The Ethnography of Photography

By D. Foy

A photograph is no more a memory or a gun than it is a murder or a moral code: On the work of Matt Bialer and the streets of New York City.

D. Foy is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Made to Break (2014), and...

Follow @dfoyble

Artists of every stripe incline even at their best to overweening gravitas, photographers included. The medium tends to invite such airs. Received on one side with idolatry, shunned on the other as the mere industry of hobbyists, photography arouses in us—practitioners, collectors, and critics alike—questions that at times seem no more than hifalutin riddles. What is this thing that both reflects our world and apparently stands beside it? we ask, pendulous between despair and delight.

Salman Rushdie said, “A photograph is a moral decision.”

Alfred Stieglitz said, “Photography is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”

Susan Sontag said the photograph is “an ethics of seeing.”

Sontag said, as well, that to “photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” and that “to collect photographs is to collect the world.”

Sontag said, further, that to “photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

And William S. Burroughs, taking Sontag’s last thought to its logical extreme, said, “There is in fact something obscene and sinister about photography, a desire to imprison, to incorporate, a sexual intensity of pursuit.”

But for me, a photograph is no more a memory or a gun than it is a murder or a moral code. Life itself is morality in progress, and the photograph is but one of the countless products of living, a means both to memory and anticipation. Still, it’s as far from the reality of the thing it purports to have captured as we are from the nearest black hole. That inclination to perceive the photograph as an instrument to judge, contain, kill, or even rape—as opposed to one that enables us simply to make sense of our relationship to that with which we share the world—reflects more our modern condition than anything else. For too many of us, in a world where time and space are contracting faster than we can reasonably abide, reality itself is that proverbial rug pulled endlessly from beneath our feet. In the perpetual freefall that is life today, the future is always now and yet somehow, vexingly, always past. And the present, and the peace of living in it, is as much the object of our nostalgia as the halcyon days we believe have slipped away. From this vantage, the image of what was, as presented in the photograph, carries a heavy burden: the weight of what we want to hope will forever remain. So long as we can hold the image in our hands, then, if only in the gizmo in our hands, we can soothe ourselves with the fantasy that we are in control, that in possessing what was we possess as well what is and might still be.

Don DeLillo, among others, saw this clearly. “We’re not here to capture an image,” he said, “we’re here to maintain one … We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.”

Diane Arbus, too, understood this well. “A picture is a secret about a secret,” she said. “The more it tells you the less you know.”

Franz Kafka, when told that “the necessary condition for an image is sight,” said, “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.”

And, finally, piercingly, Gary Winogrand said, “A still photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how a camera saw a piece of time and space … A photograph can only look like how the camera saw what was photographed.”

Had Winogrand added more, he might have said that the photographic image has never sat in the group of things we nominally think of as “things,” abiding, mutually exclusive entities that adhere to abiding, mutually exclusive properties. Its reality is the reality of the rest. The things the image is made of were untold bazillions of quantums of matter incessantly and eternally in flux, all “seen” as arranged when the photographer used her camera to create the “image” of them, whatever forms the image presents those “things” as having assumed—bricklayers, children, signposts, horses, umbrellas, a glove in the snow, forlorn, what have you. The same holds true for the photograph itself, a given arrangement of matter: the piece of paper and the ink on it, themselves untold bazillions of quantums of matter incessantly and eternally in flux, the particular arrangement of which creates the illusion we call an “image” of the things the photographer was trying to “capture” when—and only when—she “made” the photograph, and which gives the word “photograph” its meaning.


Happily, almost none of us think this way about photographs, or their eponymous images, or, for that matter, anything else. Imagine, though, a world in which people went about doing only this, seeing this way, thinking this way, and, subsequently, struggling to talk this way. That world wouldn’t be the world today. Seeing, thinking, and talking as such—struggling, in essence, to describe the meaning of this thing we call “life”—is all we’d ever do. There would be no time for anything else.

