Monday, September 7, 2009

Snapshot: The state of mankind (or a portion thereof) An analysis of critical thought in relation to

Algirdas Nakas

Professor Palacio

7 September 2009

In reading published critical thought about photography as art, I notice threads that seem to bind my own work. I am vigilant to note intellectual interpretations of stylistic elements found in the work of others that echo in my own. One of these elements is the photographer seen as a detached documentarian of a moment, object or event. Another is that this photographic process occurs usually in public spaces. Whether the subject has knowledge of the camera or any measure of emotional involvement with the photographer is unimportant as long as it is not evidenced in the photograph itself. It is photographer as a self automated machine more than a human participant in the event of creating an image. Much like a surveillance camera mounted in a public space, ignored or unnoticed by those that enter it’s frame, constantly recording intimate details that can be innocuous and/or deeply provocative and unique. But often revealing volumes, or at least glimpses, of information concerning the present state of it’s subject. The information primarily refers to what is gleaned about the subject’s identity. That is who, what, where and why, and the relationships of the subject to those questions.

In the broad context of the medium one could interpret this method as a sort of negative voyeurism that exploits a moment, while doing nothing to improve it for the better. Like pictures of starving children shown without giving information as to how to provide aid. However, the conscious awareness by others of a subject made possible by a photograph may be a precursor to change for the better. Just as AP photographer Nick Ut’s picture of screaming children napalmed during a US bomb raid in Vietnam was instrumental in hastening the end of that tragic conflict when it was published on the front page of the New York Times.

My own photographic work has elements of a reportage approach. Though the public scenes and story’s evoked by my frames may not resonate with the urgency of news events, they do show moments that may give pause to an observer, evoking or answering questions. Perhaps even effecting a change of mind. As I read the critics that dissect the work of others whose pictures have similarities to mine, I am both reminded and newly informed of views that give context and meaning to this way of working, adding confidence and validity to my approach.

Because of the assigned brevity of this thesis, I will limit my remarks to a few critical readings and photographers that resonate with me. The critics referred to include Liz Wells, David Campany, and Charlotte Cotton. Photographers discussed are Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Hannah Starkey, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfield, Gregory Crewdson, Larry Clark and Nan Goldin.

In 2000, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, already known for shooting people in public spaces, rigged some construction scaffolding with photo flashes triggered by New York city passersby. Photos were taken of different subjects over a two year period. They were framed tightly in a head and shoulders composition through a long lens without their knowledge and without opportunity for them to compose themselves in any manner. The resulting pictures gave intriguing looks at people who appear lost in thought, or otherwise detached from the photographer and therefore the viewer of the picture (Cotton 46). The series and a book of these pictures known as Heads, was more elaborate than his earlier work, also shot in public, because of his strategic placement of flash lighting and lens setup was much more staged (Campany 29). The series of portraits also became controversial because it tested, quite unintentionally, an artist’s license to shoot in public places. Lorca diCorcia was sued by the subject of one his photos, and the case ultimately went to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. His right to photograph in public for the purpose of making art was upheld there (Gefter). In my own work, After Party Escalator, a 2009 self published book and a 20x40” color series of 9 prints, I also captured mostly unaware subjects leaving a high school senior prom at the Hilton Hotel in Stamford Connecticut. I stood above a down escalator and shot 100 pictures from above, most students did not realize the presence of my lens and those make for the most interesting shots. Though less elaborate than Philip Lorca-diCorcia’s heads, this work allowed one to look long and hard at a brief but telling moment of the subjects world revealing something of their human condition .

“After Party Escalator” "Head No. 13, 2000,"

by Algirdas Nakas. by Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

The work of Hannah Starkey and Gregory Crewdson, as well as more recent work of Philip Lorca-diCorcia, give us a seemingly candid, detached vision of our world that sometimes looks like a newsmagazine report or at other times, surreally haunted Wyeth-like versions of a photographic “Christina World”. Although their work is highly staged, planned, rehearsed, and preconceived, it appears natural. It looks like one is peering into a captured moment of a scene that has great significance, and has actually occurred. Gregory Crewdson’s black and white Hover series are works that are entirely staged but look like they actual occurrences. These “happenings” were shot from a crane far above the scenes and well isolated from them. What their importance actually could be is at best conjecture. Just as when Wyeth posed Christina in a field, her strained longing for home evoking an existential desperation in the viewer, despite the fact that the painting was contrived to appear as a moment that must have, in fact, occurred. This premise of ambiguous yearning also inhabits Hannah Starkey’s staged c-print, Untitled, 1997, an interior view in a diner of what appears to be a woman grasping at the image of her face in a mirror. She is observed blankly by another diner patron whose image is reflected in the same mirror. The story is unfinished, left dangling to be completed only in the speculative observations of a viewer. Importantly, in relation to my own work is the apparent realism that exists in the frame, despite the staging. In describing this image, David Campany writes:

