Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Photographing the public/private threshold

Based on the previous research I have done here on a number of photographers, there are some themes that I am interested in picking up and pursuing original research on. Themes which I am most interested in are privacy, voyeurism, intimacy, the way that people respond to and inhabit the built environment, and the ubiquity of the photographed world and people’s consciousness and reaction to photography in the public realm. These are themes which have been explored and risen particularly in relation to the work of Michael Wolf and Doug Rickard.

Michael Wolf - tcd051


Doug Rickard - 39.259736, Baltimore MD (2008), 2011

 I also propose to make a series of images which reflect on thresholds between the public and the private. I am interested in how people occupy space in ways which show they register it as either public or private, and when slippages might occur. What is it about certain public spaces which make them acceptable for private moments? What architectural features denote transitions between public and more private, and how do people respond to these? What private spaces are visible from public space?

One image which comes to mind which particularly illustrates this idea is Children with Masks by Helen Levitt. It is an interesting study in the transition from the private self getting ready to enter the wider world, stepping into it, and adopting the public self projecting confidence out to the world.

Helen Levitt - New York, Children with Masks, c1942

In a similar vein to the way that Alec Soth works, it is a series of images that speak together as a unified whole which I am interested in making. I am also drawn to the way that photography functions not only as a document of a particular time and place, but can also be a kind of archetype which speaks far beyond its specificity. A similar idea occurs in Doug Rickard’s streetview images, of which he says, “the subjects then are really symbols or icons, and not individuals”. Alec Soth has shied away from calling his work social documentary for, I think, this same reason: maintaining a poetic quality that allows images to be read as having a wider resonance, and not weighed down by the need to be exhaustive or truly accurate in a representative sense.

When researching Alec Soth’s work I came across some projects he had run on Flickr. To coincide with his Walker Art Center retrospective and his book From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, he invited people to complete a series of photographic challenges. He then selected a winner of each challenge. There were 4 assignments he set up in 2010, and one further challenge at the end of 2011. These included photographing a list of items; photographing a stranger and getting them to show you something, then making more photographs based on what they show you; double portraits, one by you of a non-photographer, and one of you by your subject; and documenting an encounter with photographs and text. The 2011 challenge was to recreate an iconic photograph.

The assignments he set are based on working methods he actually uses himself, or came out of the responses which people had to the assignments themselves. In the spirit of these assignments, I have created an initial list of things to photograph, which I will look for, as a starting point:
     Thresholds - doorways, gates, entrances etc.
     People doing private things in public
     People in public without shoes
     People working in public space
     People looking back at me photographing
     Glimpses through windows (nighttime)

Again, as in Soth’s assignments, I see this as the beginning of an open process which encourages looking at things that might otherwise be missed, and not simply a list to be found as is. I am also interested in how double images and the addition of some text might further the ideas that I am exploring.

In the essay, I wish to reflect on the images taken and the process of photographing them. Whilst street photography has a long tradition, the social environment for street photography has changed now, as more people are now wary and suspicious of photographers in public. Does the use of streetview possibly allow private moments to be captured more easily than a photographer on the street can? I will also look further at the work of Michael Wolf, Doug Rickard, and to a lesser extent Philip Lorca diCorcia, as it relates to thresholds between the public and the private realm.