Most street photography is of strangers. What viewers of the images see are the equivalent of glimpses. We rely on swift reading of appearances - and as social animals we are very good at reading such glimpses. We don't know whether the impression the appearances give is accurate about the real person who is the subject of the image.
Appearance and Reality
Philosophers have traditionally been suspicious of appearances. Many of them have argued that reality lies behind appearances and that appearances cn be very misleading. Appearances aren't to be trusted.
Plato, for example, in The Republic, told the story of a cave where prisoners are chained facing a wall. Behind them is a fire, and in front of the fire people carry shapes that cast shadows on the wall. The prisonners believe they are having direct experience of reality; in fact they are looking at shadows. One day one of the prisonners breaks free and sees the fire. Eventually he is able to get outside and see the sun. When he returns, the prisonners in the cave won't believe the story he tells them.
The prisoner who escapes is like a philosopher: he is capable of perceiving reality. The rest of the people only believe they perceive reality. (For Plato, reality is beyond the world of appearances and consists of The Forms - such as the perfect Form of a circle - far superior to any actual circles).
Listen to Nigel Warburton on Plato (from Philosophy: The Classics)
Listen to an interview with Simon Blackburn on Plato's Cave (from Philosophy Bites)
Another major philosopher who questioned the reliability of appearances was the sixteenth century René Descartes who in his Meditations called just about every belief he had ever had in to doubt. He doubted his senses, whether he was awake, whether the real world was a fabrication created by an evil demon. But he couldn't doubt his own existence. Even if he was being deceived, there must be something that was being deceived: he expressed this as 'Cogito Ergo Sum' I think therefore I am. The result: he was more certain of his own existence as a thinking thing than of his existence as a body...
What's this got to do with portrait photography?
Photography is to a significant degree an art of appearances. It struggles to deal with complex ideas. A photographic portrait of a stranger can be compelling perhaps because of the human interest in faces and our interest in other people, reading their faces. But ultimately, according to some thinkers, it is condemned to deal in surface appearances. If reality does lie beyond appearances, however, then photography is unlikely to reveal truth. It may even be condemned to triviality.
A thinker who was particularly interested in appearances, who believed that social reality is based on appearances, and who explored what this reveals about social interaction was Erving Goffman whose 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand photographs of people. He gave what he labelled a dramaturgical analysis of social interactions, which is another way of saying that he took seriously Shakespeare's idea that all the world is a stage.
People give performances. They act roles to each other, idealized roles that in part embody how they think others want them to behave. We read non-verbal cues very quickly and accurately. We look for symptoms, the impressions people give off. This is what allows us to predict how people will behave.
In the gallery we looked at work in Room 6 of the Street and Studio exhibition by Model, Arbus, Halsman, Weegee, Madame Levonde and Serrano considering the ways in which non-verbal cues affect our reading of people in the images.