It's Good to be Anti-Social

I'm hardly the first person to observe the irony that novellists, whose stock in trade are observations of human behavior and character, work almost always alone (not counting corporate potboiler writers and their assistants, whom I'm reluctant to label "novelists"). So too street photographers of the portraiture variety.

A couple of nights ago I watched (again) Bruce Gilden on Egg. When Gilden talks it's all about people — yet he moves through the street alone, violates people's spaces, then carries on with a smile and a complement. Is it anti-social? Is it deeply social? Is it pretended intimacy, siezed before the subject can grasp what's going on, and pinned to the wall by Gilden's flash unit?

Gilden is comfortable with what he's doing ("if I'm not comfortable, I can't shoot," he says). He follows his instincts rapidly, and to do that he is free from distractions, very present in that 1/60th second moment shared by a passerby and his Leica. He is not open to conversation, he doesn't have an assistant or a companion who need to keep up or have things explained. He does not go on vacation, he goes to various places to make photographs. They are his experience of the world.

Other photographers who've described their encounters with him in Manhattan inevitably end their story of conversation abruptly, something like: "and then he saw something and ran off across the middle of the block." Anti-social? Hell yeah. And that's a good thing.

Of course, impulsive shooting can mean plenty of trouble, too. You're walking down the street in a group (co-workers, family, the police...), you see a shot, and off you go without informing or waiting for your companions. Now they are ticked off at you. Or you suppress yourself, don't get the shot for the sake of staying with them, and now you are annoyed, feeling constrained and claustrophobic, vidi interuptus. Or you start off and they call after you and now your subject is altered or destroyed and everyone is awry. Twitchy shutter fingers strain your relationships.

Walking around with other photographers is a useful alternative, if you have any handy — they understand the need to photograph based on what you see now. They can buy into the idea of "I'll meet you at the corner over there in five minutes." One is reminded of the many parallel walks taken in the 60's by Winogrand and Meyerowitz, happy to be anti-social together.

These thoughts come just after receiving a comment from James Luckett on the recent entry The 3 C's, particularly this passage:

photography is an immensely difficult thing to talk about, requiring time, patience and understanding. i've been working in this field for 18 years, 14 of those in school as a student and a teacher, and can mark on one hand the personally meaningful discussions i've had.

I don't know just how man non-meaningful discussions that means James has had, but let's say two per week for 14 of those years, that's only 1400 non-meaningful ones for, say, four really good ones. S/N of 1:350. That sounds pretty good to me!

I read a fair number of forums and discussion groups every day, and there are certainly plenty with a much, much lower signal-to-noise that 1:350, or even 1:1000. In other words, they are mostly crap.

When panning for gold, a lot of the process can be automated. Posts about equipment I don't have? In the trash. So long HP, sayonara Pentax, Tokina, and Sanyo... hey, that's 85% of most photo posts. Arguments about digital and film, "rules of composition," B&W or color... that's another 10% and now with 95% of the traffic gone that 1:1000 ratio's down to 1:50. Worth the trouble? It keeps me busy.

One idea, and I've tried working it into my own forum posts when possible, is trying to emphasize pictures over words. Every post has a photo, or a link to a photo. The goal is to keep your ideas visual. I've yet to see a forum successfully require pictures, though a low-traffic private list run by Sean Reid and Ben Lifson has come the closest, and despite difficulties it's been one of my favorites.

A good litmus of worthlessness in a forum, imo, is a focus on easy friendliness. It's a sure sign that they tolerate mediocrity easily and will be quick to praise the lamest of bird, flower, and adorable grandchildren sunsets. And the obverse can be the best indicator for a group where people are likely to actually get some value from inclusion: the group's anti-social nature.

Comments on "It's Good to be Anti-Social"

May 30, 2004 06:41 PM

Ergo: the ultimate anti-social behaviour - not even joining forums and list - should provide the highest value.

May 30, 2004 07:04 PM

Nope, anti-social behavior on lists is a BY-PRODUCT of positive behavior -- staying on track, rather than doting on how adorable one's children and dogs are no matter how lame the imagery. The latter doesn't just tolerate and create a rich fungal culture for sentimental mannerisms -- it actively generates them.

May 31, 2004 05:30 AM

right. so this seems like as good a place as any to suggest that photography, in all forms - not just mr. gilden's - is inherently violent. it's a great gaping rip in *fill in the blank*.

(you'd be suprised at just how many nouns you might be able to place there. violence is as violence does).

May 31, 2004 08:22 PM

sorry James I don't buy this "photography is inherently violent" stuff, but I'll leave that for another discussion, perhaps over beer sometime, which leads to why I did come here to comment in the first place.

