Jeff Mermelstein is a fucking anthropologist

Jeff Mermelstein’s photographic practice of making presumably private text conversations public by photographing people’s phones while they are texting and then posting the results on Instagram has made a splash recently. Of course the highlight that ran in Business Insider was framed as a question in a PetaPixel article: is Mermelstein’s practice ethically sound? 

First, I think it’s important to note who Jeff Mermelstein actually is: a photography giant who has influenced generations of Garry Winogrand’s disciples with his work. He’s faculty at the International Center of Photography in New York, which would also suggest some level of thought is going into this enterprise. He’s not some dick with an iPhone 6 chasing a runaway gimmick. 

Mermelstein is a photographer’s photographer for the “In-Public” set. His photography of other people’s publicly visible smartphone text conversations, from the mundane to the scandalous, is made on New York’s sidewalks and subways, and if not aesthetically, it is very much in the spirit of not only his seminal photobook Sidewalk, but of a whole strain of street photography. It’s a series that gives insight from a master about where to look if you really want to capture the essence of our society today. 

Just like everything else in this age, it’s never been easier or more direct to reveal something about a person’s immediate state through photography — instead of getting at how people are feeling and expressing themselves by reading into the subtleties of urban movement and human interaction we now can go right to the source these days and get the goods wholesale — they’re spelling it out in a new way that is utterly universal.

The impulse to reveal something true about someone by just pointing a camera at them, by just being there with them, close enough to take their picture, is the spirit of wide swaths of the street photography genre. There is perhaps an unspoken faith street photographers have that their work will somehow reflect the current zeitgeist by its inherent nature but this doesn’t always bear out. Jeff Mermelstein seems to be the only one concentrating on accumulating the most relevant cultural artifacts of our time.

The arguments against Jeff Mermelstein’s work (see this PetaPixel article and its comments) seem to be on grounds of privacy, which should be part of a larger nuanced questioning on the ethics of shooting street that many wrestle with already. There is I believe a knee-jerk reaction to this series simply because it goes so far in pushing the boundaries of an art form and documentary practice. It’s also likely being conflated with the serious privacy exploits of digital institutions like Google, Facebook, and Apple. 

But back to the merits of the work beyond the displaced bashing it received. I’ve secretly thought to myself for awhile now that many of the most talented people working in the genre today are missing something fundamental about life on the streets of the 21st century, and that Jeff Mermelstein is the only one who’s found it. Many of us might as well be out there trying to remake Jeff’s 1990s era work, using cameras from that time even. Jeff Mermelstein, the legendary street photographer who of course shot his classic stuff on film Leicas, is now making this important work about a smart phone society with his smart phone and it’s searing.


One thing the active street photographers here in New York City love is that we get to share the streets with Jeff Mermelstein, even if he sometimes seems aloof or (I’m projecting here) borderline freaked out when we cross his path and take a photo of him (the universal street photographer’s show of affection to other street photographers). We sometimes share the photographs we’ve taken of Jeff in the wild when we’re all together in a digital backroom somewhere — Jeff stalking the streets like an alien investigating unknown lifeforms, following his oversized cellphone in perfect traction — and we have a laugh, always well-meant. O sweet brush with greatness!

If there’s any mischievous feeling of having caught the old man at his own game when we get a candid snap of him the reality is as cold as a wet duck. The truth may be that Jeff Mermelstein is the only one doing real work in New York right now, and that we’re chasing his old dragons while he’s got his sights on what’s really going on. 

Twenty years, fifty years, a hundred down the line, whose photographs will they go to to map the psyche of this generation? 

Halloween NYC 2017

I made the portrait of the child dressed as Pikachu minutes after learning that New York had just suffered its worst terrorist attack since 9/11. I had him stand in front of a Synagogue that looks like perhaps it was also rammed by a truck. I don’t know, seemed appropriate. His mom was a little freaked by my choice of ugly background, but they lived. God help us. 

So here’s a rough edit of the day I produced in the wee hours of the morning. It doesn’t reconcile the uneven tone… some pictures seem a product of my original intent going in, while others clearly reveal the influence of violence that had to be. (Maybe I have one concrete example now of where going shooting without any preconceived notions may benefit the process). 

Anyway, a flawed look at a seriously flawed Halloween below.  Thanks for reading. 

Heart of the art, too

Street photography, I think many have pointed out, is recognizable more by its spirit than its environmental setting. Whether on a street, in a subway car, a grocery store, a beach, a forest, a corporate press conference—what really defines street photography is its spirit.

And what could the spirit of street photography be? The ambiguity of its intentions, or the dissonance of witnessing and not understanding, or the signifying that a moment irrelevant to the world at large and largely inconsequential is both immediate, real, and striking, even possibly significant in some abstract way.

But my thinking is biased… I think part of what elevates street over other types of photography and even other art such as painting is that it seems somehow less arbitrary, more real. Rather than creating fictions, street photos highlight that which really exists unto itself, subjects with separate intention and autonomy. To work in this genre is to edit from the world, to not create something from nothing but to find something: a true artifact that is capable of showing things beyond its author’s imagination. That’s why street is… easy to justify. Why did I take the picture? Because the thing was there at the same time I was. 

And what about manipulation? It’s sort of a contradiction of all those lyrical interpretations if I’m going and meddling with the end product isn’t it? It’s like raving about the all natural fresh veggies before nuking them in the microwave. 

The picture above is warped, manipulated in many ways, both by the camera’s software, the photo editor’s various ways of interpreting a photograph—from how it renders color to how it adjusts for optical shortcomings of the lens, and also by my extreme meddling with sliders in post. But I guess subtle and automatic lens corrections aren’t really on the same level as actively going nuclear with manual distortion correction controls. 

Still, why not warp if I think it adds to the picture? What if I had shot this with an 8mm fisheye and got distortion as extreme as I created with the distortion correction sliders? Is it a matter of poor sportsmanship?Bad taste? Low morals? Is a heavily manipulated or composited camera-produced image still photography? 

For me, I generally don’t manipulate heavy-handedly, certainly not like the case of the bus above. In time I’ve felt it’s just not worth the hassle of moving pixels around. And to that end, I just started to process my raw files with Capture One instead of Adobe as I find it requires much less time moving sliders and adjusting color. Less work=more pictures.

But I did make a handful of manipulated pictures back in 2014, the most significant of which is “Headed Uptown”, which I released into the world without a thought of whether it was okay to present a heavily composited photo without a disclaimer. I am still unsure about that. On one hand, since learning how many seem to feel strongly that compositing is a transgression, I have felt compelled to err on the side of disclosure so none of my friends feel had. On the other, I feel like it is essentially apologizing for something I ultimately don’t find disqualifying myself—I am an artist more than I am a journalist, the decisive moment was my recognition of this image upon reviewing two separate exposures, and the exacting craftwork it took to realize my vision bares the persistent spirit I take to the streets.

I’ll be honest though, this kind of picture doesn’t excite me much anymore—it’s the Marvel Comics movie of street photos and I’d rather watch Taxi Driver. The black and white and even the square crop are highly unusual for me. Even the fact that it’s composited is an aberration. But at the time it just kind of begged to be made. If you look at the work I am doing now, it is very different in form and content, and I go for the barest color processing. 

But still I share “Headed Uptown” because at the end of the day it’s a striking image that scratches some primal ocular itch. It also gets a huge response compared to much of my straight work, and I’m not immune to those effects. It helps the stuff that I really like be seen, and I appreciate that. I hope to share weirder and weirder work with more and more eyes, Marvel Man be damned. 

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