“How to Revisit an Iconic Photograph”

I recently tackled the idea of participating to Alec Soth project of revisiting an iconic photograph. I should better say that I am interested in the project, see how participants will contribute and how Soth will wrap up the whole thing. And if it happens that I shoot something that could be relevant why not posting it. I don’t want to stage something, rather do some unplanned photograph with a well-know shot in mind and see how it comes out. By the way I did that before and every time I see a group of women sat on a bench I can’t prevent myself to evaluate the possibility of a shot.

Sunday was a particularly warm and sunny October day here in New England. My family and I went downtown Boston for a walk. On Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway there is a water fountain for kids and it was written that my two boys won’t came back dry at home. They had a lot of fun, and so did I. The motif of kids playing in water is very cliche of course. But there was something great here, because of the particular light at this moment of the day, and some smoke coming out from the ground together with the water. With a certain angle, you had such results.

Once in a while I did a lot of shots of same subject – which is completely unusual for me. And the result came that way with very few post processing. No real merit except for a typical “f8 and be there” situation (that was f11 actually).

While doing these photographs the idea of the Soth project came to mind with a very famous picture from Leonard Freed. That of two black youngsters playing with water from a fire hydrant in Harlem back in 1963. I guess that picture is the ultimate representation of the cliche. It kinds of starts and ends here. Well, it actually does not end here since the reinterpretation of motifs is part of the photographic tradition – read Goeff Dyers The Ongoing Moment – and the starting point of Soth project.

Leonard Freed - Harlem, 1963

So the next day I thought “fine, I got nice pictures to fulfill the assignment”. Kids playing with water, revisiting Freed’s picture of the two young black people, with that smoke and light adding a nice surreal effect.

But wait… what makes Freed’s picture that iconic ? I believe the word is important, it is not just about a good picture. Something else must be / have been at work. By the way there is a story accompanying Soth’s project in which he elaborates on that. My understanding is that you have to think about what makes a shot iconic, and frankly this is no easy thing to figure out in the first place. Re-thinking about the picture from Freed I realize there might be a very special and straightforward reason why it stands that way though. Black people, Harlem, 1963. Actually the picture is highly symbolic of MLK and the Civil Rights movement. It is about the non-violent conquest of the basic right to equally share and enjoy the American soil. I believe the picture represents that almost literally.

But then how could you revisit that ? In a sense the fact clearly described in Freed’s shot is not the literal reason why it has become iconic. And if I do a shot of kids playing in the water myself it falls short, right ?. I am starting to think I’d better choose another picture to revisit…

That said an interesting thing about Alec Soth’s writing on “How to Revisit an Iconic Photograph” is that he points at very specific photographic reasons – as opposed to the historical context. Speaking about Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” :

” I’m fascinated by the whole notion of iconic pictures. Of the 80,000 F.S.A. pictures, why is this one so memorable? “

And actually he suggests that form rather than content justifies the iconic status of that particular photograph.

The most fascinating element in photographic portraiture is the subject’s eyes. I remember being stunned when I first saw a print of “Migrant Mother” that the eyes of the subject, Florence Owens Thompson, are dramatically out of focus. It is a technically imperfect picture, but of course it is an absolutely great image. Why? In remaking the picture, it became clear that that some of this has to do with the fact that the children’s eyes are hidden. If that weren’t the case, the picture would be about the children. Instead, the picture is about the mother and about her plight.

Now I can see why St Lazard from Cartier Bresson can be considered iconic, as well as I can pinpoint reasons why the aforementioned shot of women on a bench from Winogrand is a great picture – to take few examples. But that leaves the idea of revisiting an iconic shot rather open.

The 2011 Red Sox on the trash bin

If you follow up MLB you probably still have in mind that memorable evening of September  28th, when the Red Sox @ Orioles game in Baltimore was interrupted by this quasi-biblical rain shower and all that happened afterwards on both NL and AL games for the wild card race.

Was a nightmare for Sox and Braves fans, but a delight for those who are thrilled by the unexpected (I am some sort of both).

I recently checked pics I made at Fenway and found the one below, which prefigured the end of that season.

web 3.0

from: 09F.A.CE-0wk
to: B00-K_boot87p
Subject: Mr Smith
So, what was Mr Smith doing recently ?

from: B00-K_boot87p
to: 09F.A.CE-0wk
Subject: Re: Mr Smith
Routine.
- Spent 28min on porn sites yesterday evening.
- Then checked emails. Got hotel reservation confirmation
(the one we recommended).
- Had a couple of tweets about football games.
- Woke up at 6:23am this morning.
- Had 6.5oz of coffee Xpre$$o we help to sell last month.
- Checked out the sport news.
- Email again...

from: B00-K_boot87p
to: 09F.A.CE-0wk
Subject: Re: Re: Mr Smith
Football games ? did we ever sell online betting to Mr Smith ?

