Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Baby Feet: What’s Up With Representation?

Despite the fact that it has no photographs, this post a companion piece to What’s Photography About, Anyhow? Consider the following image, which is not a photograph:


It’s a digital scan of a piece of paper, a piece of paper that has my baby footprints on it. We can equivocate over whether or not those prints represent me or my feet but there is a clear iconic relationship between those prints and my feet as a newborn – the smudge at the lower right is my father’s thumb print.

I’ve manipulated that image in ways similar to the manipulations I used one of the photographs in that earlier post:




We can also quibble over whether or not any of these manipulated images qualifies as art, though I note that they’re not so different in kind from things that Andy Warhol did with silk screen prints of various images. But that’s not what this post is about, though the question does interest me.

I’m after something a bit different. You see, I engaged in more extensive manipulations of my sister’s baby footprints. And I’d kinda’ like to show them, but not without her permission. And I’ve not yet asked her.

THAT’s what this post is about, that reluctance. It’s not as though there’s anything particularly private or intimate about those ink smudges. But there’s a vital connection between those smudges and a person, a person I know. THAT’s what’s causing the problem.

And whatever THAT is, it’s in the same mental-cultural territory as the Old Testament’s prohibition on graven images of God. Islam, I believe, forbids making images of people, all people.

Images of people are special. They’re NOT like other images. A given individual, or a whole culture, may have the kind of sophistication that allows them to see that an image of a person is just that, an image, and no more. It does not somehow capture their spirit. But the impulse that it does exactly that never goes away. It’s always there.

And that’s why I’m reluctant to show those images of my sister’s baby footprints. However, after thinking this through I decided that, as long as I don’t show any image where the footprints are recognizable as such, it’s OK to post some of the more radically manipulated versions. The manipulation effectively severs the connection between the image and my sister.

So, here’s four of them:





Now, let’s push this one step further. Some years ago, back in the previous millennium, Bruce Jackson was doing some research at a prison in Arkansas – he’s a folklorist and photographer – and was given a bunch of ID photos of prisoners. Just the photos, nothing else about them. The photos are anonymous.

Which is pretty much the point of ID photos. They provide a means of visual identification, but no more. The photos are taken according to a set of conventions designed to minimize, if not erase, the humanity of the subject. A couple of years ago Jackson decided to see if, though photoshopping, he could restore that humanity.

I’ve not seen any of the resulting photographs so I can’t judge whether or to what extent he succeeded. But I understand why he undertook the project, which resulted in a book: Bruce Jackson, Pictures from a Drawer: Prison and the Art of Portraiture (2007).


  1. If the shoe fits, wear it? LOL! --Your Sister

  2. 'it’s in the same mental-cultural territory'

    Not sure what the rules are but I find myself drawn to taking pictures of people in a wider setting. Some (mostly older males so far) can get very agitated, has caused me some concern on wither its to intrusive but I don't think that's the case . Some people strike poses when they notice you are shooting, or look quizzically directly at the camera, some politely wait behind you until you have taken a shot (that one surprised me) or apologize for 'getting in the way.'

    One common one is why are you taken pictures here? Live in a monumental city I think people expect the interest should be with these grand large scale, monumental things rather than everyday life.

    Anyway simple wanted to link to this remind me of the art side, articles on language (and making a mess) but I think the art of making a mess and playing is at the heart of things here. The joy of diving in and making a mess that's the important part.


    1. Yes, taking photos of people around and about is very tricky. You might want to get a long focal-length lens, or a zoom that can go long. That way you can be a some distance from people and get a close-up or medium shot without them even noticing you or, at any rate, without your having to physically enter their space.

    2. For example, I took all or almost all of the photos in this set using a long lens. You'll see a fair number of close-ups of people but in many cases I wasn't within 10 meters of them when I took the shot. One obvious exception is the little boy. Both he and his mother were aware of me and both were cool. Also, I chatted briefly with her.

  3. I have a degree of zoom keeps me out of immediate space. I think if I wanted to take a more detailed close up would ask first.

    Been aiming the camera at things, catching people as they chance into shot for the most part.

    People expect shots to be taken in certain locations and are relaxed about doing so seems my experience so far. If not you can always hit the delete button. Public event like the one you shot at are not so problematic I feel.

    Took a shot of some graffiti near someones home and the nearby house owner got clearly agitated and very suspicious, he was someway off as well so was not a case of intruding on personal space or property (graff was in a public space) nor an attempt to take a pic of him.

    People are difficult to negotiate at times. Behave in unexpected ways as well.

    1. In my neighborhood people will sometimes ask if I'm with The Jersey Journal, a local newspaper. I took a lot of pictures at a community garden thru the summer and into the fall, including close shots of people. Here it's a recurring scene and some of the people are my friends, so they're used to me being around. Still, I want to be part of the background and I don't want people posing, though there's not much you can do about little kids posing. I do a lot of sideways moving, as it were. I want people to know I'm there, taking pictures, but not to pay any attention to me. It's tricky being an unnoticed photographer.

  4. "It's tricky being an unnoticed photographer."

    Being new to this I was thinking of these as new issues. Was surprised to confront them.

    Thinking about it, not very different to issues with collecting ethnographic data. Based on developing trust yet interpretation of informant and collector is very different and can lead to tension.

    With belief it can be like getting blood out of a stone, people are highly aware they may be the subject of ridicule or contempt if they open up the world their culture has formed to a wider audience.

    Its almost impossible to be an unnoticed Ethnographer. The rare moments when the walls melt, like nothing you experience in papers or theory.

    1. "...not very different to issues with collecting ethnographic data."

      Yes. Now think about being a portrait photographer. How do you get your subjects to look natural? I mean, they know you're taking a photo of them; that's what they're paying you to do. Still, they're not actors. How do you get some kind of reasonable facial expression? It's certainly not rocket science, but it must be one of the essential skills of that particular trade.

  5. Would need to do it and experience it more fully. Been rubbish at predicting in advance so far. Learning from error and messing about.

    But the observation skills required for other things I have done would suggest when they are most relaxed with environment. its easy to spot when you can focus in give a subject full scrutiny and capture whats required.

    With a camera you have to press the button. I notice at night can be a seriously delay. Moment is often lost as it is a split second call. Rapidly taking lots of shots an answer, but serious element of chance as well. But that's always the case and makes it interesting. Never certain what is going to come out of the mix, dross or gold.

    I think with lot of things art research etc. you get sort of better at predicting where to be, where you will find something. Never certain but with experience you learn where you are most likely to find something even if you are uncertain of exactly what it will be or the form it will take.

  6. It also resulted in several exhibits. The prints were all on 13x19" sheets, so if you stood a few paces away, the faces occupied the same visual field that a real person's face would occupy. The only tinkering I did with the images was to reduce some of the yellow patina they had acquired over time and, in some cases to crank up the blacks to compensate for fading. I didn't touch rips, folds, fingerprints, pen marks, etc. I was trying to preserve aa sense of them as objects (which the pictures in fact were) and representations of human beings (which they also were).

    1. Thanks, Bruce. And the rips, folds, and fingerprints, etc. mark the photos as objects handled by other human beings. So the photos becomes sites of interaction between human beings acting in very constrained circumstances.