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“ What’s documentary about photography?:
From directed to digital photojournalism ”

by John Mraz


Live interventions

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 Smith’s 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 Weegee’s 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, “Sammy’s 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 Weegee’s 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 Orkin’s 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 essay’s 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 men’s magazines, stroll by men in the street in order to produce the expected piropo. Though Huitrón's role was staged, the men’s 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 camera’s 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”:

I was walking through the area of San Rafael and saw a small mannequin factory. I was impressed by the variety of bodies, arms and legs that hung from a cord at the door. I went in and caught sight of a man with a saw cutting through the naked back of a female mannequin to repair it. This seemed both grotesque and comic, and I thought of the possibility of using this material to make a reportage. It wasn't until two weeks later that the idea had matured. It occurred to me that the simple act of having the employee leave the factory with a naked mannequin under his arm could provoke psychological reactions among the people who encountered him in the street. It was only a question of being alert with the camera and following the employee at a prudent distance so that people wouldn't notice me. The nude woman and the serious employee produced a strange and incongruent sensation in the street. He walked ahead as if nothing, while interesting incidents occurred all around him: surprise, repudiation, admiration, shame, reserve, strangeness, etc., and even an indecent, unpublishable act. I think that this reportage can serve as an example of the result of a “previsualization" based on anticipating the human reactions provoked by objects, gestures, or sensations.


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