I have reservations over the definition: can it be a portrait if the subject is unaware of the process and therefore uninvolved in it? It sounds more like unnoticed than covert, which seems to aim to eliminate any possibility of awareness in the subject. In the setting suggested – a party – the guests would certainly be ‘aware’ of the fact that pictures were being taken but allow the possibility of being caught ‘off guard’.
Overcoming my innate tendency to dwell on the semantics, I will concede that whatever term is employed, pictures of people are called for and I must settle on a method and setting.
I have decided to keep it simple and non-confrontational. I cannot recall the last time I was invited to a party so that approach must be ruled out. My local area is not short on people, though, so I devised a way of observing and photographing them without being noticed as a photographer.
I fashion an eyrie in my practical but slab-like Peugeot 807 by mounting the camera on a tripod, peeking out through the partially open rear window. The lens is set to its maximum focal length of 40mm (80mm equiv) and manual focus. I prefocus on a spot in the centre of the frame and set an aperture of f2.8, wide open. In the bright sun this calls for a shutter speed of 1/3200 so I’ll not be concerned about motion blur. The lens is plenty good enough to return adequate quality images for web use wide open and I want to throw the background out as much as possible. I’m also planning to crop quite hard if necessary.
I decided to operate from a remote tablet – the cameral allows control by wifi, although the working distance is limited somewhat because of the car’s metalwork. As it turned out, I was unable to take the photographs from the warmth and comfort of my house, the first floor overlooking the approach of the subjects. I had to sit in the passenger seat and pretend to read.
There is a slight lag between hitting the ‘fire’ button and the shutter operation, so I needed to anticipate the subject position, but this improved with practice. The pictures are sharp and correctly exposed.
I spent a couple of hours photographing passers-by. They would have had no idea they were being photographed right up until the moment of taking, but some – in fact a surprising number – clocked the camera as they walked past. This feels rather odd to me because they are look as if they are looking at me, but of course I’m several feet away, ‘reading a book’.
I’ve thought about how they operate as pictures. There is no relationship between me and the subjects so their appearance is a one-way function. I don’t think they are aware, in the moment, of being photographed, but they are curious about a camera in a car. Oddly enough, without an attendant operator their gaze appears to show them in the process of making sense of the situation.
As for the content, mostly their appearance in unguarded. They are not self-aware and certainly not self-conscious; they are simply in the moment, the process of walking from one spot to another. In the freezing cold.
I was unconcerned about the background in this case, nor was I bothered about the fact that every shot is from the same static position. What did concern me was the implied deceit. I was well within my ‘rights’, being on my own property, with the subjects on a public thoroughfare with no ‘reasonable expectation’ of privacy. But I am not satisfied with the results, the photographs themselves, even though they work quite well as documents. I don’t see anything of value in them, but perhaps my view will alter in the future. I like the light in a few of them, it’s very bright, pin sharp and there’s a good fill from the white (ish) front of the house. Some of them look as if they are spotlit, ordinary people engaged in quotidian tasks but lit like film stars. If I were to expand this as a theme I’d do more in this way, at the same time of day but without the intermittent cloud cover.
Although I don’t really rate this as an approach I don’t feel bad about doing it from the car. It’s a very useful accessory given the weather and a handy camera platform. Lee Friedlander managed to gather material for an entire book without ever turning the engine off, so I could be in good company.
None of the pictures are edited except for the crop.
Here are the contacts, at least all the exposures which featured actual people: