I came across the work of Nathan Bett reading the book ‘The Social Photo’ by Nathan Jurgenson. Jurgenson references the series ‘Learning to Disappear‘ which consists of composite street photographs in which the subject is captured grimacing into the camera, the series immediately resonated with me because of the work I made for Assignment 1. The images are shot in New York, somewhere Bett was desperate to visit and make street photographs having been inspired by the likes of Bruce Gilden and Garry Winogrand. The reality of taking images in the city was at odds with the romantic vision Bett had of what the process would be like – rather than capturing moments of poetry amongst the everyday bustle of life on the street, Bett was struck by how he was viewed as a nuisance or with suspicion, he comments:
“What you see in Learning to Disappear are not actual moments but they are a fair reflection of the collected interactions between the public and I. Each photograph is a composite of images made from multiple frames shot from the same spot.
Learning to Disappear is about the dynamic relationship between viewer and subject; specifically, the way in which people react to having their photograph taken, candidly, by a stranger, and without their consent.” (Bett, 2015)
This notion that a stronger truth can be demonstrated in a manipulated or staged image is one I find compelling. It reminds me of the work of Jeff Wall and how he often uses real experience to inform his constructed photographic narratives. The images made by Bett only exist because he has brought them together, and yet, there is a strong relationship to truth and reality – the stares from the people in his images strike a chord as feelings of being looked upon, judged or anxious in public are universal concerns for us all. Jurgenson makes this observation:
“True to the street photographer ethic, his response to these grimaces at being photographed without consent was to Photoshop the faces together to make a new image, a street photograph reduced to pure surveillant anxiety. The violation of privacy is not just something necessary for his art but is the art itself. Resistance to the street-photographer gaze becomes another element for it.” (Jurgenson, 2019: 93-4)
Apart from the strong aesthetic of this series, my attraction is the similarities it has with my assignment 1. Bett has succeeded in making something much more compelling however – the looks from his subjects make immediate impact on the viewer and also unify the set, something I attempted in my own work but have . The series is yet another example of how the direction of a project can develop organically from making the work – the output Bett eventually realised was far from what he initially intended and could only have resulted from the process itself.
Bett, N. (2015) Every stare directed at a street photographer in a single image. Medium.com. Available at: https://medium.com/vantage/every-stare-directed-at-a-street-photographer-in-a-single-image-71700b15b9db (accessed 18th April 2020)
Jurgenson, N. (2019) The social photo: on photography and social media. London: Verso.
Sales, L. (2016) American sigh: Nathan Bett. International Centre for Photography. Available at: https://www.icp.org/interviews/american-sigh-nathan-bett (accessed 18th April 2020)