from: B00-K_boot87p
to: 09F.A.CE-0wk
Subject: Re:Re:Re: Mr Smith
Got to check that out in database. Hold on...
Wait.. I cannot locate Mr Smith anymore. What's wrong ?

from: 09F.A.CE-0wk
to: B00-K_boot87p
Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re: Mr Smith
hmmm... should be out and off-line right now...
That's embarrassing.

from: B00-K_boot87p
to: 09F.A.CE-0wk
Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re:Re: Mr Smith
Is it legal ?

from: 09F.A.CE-0wk
to: B00-K_boot87p
Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re: Mr Smith
Well... it is, at least so far. But we're working on that.
You're a rookie here aren't you ? But nevermind they are
always back quickly.

from: B00-K_boot87p
to: 09F.A.CE-0wk
Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re: Mr Smith
Got it! Playing on-line games now.

from: 09F.A.CE-0wk
to: B00-K_boot87p
Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re: Mr Smith
Make sure it's not the kids.

from: B00-K_boot87p
to: 09F.A.CE-0wk
Subject: Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:Re: Mr Smith
Yeah I know, Kids suck.

Miles Davis, 1926-1991

Miles Davis passed away 20 years ago. He was a seminal figure of contemporary music, whose influence has extended far beyond jazz music – which he has largely contributed to expand. I sometimes consider Lee Friedlander (still alive and kicking) as a close equivalent of Miles Davis. The following portrait of Miles Davis is part of the book “American Musicians”.

Miles Davis by Lee Friedlander, 1969

 

 

 

What kind of street-photographer are you ?

Here is a psycho-test that will reveal the kind of street-photographer you are – or not. Pick what corresponds the most to you below the following questions. Then count the corresponding card-game signs (diamonds | clubs | spades) and go to the test result below.

Here we go:

******

*****

****

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You got :

  • More than 6 clubs:  You are definitely not a street-photographer and you probably know it. Photography for you is a quiet process which is all about aesthetic and emotional impact. So.. taking snapshots of unknown people in public spaces ? no thanks. By the way you hate to be photographed without your consent.
  • More than 6 spades: You don’t take the technical aspects of photography very seriously but care about the content. You have no hard-coded preconception about form as long as it serves the documentary dimension of the image. Street photography for you is like everyday photojournalism.
  • More than 6 diamonds: You are an hardcore street photographer, no doubt about it. For you Garry Winogrand is the man. You shoot for yourself and don’t really care about the documentary value for your work. You have tons of work prints in your basement and dozens of rolls waiting to be developed. If you are all diamonds you are already out there shooting.

Search the World (the future of Google Street View)

When you think about it, Google Street View is a rather logical offspring for Google. What made Google the successful company it is is its search engine for the web, right ? And a web search engine is basically a tool to explore the web, some sort of compass in the virtual world. And Google Street View is a tool to explore the real world.

From that standpoint a logical extension for Google Street View would be to be able to search the world using keywords to look-up the GSV database. For example if you are looking for “Barbershops in Philadelphia” you would get street views of all identified barbershops in Philadelphia, it is that simple. You may say that it does not seem different than looking up for “Barbershop Philadelphia” with Google search engine and then click on the map from the search results. But actually it is, because the idea would be to search for visual artifacts captured by GSV cameras – as opposed to searching web contents linked to a physical address.

A more appropriate example is searching something like “green house Philadelphia” that would return every green houses captured by the GSV cameras. Actually the idea here is to make an enhanced version of GSV that is the exact equivalent of what a search engine is for the web.

Now of course that would require a technology which is able to analyze the visual content of GSV and arrange it into a database. Though I am no expert I guess such thing is not a technical utopia. Ideally the content should be accessible in its most objective form, i.e. not be filtered. That means that not only the permanent features will be searchable (“green house”) but also the artifacts and accidents captured. For example you should be able to search for “cat” or “bike” or “kissing couple” as well as “red house”. That would make the system more open, suitable for seemingly useless purposes – and thus more interesting.

GSV shot - from Doug Rickard "New American Picture"

Another limit of the existing system is the quick obsolescence of the data captured. A web search engine crawls the web incessantly to update its database and index. A “real world search engine” needs to be able to do the same which means that the GSV “camerabots” would need to crawl the streets almost everyday. That would add much more depth to the system and makes it suitable for important documentary survey and to answer critical questions such as “Were green houses in Philadelphia more numerous than red ones in 2015 ?” or “In which city is it the most likely to stumble upon a cat when crossing the street ?”. Now you may think that updating the Street View image database on a daily basis is impossible, but you are wrong.

Actually a rather simple way to achieve that is for the operator to involve people like you and me in the process instead of having its own fleet of cars with mounted camera. Would you volunteer for having a camera installed on your vehicle and you’ll get some monthly fee and more importantly your name will be credited on-line. Taxi companies could also benefit financially from it in the form of a partnership.

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I am personally neither supportive nor opposed to such a tool. It is merely a speculation of what is arguably a plain logical extension of what GSV is with its current limitations. Therefore it would not be surprising if it develops in such a way.