The relaxed observer


General Photography


Five years ago, a huge debate erupted in the US over a photograph taken on September 11, 2001, by Thomas Hoepker. The photograph showed five people relaxing on a sunny Summer day, the Manhattan skyline with a gigantic plume of smoke from the fallen World Trade Center towers as a backdrop. You can find the photo, with the photographer’s point of view here (there are also links to various other pieces, including an email one of the photograph’s subjects sent in). I had to think of that photo and the reaction it caused when I came across the photo above (the image above is cropped, the original can be found here, and it comes via). In the background, you can see the smoke from fires in San Francisco, which had just been hit by an enormous earthquake, on April 18, 1906. In the foreground, you see, well, people lounging, and there are two women turned towards the camera. They are a bit blurry, but one is very clearly smiling - her camera smile, one must assume. One might wonder why these observers are all so relaxed, just like the ones in Hoepker’s photograph. Needless to say, a picture tells a story, but it might just be the story we want to hear or see. But whatever it is, there is something in photography that can make us do all kinds of things, which includes smiling for the camera even when we’re standing in front of a city on fire. I don’t think this means we’re callous, I’m tempted to think that we are being seduced in ways that we might regret later. That also is the power of photography.

Update (25 April 2011): A reader email me and reminded me of this Weegee photo, which has the drowned man’s (supposed) girlfriend smiling at the camera. Regardless of who the woman is her smile feels very much out of place (and look at the spectators in the back - what are they looking at?).