Permission Slips

The recent documentary about the "discovery" of Vivian Maier shows how the street-photography tradition can be used to trample concerns about consent

“To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeting reality.” –Henri Cartier-Bresson, “The Mind’s Eye,” 1976.

A street photographer is the camera mechanism embodied, on the prowl, taking in the world always as something to be found, captured, sorted, put to work. With the mentality of a hunter, a master of territory, the street photographer stalks the blur of the now for moments to freeze and transform into shareable narratives, ones that ask us to see beauty in the mundane, the banality in the extraordinary, the importance of what is unnoticed.

Street photographers do more than just see the world as objects to capture; they simultaneously intuit a visual moment’s eventual impact, what’s provocative and catchy about it — in other words, its virality — in real time, pouncing at the “decisive moment” to make the ephemeral still and, in turn, productive.[l]Nathan Jurgenson is a sociologist and social media theorist. He is a contributing editor at The New Inquiry, co-founder and chair of Theorizing the Web, and researcher at Snapchat. @nathanjurgenson[/l]

That is street photography in its mythologized form anyway. There is no single definition or universal practice of street or candid photography, but descriptions by Joel Meyerowitz and Colin Westerbeck in Bystander, Clive Scott in Street Photography, and Gilles Mora in Photo Speak all revolve around the idea of image making in a public place, where you don’t know your subjects, they don’t know you, and they are oblivious to your presence.

Among recognized street photographers, there are differences in whether they wait for the perfect moment or take a stream of shots to be culled later, and ambiguities in whether they are “documentary” photographers or something more creative, if they are photojournalists or paparazzi. The specific ethics of individual street photographers vary wildly in both theory and practice: Some focus intensely on permission, respect, and consent; others less so.

These ethics matter, because the street photographer’s practice is a powerful force today, pursued not just by the people we actually call street photographers but also the masses of smartphone-carrying camera flâneurs, as well as by the corporate and governmental surveillance apparatuses surrounding us. These all congeal into a pervasive cultural perspective that views and treats the world as a street photographer does: people in public are objects to be claimed and exposed, and incipient virality takes precedent over consent. What is it like to live in a world of so many web-connected lenses? Street photography is not just a photographic process any longer but a cultural ethos, an obsessive way of seeing the world as always possessable, to be acquired, collected, managed, and ultimately sold.

This logic is on full display in Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary about a nonprofessional street photographer working primarily in Chicago in the mid-20th century. An obsessive hoarder who shot thousands of rolls of film, Maier didn’t share her work during her lifetime; indeed, she was deeply private, taking many deliberate steps throughout her life to reject attention and conceal her identity even in ostensibly innocuous situations. John Maloof, who co-directed the film, stumbled upon her work when purchasing the contents of a storage locker — one filled with boxes of negatives as well as her personal artifacts. Like a street photographer stumbling on an irresistible tableau, Maloof seized the opportunity and developed Maier’s street photographs, presenting the work to the public online and later, as it gained recognition, at a variety of galleries and museums. For the length of the film, he subjects Maier and her life to the same treatment, uncovering it and exposing it to the world.

There’s little doubt that Finding Vivian Maier is a compelling story. The character on display is fascinating, full of virtues and flaws, and her street photographs are striking and powerful. She traversed her city thoroughly, shooting her subjects close up, seemingly without fear. That she didn’t share the shots with the world is interesting in itself, but especially from our post-social-media vantage, where doing almost anything, let alone making such gripping art, without sharing it seems a waste.

With her ethic of documenting nearly everything, Maier can seem more of a fit for our time than her own: She recorded her thoughts on audio cassette much as some now type them on Twitter, she took on different names the way we might adopt different Internet handles, and she always had a camera on her person the way many carry smartphones or even don wearables. She took innumerable photos, mainly with a square-format Rollieflex — like Instagram before the fact, though her work is not simulated vintage, of course, but genuinely marked by the patina of passing time. She took many selfies, and even her taste in clothes, oversize and defiantly unfashionable, would fit neatly into someone’s current understanding of hipster.

