Review of ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, by Nick Turpin

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Over the course of three winters, Nick Turpin, situated on a raised platform, and using a long lens, with “the secrecy of a shadow” captured commuters unawares through the windows of buses on their evening journey. [1] These snapshots were the basis of his collection, ‘Through a Glass Darkly’. Shooting his subjects through the fogged windows, Turpin raises questions of privacy and surveillance which are often connected to street photography. Turpin turns the viewer’s attention not only onto the unknowing subject but, onto the viewer’s themselves and their own travelling.

Cameras have long been used to document society and life in the world around us, but unlike pure documentary photography, street photography, “exploits the instantaneous in a way documentary does not”.[2] It is this instantaneity and the often clandestine nature of the photographs that leads street photography to be connected to concerns over privacy. It is difficult though to control ones public image and its capture, in the age when photography on the street is common place, and the likelihood of appearing in the background of others photos is high. In this collection, Turpin uses a high shutter speed, (1/40th second) to capture his subjects as they drive by unawares. Although some may consider it as an invasion of privacy, instead it reveals “details of commuters journeys”, travelling is after all “a major aspect of most people’s daily life and experience of city living”. [3]  As such Turpin is only trying to document the journey and focus the viewers’ attention to the moments in life that are otherwise unseen and unconsidered. The collection’s purpose is therefore not to pry, but instead, as Joel Meyerowitz suggests, “is made up out of life, but its invisible, all present, but invisible, only the camera makes it visible”.[4] Highlighting the otherwise hidden moments in the daily commute, Turpin brings to light a part of London that is otherwise mainly ignored. He manages to take it when no words or descriptions would be suitable or eloquent enough to describe it; he captures the “Everythingness” in the London bus commute.[5]

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These ‘hidden’ moments which Turpin highlights, make up street photography, and provide a worms eye view of the world that is often under considered; a window into the lives of the subjects and often a reflection of one’s own life. However, Susan Sontag suggests that Turpin acts in a predatory nature, capturing the subjects in a physical form, “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they have never seen themselves”.[6] Although Sontag was referring to photography in general, this is particularly poignant to ‘Through the Glass Darkly’, as the subjects are unaware of Turpin and the photograph that he has taken of them. When people are aware that they are being watched, and especially photographed, they will often change their behaviour accordingly, adapting it to what they believe will produce a good impression.[7] Turpin’s subjects are unable to do this, and are seen in their ‘raw’ state, some would argue this is a violation of their privacy, rather than capturing a moment in life. Not preened, nor posing, these pictures are more candid snapshots into their commute; yet, the fogged glass and the lack of surrounding detail in the photograph prevent the viewer from invading into the lives of the subjects, they become a collective face of the London commute.  However, there can be no doubt that by focusing on one subject, Turpin manipulates the narrative we see. Chosen specifically for the purpose, each subject is inherently representative of the stereotypical commuter, tired and bleary eyed, isolated within their own territory on their own journey. By choosing his subjects, Turpin sets them apart from others who may be caught in the backdrop of other street photography. Although unknowingly captured, Turpin’s subjects play their part well, more aware than those turning up unexpectedly and illustrative of the narrative that he wishes to create. As carefully chosen subjects they lose more of their own identity, becoming part of the narrative as opposed to individuals unwittingly captured. The aesthetic quality of the collection adds to this. Each photograph utilises the colours of the bus, and the blurring effect of the fogged windows, to blend into a surreal representation of the mundane reality that would commonly be ignored.

Yet without invading the subject’s privacy, there is an element of voyeurism in the photographs, “even though none are salacious: It is the pleasure in having access to private moments.”[8] We have a ‘window’ into their world for a brief moment, and can read into it what we will. As a society “of peeping toms” [9]these photographs fulfil our desire to watch without being watched and our curiosity, allowing us to “learn something new about ourselves by looking inherently at the hidden lives of others”[10].  The viewer is able to empathise with the indistinct characters behind the glass, and map their own experiences onto them. The glass of the buses therefore acts just as much as a mirror for the viewer, as it is a frame for the subject. The viewer becomes more aware of their own actions, what they do on the bus, how they may look to those outside the window. Similar to Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, there is a depth of apperception in the ability to view others actions as if they were your own, as if seeing ourselves in a mirror.[11] The title of the piece relates to a letter by Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:12 , “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known”. There is much debate over whether due to inaccuracies in translation, the glass that Paul describes, is actually a mirror. Turpin uses this duality of meaning, allowing the viewer to interpret the piece as they see fit, a window onto the world, or a mirror to their own actions. It is these multiple interpretations that attract many to Turpin’s work, as each time one sees the collection they can interpret greater depths in the pictures.