I also don't buy this "photography is anti-social" stuff. With respect to Gilden, "not being open to conversations" strikes me as self-important "don't bother me I'm an artist" twaddle. As if what you're doing is so important that it gives you the right to be rude. I don't jive with that. At any rate, it depends on the group. As Kevin writes, with like-minded photographers I know where the boundaries are, and so I know not to get upset should someone I'm talking to suddenly stop talking and start shooting, nor do I worry about doing the same. But if I were on the street by myself and someone came up to me ("ooh, that looks like an old camera, what is it?"), that's a different social situation, and for me to ignore or give short shrift to that person is rude in my book. I don't fret or worry about the shots I'm missing (if I did, i'd never get any sleep right?), to paraphrase Winogrand, when I'm not shooting, there are no shots to miss.

With respect to lists and newsgroups and such, while I certainly have no time for a bend over backwards mutual admiration society (the PAW list which I joined ever so briefly, as well as equipment focused lists, seem particularly to be of this nature), it seems to me you're saying, the ruder the better. To me that's bunk and just a license to let bad societal behavior off the hook. Who's to say that how you define "staying on track" or what qualifies as "lame" for you has any resemblance to what I think, or to what he thinks, or she thinks, etc. To me, I don't find that the signal-to-noise ratio decreases in proportion to a list's anti-social-ness, but the opposite.

I have to say I'm with Dirk on this one, do we really need these lists? Is any of it meaningful conversation? I tend to think not. They do provide information and indeed entertainment from time to time, but meaningful discussions? I doubt it, no matter what filters you apply to it.

No, more meaningful is sitting down with others and actually having a face to face discussion, conducted with some norm of decency and give and take and respect for others. Granted, perhaps easier in the metropolis than in Timbuk Two (maybe, I'm not so convinced). To wit, I've been lucky to have a couple of these conversations with James before, though I fully expect they didn't end up being counted on his one hand :) Thus I can read his above comment and provide context to it, something that sorely seems to be missing in online-only discussions.

May 31, 2004 10:50 PM

I think it would be fairly easy to prove in a social experiment that inclusive and affirmative communities thrive to better results overall and long-term than exclusive and crusading ones led by an inevitable few claiming to be in the know. And let's not mix things up with being dishonest or hypocritical, it has nothing to do with it.

Anyone with little motivational training knows that the best way to kill a creative ideas session is to reject the first idea(s). You affirm saying "great" and move on. The first efforts are never the true potential, it's your choice to suffocate progress or nourish it.

And to close the circle to violence, one way to drive people to gun down the people in their school or office is simply denying them a sense of accomplishment, success, achievement or value.

Let me also add that your concept is also deeply related to culture, probably based on individualism. In the long term the relatively harmonic and balanced group will survive even though it is not ideal, while the individual won't. I speak from experience.

You've had many good rants here, this time you're on the wrong track.

June 1, 2004 08:18 AM

the hand thing: though perhaps it is clear... just thought i might add that i am open for any conversation. and i have had a whole big lot of lots and much that was good and great and special and extraordinary for me, and others, and all involved. it's just that on my hand, one-two-three-four, are those that changed what *I* did and do and will be doing. i mean, that's what i meant by the hand thing. and since out of any conversation that is my number one priority (unless of course i am being paid to make my number one priority you and you and you and you) i don't so much go looking where i figure there is just noise. that's all. there is much said and loved and shared in photography - just that those things that sat me back and pinched my soul and made tomarrow something different are, probobly rare everywhere.

June 1, 2004 08:20 AM

man... nobody every bites on that violence thing.

June 1, 2004 08:37 AM

i guess what gilden does, and as you have talked around, sorted through a bit, is to put what you imagine 'sociability' is, into question.

of course everyone is different and everyone interacts with other people differently from everyone else, but there is also a great bell curve of normalcy out there too. what gilden does and has been doing is not normal. but does that make it less socialble? or is it the social-ableness that is really the concern?

and then why is it a question?

which is why i throw out that violence thing... what is it to, as winogrand used to describe it, "bang it - bang it - bang it" a few inches from a person you know not the first thing about who 1/30 second before was just walking down the street and/but NOW is getting flashed-flashed-flashed?

and then what does it mean for that picture-picture-picture to become something other than that person ever wanted, intended, asked for, or imagined ever would be? it's a little strange i think.

why is a camera okay - to appropriate a likeness?

this is always endlessly debatable. but whose likeness is it anyway? what even is likeness? reproduction? image?

where you draw the lines, will also answer where the socialiablilty lies.

