A few years ago, on a cool Fall afternoon in Central Park, I sat down at a bench and watched an odd man playing the drums. He was playing on the lip of a tall waste-basket, drumsticks in his hand.
“Baba-la-bop,” he kept saying over and over again, synchronous with his playing. “Baba-la-bop.”
Somewhere down the line he had become a weird person. Who knows how long ago? Not him. In a gray trench coat he looked like a large man who had, inexplicably, become smaller; his head was over-sized and dense. Then I realized something else that was different about him: he was wearing make-up, layers of it, and he had blacked his hair and sideburns with paint or shoe-polish. He was Mr. Show Business gone loco.
“Buddy Rich!” he shouted out, and in the clicking of his sticks he made a fine adjustment.
There was something shocking about him, a zone of outrage and defect which distilled all the air between you and him. His face had a depthless quality, cartoonish; he was a Central Park doll who made certain noises when you poked him in the right places. And he was good at his drumming, for lunacy has its perfections, too.
I was only beginning to take photographs then, so I started to wonder how I would photograph him. Should I even photograph him? Did the world need another such photograph? At the time I couldn’t believe that it didn’t, so I set about preparing myself for the adventure — a certain push to the nervous system which would allow me to step out of my anonymity into the public world; a few adjustments of shutter and aperture.
Would Cartier-Bresson take this picture? I wondered.
Then I noticed that standing behind the drummer was a woman in a full-length fur coat talking to someone seated on a bench. Beside her a small poodle on a red leash stood prancing on little clicking feet. All of a sudden the poodle started jumping in the air, straight up, brief little nervous jumps, making no noise going up or down.
It was too irresistible. I slid off my bench, approached the drummer — who once again modified his drumming technique with the declaration, “Gene Krupa!” — crouched low, framed both the leaping poodle and the mad musician, and fired off a number of frames, maybe twenty.
What was I after? I had yanked two odd realities together, the way photographers do, and thought that was enough. Was there going to be a secret heart to my image?
Years later I realized that a poodle’s nerves and a crazy park minstrel have nothing in common except to the witless. Of course I could always claim the imperatives of absurdism . . . but hasn’t that been claimed enough? And is it even true? This absurdism which the lens loves to capture — isn’t it ultimately sterile and flat, the imposing of an aesthetic usually in the place of tears? For the most part, these dark demi-statements of the camera insinuate a potpourri of beauty at the heart of our tense world, a beauty which is there only because the camera found it. They make us seem profound at the exact moment we are being trite. Trite? Yes, of course, for what did I offer this man but a context in which all his sadness and loneliness were neutralized by my delight in the capricious. Much better by far to photograph him simply and let his own face tell a story.
As photographers, we find those persons most alien to our bourgeois training — the hapless, the homeless, the tacky, the truly marginal; that is, people most unlike ourselves — and we “document” them, as if the sole intention of their suffering and aimlessness was to earn them the right of becoming an “interesting” subject.
A few years later I stopped again to rest on a bench in Central Park a few yards away from the zoo. By then a photographer, I had been walking around the city for a few hours in search of certain images which had so far eluded me. My assumption was that the photographs I was looking for were just around the corner, and all I had to do was find the corner. It was not a bad notion really, for it built up the legs and taught me the joys of strolling, something I had never learned in thirty years of travelling by car. And I was learning to see too — not as of yet with any real clarity, but at least with the gradual sense that there was something to see, something, at any rate, beyond what I had already seen, something just around the corner. It was where this corner might be that was to occupy my thoughts as I sat down on the park bench.
I also sat down to look at a woman who was sitting on a bench directly across from me. She was an old woman, at the most seventy, in a black cloth coat, and she was covered from head to toe with birds, mostly pigeons, though there were a few sparrows hopping about her knees. Her coat and her red cheeks told me she was a foreigner, but I would have guessed it also from her open way with the birds, her conversation with them. She was chatting with them and cajoling them in an endless stream of bird-chucks and half-mutterings. There were criticisms, terms of endearment, feathered confidences, jibes about what they were doing today and what they did yesterday. She had names for many of them and would personally consult with a few special ones about their comings and goings. Out of a small white bag she fed them seeds while constantly reminding them of their manners, which were none too fine.
