Photo blogs give the arts a dose of reality

Photo blogging about ordinary people? Studs would be proud.

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Three years ago, Brandon Stanton, who calls himself “the most followed photographer in the world,” was not a photographer. By his own admission, he did not know much about photography, or even cameras. He was a Georgia native living in Chicago and had been working as a bond trader, first at the Chicago Board of Trade and later from an office in Arlington Heights. “I was involved with relative value trading, fixed-income security futures. Short-term stuff. It was more like playing a video game than anything,” he said. “I stared at screens for three years straight.”

He landed the job after betting $3,000 in 2008 that Barack Obama would win the presidency — a friend who was impressed with the bet recommended him to a trading firm. A couple of years later, after winning big in a football pool, he bought a nice camera; he spent the winter of 2010 learning to operate it, photographing Chicago, taking trains into the Loop on weekends and, for practice, shooting thousands of pictures of street signs.

That summer, he lost his job.

He said he was fired because he had risked too much and "basically, couldn't make money anymore." But by that point, "I was already as obsessed with photography as I had been with bond trading anyway." He left Chicago, heading east to shoot in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and, finally, New York. Along the way, he began noticing something about his pictures:

People make for better pictures than signs.

He also had a crazy notion: He would use his camera to take a photographic census of New York.

During his first month in New York, he shot 600 impromptu street portraits. Three years later, though still nowhere near the 8.3 million he would need for a comprehensive census, he has shot about 6,000 portraits, all of which he posts on "Humans of New York," his phenomenally popular photo blog. Among Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram, Stanton, who is 29 and now works as a commercial photographer, has 2 million followers. Indeed, his project has been so compelling that a hardcover edition, "Humans of New York," collecting 400 of his portraits, was just published by St. Martin's Press. Children, hipsters, pet owners, businessmen, matadors, puppeteers, students — it's a kind of Burpee seed catalog of humanity.

It's also become the template of a popular meme, the inspiration for scores of blogs, from "Humans of Tehran" and "Humans of Oslo" to "Humans of Orlando" and "Humans of Chicago" — the latter of which is the work of a French transplant, Elizabeth Benault, 37, who moved to Chicago last year with her husband.

"I don't have my work permit for this country, so I haven't been able to work," she said. "But when I saw Brandon Stanton's blog, I thought, 'I know what I must do now.' Because I am an immigrant in a big city — I am from a small village in northern France of about 800 people — the camera has helped me understand the people and places in Chicago. I take pictures and ask questions, and I don't feel as anonymous as I did."

People like looking at people.

This is not a trend, or a revelation.

And yet, at the moment, the act of people looking at people — as they are every day, as they look, act and sound (presumably when no one was planning to look or listen) — is the connective tissue between many disparate works of art and pop culture. It is the defining aesthetic of both the security-camera-based "Paranormal Activity" horror films and the performance artist Marina Abramovic, whose 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York included an opportunity to stare into the artist's eyes. It is intrinsic to the popularity of Facebook and partly behind the addictiveness of YouTube. It is not about naturalism: Abramovic, like Stanton, requires the wholehearted consent of ordinary people incorporated in her work.

It is, rather, art without artifice, burrowing into a culture that often seems like nothing but artifice.

Even the rise of the anti-talk show — an increasingly popular sub-genre of a TV genre notorious for its phoniness — might be attributed to this impulse to capture people unadorned. Consider Jerry Seinfeld's stripped-down, self-explanatory Web series, "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," or the thoughtful man-on-the-street interviews of FX's "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell." The point is not to poke fun or to capture embarrassing situations — just to present people, as they are.

Said comedian Billy Eichner, whose "Billy on the Street" interview/game show on Funny or Die became a (still woefully underrated) series on the Fuse cable network: "People have come to me and asked, 'Do you want to do a talk show?' And my reaction always is, 'I kind of feel like I already am doing a talk show.'"

