Stolen Portraits

October 23, 2018  •  Leave a Comment


When I travel, I confess to being a thief. I steal pictures of people.

I know this is unprofessional. I took a photo workshop in Cuba a few years ago from Peter Turnley, who is a consummate professional and a great maker of street portraits. One of my most vivid memories from that trip was watching Peter slowly and gently cajole a Cuban woman--a priestess of santeria--into posing for a picture.  Peter could encounter a burglar in the midst of cracking a safe and convince him that posing for a picture would contribute to human understanding and world peace. And he could do it in half a dozen languages.

I hesitate to say that I couldn't at least try to do the same. If you put a gun to my head, I doubtless could. But I dislike doing it. I don't like being rejected. I could never have been a salesman, since salesmen must overcome multitudinous rejections. If you ask someone for permission to photograph them, there's a good chance you'll be rejected. So, a lot of the time, I don't ask. 

Moreover, there's a good chance that a stolen picture will be better than one with permission attached, because the subject will be unguarded and she or he will leave a true face on. Or so I tell myself.

I observe only one rule. I only take pictures of people in public spaces, where the law says I am entitled to take pictures.  

Take the picture at the top of this post. I saw this man on a train while en route from Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise, where I planned to look at some of what Vincent Van Gogh painted before he died. The man's straw hat instantly reminded me of Van Gogh, who was fair-skinned and red-haired and did self-portraits of himself in a similar chapeau. I also saw that a very nice, soft light from the train window was illuminating the man's face as he gazed at the passing scenery. It was a local, commuter train and I imagine he'd taken it often and was a little bored with what he was seeing.

I could have asked him if I could make a picture. But if he had said no, then what? Or if he had consented, but then put on a very formal face, looking into my lens? I would have missed the moment and the lighting that are what I like about the picture. (The reflection of the man's face in the wall of the train was an accidental plus that I didn't notice at the time, but I like it, too.) So I didn't ask. I just shot.

Similarly with the picture above right. We were having lunch at an odd little cafe in Lourmarin, France, the only cafe I have ever seen that is connected to a putt-putt golf course. Two women came in and took an adjoining table. Judging by their apparent age, they might have been a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother. After a while, the elderly woman ordered an enormous ice cream confection, topped with whipped cream. It was as big as her head. The younger woman watched, seemingly amazed and appalled, as the elder woman dabbed persistently at the ice cream with a spoon. I could imagine her saying, or thinking, "I want to take as much time as I can before you take me back to the home, and I'll eat ice cream till I throw up to do it." I grabbed my camera and took a picture--again, without asking permission. It's not a portrait, strictly speaking. But I like the face almost as much as I like the idea of an elderly person ordering more ice cream than the world thinks is good for her.

Sometimes, it makes more sense to ask. The woman at left works at a vineyard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, not far from Avignon. I was walking by when she and some co-workers came out of a building and appeared to be waiting for a ride. I was struck by her tattoos, her broad shoulders, and by the bright yellow-and-red flower she had stuck in her hair. There was no opportunity to be unobtrusive. So I asked, in my poor French. The woman very pleasantly agreed; she seemed flattered that I would ask. When she noticed that I was trying to get a good angle on the flower in her hair, she obligingly moved it around toward her face so I could see it better. (In the end, I liked this shot best, even though the flower is partially obscured.) But I wonder what might have happened if I'd been ready when I first caught sight of her and photographed her as I saw her then, laughing and talking with her co-workers, not conscious of the camera.






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