In this post, I examine the work of four photographers whose work includes covert photography (‘not openly shown, engaged in, or avowed’ – Merriam-Webster.com). There is an important distinction between this and candid work (‘relating to or being photography of subjects acting naturally or spontaneously without being posed’ – Merriam-Webster.com), which is not necessarily done secretively. The works are Tom Wood’s Looking for Love, Martin Parr’s Japonais Endormis (‘Japanese Asleep’), Walker Evans’s Many are Called, and Lukas Kuzma’s Transit London.
Issue magazine features a full-length interview with Tom Wood, touching on various aspects of his work and his motivations. Wood’s work is eloquently described:
Wood’s photographs convey much more than they literally depict. He not only shows us the people who make up the fabric of his day-to-day existence, but his manner of photographing forces us to recognize his subjects as sentient individuals. As a result, we are asked to contemplate their difference, the thoughts and emotions that inspire their actions and make them who they are. Tom Wood sets out to capture the complexity of being. His photographs succeed in isolating fragments of the sensual world, and exposing the human impulse to both negotiate and make sense of it. (Issue Magazine)
As a teenager of the 1980s myself, I found something autobiographical in Looking for Love, even though it was shot at the opposite end of the country to my teenage years in the South West. Wood’s approach to covert work is to blend in, so that after a while people just accept him as part of the scene and don’t take notice of what he is doing. This requires a significant investment of time to be successful, and some of Wood’s projects took place over several years. Wood explains, ‘I don’t have agendas. I go out and take the pictures and you figure out what they mean afterward when the project’s finished. The camera is asking questions. You put it all together and you see what it adds up to. Whenever I’ve gone out with something specific in mind, it never works for me.’ (Issue Magazine). Wood offered subjects copies of their photos on his return visits to locations, and the reciprocity appears to pay-off in terms of continuing cooperation (Bruce Dickinson does the same – see here).
Magnum Photos explain Martin Parr‘s book as, ‘in ‘Japonais Endormis’ (‘Japanese Asleep’) Parr travels the Tokyo subway photographing sleeping commuters, many of whom travel for hours every day. Photographed from above, the 24 colour images give the impression that one is standing on a busy commuter train looking down at those lucky enough to get a seat.’
Stuart Franklin (Magnum President) is quoted in the Tokyo Times,saying, ‘It’s not hard to take photographs, it’s not even hard to take good photographs. What is hard is to put them together in a way that says something compelling’.
Here Parr’s approach to covert photographs is simple – he subjects are asleep (or as good as) and therefore incapable of being aware that they are being photographed. There is little risk of the photographer being caught-out taking a covert image. It is that Parr produces a series of photographs with a story that makes the work compelling – there are many similar one-off photographs of people unaware through sleep on Flickr, but they do not form a coherent story. Examples here:
ASX explains Walker Evans‘s project:
Walker Evans’ Many Are Called is a three-year photographic study of people on the New York subway. Using a camera hidden in his jacket and a cable release running down his sleeve, Evans snapped unsuspecting passengers while they traveled through the city. Evans said that these photographs were his “idea of what a portrait ought to be,” he wrote, “anonymous and documentary and a straightforward picture of mankind.”
Evan’s project was shot in 1938, when cameras were not ubiquitous as they are today, nor as technologically advanced. His approach falls somewhere between that of Wood and Parr; Wood with a high degree of risk of being challenge with his ‘blend-in’ approach, and Parr with very little chance of challenge as his subjects were asleep. Evans’ subjects were alert and awake, but he relied on hiding the camera to mask his photographs taken at close proximity. Evan’s only had control over when to press the shutter release; even framing was directional only, rather than composed. Despite the covert nature of the photographs, we still see some subjects looking back at Evans – this gaze is the general confrontational attitude on the New York subway, rather than a deliberate gaze between the subject and photographer.
The New York Times explains, ‘the furtive nature of the photographs adds to their sense of authenticity, as does the fact that the people in them are so obviously and absolutely unposed.’ It also provides an interesting Evans’ quote that expresses his philosophy on photography:
“Stare,” he commanded. “It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”
Lukas Kuzma studies BA (hons) Photography at the University of Chester, UK. He also shot a series of photos on the underground (London, rather than New York like Evans). I currently have no information on how Kuzma approached the covert aspect of the work.
Though the photographs mostly appear to be carefully composed, so I suspect that his approach was more akin to Woods than Evan’s. People are mostly in their own worlds on the London Underground, desperately avoiding any communication with fellow travellers, so it is easy to image how these photos could be taken covertly with without the need to hide away the camera.
Kuzma’s series has a broader theme than that of Evans’s or Parr’s, which focus specifically on subjects facing the photographers in the carriage. Kuzma’s theme is ‘transit’ and addresses different aspects of a journey.
Covered in a separate blog post is another piece on subway photographs by Bruce Davidson (see here). However, Davidson did not adopt a covert approach to his work, so it makes an interesting comparison.
In summary there are various broad approaches to photographing ‘the unaware’: subjects that cannot be aware (as they are not conscious of their surroundings); subjects that have general awareness of their surroundings but do not notice the photographer as he blends into the environment while not masking his activity; subjects who are aware of their surroundings, but the photographer masks his activity – Evans with a hidden camera and cable release, but now with wireless technology (eg iPhone app) that allows a much greater degree of control.
ASX [website]. Walker Evans: ‘Many are called’ (1938). Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/05/walker-evans-many-are-called-1938.html [accessed 29.8.16]
Issue Magazine [website]. Tom Wood: Making Sense. Available from: http://issuemagazine.com/tom-wood-making-sense/#/ [accessed 29.8.16]
Japan Times [online]. Magnum’s 60 years of Tokyo. Available from: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2007/03/29/arts/magnums-60-years-of-tokyo/#.V8QFTWVYH0d [accessed 29.8.16]
Lukas Kuzma [website]. Transit London. http://www.lukaskuzma.com/transit-london/ [accessed 29.8.16]
Magnum Photos [website]. Available from: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYD12G4T2 [accessed 29.8.16]
New York Times [online]. Review/Photography; What Walker Evans Saw on His Subway Rides. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/31/arts/review-photography-what-walker-evans-saw-on-his-subway-rides.html [accessed 29.8.16]
Paper-Journal [blog]. Interview: Tom Wood. Available from: http://paper-journal.com/tom-wood/ [accessed 29.8.16]
Untapped Cities [blog]. Photography: Walker Evans’ NYC Subway Portraits. Available from: http://untappedcities.com/2012/11/20/photography-walker-evans-subway-portraits/ [accessed 29.8.16]
Vimeo. Looking for Love (Sorika Productions). Available from: https://vimeo.com/71627593 [accessed 29.8.16]