Louis, Street Photographer

By Chris Farling

Let’s talk about Louis (full name annoyingly withheld for a moment), a person who I don’t know personally but one whose work I enjoy and admire wholeheartedly.

Louis is enjoying a bit of a moment these days. Toiling in relative obscurity for decades but sticking to his vision and honing his craft all the while, he has really broken through of late and caught the attention of the wider world. The idea of him marshaling his newfound popularity and selling out seems laughable, however, because his work continues to have the same uncompromising impact and will never appeal to the most mainstream tastes anyway. He probably garners more respect from his peers than from any other group and that seems to suit him just fine.

He is undeniably an artist, yet he toils in a genre that has a bit of an acceptance problem in the Art world even as it becomes more and more popular to the lay world—popular enough that sometimes it seems as if every other person on Facebook or other social media fancies themselves a junior “Louis” with their own postings, as shallow an imitation as it may be. This phenomenon probably owes something to the fact that what he does seems deceptively simple and literal, like it’s something anyone could decide to do without much training.

One of the things that I love about Louis is that, while some in the field prefer facile one-liners and stale gags that pander to their audience, he favors complexity and is able to point an uncomfortably accurate mirror at ourselves, leading us to truths that we might be oblivious to otherwise.

It is clear that Louis observes people constantly—anything and everything he sees is potential fodder for his work. He creates novel juxtapositions and makes us see his subjects in a new light. You get the sense that, as a person, he himself learns from what he does just like we do.

So who is Louis?

His work does not hang in any gallery or museum and no street photography collective can reasonably hope to count him as a member. For he is not a street photographer at all, but rather: Louis C.K., comedian.

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So why am I bringing up a comedian in my first post for Observe? Because a lot of times it is very difficult to talk about something directly and literally, especially something artistic. The saying that “nothing ruins a joke more than trying to explain it” is fitting here. We humans have always used metaphor to strengthen our understanding of complex subjects. It’s how our brains are wired. So talking about street photography by not talking about street photography can be a fruitful exercise.

Improvisational music is probably the most obvious parallel to street photography to me (especially the state of mindfulness that characterizes both), but I wanted to stretch a bit to show how seemingly unrelated disciplines can shine a light on each other. Find inspiration everywhere!

One of the strongest parallels to me is the idea of both comedians and street photographers as students of human behavior, which even the most misanthropic of either set must be as a matter of professional interest if nothing else. Developing a style and persona is also important in both fields because it’s partly the authorial sensibility that keeps the audience engaged from photograph to photograph or from bit to bit. (This stands in stark contrast to photojournalism, where one strives to bear neutral witness to some sort of interesting action; the comedian would be replaced by the news reporter in that comparison.)

If you think of a photograph as a “bit” and an exhibit (whatever form that may be) as an “act,” the street photographer can also derive some lessons from the best stand-up comedians about how to pace material and to sequence it to get maximum impact. Each bit in an act is generally as self-contained as a single frame, so comedians learn connecting and linking techniques to keep their audience’s interest and attention from flagging. Something to think about between laughs.

Of course, there are a lot of ways the parallel to stand-up comedy breaks down and that can be interesting to look at as well. Unless a confused audience is the goal, there isn’t as much emphasis on ambiguity and mystery in comedy (except maybe in some of the more left-field Andy Kaufmann stuff). And some contend that narrative and story—so important to comedy—aren’t even possible in the frozen moment of a photograph. A street photographer also can’t really audience-test a photograph and then rework it, but s/he certainly can draw on the experience to try to get a better picture the next time and the goal in both cases is still to edit ruthlessly until your material is as strong as possible. The concepts of juxtaposition* and recontextualization are probably better compared to improv comedy where the typical job of the group is to knit together jarringly unrelated audience-suggested things in interesting and funny ways. Another breakdown in the parallel is composition, which doesn’t translate very well from the visual realm.

We often worry about showing too much material as photographers but we also have to be concerned with the staleness that can set in if we are only associated with older work. Louis C.K. is not satisfied with repeating his greatest hits and sets himself an inspirational challenge that goes beyond others in his field. From Joel Lovell’s GQ article, where a fellow comedian talks to him about Louis C.K.:

“‘Never repeats material,’ the other one added. He very much wanted me to understand that there are guys out there struggling week after week, month after month, to get ten or fifteen good minutes, whereas Louis C.K. is taking stuff that other comics only dream of and throwing it away. Every year, a whole new act. Ninety minutes. ‘Think about that.’”

And then there’s perhaps the most telling parallel of all with street photography, as recounted by Louis C.K. himself in the same GQ article: “Every time I’ve needed it, stand-up has saved me…. I’ll never stop doing it.”

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PS—Here are a few links to Louis C.K. bits on YouTube that to me exemplify his perceptive nature:
What you get with a basic life
Everything’s amazing and nobody is happy

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* Besides being a good read, James Parker’s Atlantic article on Louis C.K. has a good example of him employing juxtaposition in his TV show:

“Another episode of Louie finds him in a New York subway station, propped against a metal pillar, blown away by the music of a dinner-jacketed violinist. The music soars unbearably; Louis looks almost tearful. Then a hefty, multilayered homeless man comes flapping down the platform, stands right behind the still-playing violinist, strips, and begins to lavishly rinse his naked torso with bottled water. What’s going on? A duet, that’s what: a cosmic fugue of glistening butt crack and inconsolable violin. It’s life, ugly and beautiful, in permanent exile, and Louis is transfixed.”