“Starkey has developed an understated and poetic approach to everyday situations. Placing the camera at the edge of the subjects personal space, she depicts moments of absorption and reverie, states in which looking becomes curious and open ended. This is clearest in her images of young women whose actions seem to be both self conscious and unconscious. Starkey’s photography is a staged naturalism that seems to echo this state of mind”. (Campany187)

“Untitled” by Hannh Starkey “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth

Similar to Starkey’s approach, in one of my planned semester projects I will stage natural looking situations that revolve around high school students and their cars. I will show students congregating with their personal transportation after school in the senior parking lot, leaving the symbolism or story within the photos open ended. I will edit from the series any shots that indicate consciousness of me, the photographer. I want the images to reflect a discreet surveillance of seemingly “real“ moments in the after school lives of these adolescents. My intention is to reveal information about the evolving identities of these youths in relation to their cars.

Like Stephen Shore, and Joel Sternfeld, I tend to photograph everyday subject matter without idealizing it. Sternfeld’s book, American Prospects, published in 1984 depicted ironic moments in contemporary encounters with nature. The images were created to show ironic or randomly surreal events often in rural landscapes (Campany 192). His photo “Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, 1979”, was elaborately designed to appear both incongruous with the setting, but also to appear as an actual news event that might make the local newspaper. Complete with an elevated point of view of the event showing an elephant lying on a country road with a parked sheriff’s car and a truck that appears to have been carrying it. There is also a group of about 12 people standing around observing the scene. Just as Sternfeld, Stephens Shore does not idealize nature like does the work of Ansel Adams. Rather, Shore’s landscape photos refer to location as context for their actual contemporary usage. His picture, “ Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, August 13th, 1979” shows the grandeur of the national park setting but unlike Adams, depicts vacationers in the foreground using a beach on the river for social bathing (Campany 192-193). I visited Yellowstone National Park several weeks ago and found myself compulsively shooting the impact of, and the human use of the park, intentionally framing tourists and handrails with an emphasis rivaling the landscape itself.

“Asian Tourists, Yellowstone, 2009” by A. Nakas “Merced River, Yosemite National Park,

Calfornia, August 13th, 1979” by S. Shore

In somewhat of a different vein, I am drawn to intimate work of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark. Although not as related to my work since they are both very close to their subjects in terms of experience as well as proximity. Still, if not much commonality, there is admiration. Goldin’s book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1983, is a visual diary of her own life. She is actually the subject of the photos along with her lover. Goldin opens the door to her bedroom and her life, and in doing so, presents a universal theme of codependency that is cathartic in it’s strength and clarity. Clarks work, Tulsa, containing images of his friends, that he began shooting in about 1963 while just in his twenties, is like Goldin’s work, highly autobiographical. A number of years later Clark published Teenage Lust, which contained graphic images of teens shooting methadrine in sexual situations (Cotton 148). Although my work often uses adolescent subjects, the only autobiographical aspect of it that I can claim is that, some 40 years ago, I also experienced those sometimes difficult teenage years and teenage angst. Rather, I consider the strand that connects me to Goldin and Clark is my interest in honesty, even if it can be brutal. The difference between us is that rather than autobiography, I use simple surveys of people in public places from detached and somewhat distant points of view. Goldin and Clark were literally in the frame or just outside of it.

What my photographic surveys discover about the state of mankind may be noticed or not. Still, just as the artists before me, and those that are still working, I am driven to continue recording our condition and striving to show it to others. Hopefully my efforts may contribute on some level to our betterment.

Works cited

Campany, David, ed. Art And Photography. 1st. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2003. Print.

Cotton, Charlotte, ed. The Photograph as Contemporary Art. 2nd. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2006. Print.

Gefter, Phillip. "The Theater of the Street, the Subject of the Photography." New York Times Arts 03 19 2006 1. Web. 19 08 2009.

Wells, Liz, ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 3rd. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.


  1. What a great paper Al. It was worth the extra time. I really feel like I understand your work in a different way after reading it - I appreciate that very much. Good job!