documentary about photography?:
by John Mraz
The still lifes created by Gardner, Rothstein, Evans, and assuredly many more, are believable. However, intervening in real, live events would seem to ratchet up the credibility of images a bit more, at least theoretically. Here, instead of moving furniture, skulls or even dead people around, living human beings are recruited for scenarios without their knowledge. Although this would seem to be part of what I have defined as living landscapes, there is a fundamental difference: in the landscapes, people consciously participated in setups, here their very ignorance of what is really going on heightens the effect of the image.
One instance, mentioned above, is offered by Eugene Smiths conscription of the Guardia Civil, who were used by him in a way to which they would surely have objected. Another example, certainly one of the more amusing, is the most famous of Weegees photographs, The Critic (1943), in which two bejeweled and fur-covered women are confronted, on their arrival at the opera house, by a New York City bag lady, who seems to comment on the social distance between them. Although Weegee always maintained that it was only after developing the negative that he discovered the derelict looking at the opera patrons, his assistant, Louie Liotta, tells a different story (Barth). Weegee evidently had Liotta pick up a habitué of their favorite bar, Sammys on the Bowery, and bring her to the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera. There, they waited for the limousines, passing the time away with cheap wine. When these well-known socialites appeared, Weegee had Liotta hold the model close to their path and release her in time to get out of the frame, hoping that she would be able to stand long enough to take a photo. Totally involved with Weegees camera, the wealthy women seem unaware of the critic, who they no doubt took to be part of the crowds that formed to watch celebrities arrive.
Setups that provoke a real response are yet another variation in the genre of directed photography. Two examples of this strategy can be found in photographs by Ruth Orkin and Nacho López of attractive women being complimented by men in the street. Both Orkin and López utilized the women as catalysts to provoke the famous piropo that is a common phenomenon of Latin cultures, and which they knew would result from parading their models by groups of men.
Orkin made An American Girl in Italy during 1951 in Rome, when she worked with a friend, Jinx Allen, to recreate the problems women encountered traveling alone: asking directions, paying with unfamiliar currency, ordering food, and dealing with impulsive young men. The idea for this picture had been in Orkins mind for years, ever since she had been old enough to go through the experience herself, but she knew that she needed to have the right crowd, lighting, background, angle, and, above all, the right model in order to recreate the situation (Orkin). Orkin described Allen as a "great natural actress" who participated in staging the scene, walking by a group of men lounging on the corner of the Piazza Della Repubblica, while Orkin ran ahead of Allen and stood in the middle of the intersection to shoot. The photographer says she spoke only to the two men on the motor scooter, asking them to tell the others not to look at the camera. She took one photo of Allen passing the men, and then asked her to back up and repeat the scene, of which she took a second. Orkin's photo was eventually published in an article, "Don't Be Afraid to Travel Alone," in the Cosmopolitan issue of September 1952, after several other magazines rejected it.
A photojournalist for Mexican illustrated magazines, Nacho López made a very similar photo in 1953 as part of a photoessay, Cuando una mujer guapa parte plaza por Madero (When a beautiful woman walks down Madero Avenue), the name which the essays most famous image has since acquired. López was well known for his directorial impulse, but his desire to control the action went beyond the strategies he had utilized before of having people pose, or of constructing essays from archive photos. Here, he created scenes by having Matty Huitrón, a minor if curvy actress with a wasp-like waist who had appeared in mens magazines, stroll by men in the street in order to produce the expected piropo. Though Huitrón's role was staged, the mens reactions were nonetheless entirely veridical, an effect provoked by the woman-as-catalyst.
Documentary cineastes have employed this tactic of provoking responses, arguing that it is capable of producing events which are more real than those captured by candid film or photography. Both the Orkin and the López mise-en-scènes are created by an instigation similar to that later carried out by the documentary filmmaker, Jean Rouch, in Chronicle of a Summer (1961). In that film, Rouch attempted to incite his subjects to moments of revelation, both through the question he asked, Are you happy?, as well as by the cameras presence. The filmmaker believed that these were psychoanalytic stimulants, which caused people to act in ways that were somehow more real than an unintervened reality. Rouch defined his strategy as cinéma vérité, in which he attempted to precipitate crises rather than wait for them to occur.
It would appear that Ruth Orkin only utilized this procedure for the one image she made in Rome. However, it held a certain fascination for Nacho López, who photographed the Beautiful Woman in several different situations, and then employed the strategy in a later photoessay, La venus se fue de juerga por los barrios bajos (Venus went partying in the poor quarters), where he had an employee carry a naked mannequin around in the street, and pose with it in a cantina. López reflected on his experiences in making La venus: