right with his arm around a young woman on the left. They are standing in front of a wooden double door, ridiculously drab compared to the couple’s colorful gear. His, a rocket ship themed puffy vest, orange shirt, white skinny jeans and sharp toed white boots. Hers, a black wool sweater, black leggings, two layers of knee high socks, white over red and white stripped with nurse’s white shoes, long blonde hair topped with an oversized red and white polka dot bow mis-matching with the red and yellow cartoon bunny rabbit toy-necklace hanging low on her tummy. The commentary could read: “We are the market. We are the house. This is the revolutionary costume”[xiii]. The couple looks directly into the camera; their gaze, the photographer’s and ours is reciprocal. Also notable is the use of bright flash. The whole image is a little ‘unreal’ perhaps ‘dreamlike’ in the ‘real’ location of the street. It’s a story of gorgeous youth in love with itself.

I don’t know how the photographer is dressed but I can guess at her actions: moving through the street, seeing and reacting—it is a quick exchange, the photographer and the subject negotiate on the spot—actions, reactions and interactions; if they think about the shot too hard, it is gone—click, emotions, body language, eccentricities, humor caught, then the photographer moves on carefully watching for the next chance.

Influential to the street photography in Do’s and Don’ts and Street Boners is Juergen Teller (b.1964) an art and fashion photographer. Consider his photographic album Go-Sees 1998[xiv] full with young girls aspiring to be models that turned up at Teller’s home studio in London un-invited for a modeling audition. Teller says he received them at this door and curious he doesn’t turn them away but doesn’t take them in either, instead he takes their photograph in the doorway. It’s an unpredictable space: are you in or out? The hopeful models want to make a living off their looks – is Teller collecting them like wild deer or is he using his camera to protect his privacy? Some of the girls look ever so lost, others defiant, fashion’s overlooked waste products. Both photographer and subject are aware of the camera and the economic exchange of body and beauty in the fashion industry that traps them in the doorway; in contrast the photographer and the young couple in Street Boners ’plays through” the boundary.

Photographer Helen Levitt (1913-2009) worked daily to capture moments in the NY streets. In contrast to the Vice and Street Boners photographers Levitt did not make herself known to her subjects; she used a discreet method: a 35mm Lecia camera on which she attached a right angle lens allowing her to photograph in secret. Most of her subjects aren’t aware of the camera; Levitt’s actions are silent and observant, the gestures of the subjects are intact, genuine; here anonymity is a privilege. In Levitt’s street photographs we loose the “self’ while watching the behavior of the subject. In contrast the Do’s and Don’ts and Street Boners comment on the manner and vanity of the subjects.

Robert Frank (1955-56) began his photographic career in fashion employed by Harper’s Bazaar, McCalls and Vogue. Frank “created his first hand-made book of photographs, 40 Fotos, in 1946” [xv]. In 1955 Frank road tripped across America for two years capturing an American picture. “This is the way we are in real life and if you don’t like it I don’t know anything about it ‘cause I’m living my own life my way and may God bless us all, mebbe…if we deserve it” echos Jack Kerouac in the introduction to Frank’s book[xvi]. Perhaps Frank’s photographic message was meant directly for Dwight D. Eisenhower, reeclected in 1956 with running mate Richard Nixon, who “largley ignored the civil rights issue”[xvii].

I think Frank’s project The Americans captures the heavy stillness before the race riots. Those in power skew things one way but the people in these photographs see reality; Frank searched and found others like him. The search for finding others like you is the goal that the photographers for Do’s and Don’ts and Street Boners have most in common with Frank; gazing at the people in Do’s and Don’ts and Street Boners we try for fit, we look for mates, search the photos for others like us.

Social photographic encounters imply intimacy. Nan Goldin (b.1953) turned her camera on her personal relatonships and her friends, their parties, drug use, fights, sex and death. Goldin say “When I was 18 I started to photograph. I became social and started drinking and wanted to remember the details of what happened.”[xviii] She describes her photographs as “a diary I let people read”.[xix]

Do’s and Don’ts and Street Boners share Goldin’s mix of desire, identies and the photographic hunt. Goldin’s subjects are her friends and lovers—she constantly shoots them—this pursuit, intimacy-through-photography must bend the relationships. Goldin knows she dirties the air around her by taking a photograph and continues to do it.

