In his book American Surveillance photographer Richard Gordon takes on the topic of the ubiquity of surveillance cameras in the US. By documenting security cameras - in malls, buildings, musuems, on the streets - Gordon reminds us we’re being watched nearly all the time.
Gordon is a part-time instructor of photography atand Stanford Continuing Studies, and he’ll be a part of “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera” at the in London in June 2010. He’ll also have four photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from October 23 through January 2010. Here, he answered a few questions about the book and photography for us.
What was the origin of this project for you – the spark or series of events that made you want to do it?
I photograph the social landscape and began to notice what seemed like an exponential increase in surveillance cameras in January ’03 and began to photograph them as part of the urban landscape.
Are these photographs more the result of seeking out the surveillance cameras, or happening upon them?
I avidly sought them out for five or six weeks and quickly came to realize that it was not necessary; they were everywhere and I just go about my business and photograph them in day-to-day life and photography. I did eventually make some trips with the object of photographing them in different places.
Before this project did you have an accurate idea of the amount of surveillance cameras out there? Was it eye-opening?
I have no idea of the number of surveillance cameras then or now except that there are many more now than in ’03. Everything is eye-opening.
It is often difficult to photograph malls and institutions and even architecture in this day and age with security concerns. Did you ever experience problems when taking these photos – either from security or passersby?
Malls are private property and the law regarding photography in public and private places is different and I know the differences. The most obnoxious incident was with an assistant manager at a Safeway market. In general I did not have problems for a few reasons (I suppose, but cannot prove): 1., I am a middle-aged, white-haired white guy. 2., I know how to photograph and when one does something with confidence and competence, most people accept it. I almost never skulked around and at times would make it obvious to any potential viewer of my photographing that I was taking my time, giving the surveillors time to study me as I made my pictures (the precise nature of which they could have no idea). In some circumstances, I would approach a security guard or employee and ask permission. I was chased off the steps of Enron after I made the pictures I wanted to.
I’ve noticed on our own blog when we write about the erosion of civil liberties, people actually (and often belligerently) write in defending the government or police tactics and call those who are outraged “radicals,” saying things like it’s just keeping us safe from terrorists. What’s your take on that?
I try not to argue with the ignorant. There seems to be more than enough stupidity and/or ignorance on all sides of these issues than I care to indulge in.
What’s your equipment of choice? Is there a reason why you chose it for this project? Does the subject matter influence your equipment and film choice?
For this project almost all of the photographs were made with a Leica rangefinder, a 35mm lens and Tri-X film. I have also done personal projects with medium format cameras of the square format. I never quite understand this question about photography: Would Dog Years have been a better novel if Grass wrote sitting down?
I think other photographers are interested in how you got this project published – it seems like a hard endeavor these days.
I self-published after trying a few imprints. I did have one offer from a photo publisher of note (which I appreciated), but it would have cost more than doing it myself with a lessor chance of breaking even. The decision to self-publish was economic. Closely following upon the exponential growth of surveillance has been a parallel increase in the number of photo books. As the master book maker and photographer Ralph Gibson wrote me, “Every book has its own path.”
Your bio says you’ve been influenced by street photographers – who are your favorites? Are there are any current street photographers whom you appreciate?
I don’t much care for the category “street photographer.” For my own work, I prefer Walker Evans’ idea of “documentary style.” Atget, Walker Evans and Robert Frank are my main influences, along with any number of wonderful famous and obscure 19th century photographers. One day my favorite photographer (well, many days) is Helen Levitt, another day it might be Cartier-Bresson or John Cohen or on and on. Since all these folk are B&W, let me note my great appreciation for Saul Leiter or Joel Meyerowitz’s color work. In general, I most care for photographs which combine formal beauty grounded in the “real world.” I enjoy the work of many, many more photographers than named above (e.g., who gives more pleasure than Elliott Erwitt – a nice Dickensian name if ever there was one). I always come across the work of young photographers whose work I admire. The most recent is a photojournalist, Peter Van Agtmael, [and his] new book, Second Tour: Hope I Don’t Die. My review of this book will soon be on photoeye.com on the magazine page. Fine and important book.
Apologies for ending on a downer note, but in this tough economic climate where the arts are being squeezed, media outlets are going under and Annie Leibovitz is bankrupt, where does photography fit in? What’s the future for photographers?
If I could predict the future – making an intelligent picture in the present is hard enough – I would be at the track putting my money on the ponies. The future for photographers is, as always, in the present. That is what a photograph is. My question for the future – ponies aside – is how will photographs be seen and understood by people raised in a saturated, mediated, surveilled environment when every two-bit camera can slim you, sharpen you, blur you, love you? Who needs surveillance when the mirror is so alluring?