Anything And Everything

Throughout the wet-plate era, from the early 1850s to the 1880s, photography was considered an honourable profession: It was useful, enjoyable, and educational. Its applications to both the arts and the sciences were growing, and its public image was held in high esteem. Increasing numbers of young ladies were also entering the field, which was renowned for its lack of sexual discrimination, its rewarding of social skills, and its encouragement of the Victorian virtues of patience, tact, and enterprise. The wet-plate photographer was generally considered to be a respectable member of society.

However, this image of respectability was quickly lost, never to be recovered, with the advent of the dry-plate and hand camera, which was scorned by most serious photographers and it was almost universally criticized also by every intelligent non-photographer as a major social nuisance.

It has taken nearly 100 years for the status of the medium to recover. But what was it exactly to which people objected in snapshot photography that they had not opposed with earlier processes? The answer is straightforward: For the first time people could be photographed surreptitiously. The snap-shooters ignored the restraints of common decency and good manners and anyone at any time could have been the victim of an embarrassing or even incriminating picture. Therefore everyone feared and hated the amateurs with their ubiquitous camera, always ready to capture the un-posed person in awkward situations. The problem rapidly reached such proportions that for the first time the act of taking, or not taking, a picture was less an aesthetic consideration and more a moral or ethical one. All the endless debates about the photojournalists and their integrity (or lack of it) during the 20th century up to the present-day have their roots in the uninhibited and unconstrained actions of the amateur of the 1880s.

But no discussion of the appreciation of photography would be complete without at least raising the thorny issues of ethics and integrity. The plethora of photographs in our culture has swamped our critical faculties; we assume that every facet of life is fair game for the camera, if it only awakes our curiosity for a mere second or two. Yet, when viewing photographs, it is valuable to stop and ponder for a moment not only the motives of the photographer but also our motives as onlookers. And it is certainly legitimate to question the tact, taste, good manners and morals of the photographer when we are presented with the results of his/her behaviour in the form of published or exhibited images.

Here are some specific cases, each one of which demonstrates an ethical question which could be hotly discussed by photographers and viewers of photographs.

During the last years of her life, Marilyn Monroe participated in an important photo session with photographer Bert Stern, on the condition that she had control over which of the images could be published. Stern agreed to this condition, but after Monroe’s death, many of the photographs which the actress did not want published were displayed in a major feature in Esquire magazine. Did Monroe’s death cancel the agreement and free all the photographs to be used for commercial gain by the photographer? Was our interest, as viewers, in the images more important than Monroe’s wishes and a justification for the photographer breaking his word?

If either question prompted a “yes”, then let us consider a similar case.

Adolf Hitler never liked to be photographed while he was wearing spectacles. His personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffman, made many pictures depicting Hitler with glasses but the Führer never allowed these images to be released to the public. After Hitler’s death, The Sunday Times published these previously censured photographs. Was this a case of journalistic enterprise in which the public’s “right to know” about a historical figure obviated any and all ethical considerations? Do we have less concern regarding this case, than in the identical one about Marilyn, because of our lack of warmth towards the subject? And if so, are there one set of principles for “nice” people and a different set for “nasty” people?

Many photographers have become (in) famous for their determination and tenacity in hounding celebrities. An example is Ron Galella who became somewhat of a celebrity himself due to his unrelenting pursuit of Jacqueline Onassis. The paparazzi type of photographer has become a prominent aspect of the profession due to the insatiable demand of the public for images of the rich and famous in every conceivable situation. Is it reasonable that people’s appetite for any and all images, no matter how trivial, of the famous individual can cause acute distress to that person?

Here is another case: There are religious and ethnic groups whose beliefs are opposed to the idea of being photographed. One example of this is the Amish people of Pennsylvania, a farming community of Fundamentalist Christians, whose faith dictates that image-making is sinful. They explicitly do not want to be photographed. Yet photographers constantly attempt to sneak pictures of these individuals without their knowledge, at a distance, with telephoto lenses aimed out of car windows.

