I went to a gallery opening a few weeks ago at LA Art Core for Gary Kious, an artist friend who is a photographer (and though he has been a professional photographer for many years, does not yet have an online presence so I can’t link to him). His work is highly manipulated digital photography – acid colors and abstract patterns and distortions. Gary was showing side-by-side with Roy DyBuncio, a friend whose work was the polar opposite – black and white, gritty, urban “street photography.” I know next to nothing about photography, and did not know what the words “street photography” meant. All I saw on the wall were black and white photos, usually of solitary people in gritty urban settings. There was much to see and think about in the photos, but no larger story or idea to hold onto, until the gallery talk.
During the talk, Gary actually spoke on behalf of his friend Roy, who is apparently, great behind a camera but not so great in front of a crowd. Gary explained how Roy made a commitment to take a photograph a day. He heads out each morning in search of a good image, like a hunter stalking lion.
Anticipating the question about street photography, Gary explained that street photographers follow a strict set of rules: they take photos outside on the street, usually in urban settings, with no staging or posing or intervention of any kind, and without the subject knowing they are being photographed.
With this new information in my mind, I went back to the photos and marveled at how Roy was able to get into people’s faces the way he did, the way he was able to be present and yet not present in his subject’s lives, the way he was playing the “game” that is street photography. I could imagine him walking and waiting and looking for the right images, and realized how fast he would have to react to raise his camera and press the button in order to capture some of the images before his subjects reacted. Knowing the rules gave me a whole new understanding of what he was doing, and why – this contract that exists between the photographer and his work.
It was exactly like a game.
Tennis only works because everyone understands what the lines on the court mean and how to keep score and when a point is awarded to one player rather than another. Monopoly is only fun because everyone agrees that Park Place is worth the value assigned to it, and that when you have a Get Out of Jail Card, you don’t have to pay a fine to get out of jail. The rules define the activity and give them meaning.
In the case of street photography, the rules of the game lingered in my mind long after the show. Roy showed one photo of a very tough looking dude strutting down the street wearing boxing gloves and glaring at the passerby -- who was Roy. It was a menacing image and in the days after seeing it, I thought about the presence of the photographer in that scene, the whole conceit of capturing someone on film, the whole idea of making art in public spaces.
Does a street photographer go up to the subject afterward and ask permission to use their image? Does the subject ever say no? Do they ever object or get angry or become gleeful or demand payment?
Those questions are part of the pleasure and the challenge of the experience of looking at art.
In his excellent post, “What is Street Photography?” (which I highly recommend to learn more about this art form and the debate around its definition) Erin Kim writes this:
“Rather than worrying about if your photo is a bona-fide `street photograph' or not – let’s focus on making memorable photographs. Photographs that stir us emotionally, that make us think about humanity, society around us, the people we interact on a daily basis, the small beauties of life that we pass up for granted, others who are suffering, and the hopes and dreams of everyday individuals.”
So what does any of this have to do with writing and writers? Substitute “Book” for “Photograph” in the above passage, and it’s clear. We are largely trying to do the same thing – it’s just that we play by a different set of rules.
- Memoir writers, for example, enter into a very clear contract with the reader that they will tell the truth to the best of their ability. Readers come to the work with very different expectations and emotions when we understand that what we will be reading really happened. If the writer breaks that contract, even in the smallest way, they lose their authority. Just ask James Frey.
- Non-fiction writers enter into a contract with the reader that promises to make order out of chaos. If the writer is presenting an autobiography of someone else’s life, we understand that they have picked and chosen what, exactly, to tell in order to make the point they feel is most important to make. If the writer is teaching us how to eat a low carb diet, or start an online business, or get into college, or understand quantum physics, we understand that they are leading us down a path from relative ignorance to some level of mastery. We submit to being led by an authority, and we place our trust in their choices.
- Fiction writers promise a world that will feel as real and whole and alive as the real world we live in. We come to novels wanting to be in that world rather than our own. We don’t want to be aware of the writer, or of the blood, sweat and tears that went into the crafting of it. We don’t want anything to yank us out of the story, to intrude on the illusion, or to make us work too hard to understand how it all fits together. We ask the novelist to sweep us away.
As you do your work, it would be powerful to ask yourself, What am I promising my reader? What framework am I giving them for making meaning? And I am following the rules of the game I am asking them to play?
Here is a photo of one of Gary Kious’s and Roy Dybuncio’s photos from the opening at LA Art Core.