Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Humans of New York vs. Creative Art

 photo by Brandon Stanton

I recently heard a news story/interview on The Humans of New York, which started out as a blog and has now become a New York Times bestselling book. The person behind the work, Brandon Stanton, takes portraits of people he encounters while walking around the city. He asks if he can photograph them and then interviews them and includes a bit of the interview with the photograph, which provides a bit of context to the portraits. Stanton makes a lot of these portraits. In the interview I heard, Stanton came across as humble and even a bit overwhelmed by the attention his work is gathering. He was charming enough that I was predisposed to like this work even before I saw it. You can see the work here.

Nick Vossbrink, a photographer working out of San Francisco, wrote an essay called "I'm Tired of 'White Guy' Photography Projects" that is marginally about the Humans of New York project and categorized the work as colonial photography which examines other cultures alien to the photographer’s point of view in an attempt to explain that culture to outsiders in a condescending manner. You can read his essay here. National Geographic is the primary example of this approach to photography, though they are far from the first to use this model of working. August Sanders seminal work of documenting the German people is another or Jacob Riis, whose work serve served to expose the dangers and destitution of New York ghettos of the late 1800s, are other earlier examples.

In fact, using photography to examine and understand other cultures and people and ways of life is as old as photography itself. It’s part of what photography is; a way of looking at the world and figuring out how everything works. But Vossbrink has an interesting point to make concerning photography.

Vossbrink said in his essay:
“To see the same approach taken towards non-white or non-mainstream cultures now feels old and stale. And with almost everyone having the tools to document and represent themselves now, it starts treading into self-serving, patronizing, white-guilt behavior too.

The colonial view doesn’t work for me anymore. At its best, I find it boring. At its worst, I find it racist. In almost all cases I’m tired of it.”

So does his point have merit? Perhaps. I do think we have moved past the idea of photographing indigenous peoples in far-away, exotic locales and have it be anything but insulting and patronizing to the people depicted. But is the idea finished completely as a mode of seeing? I find that hard to believe.

And that’s the thing with creative endeavors. It is up to the artists to come up with something new. If we rely on the tried and true, what has been done before, we face the prospects of creating art that is tired and stale. That is why certain kinds of photography really are kind of boring, when it comes right down to it. And photographs can be boring and beautiful at the same time, if the image has nothing new to say. Things like landscape photography and nudes are mostly just retreading old ground and repeating images styles that border on being tropes. New takes on these subjects are rare. And that’s what Vossbrink is reacting to in his essay. All too often Stanton gives us the same “Oh, look at the weirdo in the big city” kind of image that we’ve seen time and time again, from people like Diane Arbus and Weegee. For urbanites, these images are comforting and familiar. For rural folks, they are the evidence supporting all their preconceptions about the people in big cities.

So is Humans of New York patronizing and boring? Not really, though the skills of the photographer aren’t particularly strong. Stanton’s images are sometimes mediocre, bordering on student work, if I have to be honest, but it is the quotes and the stories that go along with the images that elevate them out of mediocrity. This work is about more than the images, which is usually the case with successful art; the meaning of a piece of art extends past the surface image of the artwork. It is the context of the art and its subject and its maker's intent that makes for good art. Is this great photography? No, but it is good photography that is worth looking at and that is something far from boring. And I suspect that Stanton is a photographer to watch and pay attention to.