We know, after all, that a photograph is no more the things its image reflects than a map is the territory we use it to follow, and yet many of the greatest street photographers have more or less espoused this very misperception, if only implicitly. As though anticipating Sontag’s notion of the camera as an instrument of violation, for instance, Henri Cartier-Bresson said that photography is the single art that can “fix forever the precise and transitory instant,” and that it was through photography that he could “give meaning to the world.” As though the world itself weren’t meaning a priori, as though reality were “going” somewhere, as though reality were here one moment and not the next (“continually vanishing,” he was fond of saying)—Cartier-Bresson believed himself a preeminent artist whose purpose was to “go out to discover the image and seize it.” He stood with his camera, he said, “in the face of fleeting reality,” intent on “mastering an image” for the “great physical and intellectual joy” it gave him.

But this is the thing: “things” never “vanish,” but simply and ever change.

The Real is all there is.

Little wonder, then, that icons such as William Klein felt animosity toward photographers in the Cartier-Bresson camp, as well as toward the establishment that rejected Klein’s work as long as it did, because, as it claimed, his work was “too ugly, too seedy, and too one-sided”—because, as Klein was told, “[it wasn’t] photography, [it was] shit!”

Klein stood for nothing if not for a patent argument against craftsmen like Cartier-Bresson. This wasn’t any secret. Often and freely, Klein proclaimed he “had a lot of old scores to settle [with] the Henri Cartier-Bresson scriptures.” Like Walker Evans and Robert Capa before him, like Garry Winogrand alongside him, and, in a sense, like Lee Friedlander after him, Klein wanted something different. He was, he said, “a make-believe ethnograph in search of the straightest of straight documents, the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography.” The Real isn’t make-believe, Klein understood—only our notions of it are. But the zero degree of photography he’d hoped to attain was impossible, of course. The photograph and its image are never indistinguishable from the things they represent.

It’s Klein’s aspiration, born of his relationship to The Real, that we ought to note. In favor of radical nearness, Klein wanted to ditch the gap between, on one side, the world he encountered and tried to understand and, on the other, the world the people looking at his photographs saw and tried to understand. To see and not know is far worse than to not see and not know. In seeing and knowing, and, more, in the effort to see and to know, as any artist will say, lies the meaning of existence. Anything else can’t be held as more than farce.


Ethnography is a mode of study whose intent is to explore, record and, far more importantly, understand a given set of cultural phenomena.

New York City, for artists like Friedlander, Winogrand, and Klein, was a phenomenon of cultural multiplicity so vast that a description of it, like one of The Real itself, was hopeless to attain. There were too many people and too many things moving way too fast—or, at any rate, faster than the mind can comprehensively grasp.

New York City—in all its polysynesthetic magnitude—seemed and continues to seem not just a phenomenal reality, but a phenomenal hyperreality no unaided human can begin to fathom. Winogrand and Klein et al, though they never explained it as such, understood the city’s nature: universe on universe filled with untold bazillions of quantums of matter incessantly and eternally in flux, none of which can ever be truly “seen” but, at best, only gestured toward.

As their work makes clear—Capa’s shots, for instance, of murder and death, at once slippery, grainy, ghostly and fraught, riven, stunned; Klein’s wide-angle views of children frolicking about industrial badlands and contortionists contorted in the gloom of tenement streets, neither faces nor landscapes themselves quite discernible, only what feels vaguely to be some “essence”; Friedlander’s obsession, like Ed Ruscha’s, with letters and signs and the relativity they scream across our chasms of frequently pointless effort, his predilection, impish, toward imposing his own image, whether by shadow or reflection, in his frames; Arbus’s embrace of the outcast and freak and the poignant humanity with which her pictures endow them; Winogrand’s ability to present the absurdity of modern life in his ironic juxtapositions of “nature” and man—these artists know their activity is but an unending process in which what they think they see is all too often very different from what is.

Friedlander mused deeply on this paradox. Knowing his pictures were but illusions of stasis, he left them packaged for years at a time before deciding their fates, returning now and then to review them, realizing again and again that what he’d thought he’d seen was not what he now saw and, in all likelihood, wouldn’t see the next time he looked. This ongoing transformation of things was one of his greatest pleasures. Returning to Evans’ American Photographs over a thirty-year period, Friedlander reported that with every new glance he’d always “see something [he] never saw before.”

The ethnography of photography, goofy as the expression may sound, is the ethnography of The Real—not the ethnography of what seems, but of both what is and is not.

The image has never been the thing. It will never be the thing, unless we’re speaking of the image per se as it’s a thing, which certainly it is. And what is—in the photograph itself—is an illusion of what was, or, far more commonly, an image of what might or could have been, whose certainty will forever remain a mystery.