Despite the values Maier seems to have in common with today’s social-media ethic, it all crashes into the essential fact that she didn’t share. Today, the will to document and taking a slot-machine-like chance at virality might seem like conjoined twins, but Maier didn’t share this link. The more she photographed and hoarded, the more militant she became about her privacy, putting more locks on her doors and doing everything she could to shut out the attention of others.

Of all the mysteries Maier presents us with, this refusal to share is the one Maloof chose to explore, the problem the film needs to solve, in part to justify its own existence. To “discover” Maier is to inject the contemporary ethos of compulsory sharing into her work: to make Vivian viral (and to make Maloof viral by proxy). Finding Vivian Maier should be understood as an attempt to fix the grand historical “error” of Maier’s rejection of attention and celebrity. By assuring that not sharing is not a viable option, the film thus tries to convince viewers that despite her aggressive efforts to the contrary, she really did want to share.

Structuring the film as the rescue of Maier’s artistic legacy and reputation is in part an effort to retroactively impart her blessing on Maloof’s business of selling prints of her photos. Maloof portrays himself as the Great Man who “uncovered” the artist, taking her “out of the shadows,” as one exhibition of Maier’s work, which Maloof made possible, is called. In an interview with Hollywood Chicago, he said,

I did discover her. There were a number of people who bought her boxes at the original auction, but I purchased the largest one. As I began to archive it and discover that the work was good, I started to put it online, and it went viral from there. Now I’m promoting it, storing it and making sure it’s being taken care of — it was all me basically.

In the film, Maloof pointedly shows his stamp on the back of her photographs to demonstrate ownership and control of Vivian-as-brand. Indeed, the film is suspiciously committed to creating and demonstrating Maier’s newfound popularity. She would have had so many Instagram followers! In her New York Times review, Manhola Dargis accurately calls the film “a feature-length advertisement for Mr. Maloof’s commercial venture as the principal owner of her work.” Another review at Indie Wire calls the film “one of the most brazenly exploitive documentaries of an individual to come along in a long while,” and even the Chicago Tribune’s sympathetic review admits “there's too much Maloof” in the documentary. Noah Buschel notes the implicit hostility the film has toward its subject in a critical review for Filmmaker:

What kinda weirdo does art for the sake of art and not public adoration? This is too baffling, too inscrutable, too foreign a concept. Not only are we gonna make a movie about you, but we’re also going to dredge up every detail about your personal life that we can find. We’re gonna psychoanalyze you too. We may not have any background in psychoanalysis or any Ph.D., but that’s not gonna stop us ... Enigmas must be made concrete. Gray areas must be turned black and white. Magic must be anatomized and secrets must be unveiled.

In a brief sequence set to stock “uplifting” music, Finding Vivian Maier attempts to anticipate such accusations of exploitation by detailing Maier’s correspondence over having a handful of prints made in France. Maloof extrapolates from this that Maier therefore wanted her work to be known and thus consented before the fact to a film that would seek to push work she hid into the brightest of spotlights. Rather than address the moral ambiguity more carefully, the documentary instead quickly congratulates itself for its heroic effort in fulfilling Maier’s stifled wishes. Given the unconvincing thinness of this section, it seems that Maloof assumed viewers would already share the view that attention, exposure, and popularity are intrinsically good, and sympathize with his effort to publicize her rather than her own struggle to remain private — which the film systematically pathologizes.

The street photographer understands exposure as only something to celebrate, even when the subject distrusts the attention, and the film accordingly reinforces this ethos. If the street photographer knows reality as reconnaissance, Finding Vivian Maier is an 83-minute reconnaissance mission: street photographers always get their shot.

Vivian Maier was a street photographer, but Maloof’s film best exemplifies this larger street photographer ethic, one that goes beyond any film but is informed by a general social media ethos of see, take, and score — visual possessiveness in the name of attention. When people call some of the worst technologies that plop out of Silicon Valley “creepy,” this is what they mean: They are referring to the street photographer ethos of looking at people and the world as images for the taking to be reused for their own purposes.

