The Great War on Photographers: A Dispatch From The Trenches

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Karl Baden should have known better.

I mean, what was he thinking, casually snapping a few pictures as dramatic sunlight broke through the clouds after one of last week’s late spring rainstorms? From the front seat of his car in a suburban Boston Trader Joe’s parking lot, of all places? What is he, nuts?

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No, Karl’s a photographer. Actually, he’s a photographer’s photographer, with a resume that includes an impressive international exhibition record, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, prints held in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Polaroid International Collection, MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, the Guggenheim Museum, and on and on.

A conceptual artist and street shooter in the grand tradition of Friedlander and Winogrand, Karl has been teaching students the how’s and the why’s of making photographs as an esteemed member of the fine arts faculty at Boston College since 1989.

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Even so, Karl should have considered the consequences of taking the shot, because as he released the shutter, a little boy and his father walked through the frame about 30 or 40 feet from his car. The instant he saw them he should have dropped the camera in his lap like a hot potato and high-tailed it out of there with his shorts smoking.

Yep, that’s what he should have done, because it’s 2015, and everybody knows the unspeakable things men lurking in cars with cameras have been doing ever since the Internet started up and 9/11 changed everything. Karl’s an artist, an educator and a gentleman, and certainly isn’t a threat to anybody. But he never should have taken the risk that somebody might think he is. And for what? It wasn’t even that great of a shot!

But he made the picture anyway, and thankfully, a hyper vigilant samaritan in a red van saw the whole thing. He did what we’re told to do every time we turn off the TV and step outside the safe confines of our homes — “if you see something, say something”.

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Now, before I go any further, I need to momentarily remove my tongue from my cheek. What I’m about to recount is a confrontation between a concerned citizen and a man who had just pointed a camera from inside his car in the general direction of a child. Obviously, as a street photographer and an editorial writer I have a point of view on this issue and the larger questions it raises. I’ve written here before about a similar, poignant incident in my own experience.

But I’m also a decent human being, and nothing in this essay should be construed as an attempt to minimize what I know all too well can happen. We’ve all heard the debates over whether this is a uniquely modern and virulent pandemic of abuse, or a more chronic threat that has existed in the shadows for centuries, now amplified through the megaphone of instant access to information. Either way, I’d like to think that we all know how to balance our suspicion with reason, common sense, and maybe just a little restraint if it’s not completely clear what’s going on. But then, I’d like to think a lot of things.

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In the heat of the moment, not knowing if Karl might react like a trapped animal if confronted, our hero went off the deep end, shouting and cursing as he approached Karl’s car to share his concerns about what he saw. Chief among the inventory of his not terribly creative invective were the “F word” and its derivatives, the F word preceded by a maternal modifier, and a variety of scatological references — all fairly routine stuff.

Nonetheless, I don’t want to offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities by quoting him verbatim, so, being a child of the 70’s, I’ve inserted the term {Expletive Deleted} where appropriate. Most of you are photographers, so I’m confident you’ll be able to fill in the blanks pretty easily.

But it’s another word, the “P” word, that is truly offensive in this and so many other incidents involving photographers today. It’s the word that, once thrown out there, forces the accused into an almost indefensible retreat. Used impulsively, its intended effect is both shaming and chilling, and it works every time.

So with all that said, let’s get back to my story. Put the kids in the basement. I’ll let Karl take it from here:

I walked out of Trader Joe’s yesterday just as the rain let up and the sun broke through the clouds. Got in my car, took a few pictures of the light through the window, then began to pull out of the parking lot. A red van starts following me, the driver’s yelling, blasting the horn.

The van passes on my left, guy inside screaming at me. He pulls ahead, angles the van to the right, then brakes, blocking my way. I put it in park and start to put my window down, trying to think of what I might have done. He jumps out of the car, furious, cursing:

“I saw what you did! Taking pictures of that boy’s behind! You {Expletive Deleted} pedophile!!!”

“No, listen,” I say, “I’m just taking pictures from my car. You don’t understand…”

“You {Expletive Deleted} piece of {Expletive Deleted}! The only reason you’re still breathing is that there are people around!!!” He turns to the passenger next to him, “Get his license plate!”

“Hey! I’m a photographer! I’m not a pedophile!” But he rages on. His mind’s made up. I snap a picture of him, realizing he could reach through my partially opened window and grab my camera, or my neck, but it’s the only thing I can think of to do to record the situation, and, lucky for me, he doesn’t seem to care. I’m too nervous to focus the lens. He’s now pointing me out to everyone in the parking lot: the pedophile in the blue car.

“What are you, the Lone Ranger??” I say, “Look, if you’re so sure about it, call the cops!” 

I don’t know, maybe he’s starting to think about the possible consequences of beating up the wrong guy. He’s still yelling; {Expletive Deleted}, {Expletive Deleted}, whatever… he shoots me one last look of disgust, and starts to walk back to his van. I drive away.

Maybe I should quit real world photography and just do screen grabs off Google Street View like everyone else..

Maybe you should, Karl. Maybe you should.

Because people are watching, and you never know who is simply not going to tolerate you or anybody else doing anything that could be interpreted to be something that they were told that they might have to be worried about on the very real but very remote possibility that you turn out to be one of the reprehensible scumbags who sometimes do things like what they think they saw you doing.

