On Photographing Strangers Without Permission

I walked the width of Manhattan last week, heading to the Aperture Gallery in Chelsea. My route took me past Madison Square Park, where crowds snake awaiting their turn at the Shake Shack, and admire the Flat Iron Building. The area is a thicket of photographers – many tourists want pictures of both the building and hamburger-hungry crowd, and, judging from the high end cameras and tripods wielded by the black-clad emaciated young, so do many photography students

I walk through here many times a week, since this is also where I pick up a subway line that I frequent,  so I’m sure I am in the background of many, many photographs. And perhaps,  when I’m sitting on a bench in the park having an iced tea, or I pause to jot down a note when I’m waiting for the light to change, or just looking up at the Metropolitan Life Tower, which I’ve always loved, I’ve been in the foreground of those photos – the unknowing, unasked subject.

This doesn’t distress me, in fact, I rather like the idea. But I know that many people in New York City, and around the world, object to having their photo taken without permission.

When I’ve reached for my camera on the road, I’ve been admonished with a finger shake in Marrakech, yelled at in the market in Puebla, Mexico, and even had stones thrown at my car by a group of children in Rajasthan, India. While I have photographed people when I’m traveling, I often do it with the use of my zoom lens. Or I ask permission – which has yielded a few nice photos of smiling faces, although a posed photo is necessarily different than a candid shot.

Courtesy and Copyright Aperture/The Paul Strand Archive.

Courtesy and Copyright Aperture/The Paul Strand Archive.

The reason for my trip to the gallery was to take in a new show of photographs made by Paul Strand during two trips to Mexico: one in the 1930s; one in the 1960s.  His subjects were the landscape, the architecture, religious iconography – but also the people. As I made my way around the gallery, I found myself wondering how he was able to take these photos – of people manifestly unaware that they were being photographed. The photos were of such a quality, and so carefully composed, that they obviously took time to set up – so just how did he do that without alerting his subjects to his presence?

I’d just been reading about a different photographer, Ruth Orkin, who made the iconic shot, An American Girl in Italy, 1951. A young woman rounds a street corner in Florence, Italy.  Her shawl has fallen off her shoulder, and she’s securing the other side with one hand, carrying a sketchpad and a satchel with the other. There are fifteen men of all ages on the street with her – two are on the street on a motorcycle, some leaning against a building, at a café. They’ve turned to watch her as she passes, and one of them is bent slightly forward at the waist pursing his lips – perhaps he’s wolf whistling, or creating that slurpy smoochy sound.

The photo was staged, I’d learned – or rather, it was re-created. Orkin and her model, Jinx Allen, an art student, had set out to photograph the experience of being an American girl  traveling in Italy – it would be originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine, entitled “Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone”.  Allen had walked down the street and elicited the response pictured, apparently.  So Orkin asked her to turn around and walk the street again.

I wondered whether Strand had done something similar. But a handy piece of wall text on his working methods informed me otherwise.

“To photograph the Mexican locals in the streets and marketplaces without their being aware of the camera, Strand fitted the Graflex with a lens extension containing a prism, enabling him to compose images at angles than differed from his apparent direction, a variation of a hidden-camera technique he had first used in the streets of New York in the 1910s.”

Courtesy and Copyright Aperture/The Paul Strand Archive.

Courtesy and Copyright Aperture/The Paul Strand Archive.

I’ve been reading up on street photography, which is what this genre is called.  A photographer’s anonymity is prized; techniques of misdirection are common.

But what of the subjects? Do they have the right not to be photographed?

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