When we’re honest, we can’t say what a picture “holds” any more than we can say what The Real is or isn’t—or, similarly, what God is or isn’t. As God is The Great I Am, whose name can’t be named, so The Real is The Great What Is, and The Photograph The Great What Might or Could Have Been. And it’s in this wondrous fog, like a lover’s secret, that the allure of the image waits, casting the spell of restlessness we’ve been under since we stumbled onto the photograph back in the 1820s.


Matthew Bialer’s photographs of the people and streets of New York City owe a great deal to the legacies of the artists mentioned here, whatever their philosophies, to say nothing of countless others—Ansel Adams, Melissa Breyer, Harry Callahan, Andre Kertesz, Aaron Siskind, Lisette Model, William Eggelston, Berenice Abbott, and Tony Ray-Jones among them—but most especially to Gary Winogrand and his ever-looming shadow.

Bialer’s pictures, as well, owe in equal portions to the legacies of the many artists, modes, and phenomena he’s studied or loved, across media and genres, from Robert Penn Warren and Robert Motherwell to John Ashbery and UFOs, from Sonny Rollins and Bigfoot to Skinwalkers and Franz Kline, from Chuck Close and Markus Hartel (a contemporary whom I admire, also) to Sally Davies and Ornette Coleman.

Photographs aren’t the only things Bialer makes. When he’s not shooting, he paints landscapes in watercolor and writes epic poems on subjects ranging from professional wrestling to conspiracy theories, his latest concerning the “hoax” perpetrated against the world in the form of NASA’s Apollo Moon Landings.

These concerns, and specifically the modes with which Bialer approaches them, at first appear to lack cohesion. This, however, we could say only from the shadow of the rash. Bialer is, to use a woefully abused expression, a 21st-century Renaissance man whose curiosity is to him as Dante is to Virgil: he allows himself the ethnographic freedom to follow what he will, however far afield. The cement, then, that binds his oeuvre across photographs, paintings, and poems is nothing more or less than The Real. It’s as though, for him, no single artistic medium suffices to meet The Real—and, of course, he’s right.

Landscapes are not The Real, but merely part of The Real.

Poetry is not The Real, either, but, again, only part of The Real.

And we can say as much for the photograph, too.

The photograph, as Bialer also knows, isn’t the weigh station for nostalgia that so many of us take it to be here in the Age of Information, which is the Age of Capitalism, which is the Age of Speed. Nowadays, nothing seems sufficient because sufficiency in the here-and-now is dead. Only in some dimly conjectured future does it sulk, like a teddy bear in a warehouse—a future where, paradoxically, it will be exchanged for something else that, in the very exchange, itself becomes as insufficient as the corpse of the sufficient we swapped to get it.

Here in this Age of Speed, our actions and our thoughts, together with the things we produce—when we do produce them—hold no value save as means to ends, themselves, always, in a cycle of haunted yearning, turned sadly to even further means. As for the end, however we construe it, its doom is perennial neglect.


The sense that everything’s slipping away, delusional though it is, has bored into the depths of our psyches, a lethal cafard. Neither here nor there nor seemingly anywhere, yet ever omnipresent, our anxiety feeds on us as surely as screw worms on a chicken. And the more frantic we become in our helplessness to stop it, the greater our dependence on the image as secular idol—“taking” pictures now, it seems, among other tics, with every third breath.

The selfie is only the most insidious symptom of this illness, a prayer and a cry, each a mutual cancellation—the first to The Powers That Be for our salvation, the second against The Powers That Be for the promise of our annihilation.

The Real is forever, but we are not, save as part of The Real, in whatever form—dinosaur tears, stardust, pigeon poop, silver and gold.

We know this with the certainty that we hate it.

And though we know it, and though deep down we know there’s no difference between life and death, the fear of the unknown with which death fills us (as if in all its fathomlessness we know life any better) mercilessly drives us to grasp at every little thread, the photographic image chief among them, until at last we reach that place where there’s nothing left to hold, as there never really was, because there is, in fact, nothing, ever, to hold.

