Spirit Stealing

January 27th, 2007

D20 4155 Spirit Stealing

Now that I’ve talked about some general issues of photography and access vs. privacy I thought I’d tell you a bit about my personal views on the subject and how I came to arrive at them over 40-years as a photographer.

Many years ago I used to do street photography. I was fairly successful at it, with a lot of those photos finding their way to publication in one place or another. I don’t do street photography now. I have respect for those who do and wouldn’t think of arguing that there is anything wrong with what they do. But long ago I became uncomfortable with taking photos of people in public places without their knowledge or consent. I called that photography spirit stealing at the time I was doing it, and I still refer to it that way. I think that idea which some laugh at as primitive is actually a very apt description of what happens in that kind of photography. I’m not comfortable with stealing like that. So I don’t do it.

Eventually that discomfort with “candid” photography is one of the variety of forces that moved me toward the work I do now where everyone involved in the creation of my photos is a volunteer who knows what we are doing and why. Whatever I “take” from my subjects when I “take” their photo is given by them freely, not stolen by me on the sly.

Again, this is just a personal viewpoint and reflects what I’m comfortable with and not comfortable with in the selection of subjects. I am in no way interested in trying to apply this viewpoint to other photographers. We each are entitled to make our own decisions about our subject matter and style of work. It’s really nobody’s business but our own. I just thought it might be moderately interesting to share my personal viewpoint…I guess that’s what a blog is supposed to be about anyway.

I came to this point of view gradually without a real conscious attempt to think it through. Like much of who I am, it’s a product of the 60s. Sorry about that, but I’m an old hippy in many ways, and not ashamed of it in the least.

When I was in college studying photography I received much of my education outside the classroom, darkroom and studio. I had already been working as a newspaper photographer before going to college, so I ended up working for student publications as a photographer. In the 60s that often meant I was photographing demonstrations and sometimes riots. I loved that work. The excitement of the situation, the wonderful mix of skills required to make successful photos in that situation…I loved it. You had to be able to make correct exposures (with a manual camera with no internal meter in those days) focus, compose, find the right spot to see what was happening, and know when to duck. I once had a brick remove a strobe from the top of my camera while I was shooting.

I learned about theater. During the “riot” phase of some demonstrations I learned that some protesters who were planning to get arrested would carry packets of ketchup to smear on their faces when they were being taken away so it would make a more dramatic photo.

I learned the value of access. I had press credentials, so I was left alone by the police. Those same credentials from the “pig press” as it was sometimes referred to then, could, however, get you in trouble with the demonstrators and restrict your access to them. I had a classmate who had no press background. He was a Vietnam veteran recently discharged from the army. At one demonstration he decided to take a photo of the scene with is pinhole camera. He was arrested and hauled away. Worse, the police opened up his pinhole camera and exposed the sheet of film inside, so he didn’t even get a photo for his efforts.

It was around this time that the shootings at Kent State happened. After that I found I could no longer go to the demonstrations as an observer/photographer. I put my camera away and became one of the demonstrators. I was a strong supporter of non-violent protest and worked hard to prevent violence and destruction. My views were in the minority, however and before long what had been peaceful demonstrations turned into violent riots. One day I walked up town from my dorm to find a National Guardsman with fixed bayonet standing by every parking meter. The school soon closed for the year. Less than a year later I was drafted and was off to a new phase of my life. I’ve never regretted my decision to stop being a photographer for those last weeks of that school year.

One more story from that time that I think speaks to the power and the moral issues of photography. One of the things I covered in those days was the Weather Underground. I went to their meetings. I did not photograph at their meetings, but they provided context for the photos I was doing at the demonstrations. The members of that group were very paranoid, or so I thought. They always covered their faces when they went in and out of the meeting place because they were sure they were being photographed. I laughed at them. Afterall, isn’t this America where we are free to assemble and share our views…we are a free country, right? Well, a few years later I met and became friends with the photographer who was across the street on top of a building taking those photos with a telephoto lens as the members of that group came and went. He assured me that there were photos of me in that file.

I don’t think he stole much of my spirit.

The photo is Nola in her attic again, in a different light this time.

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About this Blog

Photos and comments by Dave Levingston. This is the place to see my most recent work which may include nudes, dance, landscape, nature and whatever other kinds of photos I feel like taking.

Since it does contain nude photos, this blog is not intended for viewing by anyone under the age of 18.

All photographs and written comments on this blog are protected by the copyright laws of the United States.

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