In 1999, an American photographer named Philip-Lorca diCorcia set up his camera and took a random series of people in Times Square, New York City over a period of three years. The series gained popularity and was exhibited at a gallery from September 6th through October 13th, 2001. These prints were published in a book titled “Heads.” 10 limited edition prints of each photograph in the book were sold for $20,000 – 30,000 each.
Fast forward to 2005. By this time the images have gained a large amount of traction. Erno Nussenzweig, an Orthodox Jewish man pictured in one of diCorcia’s photos, learned of the photograph and filed a lawsuit. He claimed that diCorcia and the publishers violated his privacy rights under Sections 50 and 51 of New York’s Civil Rights Law.
New York state law restricts using a person’s likeness for profit without their consent. DiCorcia argued that the photo represented “artistic expression,” and was protected under the 1st Amendment. Not to mention that the statute of limitations had expired for bringing a lawsuit.
On February 8th, 2006 the court ruled in favor of diCorcia and dismissed the lawsuit.
Had diCorcia lost, and Erno been successful, we would be living in an entirely different world. That case would trigger an international privacy-revolt against the photography industry and, on a greater scale, the art world.
The issue of privacy is a trending topic. With the advancement of technology, everyone has a camera. Everyone is a photographer, granted not always a good one. Nevertheless, privacy is a highly criticized part of photography as an art form and as a business.
Art and business have some difficulty joining into one industry, as some individuals have a problem with photographers using other people’s likeness to make ends meet. For those that do it professionally as their career, a lawsuit can be detrimental. The aim is to destroy the business, but art is the one that suffers.
There are two different types of photographers in my book: subjective and objective.
With objective photography, you have to put on a brave face and shoot what you see at the moment that it happens. This is how most street photographers go about taking their pictures. They capture an unfiltered slice of life wherever they are. Though it can be used to tell strong narratives, it also gets many photographers into trouble.
There are going to be people who lash out when you take photos of them, no matter where you go. Photographers combat this possibility in various ways. New York street photographer Bruce Davidson has an album filled with a collection of his work always on him, in the event he was ever questioned or approached on the street. From there, he talks them down and even will send them a copy of the final print.
Other photographers, like Bruce Gilden, share a more aggressive style of photography. Bruce just takes the photo without asking for permission. He takes very close-up images with a flash. The result is some of the most interesting portraits in the art world. If his subjects raise their voice or get physical, he yells right back. For him, it is not just a matter of making money; it is his sole method of storytelling, and on another level, connecting with people.
“I love the people I photograph. I mean, they’re my friends. I’ve never met most of them or I don’t know them at all yet, through my images, I live with them,” Gilden writes.
American photographer Jamel Shabazz asks permission before he shoots any of his subjects. After scaring off a prostitute’s client, and getting into trouble with a pimp in his early career, Shabazz believes asking first is the safest, and most personable, option. This is what I refer to as a subjective photographer.
However, he has faced hefty criticism for having his subjects look directly into the camera and give a cheek-to-cheek smile in all his work. Shabazz’s subjects became too comfortable, or uncomfortable depending on how you look at it, and as a result seem too posed.
Walking through the streets of Prague is a hassle on its own with many people, mostly tourists, blocking your way. The last thing you want is a camera in your face. However, a good photographer can have dozens of photos before you even notice. That does not mean they are always going to capitalize on them, or even use the shots. Not everyone has what Gilden refers to as “the look,” a particular facial expression or physical characteristic he deems shootable.
There will be cases where you stumble upon an interesting subject and that situation requires finesse. There are situations where you will have to interact with your subject and share some humanity. After all, photographers are still people, not just walking lenses.
Photographers that pose their subject form a relationship beforehand, and you can see it in the photo. Sometimes it works or it may lead to what seems like a very forced and unnatural picture. That is why I shoot objectively. It leads to a fascinating piece where the photographer opens up and the subject never has to.
No matter how you look at it, for business or for art, photography requires the thoughts of the photographer and the likeness of a subject. Objective or subjective shooting, in the end, is only as good as the subject in the shot and the photographer behind it.
Photo credit: Peter O’Neill.