She was obviously of that breed of people, not so rare, who prefer the company of birds to that of people. In New York City where there are too many people and not enough birds, her like can often be found sitting in Central park on warm afternoons. And on this day lots of people were in the park taking advantage of the lovely weather: elderly overweight ladies with little dogs, ears twitching with the news, lying at their feet, and old men with parchment skin dressed in neat threadbare suits, eyes closed to the sun, their starched white shirts bright like snow in the noon sunlight. Couples and families wandered by — the American families in unwrinkled clothing, cramming in as good a time as they could in as short a time as possible, the children whining and bored, and the European families, mostly couples, alert as birds and handsome in leather and lace, talking melodiously to each other. Down the way a drunk who looked like Rasputin slept fearfully on a bench. His green linen suit was stained and he was shirtless beneath his jacket. On each side of him a couple of feet of free space had been granted; an unwholesome presence.
I was not prepared for what happened next. A plump man wearing a shiny green short-sleeved shirt and madras pants, carrying a camera case under his arm, passed the woman feeding the birds, fiddled with his camera for a moment, and then, whirling around, took her picture. There was suddenly an upheaval of birds, an explosion of clucks; it was astonishing how quickly the bird-woman had detached herself from her charges.
“What are you doing? What are you doing?” she cried, advancing toward the photographer, one accusatory finger pointing directly at his face. “What do you think you are, taking pictures like this?” she shrilled in a loud querulous voice, her accent Germanic. “You think I don’t see you taking my picture? You think I don’t know you going to take my picture? I know before you know!” she yelled, still moving toward the poor fellow who was in a state of real confusion.
One knows that New Yorkers are famous for confrontations, but no out-of-towner can ever be ready for one. They are always thirty seconds behind the retort they would like to make, the one they would like to recall when they get home. And our photographer, probably a Midwesterner, was no exception. Exposed as he was to this unexpected assault, he blushed deep scarlet, stammered, stepped backward, his camera clutched at his side as if it were something unclean. What is more embarrassing than when we have been caught peeking? In his confusion one could see a blow to his virility — which was wilting in front of the eyes of thirty people. And let it be said that this was no ordinary assault or anything resembling a dispute — it was an obsession provoked and let loose. And she wasn’t even finished.
“You give me that film!” she demanded. “You give me that film, or you pay me money! You want the picture so bad you help pay for food! I know what you do when you go home to Ohio! You put my picture in the magazine or newspaper! You help me pay for food and then you put me in a magazine!”
But by this time the photographer had realized that the punishment did not fit the crime, and mumbling something about a crazy old woman, he walked away. She, mumbling something about stupid tourists, went back to her bench where the birds, soon reassembling, joined her as if nothing had happened.
This scene was to repeat itself a couple of more times in the next thirty minutes. After a while I could anticipate her dashing up from the birds as some innocent tourist began to point a camera in her direction. And her complaint was always the same: her photograph was going to be put somewhere, and for it she would receive no compensation, not even enough to pay for air, for bird seed.
At that moment I recalled a scene from a movie I had seen at least fifteen years before. It was not the first time I had recalled it — in fact, I have thought of it so many times that I now wondered if I hadn’t dreamt it. (Which of us, after all, hasn’t remembered an experience in detail which never occurred — an experience we needed perhaps, but never had? Did we end up having the experience? I wonder.) The movie was Lawrence of Arabia, and in the scene a native, perhaps on top of a train, gestures furiously to someone below not to take his picture. Someone explains, “The natives (?) believe that if you take a person’s picture, you steal his soul.”
