Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story by Don Normark
From the time we are little children — especially from the time we are children — we are culturally taught to pose for the camera. The universal "cheese" grin is equally annoying as the universal "V" two-finger salute. The combination of the grin and the gesture guarantees a stupid photograph. Perhaps these make fun family snapshots — no, come to think of it they don't even make that. Neither response to the camera has any place in the kind of photography that you and I are interested in.
So then there is the portrait approach of genuinely talented photographers like Yosef Karsh and Arnold Newman. Both of these masters would frequently advise their subject to stare directly into the lens. This style of composition creates tension and a connection between the person photographed and the viewer. The success of these photographs is often directly related to the intensity of the connection made between subject and the viewer — think of the widely published portrait of the Afghan girl by Steve McCurry. To make these photographs effectively requires a special talent that Karsh, Newman, and McCurry possess in abundance.
Which brings us to the third style of portraiture seen in this wonderful example by Don Normark. I referred to this as "fly on the wall" photography. Through this kind of photograph we have the wonderful quality of being perfectly invisible — both as photographer and as the viewer. It's as though there were no camera and we are imperceptibly transported through space and time to observe the scene in perfectly rendered third person perspective.
I think this style of photography was easier in an earlier, more innocent time. One can easily imagine this same scene photographed today, thoroughly ruined with all three individuals cheese-grinning for the camera. I have fought this cultural idiocy my entire photographic life — and fortunately adopted a strategy that works to eliminate it. It's essentially a variation on the strategy Normark used when photographing his project in Chavez Ravine in 1949. When I interviewed him for LensWork #58, he explained that he spent so much time there as to become part of the community and thereby invisible. Seeing him wandering around the neighborhood making pictures was so common that people ignored him, allowing him to capture wonderful moments like this one.
Familiarity leads to a comfort level that is the photographer's most valuable asset for making candid portraits. I've heard this same strategy described over and over again as I interviewed photographers for LensWork: O. Rufus Lovett and his project Weeping Mary, Susan S. Bank and her work in the book Cuba: Campo Adentro; Perry Dilbeck and The Last Harvest; Charles Guildner in Lives of Tradition — the complete list would be lengthy indeed. Each of these photographers, in their turn, described some variation on the theme of familiarity. There is simply no excuse for time and building a relationship with the people you want to photograph.
I've often likened this to the ticking of a new clock. When first installed, the new noise is deafening, troublesome, irritating. Live with that new clock for a sufficient time and it's irritating staccato regularity fades into the background as we become used to it. The challenge for this kind of portraiture is to fade into the background so that, as a photographer, people are used to us and cease to pay attention to our presence. This, too, is a special kind of talent — the talent of blending in, the skill of becoming invisible. In an ironic way, it's one of the most visible parts of these kinds of photographs — the invisibility of the person behind the camera.
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