They say you should always photograph cars and fashions if you want your images to gain some easy cool further down the line. That’s down to our inevitable nostalgia for design and style.
Photographer of the 70s, Shalmon Bernstein tapped into some of that exhilaration in many of his series (usually shot in the streets) in which people perform for his camera. Movie Ladies/Times Square is an exception. Not a huge amount of performing in these images, which is precisely why I want to talk about them.
Bernstein was prolific for a very short space of time in the seventies, then he just walked away from photography … and he’s not even sure why. For me, Movie Ladies, offers a clue. The world was an amazing place for Bernstein–a street photographer, humanist and portraitist–and for most of the time his efforts were rewarded with characters and shows of exuberance (see his photos of Trekkies, senior citizens, open water swimmers and Mardi Gras revelers). But not the whole word is like that. And not all people are wired that way. Movie Ladies reveals the limits of a joyous approach to the world. A wanderer isn’t always carefree and a wandering photographer isn’t always without expectations. Subjects can scupper expectations and I think Bernstein Movie Ladies do; they are not playing along.
Particularly in the loud, neon, raucous public spaces of New York, which one expects to serve up eccentricity and theatre, the blank stares–if stares at all–from these women stand out as being sharp and real. They tack us back against reality. Moments of real recognition – they see the camera pointed at them and the man behind it taking what he needs. This isn’t to say that Bernstein is a bad person, but just to describe and often ignored dynamic in photographic practice. It’s ignored because it is widespread and there’s too much for photographers to lose to start second-guessing the shots they’re looking to sweep up every day.
Women who were working the booths (presumably for minimum wage) bathed in light, in a glass box, for all the world’s consumption, don’t have the choice to perform, or to gesture-then-flee, or to move their bodies much in relation to the camera; they’re fixed and they know, fully or subconsciously, that they are trapped.
The hairstyles are big, the registers are quaint, the panelling is oh-so-retro and we’re lulled into thinking these are the coolest shots ever, but take a closer look and wonder how you’d feel on the other side of that glass and the other side of Bernstein’s lens.
Originally published at Photography Prison by Pete Brook.