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Sidewalk Art

Food for thought: Next time you clamp up a few speedlights on a public street, it could lead you all the way to the state Supreme Court.

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Earlier this week, my friend JoeyL tweeted about NYC photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and it really got me thinking.

A few years ago DiCorcia clamped strobes up under a scaffolding on a New York City sidewalk, thus turning the space into his own private public studio. He then photographed people as they passed through, making a series of beautiful portraits that were at once banal and thought-provoking.

And that's where the interesting starts…

His video, above, explains it pretty clearly. I watched it, did a little Googling and spent the next half hour thinking about it -- ending up with ever more unanswered questions as I went.

First off, the flash geek in me loves that he did this with a few Vivitar 285(!!) speedlights. I would have thought this was a bigger production values thing, a la the amazing work of Gregory Crewdson. But when you think about it, under the scaffolding it is pretty dark, so you don't need a lot of light. And the small strobes hide nicely.

Such an elegant approach, creating something so layered and interesting with such a minimal amount of gear.

Second, what an interesting way to photograph lit portraits of people without having to, you know, actually talk with them. Personally, I have never had a problem in that area. But I know some of you introverted readers must be smacking your foreheads right about now.

But then there's the big issue -- privacy.

Sure, legally he is okay. Although I was surprised at how dicey it was. (Three appeals? Scary.)

And clearly, he'll find a lot of advocates among the readers of this site. But where is he ethically? That's a question you cannot answer unless you have put yourself in the shoes of the subjects. How would you feel if you were surprised to find yourself a subject of his exhibit?

I keep going back and forth. And then I think, maybe he could have made the situation less muddy by finding the subjects after the fact and interviewing them on what they remember thinking about when they were walking down the street the day before.

People are creatures of habit. I'll bet he could have found many of them by posting a printout and email address under that same scaffolding for a few days. Would that notification and potential layer of info have made the exhibit more ethical and interesting at the same time?

It is not like he needs permission, legally, to exhibit the images. The courts decided that in a rather extreme set of circumstances. One of his subjects, Erno Nussenzweig, was an Orthodox Jew and sued diCorcia on what I am sure (to the subject) seemed a valid reason1.

Would prior notification (before the exhibit ran) have changed the ethical balance? Is there an ethical balance to be concerned about? How would it be different in other countries -- your country?

Open mic in the comments. But please, be respectful.

(Photo at top ©1999 Philip-Lorca diCorcia. See more of diCorcia's work, here.)


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