Bialer gets all of this. He gets also the nature of his endeavors, vain though they are—but, as did his artistic forebears, pursues them anyway. Probably, like Klein, Freidlander, and, to an extent, Winogrand, his sensitivity to these matters accounts for why the wormholes that gobble up so many other photo geeks send Bialer into a coma. His obsessions don’t include equipment or technique or effect. He uses a single camera, a Panasonic LUMIX G, with a 14mm f/2.5 ASPH II lens that he keeps set to autofocus. Nor does he manipulate his shots in any way—he hasn’t the skills to do so, he says, nor a need for them. Rather, a few times a year, when he’s happy with a photo he’s uploaded to his machine, Bialer simply emails a jpeg to his long-time printer.

The dynamo behind the work itself is Bialer’s desire to see and to study the ceaseless transformations of matter that is The Real. Like Winogrand’s famous picture at the zoo, for instance, featuring two children (a boy and girl) hanging upside down from the barrier to a rhino pit, two rhinos in the pit, and two adults (a man and woman), Bialer’s work tends to reveal the emergence of unexpected patterns, typically in the form of duos and trios, none of which he’d have the good fortune to encounter were it not for his discipline of availing himself to them.

Patterns are at the heart of Bialer’s photography, not so much as a means to make sense as to see the sense at the heart of The Real.

A single, inestimably complex pattern within which numberless patterns rise and fall in endless codependence of matter and form—this is The Real, hence the wisdom from Zen, “Form is emptiness, emptiness form.” A koan for some, the verity’s easier to unpack when we view it through the scope of our bottomless human insistence.

The moment we want something to be, we make it be. The truth, regardless of context, is often a pesky nuisance—by hook or by crook, we are getting our way. How else could the Emperor be decked out in the planet’s sartorial best when plainly he is naked? This is the vantage—that of desire—from which best to see this puzzle’s meaning: Form is emptiness full of thought, and emptiness form without it. Or, put another way yet: Without thought, there is no I; without I, there is no you; without you, there is no Other.

The lack of “effect” in Bialer’s work is both its affect and a function of these concerns. Looking at his pictures, we’re not supposed to revel in “style.” Often, though the work does in fact reveal his style—the pictures reflect Bialer’s mind when he makes them, which, for all the hoopla tossed about as to the nature and meaning of style, is the definition of it—the pictures at times feel crooked or flat or, like a child’s drawing, depthless. Composition isn’t premeditated, but presented. Color, what there is of it, even in black and white, derives from exposure, itself a function of time and place in concert with his camera’s automated settings. Nothing’s clean, nothing’s formal, nothing smacks of the professional, professional though they are.

But this is the point. The style of Bialer’s pictures reflects The Real the pictures exist to convey—just this, just this, just this, nothing more, nothing less.

The walks and ways north of 14th Street and south of 57th, Bialer’s preferred terrain, are teeming with humanity, locals and tourists both, as we see, some with destinations, others only wandering, some working the streets themselves, others watching the workers work it. The whole—like the images Bialer makes of its parts, like the photographs the images are part of—is a tableau of untold bazillions of quantums of matter incessantly, eternally moving. It’s a mother lode of potential to a man with a passion for coaxing from their hiding places right before our eyes these myriad levels of patterns.

But whatever we see in these pictures, it’s critical we understand that the last thing they suggest, superficially, anyway, is comfort or repose.

It’s equally important to realize that none of them hint at mayhem or madness, either, even those in which reflection-fraught windows—full to bursting with people behind, before, and, obviously, in them—mirror the swarm we’re all part of.

From these photographs, rather, we sense only that nothing is what it seems.

Look, they seem to whisper, here we are, shadows of what once was, if you were there to see it, though either way you didn’t, couldn’t, which is why we’re here, talking to you, now.

And hearing this, if we do hear it, we don’t panic, but relax.

In the end, Bialer’s pictures are a sort of imagistic pig Latin. They speak to us in ways we once spoke to ourselves as children, in tongues that were as plain as they were secret. We told ourselves many things, but mostly we told the truth, the way these pictures do now, again. Hidden though their secrets are, everything is just what it is, as it all should be.


Animals Strike Curious Poses: On Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon
Released thirty years ago, Prince’s directorial debut seemed calculated to frustrate the fans who bought tickets…


Banner for Little Teeth Returns Part 3 for Hazlitt
Little Teeth Returns Pt. 3
Yeah, you’re the antagonist in so many chapbooks here.