Neither Street Boners nor Do’s and Don’ts reach Goldin’s raw level of intimacy, nor Frank’s ready audience, nor Levitt’s invisibility; they do however achieve Jurgen’s level self-consciousness and shared construction of social photography and Street Boners and Do’s and Don’ts give a contemporary position on the garish, the attractive, the pleasure and tedium of dressing ourselves in the rattle of the streets.

Test: Who is the photographer?

Alvi, McInnes and Smith. Vice Do’s and Don’ts. Warner Books. NY. NY. 2004.
Frank, Robert. The Americans. Steidl. Germany. 1956.
Goldin, Nan. A Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Aperture. NY. NY.1986.
Kerouac, Jack. Introduction to Robert Frank’s The Americans. Steidl. Germany. 1956.
Levitt, Helen. Slide Show. Powerhouse Cultural Entertainment. NY. NY. 1974
Lowry, Joanna. Face On Photography. Black Dog Publishing. London, UK. 2000.
McInnes, Gavin. Street Boners. Grand Central Publishing. NY. NY. 2010
Roberston, Lisa. Office for Soft Architecture. Coach House Books. Toronto. 2003.

[v] Lowry, Joanna. Face On Photography. Black Dog Publishing. London, UK. 2000. p.17
[vi] Alvi, McInnes and Smith. Vice Do’s and Don’ts. Warner Books. NY. NY. 2004. p.19
[vii] McInnes, Gavin. Street Boners. Grand Central Publishing. NY. NY. 2010 p.69
[viii] McInnes, Gavin. Street Boners. Grand Central Publishing. NY. NY. 2010 p.35
[ix] Ibid p.130
[x] Ibid p.268
[xi] Alvi, McInnes and Smith. Vice Do’s and Don’ts. Warner Books. NY. NY. 2004. p.210
[xiii] Roberston, Lisa. Office for Soft Architecture. Coach House Books. Toronto. 2003. p, 214
[xiv] Teller, Juergen. Go-Sees
[xvi] Kerouac, Jack. Introduction to Robert Frank’s The Americans. Steidl. Germany. 1956.
[xviii] Goldin, Nan. A Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Aperture. 1986. p. 9
[xix] Ibid. p. 6

Helen Levitt - Girls and Bubbles, c. 1945. Gelatin silver print, printed c. 1970, 6 13/16 x 9 3/4" (17.3 x 24.7 cm). Gift of Janice Levitt. © 2010 The Estate of Helen Levitt, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

First is this is a black and white photograph by Helen Levitt. Second it is an image of a sidewalk, a street and a brick wall; four young girls walk on the sidewalk parallel to the road and brick wall. The brick wall supports a train rail bed; it is massive and the bricks are oversized and irregular. The wall is in deep perspective and the photographer has framed or cropped the image to emphasize the wall’s vanishing point. The buildings in the distance are hazier, all the detail and contrast is on the girls, the bubbles and the bricks.

The girls in the photograph are not facing the camera; the girls are looking in the direction the brick wall to five floating soap bubbles rising above the street. The street is between the girls and the bubbles. The girl nearest to the street is wearing shoes and a light skirt with no blouse or perhaps she wears a halter-dress. Her hair is up. Her right arm is on her hip. The next girl is the smallest, the youngest of the four, she too wears shoes, a light dress and her hair is in a ponytail. The next girl has blond hair, also up, she is wearing dark shorts with a dark and light striped t-shirt, socks and shoes. The fourth girl on the sidewalk, furthest away from the street, is the tallest and the heaviest. She wears a dress with dots (or small flowers). She wears socks and shoes; her hair is shorter than the other girls. The girl in the shorts and stripped t-shirt is white the other girls are black. They might be ages 6-12. All their heads are turned to watch the soap bubbles – they are not looking where they are going. The girls are not in danger though; there are no cars on the street. The mood of the photograph seems to say, “this is a lazy, warm summer afternoon just right for an ice cream and walk around the block.”

The photographer is walking on the street too. Perhaps she is following the girls without them knowing, waiting, looking for images. Where do the soap bubbles come from? Is there someone outside the camera frame? This makes for mystery and tension, an unknown blower and a “burst”. In this photograph Helen Levitt is photographing what is before her while capturing what is beside her and what is about to be.

I chose the photo of Girls and Bubbles by Helen Levitt for a personal reason; I have walked this sidewalk too; in 2008 I went to NYC to visit the art galleries as well as the Graffiti Wall of Fame just on the other side of this massive brick wall, the Park Ave Trunk Line, at E 106th St & Park in East Harlem.