"Billy on the Street" partly consists of Eichner, who studied theater at Northwestern University, running around New York and asking strangers if they agree with his opinions: Do you like Meryl Streep? (Good, you get $1.) Would you trust your children with singer Katharine McPhee? (No? You get no money.) But it's his moments with celebrities, whom he drags along on his sidewalk interviews, that are most telling: A segment with Zachary Quinto of the new "Star Trek" films, for instance, mostly consisted of Eichner shouting at strangers, "It's Spock! Do you care?" and Quinto's hard-to-disguise (for the most part amused) reactions when they did not care.

It's both a charming portrait of an actor (self-effacing, easygoing) and a city (brusque, distracted).

"My intention was not to bring him back to earth," Eichner said. "I'm 35. I grew up as a gay kid obsessed with Madonna who thought famous people were from another planet. Now the culture has become so snarky there's no mystique. People are so exposed. Yet, at the same time, you don't really know who they are. The idea was to strike a balance. (Quinto) actually said to me afterward, 'Every actor should have to do that.'"

Not that humanizing celebrities is the goal.

"To be honest, I think a lot of work like this is somewhat of a reaction to an overabundance of celebrity culture," said Scott Schuman, who started "The Sartorialist" street-fashion blog in 2005. A forerunner to ordinary-people blogs like "Humans of New York," it was created by Schuman, who grew up in Indianapolis and worked for years in fashion sales, as "a way of getting the everyday romance of people who I saw on the street. I was not a journalist. I just wanted photos of them, and clothes helps tell a story of who they are."

Even Stanton — whose first photos on "Humans of New York" were often staged, matching posed subjects he encountered on the street with clever backgrounds — has found himself increasingly photographing anyone he stumbles upon, in any setting.

"I stopped looking for the most colorful and odd and just went to anyone I would come across on a bench. I don't even see this as a photography blog anymore — it's about storytelling, looking for any story. (The photos often come with a short bit of explanatory text.) It started with me going out every day for eight hours; now it's a few hours a day; that way I can talk to people more."

Which doesn't sound so far from Studs Terkel.

The legendary Chicago radio personality and historian set a precedent for this contemporary impulse for documenting how people are. His book "Division Street: America," a landmark collection of everyday interviews, was as much an act of sociopolitical field-leveling — the unheralded and unappreciated treated with the same thoughtfulness as the rich and elected — as it was a postwar portrait of America.

David Isay founded StoryCorps 10 years ago this month for National Public Radio. The project — which consists of ordinary people walking in off the street to record 40 minutes of conversation — has provided the Library of Congress with more than 50,000 oral histories.

"The first StoryCorps audio booth was in Grand Central Station in New York, and I remember that when Studs cut the ribbon on that booth, he gave a speech about how we all know who the architects of the building are, but we should be sure not to forget to tell the stories of the workers who 'laid the floors' and 'built the walls,'" Isay said.

And yet StoryCorps was never meant to serve as a commentary on authenticity in media, Isay said: "It came from a realization that the simple act of listening to another person can remind someone that their life has had an impact. Really, it's the opposite of reality TV, which is supposedly about unadorned life. Nobody comes to StoryCorps to be famous — besides, we've learned that phoniness on audio is very transparent."

Guilelessness is key.

When Benault tells about working up the nerve to stop Chicagoans and ask them to pose for Humans of Chicago, she describes "a city where everyone has headphones on their ears and smartphones in their faces, but take the time to talk to them, they're almost always happy to share something about themselves." Asked if he is flattered by the exponential growth of websites that document pedestrians or annoyed by all the competition in a field that, online, at least, he helped pioneer, Schuman is generous:

"I run into people doing exactly what I am doing. Oh, yeah. All the time," he said. "But who they are influenced by — by me, "Humans of New York," (New York Times fashion photographer) Bill Cunningham — matters less than having that reassurance that there are lots of people right now, in different ways, documenting the world."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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