I don’t know why I’ve thought of that scene, real or imagined, a hundred times since I saw that movie. I suppose that I thought at the time it was somehow true, that an act of appropriation could take place when a photograph is taken — but surely in my life as an American young man no point-of-view I ever encountered would countenance such a notion? Yet why did that scene keep coming back to me over the years — why, more particularly, as I was sitting across from the woman with the birds?
A process of revelation began for me at that moment which it would take me years to conclude. I haven’t gotten to the end of it yet. It came from looking closely at the woman and her birds, looking without a camera, without the hope of anything other than the look. It was partially epiphanic, one of those bright, seemingly-divine moments when a crowd of isolated thoughts and notions fuse into a single perception which changes everything. It was also a moment earned — after all, back in North Carolina a marriage was clamoring for attention I was putting elsewhere. And wasn’t I, sitting here languidly on a park bench in Central Park, the only one in the world who wanted me to be here? There was a hint suddenly that nothing of importance would ever come to me if I weren’t sitting on a park bench somewhere by myself, and that I was absolutely right to be here today — far away, all at once, from everything, all the good things and all the bad things, all the responsibilities and the distractions, all the choices which had ended up so unclearly, and all the urgency which would soon force me to make new choices. I was, simply, available; and my dukes weren’t up.
Yes, it was true — something was being appropriated, but I didn’t know what. I would find out what it was. A woman sitting on a bench was having her picture taken by men and women she didn’t know. Inside a camera an emulsified surface had received a scattering of light — and somewhere down the line this emulsified surface would be bathed in chemicals. An event which occurred in time would be converted into an object which occurs only in space. This is pretty close to magic, even if it can be explained — and if not magic, then at least something strange, very strange. What could be stranger than an odd old New York lady’s image appearing suddenly in the troubled waters of an Ohio darkroom? Particularly if she wishes it not to be so. To me, sitting in the bright New York sunlight, such an image seemed very strange indeed. What is she doing, after all, in that water? What is her image doing there? Outside the darkroom an angry woman may be cooking dinner, a re-run may be playing on a television a few rooms away. Shouldn’t we ask what is going on here? Why has she been thus converted? And for whose benefit? All we know with absolute certainty is that it is not for her benefit — since she has established it most ferociously in our minds that she has never received a penny for her birds, and that’s what matters to her. I mean, if she is to undergo conversion, if a woman sitting on a park bench is going to be converted into a two-dimensional image, we might ask why.
The question was particularly close to me in those days. Why take photographs? Or to put it another way, is the impulse to take photographs an artistic impulse, that is, one which tries to enlighten, to disclose, to make meaning, or does it come from a semi-voyeuristic inclination to make thrills by stopping time, by perpetuating an event beyond its natural closure? And if photography is an art, how do you make it one? Running up and down the city as I had for the past few years, I had come up with a number of interesting images, but I wasn’t sure that according to my own inner measurements they were worth very much. I wasn’t sure they said anything real, and, never being a cynic, I was afraid they contained very little of that feeling for life which I consider basic to the truest instincts of art. As of yet I hadn’t been able to take out of me feelings and get them into a photograph. Even the best of my images partook of that impersonality which is the curse of the medium. All this machinery in front of us — it’s so unlike a brush and paint, paper and pencil, which conveys, without our choosing, who we are and what is the disposition of our heart. Where, I wondered, was my theme, my true subject? Robert Frank had found his America — where was mine? Cartier-Bresson’s photographs were saturated and explosive with his curiosity for place and his passion for the historical event. Steiglitz took photographs of New York City and made them look like photographs of a mind. Even Diane Arbus, claustrophobic, addicted to Halloween and nightmare, had nevertheless made the world her own. Hell, I wasn’t even able to get in my photographs the specific kind of joy and energy which one constantly comes across in the photographs which friends take of friends. Why we take photographs was no small question for me, playing, as I was, in the suburbs of art.