Now, we are all intrigued by customs, habits and lifestyles which differ from our own, but is curiosity a valid excuse for aiding and abetting a deliberate flouting of the subject’s religious beliefs? Sure enough, photography, by informing us of the dress, habits and customs of minority groups, is pulling the world closer, but pictures like these are simply exploitive in that the photographer gains a reputation (and a pecuniary reward) by stealing images from a subject unwilling to give them. An allied problem for both photographer and viewer is the fine dividing line between collaboration and exploitation. A subject may be willing to pose (or not object if later informed of an image taken unawares) yet find the ultimate use of the picture to be unfair, degrading or dishonest. This may not be the fault of the photographer who, for various reasons, may not have control over the context in which the image will be used later on.

Who, then, is to blame, if anyone?

Let us consider an even finer distinction between collaboration and exploitation in the hope of reaching a practical conclusion. Photographs of naked women are of consuming interest, but why some seem degrading while others exude a sense of integrity? Perhaps it is instructive to look for an answer to this question in the work of John Ernest Joseph Bellocq and comparing these photographs to any issue of, say, Penthouse. Bellocq was a professional photographer who worked in New Orleans during the early 20th century and is remembered for his portraits of the prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans’ legalized red light district. These photos have inspired novels, poems and films, notably the Louis Malle movie “Pretty Baby”, in which Bellocq was played by Keith Carradine. On the face of it, Bellocq’s nudes should be far more lascivious than the glamour girls in contemporary magazines in that he utilized as models the prostitutes in New Orleans’ brothels rather than the wholesome beloved girl-next-door types of the erotic publications. A deeper look, however, reveals that Bellocq knew and cared about his subjects as individual people: His models collaborated with the photographer without any sense of exhibitionism because they knew Bellocq for a close and trusted friend. It shows. Bellocq photographed the women as warm human beings who merely happened to be in a state of (partial) nudity, not as breasts and vaginas.

Perhaps this is a conclusion: There is no substitute in photography for a loving, caring, knowledgeable empathy with the subject in front of the camera. And previously asked questions about the ethical nature of photography usually hinge on this fact. The rightness of a picture relies on the photographer’s integrity which, in turn, relies on his/her caring understanding of the subject.

Anyway, this is not a guiding text aimed at telling the photographer what should or should not be photographed. But the issue does have a bearing on the understanding and appreciation of photographs by the intelligent viewer. Every photograph we see is held forever in our minds. We can never “un-see” it and forget that it existed. Along with the image itself our minds collect its ambiance, flavour, sense of caring (or lack of it), connotations, context and a myriad of other impressions and feelings. Each photograph, then, conspires to affect and slightly alter our attitudes and ultimately our acts. The issue is important: Do photographs we view “conduce to virtue”? Do they affirm and elevate our life-attitudes and strengthen the bonds between us? Or do they drain all human feelings from what we see? Photography’s power resides in its nature to ask such profound questions.


About Mauro Metallo

A Writer and Photographer equally at home in Italy and in Canada.

2 responses to “Anything And Everything”

  1. davecandoit says :

    Another remarkable post, Mauro. While I’ve given the topic some thought, I’ve never delved as deeply as you have into it. I think to some extent anyone who takes photography seriously can’t help but eventually cross the line by a toe. But then there are the cads and scoundrels who chase celebs around for fun and profit. It’s pretty much a given, in my opinion, that Princess Diana died because these scum bags wouldn’t leave her alone. That sort of scum gives decent photographers a bad name. Anyway, interesting read, as usual.

  2. 47whitebuffalo says :

    Well done exploration of the ethics of photography. I applaud your disccussion of the prostititues compared to the erotic magazine presentations. Yes, engagement, caring, empathhy–interacting with awareness and integrity is important in all venures–and often left by the wayside.
    Have to deal with the question of photographing people every time I venture into the City Market in Kansas City. Major problem is that now my subjects of choice are not the random people shopping but the ‘workers’–and it is NOT okay with some of them for any picture taking. Fast way to outright terrify some of the young women. Ignoring the people who kept saying “Oh just take the shot!” I took the time to ask the persmission of my potential subjects BEFORE I even began shooting. This way I knew who was willing and who was not. It has made all the difference. Even those who do NOT wish to be photographed will assist me when I come searching for people to whom I give prints in thanks. Everyone knows I respect their wishes and there’s no issues when they realize I’m there again with my camera. I have ‘given’ up so wonderful views of people because of this but have discovered others and know that I’m ‘welcome’ with my camera all the time.

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