Kevin Bjorke
Kevin Bjorke
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(C)2004

I'm hardly the first person to observe the irony that novellists, whose stock in trade are observations of human behavior and character, work almost always alone (not counting corporate potboiler writers and their assistants, whom I'm reluctant to label "novelists"). So too street photographers of the portraiture variety.

A couple of nights ago I watched (again) Bruce Gilden on Egg. When Gilden talks it's all about people — yet he moves through the street alone, violates people's spaces, then carries on with a smile and a complement. Is it anti-social? Is it deeply social? Is it pretended intimacy, siezed before the subject can grasp what's going on, and pinned to the wall by Gilden's flash unit?

Gilden is comfortable with what he's doing ("if I'm not comfortable, I can't shoot," he says). He follows his instincts rapidly, and to do that he is free from distractions, very present in that 1/60th second moment shared by a passerby and his Leica. He is not open to conversation, he doesn't have an assistant or a companion who need to keep up or have things explained. He does not go on vacation, he goes to various places to make photographs. They are his experience of the world.

Other photographers who've described their encounters with him in Manhattan inevitably end their story of conversation abruptly, something like: "and then he saw something and ran off across the middle of the block." Anti-social? Hell yeah. And that's a good thing.

Of course, impulsive shooting can mean plenty of trouble, too. You're walking down the street in a group (co-workers, family, the police...), you see a shot, and off you go without informing or waiting for your companions. Now they are ticked off at you. Or you suppress yourself, don't get the shot for the sake of staying with them, and now you are annoyed, feeling constrained and claustrophobic, vidi interuptus. Or you start off and they call after you and now your subject is altered or destroyed and everyone is awry. Twitchy shutter fingers strain your relationships.

Walking around with other photographers is a useful alternative, if you have any handy — they understand the need to photograph based on what you see now. They can buy into the idea of "I'll meet you at the corner over there in five minutes." One is reminded of the many parallel walks taken in the 60's by Winogrand and Meyerowitz, happy to be anti-social together.

These thoughts come just after receiving a comment from James Luckett on the recent entry The 3 C's, particularly this passage:

photography is an immensely difficult thing to talk about, requiring time, patience and understanding. i've been working in this field for 18 years, 14 of those in school as a student and a teacher, and can mark on one hand the personally meaningful discussions i've had.

I don't know just how man non-meaningful discussions that means James has had, but let's say two per week for 14 of those years, that's only 1400 non-meaningful ones for, say, four really good ones. S/N of 1:350. That sounds pretty good to me!

I read a fair number of forums and discussion groups every day, and there are certainly plenty with a much, much lower signal-to-noise that 1:350, or even 1:1000. In other words, they are mostly crap.

When panning for gold, a lot of the process can be automated. Posts about equipment I don't have? In the trash. So long HP, sayonara Pentax, Tokina, and Sanyo... hey, that's 85% of most photo posts. Arguments about digital and film, "rules of composition," B&W or color... that's another 10% and now with 95% of the traffic gone that 1:1000 ratio's down to 1:50. Worth the trouble? It keeps me busy.

One idea, and I've tried working it into my own forum posts when possible, is trying to emphasize pictures over words. Every post has a photo, or a link to a photo. The goal is to keep your ideas visual. I've yet to see a forum successfully require pictures, though a low-traffic private list run by Sean Reid and Ben Lifson has come the closest, and despite difficulties it's been one of my favorites.

A good litmus of worthlessness in a forum, imo, is a focus on easy friendliness. It's a sure sign that they tolerate mediocrity easily and will be quick to praise the lamest of bird, flower, and adorable grandchildren sunsets. And the obverse can be the best indicator for a group where people are likely to actually get some value from inclusion: the group's anti-social nature.