It is true of course that one of the oldest traditions in photography is the taking of photographs which portray the odd and exotic. This is the information-gathering aspect of photography. In the nineteenth century the search for the exotic had led brave men like Frances Frith up the farthest reaches of the Nile and Samuel Bourne 18,000 feet up the Himalayas. The initial impulse for these projects sprang from a legitimate curiosity about the things of this world, a world, which due to the limits of transportation, was still largely unknown. We forget in the modern world, where everything is accessible to everything else, where helicopters routinely land on the top of mountains, where “information” can be instantly retrieved, where already millions of images have accumulated in both our archives and our memories, that in the nineteenth century, a person, providing he had a curiosity, would have very few restraints placed upon him. Knowing as much as we do, we lose joy of getting to know. A hundred years ago the shape of the modern world was taking place in our minds, and this had greatly to do with a photographic quest for the exotic, the unknown.
But the modern manner of taking photographs — not of the exotic, but of the merely odd — is a different matter altogether. It is similar to the difference which exists between the nineteenth-century notion of “taking the tour” and the modern notion of tourism. The issue is one of seeing slowly, or rather, of not seeing too quickly. As moderns, we simply see too quickly, which is a way of saying we don’t see at all. Our camera sees for us: it frames up a scene (a family, a historic building, a landscape), converts it into a two-dimensional image by the push of a button, and allows us to live under the illusion that in “having” something (a photograph) we have “done” something (an experience). And we learn too quickly too — for no matter how hard the apologists for the high-tech industries try to convince us that “knowing” is the same thing as having information at our instant disposal, nothing of value has ever been learned except by enduring the tests of time, its cruelty and its surprises. No painting can be seen and comprehended quickly, and no woman can be loved too rapidly. This is as true as anything I know. That which is rapid and accelerated may be necessary to people who have to speed things up for the purpose of making money or scoring some kind of goal, but it has nothing to do with the act of “knowing.”
The modern tourist, having become saturated with images of the “unknown” world, is really without a curiosity, that is, without a passion for the unknown world. An earlier curiosity for the exotic, hungry and innocent, has given way to the legitimate feeling that the world is too much known, the world has become boring. And this is especially true in America where a large and depressing conventionality, amounting almost to the blunting of curiosity itself, dominates the national psyche. But who can blame us? Since our birth we have been overwhelmingly subjected to the insistence and presence of images, an insistence which has ended up destroying our interest in photographs themselves, or anyway, in the content of photographs — which happens to be the world itself. Buy our camera and tickets, charge through the landscapes of Europe in an air-conditioned tour bus, wrap it all up in a week, file our slides and snaps in boxes labeled “Europe.” Done. We’ve done France. We might as well eat a meal in one bite in order to compliment the chef on his subtlety.
What is tragic in all this is that the truly exotic, the unusual, and the unknown, still exist in our world, but we have lost our capacity for them. Our assumption is that we know our world, that because communication has improved, so, too, has our knowledge of things. Instead we have become like those friends of mine who took speed-reading courses because they wanted to hurry the process of understanding. The result was that even though they could read Moby Dick in a day and retain for a few weeks a breezy recollection of the whole book, their involvement in the tale came to nothing — whereas other friends of mine slowly endured the book, crawled through it, sometimes taking weeks, savoring the odd Elizabethan language and allowing the mythic elements of Ahab’s search for the white whale to illuminate their own quests. Eventually, the speed-readers, in order to explain their own lack of interest in Ahab’s obsession, decided the book was an exotic antique and went into various high-speed occupations like advertising or “communications.” I can’t say that my other friends became poets, but it is remarkable how few of them became frauds.
(What a journey I was on, sitting on the bench in Central park. Yet all around me were the signs that I was on to something. Just over the wall I could hear nothing but the steady honking of cars stuck at red-lights, not even stuck, just stopped for a few seconds — the sound of acceleration, of anxiety, of tedium, of purposeless agitation, like cows on drugs. And who was I, resting now on a park bench, having run up and down the city in search of some fugitive image?)