June 1, 2004 09:23 PM

or perhaps i should say:

where you draw the lines, will also answer where social-amiableness lies.

June 2, 2004 10:53 AM

Oh James, 5 out of 9 comments from you, and 3 of them in the space of 20 minutes. No wonder you still have a pinkie left on that hand, you're having conversations with yourself! :)

June 2, 2004 09:52 PM

it's so true. wind me and watch me go...

okay. i'll go back to watching.

June 4, 2004 03:19 PM

Okay, time to bite. Been a busy week.

All photography violent? Perhaps when using a very reductive definition of violence, where all interactions are violent (even walking down the street commits a form of slicing through the air). It's easy to see an element of social violence and violation in Gilden, but very hard to see violence in, say, Ansel's towering Halfdome. Is it the seizure of its reality, replacing in the viewer's mind the real mountain with a grayscaled rectangle? Photography is a form of appropriation, but primarily we appropriate light that we can see and perceive normally anyway. Perhaps photography, capturing incoming photons, is a defense against the violent torrent of eal-life images that impact us 24/7 from all around?

Or maybe I'm to dim to follow what you mean. Happens to me a lot.

As for forums, I don't mean to equate anti-sociability with rudeness -- and I don't think Gilden is rude when he's on the street and suddenly takes off in mid-conversation with a stranger. He's at work, after all. You could argue that it's rude for passerby to stop his progress. He's just not being sociable, he's got work to do.

The April 2004 issue of "Writers" magazine has an article titled "Ten Reasons Why Writing Groups Flounder, Fizzle, or Fail." Dominant among the ten reasons are people getting sidetracked from writing for the sake of having coffee hour time, or bickering about GWBush, or talking about Updike's novels; anything but writing and working on The Work of writing. Writing, like much photography, is a largely solitary activity involving the character and actions of others (even if those others are fictitious). Staying on track is difficult when artists of any sort get together. Ignoring "social niceties" in the interest of the "real business," whatever that may be (and on most forums, the "real business" is never explicitly stated, and discussing its boundaries is a surefire path to an flame explosion), helps you get specific value from the time you spend on that interaction. Case in point could be the SP list, where many newcomers go down in flames quickly, depending on "polite behavior" to see them through and discovering that it fails to attract attention. Yet the list continues to grow, and the folks who have some bit of fire in the belly keep on punching.

June 9, 2004 08:18 PM

Just about Gilden and work (we can agree to disagree about SP list and places like that):

This still reeks of this "don't bother me I'm an artist." The problem with the "I'm at work" defense is that it assumes that people know he's at work. Frankly, only other photographers (or perhaps painters and musicians etc.) will know that. He's not wearing a uniform, he's not in an office, he's not directing traffic, etc. I agree he's working, but perception does play a part in this after all.

June 9, 2004 09:51 PM

Ah, but he IS in uniform -- the traditional Domke vest packed with strobe batteries and rolls of film. His is the game of Obviousness. It's probably played a role in keeping him from getting poked in the nose over the years -- his uniform of "official photographer" instills an authority response in people.

June 17, 2004 01:38 AM

--maybe I'm to dim to follow what you mean. Happens to me a lot.

you know, i don't even know where i am going (which is probobly why i'm going there) so no need to ever worry about following or not. as they say in australia, 'no worries.' [isn't that nice?]

--Is it the seizure of its reality, replacing in the viewer's mind the real mountain with a grayscaled rectangle?

i think partly that. but more for me, i am thinking more, that photography is not just image, but time (light is both a particle and wave). and it's the breaking time that has always bothered me. the most. to externalize memory. of course that is a long ongoing historical process -- memorials, storytelling, painting, songs, writing, etc. but something about sticking the actual light. nothing so much obviously interpreted, but rather stuck. like. that. portension in suspension. don't get me wrong. it's what i love about photography. but it's like an itch i can't scratch.

--Perhaps photography, capturing incoming photons, is a defense against the violent torrent of [r]eal-life images that impact us 24/7 from all around?

okay, now it is my turn to not quite step in your steps. this sounds good though - something promising; tell me more...

July 2, 2004 06:32 PM

Like many people, I expect, there are days when my head just hurts. I see photographs and especially "graphic compositions" everywhere I turn. The world often seems over-composed and (as I've written elsewhere in another rant) sometimes I feel like I need to just shoot through all the "expected" images to kill them off mentally and then look around to see what's left. Or on days when things are truly overwhelming, to snatch at them in a sort of mental warding-off of what I see -- perhaps akin to the old folk magic idea that an image of a thing might hope to control it.


All content on is 1994-2017 by Kevin Bjorke. All Rights Reserved.