Monday, August 15, 2011

Respectfully Yours

Live it Up, 2010

Like a lot of people, I’d like to see The Book of Mormon, the new hit Broadway show from the guys who brought us television’s South Park. I’ve listened to the music and seen a few scenes performed. It’s hilarious and thoughtful and profane. Tickets are said to be impossible to get. So it’ll probably be a while before we get there.

What may not be immediately obvious to many people who only hear the most superficial comments about The Book of Mormon—especially with respect to its coarse language and seeming ridicule of the Mormon religion—is that The Book of Mormon is actually quite respectful. It doesn’t set out to criticize Mormons or the Mormon religion. Much like South Park, The Book of Mormon lets its subjects take care of themselves. If you find it worthy of a few snarky chuckles that Mormons believe Jesus lives on a planet named Kolob or that God waited until 1978 to acknowledge blacks as legitimate human beings, then so be it. Authors Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez merely state the facts and let you come to your own decision. (Apparently, Mormons love The Book of Mormon, demonstrating, if nothing else, that along with some unusual belief they at least have a healthy sense of humor.)

In photography, it can be very easy to ridicule other people. People come in all shapes and sizes, some hilariously unusual. If you’re shooting in a studio you can change the mood entirely with a single light source. If you’re shooting outdoors, you don’t even have to go looking for funny looking people. All you have to do is stand in one place in public for a little while and they’ll parade right by you.

But for me, though, that’s being cheap. I know I’d be good grist for someone looking to take a snarky photo. My friend Walt Taylor has been drawing wonderful snarky illustrations of me for almost thirty years.

Chris by Walt, 1983

My wife and I went to the Bill Cunningham New York movie the other night. Octogenarian Cunningham rides his bicycle around the streets of Manhattan most every day, photographing interesting clothing without any apparent interest in the people wearing them. If they’re beautiful, as many of his female subjects are, then it’s obvious. If they’re not, Cunningham’s images make no statement about it. That’s a pretty classy approach, if you ask me.

But there are people out there who set out to ridicule others for their own political/social/class/snarky pleasure. Last week debate spread through the media community as to whether Newsweek Magazine had been responsible or not in its selection of a photographic cover portrait of Michelle Bachman that made her look like a crazed maniac. (One of my acquaintances commented, “Is it even possible to take a picture of Mrs. Bachman that doesn’t make her look batshit crazy?”)

And there’ll probably always be debates over whether Diane Arbus exploited her subjects or merely turned an impartial eye to them.

The bottom line is this: I try not to be too snarky in my pictures. If the subjects are worthy of snark, I’ll let them make the point.


  1. Well said! Love Walt's snarky drawing.

  2. I have to push myself to take pictures of people I don't know. It is easier if they are already on a stage of some sort, in a parade or willfully being the center of attention. In that case photography is often expected. To catch someone off-guard unexpectedly is more difficult for me, but these are the times people often reveal other sides of themselves.