It seemed to me (as the bird-woman fed her birds once again, no tourist with a camera in sight) that the speeding up of things had cost us nothing less than our real curiosity for real things as well as our respect for the differences among those things. Photographs, those bright rectangles, had somehow managed to replace experience, unshapeable except by the best part of ourselves; images of mystery had replaced the long arduous course of mystery itself. What American child wouldn’t rather go to Disneyland than to France? We see things so quickly that we begin to prefer only those things which are quick to experience — romance novels, simple and cynical art, fast sports, video games, cocaine, and my own private lament, bad photographs, namely those meaningless large-format “nature” photographs which are nothing more than a sentimentalizing of the disappearing American landscape — or even worse, that species of “documentary” photograph, taken by white-middle-class photographers, of the sad and the derelict, usually black, men and women too ill to smash the lens or too ignorant to question the motives of a person with six-hundred dollars worth of equipment around his neck.
Sitting in the park, myself a tourist watching other tourists go by, I realized that a hunger for images of an unknown world had given way to a delight in the picturesque, a much milder form of curiosity. The distinction seems minute, but underneath it I caught a glimpse of an immense loss. One of the richest traditions in photography, the venture into the unknown, had been converted into ogling. The tourist with a camera, almost anybody with a camera, was not taking photographs out of a wonder for what he didn’t know; that was long gone. This photographer believed he knew all he needed to know — from there on out it was easy wonder and easy laughter. What our tourist was trying to take home with him was a real old lady in a park who had been converted into a two-dimensional joke. The hidden statement beneath the photograph he would take was really a remark, and it went something like this: “New York is filled with odd-balls. This is one of them.” Uncurious about the real woman, he snaps her picture to validate the normality of his own life. She has become exotic to him because nothing else is. It is from the deadest places inside ourselves that we take most of our photographs. Going neither to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, nor to the bottom of ourselves, we settle for the exoticism of class, the hills and valleys which exist between us and our fellow-citizens, the poor, the drunk, the confused. Make no mistake about it (I told myself), these photographs are not meant to illuminate whoever will look at them someday. This is not Walker Evans looking as closely as anyone ever looked at something he had never seen before. This is the high-speed American with high-speed film taking a quick snap of an actual woman as if she was a weird-looking building or a pretty sunset.
Was a soul being stolen? I didn’t know.
As I watched the old lady in black continue to fuss with her birds, I saw — this day was a day for seeing! — that even though she might seem exotic to the tourist with the camera, she obviously didn’t seem exotic to herself. Exoticism is not of those terms we apply to ourselves. It is always to some other person they apply, some person who is exotic when compared to us. At home with ourselves to some extent, we judge our acts to be commensurate with our needs. I don’t feed birds because I am strange, but because I am lonely or because I love birds or because my father raised them when I was a child or because I read Robinson Jeffers at the right time and remember his saying, “I’d rather kill a man than a hawk.” We always have our reasons which are concealed only from someone who is not ourself. To ourselves we are perfectly clear; only others, with their concealed intentions, their unexplained behavior, seem opaque.
Unless she was chasing off a tourist with a camera, the bird-woman seemed quite sane, sitting on her bench and chatting with the birds.
In fact, from her own point of view, she was doing exactly what she wanted to do. It was the tourists who were crazy. And in what way? Well, in my real willingness to be sitting there in Central Park, sensing the early tidings of a world about to unflower, free of concerns which could never include this woman, I found myself in sympathy with her, not in the intellectual sense of being on her side, but rather as if I could see through her eyes, as if her difficulties were my difficulties. That’s not an easy thing to do; it requires something akin to sleep, a drifting kind of wakefulness, and it’s especially hard for someone like myself who lives too often in the abstract world where thinking about someone means not thinking like them. But here in my leisure, floating among my thoughts, willing to be slow and then slower, proceeding snail-like beside what seemed like a large glimpse of how things are, I wrote a monologue in my head which came from this woman’s need but used my words. It went something like this:
How can you maintain a friendship with birds, how can you maintain anything with birds, if someone is taking your picture? It is this constant interference at my peripheral line of vision, my concentration! To photograph me, someone “stops” me, not only literally on film by a shutter speed over which I have no control, but also by “stopping” the atmosphere around me. If, as I feed my birds, life is flowing around me, an afternoon or morning tidal flow, then a photographer breaks all that up, he interrupts the casualness of things. You see, it makes me self-conscious, which, when I am feeding birds, is nothing less than a crime. Do I need it? Content and cajoling, easy among my birds, doing nothing but what I want to do, I don’t need a photographer taking my picture. Should I be chronicled? What for? Before the photographers came, my friendship with the birds was without self-consciousness. This man, this person with a camera, has invaded my right to exist on my own peaceful terms. Friendship, remember, is never easy, not with your next-door neighbor, not with your brother, and certainly not with a park full of birds.
