Reconsideration: Eye to Eye, Squint to Squint, and Thoughts on Who is Photographing Whom

Paint store workers, Perşembe Pazarı, Galata, Istanbul, 2013; B/W negative; Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8.

Paint stall workers, Perşembe Pazarı (the Thursday Market), Galata, Istanbul, 2013; B/W negative; Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8. Click on image to enlarge.

I have not posted to this site since mid-year 2015.  Conceptually, long-form reading (for research and for its own sake) led me to push short-form writing to the side. On the visual side, malfunctioning of my supposedly trustworthy digital camera, the increasingly complex logistics of purchasing and processing film, and a search for new photographic approaches and subject matter caused me to reconsider the worth of my backlog of images and of the platforms I’ve used for sharing them.  But now, for the moment at least, I’ve decided to pick up the thread …

The connection

The photo above provides continuity to my last post to this site.  The photo was taken in the Perşembe Pazarı (Thursday Market) — the centuries-old (millennia-old, actually!) ships’ chandlers and metal-working market at the mouth of the Golden Horn, on the waterfront of the old Galata neighborhood of Istanbul — in one of the narrow streets just behind the buildings fronting the water at the left of the panaromic photo of the waterfront featured in my last post.  The street in question contains the stalls and enclosed shops of paint merchants, competitors grouped one after the next as per the guild-like arrangements of traditional markets.  The paint merchants test and display custom-mixed colors by dabbing pointillist brush strokes and Jackson-Pollack-like spray bursts onto exposed retaining walls in the increasing number of vacant lots that scar the neighborhood as  developers race to position themselves for the windfalls of inevitable gentrification.  (For a waterfront street-scape taken elsewhere in Perşembe Pazarı click here.)

Eyes to eyes, squints to squints

For years, I have shied away from candid photography, especially (per my lifelong contrived contrariness to fashions of the moment) the recent rage for “street photography.” To me, hidden cameras and surreptitious photographers can too easily cross the line into cowardliness, trickery, and exploitation.  My take is (or maybe was) that achievement of direct eye-contact shows recognition and attentiveness on the part of the photographer towards the person-hood of the subject.  Eye contact enables the subject to manifest him- or herself in a manner either inherent to themselves or to themselves as they wish to be at the moment.  In short, it leads to willful collaboration of subject and photographer.

Objectivity or self-deception?

Recently, I’ve begun to question my stance.  I ask myself how much the achievement of eye-contact and the seduction involved therein are true techniques of environmental portraiture versus how much they might engender projection, surrogate self-portraiture, and/or transcendence of loneliness on the part of the photographer.  More abstractly, I wonder whether whether eye-contact is a means for capturing projection rather than subject?  Or, more banal, how much the search for eye contact is a but a hangover from, and a nostalgia for, the family snapshots of my childhood?

As to what spurred my questioning … several things:

1. The suggestion of Austrian sociologist Marietta Mayrhofer-Deak, a collaborator on a proposed project, that I reread Photography and Sociology, a 1970s essay by Howard Becker, the octogenarian sociologist, one-time jazz musician, and innovator in participant research into “deviant” behaviors, beginning with one of the first detailed participant studies of marijuana-smokers!

2. A second suggestion from Marietta that I re-examine the detached and clinical, but nonetheless telling and powerfully moving, portraiture of August Sander (the full collection of which can seen on the website of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and

3. My recent perusal of photos of a series of analogue photos of architectural details — balconies, doors, windows, caryatids, stairways — that I took in Sofia, Bulgaria during a winter of political upheaval and economic collapse nineteen years ago.  How much, I now ask myself, did the Sofia series actually portray its inanimate subject matter? How much did my choice of subject matter, viewpoint, and framing actually represent the grim pessimism and insecurity of the society at the time? Or, how much were the photos expressions of my own inner state and preoccupations, independent of subject matter and context?  Did the photos tell larger tales of the objects portrayed, their contexts, and the times, or merely express the narcissism or autism of me, the photographer?

More on this — and a sampling of photographs from the series referred to — in subsequent posts.

(Disclaimer: I have not worked or resided in Istanbul since January, 2015. Since then, I have only returned to Istanbul for a two-week stay during which I did not visit Perşembe Pazarı. Thus, I do not know how much of the market area has been razed since nor have I attended to my usual practice of trying to return to provide the subjects of photos with prints of their own, regardless of intervening time. Anyone more up-to-date on the present state of Perşembe Pazarı is welcome to comment)

4 comments
  1. “It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”- Alfred Eisenstaedt

    Another great and mind broadening article by Stephen. Great to read you again!

  2. Dear Mimio, Thanks for taking the time to read the post, for your kind words, and for the very pertinent quote. Eisenstadt’s words provide me with an answer to the dilemma I raised and a guideline for future work. S.

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