Whitney Museum: "Progressives, stop taking street photos."

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The Lamentable Lens Contributing Member • Posts: 699
Re: Whitney Museum: "Progressives, stop taking street photos."
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fad wrote:

The Lamentable Lens wrote:

You're entitled to your own opinion of Bey's body of work, of course, but I'd be surprised if people who actually spent time looking at his projects at the Whitney would come away thinking of them as "not very interesting street portraits of black people." No, that strikes me as a rather derisive, shallow, and unthinking summary of his work.

Personally, I find The Birmingham Project extremely moving, and there are some great photos in the other series, too. Heck, if A Boy in Front of the Loew's 125th Street Movie Theater, from the Harlem, U.S.A. series, doesn't make you smile, then you may be a lost cause!

He's a fine professional photographer, and some of his photos are interesting, of course. No objection of a gallery in Chelsea, but an entire floor of a major national museum? I'm glad he's gotten the exposure, and he's right on market for today.

I think it is similarly reductive and intellectually shallow to distill the museum's messages down to "progressives, stop taking street photos." I don't get that at all from what the museum posted, and I've read them both twice now.

I think if you read more carefully you will see not that he wants to be an ethical photographer. Who could argue with that? But he "insists that photography be an ethical act." So the clear implication is that anyone who does not photograph as he does is wrong and unethical. How can that be read any other way? He does not choose the ethical way, he insists on it.

He does not say there is a risk of exploitation, or that exploitation is one way of looking at unposed candids like street. He insists that that is their essence, without other redeeming values, at least from the statement.

He is like the vegetarian who insists that any other way of eating is unethical.

He is a puritan. Art is many things and full of lies. I'm happy for his success. But he is telling you that you should not be shooting street as it normally done. He is also in the totalitarian spirit of the age, in trying to suppress the normal vocabulary of photographers upon his procrustean bread of supposed good and evil.

Listen, I adore and support street photography, and I engage in it myself. But one cannot deny that among the various photography genres, it raises some of the more difficult ethical questions around exploitation, consent, and intent, especially where issues of race and/or class are involved. To ask those questions and invite a discussion of them -- and especially to do so through photography itself -- is a worthy endeavor that does not deserve such a hostile and dismissive reaction.

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. It sounds as if we disagree about the quality and significance of Bey's body of work, but that's fine. Art is subjective, and, at its best, controversial.

I think if you had led with this most recent description, however, it would have elicited a different reaction. There is quite a bit of space between "he does not very interesting street portraits of black people," and "he's a fine professional photographer, and some of his photos are interesting."

As for the ethical question, I think it's possible that you are reading too much between the lines, although I do share your concern about the criticism of non-collaborative street photography as exploitative. Indeed, some would say that a collaboration and exchange is not street photography at all, but rather portraiture. I'm not sure I agree -- I'm not fond of strict genre boundaries, and I like the Whitney's reference to the photos as "street portraits," but that is a whole other topic.

In any event, I think there is value in forcing us all to think every now and then about the ethics of our work, especially in a genre with clear ethical potholes. I don't necessarily have to reach the same conclusions as Bey to appreciate the discussion that his viewpoint provokes.

(p.s., I'm familiar with Procrustean "beds," but I must admit that Procrustean "bread" is an altogether new kind of torture to me -- I'm sure it is equally unpleasant :-P)

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