Two years ago a “creepy” app called Girls Around Me combined “public” Facebook and Foursquare information to display on a mobile device the locations and profiles of the women around you. The reaction in the tech media was predictable: that since all of this information was “public,” these sorts of “creepy” apps are inevitable. Forbes columnist Kashmir Hill rightly noted the victim-blaming tenor of our debates around visibility, “'You're too public with your digital data, ladies,' may be the new 'your skirt was too short and you had it coming.'" The message is similar to the street photographer ethic: cover up if you are going to be in public, or else your image is fair game.

Then, earlier this year, Buzzfeed re-posted people’s very personal tweets about sexual assault on its site. Some were rightfully angry because what was intended for one context of interpersonal sharing and support was made dramatically more high profile and consequently people felt over exposed. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote about the controversy from the street photographer’s angle: To those whose expectations about exposure were violated, he said, with a condescending, belittling tone, “Twitter Is Public.” To tweet in public means to consent to have anything done with and to them. Anything that can technically be exposed should be and the attention it garners retroactively stands for consent.

And looming larger than any app or platform is Google Glass, a technology that fully embraces and instantiates the street-photographer ethic, prioritizing the wearers entitled right to see. “The key experiential question of Google Glass isn’t what it’s like to wear them, it’s what it’s like to be around someone else who’s wearing them,” Mark Hurst, CEO of the consultancy Creative Good, wrote a year ago. Glass wants to place the wearer behind a portable two-way mirror: On one side, the viewer sees all without being seen, while the objects of Glass’s gaze can’t tell how their image is being processed. More than just a new way of seeing, Glass also enforces a new way of being seen.

The street photographer attitude continues to proliferate, generating a spectrum of reactions against it, from legal action to stealing and smashing devices like Glass. When a Massachusetts court defended a photographer’s right to take upskirt photos in public since he was merely shooting what was in public, the legislature quickly overturned it, a hopeful indication of the growing resistance to such logic. In reaction to the Gawker “public’s public” attitude, there have been appeals to respect what privacy theorist Helen Nissenbaum calls “context integrity”, socially situated expectations, and permission. Nissenbaum writes,

We should not expect social norms, including informational norms, simply to melt away with the change of medium to digital electronic any more than from sound waves to light particles. Although the medium may affect what actions and practices are possible and likely, sensible policy-making focuses on the actions and practices themselves.

When nearly all of us are street photographers to some extent or another, counter-narratives around privacy and publicity are becoming more mainstream. They move past the idea that privacy is about secrecy and hiding — as the opposite of publicity — but instead are rooted in context and social vulnerability. In just the past month Betsy Haibel critiqued treating users as “manipulatable,” Laurie Penny spoke about “networked consent,” Kate Crawford about what it is like to live under this surveillant anxiety, and Molly Crabapple wrote about basing resistance to unwanted appropriation not in hiding but in owning the image and the attention it garners. This is just a small recent sample from a longer privacy counternarrative, one that understands that the street photographer doesn’t just want your image, but the clicks, likes, followers, and big data it might generate.

And this is what Finding Vivian Maier ultimately showcases, not just the street photographer ethic to document but also how one’s own success in the attention economy can too often crowd out other’s “contextual integrity.” The ends of attention justify the means; virality retroactively takes the place of consent, which, in turn implicitly condemns the entire idea of having a life, having thoughts, or pursuing aesthetic goals in private without sharing. To reject attention and potential celebrity comes to be a “flaw” dangerous not to just this film but to the entire foundation of the “document, share, score attention points” game of social media.

The celebrity Maloof has brought Meier becomes a kind of viral poetic justice. This film is Maier’s punishment for the crime of violating a social media ethos that had yet to become dominant. What other  “crimes” will our fellow street-photographer documentarians feel justified in exposing about us?

Comments are closed.