Days of Our Lives

By Marcelo Argolo

One of the rewarding things in photography is the people we meet while out in the world taking pictures. I mean not only the people we actually take pictures of, but also the ones we meet while taking pictures. Chance plays a good part in that, as it does when guiding us into interesting scenes at the turn of a corner. If chance doesn’t help you to get a good picture, who knows, it might help you to get a date. Or perhaps, to meet a homeless man who will grab you by the hand and lead you inside a used bookstore to show you a picture – stories we collect through photography.

I lived in San Francisco’s Lower Haight for about 3 years in the early 90’s. A lot of homeless people lived in the streets and parks around the Haight-Ashbury area, famously known as the epicenter of the Summer of Love in 1967. In the sixties its 19th century multi story houses were home to thousands of hippies, including artists like Janis Joplin and the members of Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Many of the homeless I saw asking for change on the sidewalks were old flower children from that time, often alcoholics and/or drug addicts.

One of them, who I saw almost every day, would sometimes be in an awful shape, too drunk and weak to even mumble “spare some change”. He was well and sober, though, at the time I gave him a dollar, and because he had noticed I was a photographer, took me inside the bookstore to show me a picture of him that appeared in a book of photos. From one of the shelves he grabbed an edition of A Day in the Life of California, scrolled through the pages and – there he was, in a small portrait, looking good and thoughtful. I smiled and congratulated him for being immortalized in such a noble expression. He smiled back, very proud.

I loved to wander around the Haight, taking pictures of street artists and craftsmen, watching the hipsters pass by, chatting with the deadheads and homeless that took over the sidewalks. I’d hang out with them, listen to their stories and dream that sometime I would hop in one of those hippie buses parked by the Panhandle and hit the road across America. I planned to go on a cross country trip at some point, but at that time I was really busy taking Photography classes at the City College of San Francisco and working almost fulltime as a delivery man for a North Beach restaurant. The place’s specialty was Buffalo chicken wings, and once in a while I’d take a package of dozen wings to some of the Haight’s homeless. They’d be so exhilarated it felt like I was offering them a feast. After a while, I started to be referred as the chicken-wing man.

One day when I was walking with my camera, I was stopped by the same man from the Day in the Life book, this time accompanied by a woman in sunglasses. He didn’t look good. He seemed pretty beat up, actually, with a disturbing expression, saddened eyes and a wavering speech. But hey, at least he had a woman in his arms – even if she was in an equally poor condition that not even her sunglasses could hide.

He asked me for some change, but this time I said I had none. “Then take my picture”, he said. Just then I noticed he was holding a broken tambourine. As far as I can remember, I didn’t think of possible metaphors, just that there was something touching about that damaged object and the dignified way he was carrying it. I asked him to raise the instrument. For some reason I decided not to include the woman in the composition (because of the sunglasses, I think) and made only one shot. He thanked me and walked away with his partner, both stumbling and propping each other up. I went on my way, thinking not much of that encounter – another day in the life of taking pictures.

I didn’t expect anything from it, but after a look at the contact sheet I decided to make a print. In the end – who would have guessed – I included the image in a presentation at one of my classes. Every week we had to present a set of 5 to 10 pictures. All of us students would position our photos on the walls across the classroom and we’d follow the teacher while he circulated, analyzing each group of images. On my turn, my classmates had barely looked at my work when a girl goggled at the picture of the old hippie and shouted with disbelief: “My uncle!” She told us he had been living for many years on the street and had a history of drugs and alcohol addiction. He didn’t keep in touch with his family, but would make sporadic visits, usually on dates like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Or he would just appear out of nowhere in a surprise visit. We were all astonished by the coincidence. I mentioned that he was pictured in the book A Day in the Life of California. (A note: I eventually purchased the book and still have it. I looked for the picture in search of the photographer’s name. The photo is printed on page 121 and the credit goes to David Barry. However, checking the photographers’ biographies at the end of the book, I didn’t find any David Barry.) Unfortunately, I no longer remember either my classmate’s name or her uncle’s.

I gave the picture to her. At the first chance I had, I also gave a copy to her uncle. Even though his appearance in my picture wasn’t nearly as good as in the Day in the Life, he liked it regardless. Obviously, I told him about the coincidence that my classmate from City College was his niece. Since then, every time I’d bump into him, he would not only ask for some change, but also ask about her. “If you see her, tell her I love her very much.”

Haight Hippie

Welcome

Observe - Street Photography Collective

“I only wanted Uncle Vernon standing by his own car (a Hudson) on a clear day, I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on the fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.”
—Lee Friedlander

Observe is the union of a small group of photographers, all of whom find a common passion in the “generous medium” that Friedlander sums up so perfectly.

This collective represents not only a further stage in our individual development but also our combined contribution to the diverse community of photographers around the world, past and present, who inspire and educate us with their extraordinary talent, experience and commitment.

We welcome you and hope that you enjoy what you find in these pages—now and in the future.