After the recent posts about Bruce Gilden and Thomas Leuthard and the questions regarding the level of exploitation in the methods utilized by these photographers, the reaction from readers covered all ends of the scale. One comment in particular was by photographer Jim Sabiston, who disagreed with my opinion that Leuthard was exploitive in his approach. I asked Jim to expand on his thoughts, and his well considered rebuttal is as follows.
At Mr. Paquette’s suggestion, I went back and watched the Bruce Gilden video that he had posted, as I was unfamiliar with his work. I had already watched the Thomas Leuthard video, the result being my initial response to The ‘More Street ‘sploitation’ article that prompted this communication. I will confess to having a better understanding of the concerns expressed in the article after watching the Gilden video – but it did not change my general opinions on the subject. Here is why:
The first thing that struck me about the Gilden video as compared to the Leuthard video was the clear difference in behavior between the two photographers. Leuthard tries to remain as discreet as the photography permits, only hovering when the subject is obviously welcoming of – or even excited by - the experience. Gilden, on the other hand, is far more aggressively ‘in-your-face’. My first reaction is to wonder at the difference in culture demonstrated by these differing approaches. As a fellow New Yorker – I work in mid-town Manhattan – I recognize the ‘standard issue’ Brooklyn personality exhibited by Gilden. It is really a textbook example of the type and when you watch the video most of the New York subjects just take it in stride as they recognize it for what it is. Leuthard, on the other hand, with his Swiss roots, is far more relaxed, smoother and ‘go with the flow’. People being exposed to the aggressive NYC/Brooklyn cultural personality for the first time will simply not understand that this behavior is not considered unusual in these parts. Of course, that very same behavior might get Gilden punched in another part of the world! Leuthard shoots street photography internationally and, accordingly, seems a bit more sensitive as to how to minimize the possibility of causing discomfort in his subject.
With the cultural aspects covered, let’s consider the broader aspects. Mr. Paquette states that “The images taken by Gilden and Leuthard are all about the camera and therefore, all about the photographer. The people in these images become secondary to their reactions to the photographer.” This is where I strongly disagree. The actions of the photographer might call this into question, especially in Gilden’s case, but the images say otherwise. The ideal street photograph shows either a subject totally unaware of the photographer or in the process of recognizing that something unusual is going on as they are in the process of focusing their attention on the photographer. Either has the potential to give an interesting result. It can’t be about the camera or the photographer if the idea is to get the shot before they know you are there! Gilden can even be heard to comment on this in his video. As far as the photography goes, it is still about the subject and the moment.
As inferred by the title of the article, some feel that street photography exploits the subject. I disagree with this position as well. To exploit something means to use it for personal gain. No one is getting rich off of street photography. I don't know Gilden's financial situation, but Leuthard has a day job in IT and street photography is a serious hobby which from which Leuthard derives little or no money from. Leuthard does not even copyright or watermark his images. Leuthard even released a free ebook about his street photography recently. A case could be made that they exploit their subjects to produce their art, and while there is unavoidably some truth to this, somehow that argument lacks any real bite, especially when you realize that the subject is usually entirely unaware they have been photographed or actually enjoys it. I prefer to think of the individual being photographed as someone being explored and studied, not exploited.
Street photography has the rather unique challenge of capturing what I call little ‘slices of life’. Here you have real people in real places living their lives in real time. No setup, no artifice, no fancy lighting or storyline, no fantasy. This is the aspect of the medium that calls to me and why I was interested in trying it. As I mature as photographer, I have come to recognize the power and importance of a good street photograph. Bear in mind that, like all photographic processes, most of the shots are pretty lousy and get tossed. Street photography has a very high percentage of poor shots, understandable given the serendipitous nature of the process and the brief seconds available for any given opportunity. But when all the elements of chance and skill come together, great images can result that speak directly to the nature of mankind and his relationship to his self constructed environment. These images cannot be obtained any other way.
I would suggest that a more meaningful conversation could take place regarding the artistic merits of this type of photography. While I agree that much of the imagery that is posted does not reach the high watermark required to be considered art, street photography does have enormous potential to make art and I’ve seen street photographs which, in my opinion, clearly reach this level.
I want to thank Jim Sabiston for his contribution to PHOTO/arts Magazine. I am always looking for open dialogue here, and essays such as this are always welcome. Here is a bit about Jim Sabiston...
I am a very active amateur photographer. My work is shown and sold in a number of Long Island galleries. My primary work started with Landscape and Nature photography, but has since expanded to include many classifications of the photographic medium, especially Fine Art and recently even Street Photography. A more extensive bio can be found on my web site if you are interested. I should also mention that I had the pleasure of meeting Thomas Leuthard and even did a little street photography with him in New Your City recently. This leaves me in the unique position of seeing the process and the reaction/interaction of the subjects first hand, both as an observer and a participant.
Jim Sabiston's Blog