The Invisibility Cloak

Garry Winogrand, photograph by Don Hudson.  From the collection of Brian Day.

In a classic interview touching on the perception of his street photography, Garry Winogrand once remarked that he would just as soon “not exist”.  Was he trolling the interviewer, in effect saying that he would just as soon not sit around responding to trite questions about what a particular photograph “means”?  Or, was he suggesting that when he’s on the street making photographs that he’d just as soon be invisible, so as to make all of the subjects of his photographs completely oblivious to his presence?  It’s hard to say, really; Winogrand was basically the Gregg Popovich of photography interviews – one could never really tell if his scalpel sharp wit was slicing for the benefit of objective clarity or simply obliterating the interviewer for his own amusement.

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From the “Planet Detroit” series.  Photograph by Brian Day.

Anyway, in the context of candid, unposed street photography, Winogrand’s words got me thinking about what it means to “exist” in the eyes of those being photographed.  Unless the aim is specifically to capture street portraits or Gilden-esque moments of surprise, how does one intentionally create photographs that don’t let on to the fact that the subject is aware of the photographer?  I’ve read blogs and comments positing theories about which cameras are more or less obtrusive on the streets, usually condemning the DSLR, extolling the rangefinder and declaring the mobile phone as the equivalent of an invisibility cloak.  The premise, I suppose, is that with a “less obtrusive” camera, people will act more naturally around the photographer, allowing him/her to capture a photo that is ostensibly more authentic.  I’m not so sure I agree with that theory.  In my personal experience, people are quite perceptive these days.  If you raise ANYTHING with a lens in their direction, it’s only a matter of time before they notice it; it doesn’t matter if it’s a DSLR, rangefinder or mobile phone.  Now, they may or may not actually react to the fact that you are pointing something in their direction, or they may simply stare you down (as Winogrand clearly did with Don Hudson).  They may strike an impromptu pose.  They may want to crack your nose.  In any case, short of using a hidden camera, most people will notice you eventually.  That’s one reason why shooting “from the hip” is problematic; if the subject happens to be faster than you and notices your shady no-look shot, you look like an indefensible creep.

I would suggest that the problem isn’t that you aren’t fast enough shooting from the hip; the problem is that you “exist.”  You (and very likely, whatever camera you happen to be using – unless, of course, you are James Bond or Ethan Hunt) are not invisible.  Deal with it.