Was a soul being stolen? Suddenly I thought so. On every level possible this woman was going to lose. And she was going to lose big. She had already lost much. What she had worked out for herself in the middle of this difficult city, what friendship she had managed with a number of birds, what primitive means of assuagement was hers, was being ransacked by a legion of wide-eyed tourists with cameras. To them she could have been a creature in a zoo. Making her self-conscious, they destroyed her peace of mind, which is, after all, what we have to work with. Lacking all imagination (having no time for it, really) they pretended she was there for them and their hungry cameras, and they stole her image. For what use, we may ask? Only the worst. These tourists, like most Americans, assumed they knew what was what, what was proper behavior for a human being, what was not, what was beautiful, what was ugly. And they were out to build a monument to their assumptions. Each slide they took of the bird-woman, hell, each slide they took of the Grand Canyon, was another brick in place. This is crazy. This is pretty. This is poverty. This is an Indian.
It takes years to create any kind of real clarity. All that brave woman did for me was to end my search for a particular kind of photograph. Her refusal to accept gracefully the right of anybody to discredit her own eccentric world by the puny (yet momentous) act of taking her picture, made me realize how unprotesting are the objects of our dangerous gaze. And also how truly unexamined is that gaze. As photographers, we find those persons most alien to our bourgeois training — the hapless, the homeless, the tacky, the truly marginal; that is, people most unlike ourselves — and we “document” them, as if the sole intention of their suffering and aimlessness was to earn them the right of becoming an “interesting” subject. In my own case, I knew that, if it was true that I no longer felt obliged to take photographs of “happy” children because such photographs told me little about the lives of children, I also had no reservations about taking “serious” photographs of strangers, men and women who would not protest against the categories in which I would (for the purposes of getting a grant or having an exhibit with a good title) place them — Ukranians of the East Village, transvestites, suburbanites, the Hopi Indians, the Irish. And yet when compared to the size of lives, to the actual differences which exist between people who might be “gay” or “Irish,” these images ended up telling me just as little about the lives of the people being photographed as did those photographs of children licking ice cream cones. These categories (nets) were purely academic puffs which disappeared two seconds after they were examined. And so too did general agreeability, the false family-of-man atmosphere, which these categories almost automatically produce.
Learning what you don’t want to photograph is only half the battle, though a large half. It’s also the half which can be put into words. The other half — which consists of one’s photographs — can only be depleted by any attempt to set up a verbal equivalent of whatever power they may have, what intentions. However, I don’t mind saying that after I left the park that day — having observed for half an hour or so the old woman and her refusal to be photographed, and being chastened by my own realizations — I never took quite the same kind of photograph again. From that moment on I regarded the taking of a photograph as a personal act, as personal as the writing of a poem — deep and perilous, intellectual and beautiful. A photograph, or a grouping of them, would be as mysterious as this woman and as complicated as my own mind. I would never document anything. I would hope for luck, but I wouldn’t rely on it. I would hope not to diminish things.
I got up to leave. The old woman was still with her birds. She looked up at me quickly (having seen my camera bag), so I held my empty hands against my face, palms out. I couldn’t help but break into a laugh. And she laughed too, nodding her head vigorously, though not enough to disturb the birds.