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Like so many of us these days, Karl is no stranger to this kind of thing. He says that he’s “long past tired of being treated with suspicion and hatred just because I point my camera out into the world.”

Recently, he was accosted by the boyfriend of a young woman who, simply by chance, appeared in the background of a bored-looking selfie Karl shot at a university lecture. FBI agents appeared at Karl’s door shortly after he was observed photographing displays of American flags that sprouted everywhere in the days following 9/11. He was questioned aggressively by the owner of a parked car he dared to photograph, the driver’s seat of which was occupied by a large stuffed animal. Karl pushed back a bit on that one: “You have a giant toy panda sitting in the driver’s seat of your car, and you’re asking me why I’m taking pictures?”

Karl says he has a million of these stories, with pictures, that he hopes to one day compile into a book with the working title Everyone Loves A Photographer. Honk twice if, like me, you think Karl should write that book, toot sweet!

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A few years back, an active and long practicing group of street photographers here in Boston were recorded in a cell phone video shot by an irate pedestrian as they worked the lunchtime crowds. You may question the wisdom of these guys shooting together on a public street like a wolf pack on a feed, but let’s put a pin in that for now.

At one point in the video one of the shooters stooped down to sidewalk level and made a low angle shot behind several women looking in a shop window. Of course, the implication was that he had pointed the camera up for an “indecent exposure”, when, in actuality, he had done nothing of the sort. The video was sent to the local CBS affiliate and, sure enough, the next day an intrepid investigative reporter and film crew were scrambled to see for themselves.

The reporter went through the motions of interviewing a few of the shooters, but he seemed to have the story figured out before he even showed up. Apparently, showcasing street photography as a misunderstood but legitimate artistic tradition didn’t amount to breaking news, but strange men who “aggressively hunt down and photograph women and children” did. After seeing the hatchet job that ran on the air that night, I would have crossed the street if I saw one of these guys coming, and I’m a street photographer!

To show solidarity and to help spread the word about what these photographers were really doing, Karl set up a dedicated Facebook page for the group. He seeded the page with some of his own photographs, and to this day, lots of photographers, including yours truly, continue to post pictures and stories to the page.

Like the outraged candid cameraman in Boston, our friend back at Trader Joe’s believed that he had caught a pervert red handed in an act of unspeakable depravity. Surely, Karl was going to slink home to that special room he built down the cellar with the candles and the red walls so he could put the kid’s picture on the Internet for other like minded {Expletives Deleted} to drool over.

In reality, what they caught were photographers in the harmless, mundane act of doing what we do: seeing and recording. Seen from the outside, it never makes any sense to people who don’t get it. For those who do, there’s nothing more challenging than going out into the world with only your camera, your eyes and your wits, and nothing more satisfying than coming back home with a keeper.

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Ironically, because of what amounted to an overreaction to a non-event, Karl’s photograph did indeed wind up on the Internet, right at the top of this post. It will now be pored over by many thousands of other deranged individuals (pixel peepers and camera geeks), but in a thoroughly different context. If Red Van Man had just put his brain in gear before setting his mouth in motion, the snapshot never would have seen the light of day, and I’d be scratching my head over what to write about this week.

But imagine an alternate scenario. In a perfect world, Karl would smooth things over with this guy and buy him lunch and a beer. Now fast friends, they’d take a pleasant drive up to the Addison Gallery of American Art on the campus of Philips Academy, the elite prep school in Andover, Massachusetts where Karl used to teach. There, among many other masterpieces, Red Van Man would see Lisette Model’s sidewalk-level Running Legs, NYC 1940, Diane Arbus’ exasperated young Boy With Toy Hand Grenade, Robert Frank’s race and class study Trolley, New Orleans 1953, and Charles Prattt’s Untitled, 1962 featuring (horrors!) a juvenile backside perched high on a luncheonette stool. All are featured in an excellent new survey of the genre entitled On The Scene: 20th Century Street Photography, currently on view through July 31.

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Stroking their chins pompously, they would mosey on over to an adjacent room where Edward Hopper’s Manhattan Bridge Loop, 1928 hangs proudly on one wall, flanked by Guy Pene du Bois’ Subway Steps, 1926 on another. The two painters were considered artistic geniuses and shrewd observers of the human condition, not voyeurs, boors or perverts (although, I once heard Arnold Newman complain that Hopper’s wife could be a bit a shrew).

If they had it, maybe Karl would buy him a copy of Frank’s The Americans in the gallery gift shop just so he could read and absorb Kerouac’s brilliant Beat introduction. Coincidentally, the Addison is one of the few institutions in the world that can boast a complete set of all 83 prints appearing in that remarkable book.

With all that, his new BFF’s eyes would light up, and he would exclaim “now I get it — all kinds of artists have been depicting moments out of the lives of random people on the streets forever! Maybe I shouldn’t have made such a fuss back there at TJ’s after all.” He would finally understand how, like it says in the introduction to the street photography show, “each of these masters distills decisive moments into universal images of humanity”.

And then, in the gallery’s library and research room, a curator would open a drawer to reveal the small portfolio of Karl’s photographs which have resided in the Addison’s permanent collection since they were purchased in the early 1980s. Red Van Man would smile, Karl would smile right back, the synapses would close, and so would the circle.

And in my perfect little world, to paraphrase that old shampoo commercial, “he’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on and so on”.

Now really, whaddya think the odds of that happening are?


Image credits: All photographs © Karl Baden/Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston MA

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