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The fogged glass not only creates anonymity in the photographs, but also provides them with a barrier to the outside world, preventing us from seeing the subject clearly and also them from seeing out. In some of Turpin’s pictures, the subject has clearly wiped away the condensation, revealing to them the world outside; they are no longer anonymous or protected from our view. One man is staring out through the cleared window, avoiding or unaware of the camera. Instead of a form of protection, the window for him becomes a frame to the outside world, a small glimpse into the street and the lives of others, breaking the dichotomy between the subject and the viewer. As it does for the viewer of the photograph, the window mediates and frames his view both isolating him from and allowing access to the outside world.[12] If the man was merely avoiding the camera, as opposed to unaware of its gaze, it would change the power balance in the picture. He then becomes the powerful subject, aware of the whole view, that within and outside of the bus and conscious of the impression his own image could have. The gaze of the camera, if this is the case, would turn back on itself and into the world beyond the bus window, and onto the viewer themselves.

The windows through which the images are taken help to add multiple layers to the photographs, not only the glass itself but the condensation and the bus inside. Although these are made blurry and indistinct by the condensation, the vivid colours attract the viewer’s attention, drawing them further into the picture and adding intrigue. Often in such pictures, the glass will not only reflect the outside world, but the world beyond the bus, as in Dougie Wallace’s, ‘The Omnibus’, creating a mesmerising but often confusing mix of layers in the photograph. [13] Without these reflections the viewer is forced to examine the world within the confines of the bus, and focus more on what Turpin describes as the “territory” that “people in transit tend to adopt”. [14] It brings a feeling solitude to the collection, in contrast to the busy surroundings in which it was taken, reinforced by Turpin’s choice to frame only one subject in each picture. In this respect, Turpin reinforces the concept of the territory of his subjects, building it around them and using the windows to frame it.

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Turpin, through his use of candid shots and the use of the bus window as a frame, opens to the viewer the private world of the London bus commuter. These enticing and aesthetically pleasing photographs encourage the viewer to consider journeying in a unique way, not the grand and momentous travels, but the day to day that is often overlooked. Far from an invasion of privacy, ‘Through the Glass Darkly’ evokes empathy with the subjects, and reveals the hidden moments within the hustle and bustle of the city.

If you are interested in seeing anymore of the collection or any other bits of Turpin’s work, visit his website, http://nickturpin.com/portfolio/winter-bus/

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Bibliography

Brookman, Philip, ‘A Window on the World: Street Photography and the theatre of life’, in Sandra S Philip (ed.), Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera (Tate: London, 2010) p.213

Frank, Robert, The Americans, (Aperture: USA, 1978) p.5.

Lacan, Jacques, The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience, accessed at http://faculty.wiu.edu/D-Banash/eng299/LacanMirrorPhase.pdf, accessed on 21/02/2015

Meyerowitz, Joel, Street Photography, Youtube Video (Aug 1 2008), accessed on 14/11/2014, accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Qjym5uliDw

Meyers, William, ‘Candid Albums of Strangers’, Wall Street Journal, 28/01/2012, accessed on 17/11/14, accessed at http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970203806504577178772483121412

Miles, Melisa, ‘Photography, Privacy and the Public’, Law, Culture and the Humanities, (January 19, 2012) pp.1-24

Shuker, Heather, Street Photography: rights, ethics and the future, accessed on 18/12/2014, accessed at www.heathershuker.co.uk/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Street-photography-Ethics.pdf

Sontag, Susan, On Photography, (Penguin: London, 2008)

Turpin, Nick , ‘What is…Street Photography’, In Public, accessed on 14/11/2014, accessed at http://www.in-public.com/information/what_is

Turpin, Nick, Photography and Public Transport, accessed on 17/11/14, accessed at: http://nickturpin.com/blog/

Turpin, Nick, Street Photography Pie, accessed on 17/11/14, accessed at: http://nickturpin.com/blog/

Turpin, Nick, Through a Glass Darkly, accessed on 13/11/2014, accessed at http://nickturpin.com/portfolio/winter-bus/

Wallace, Dougie, The Omnibus, accessed on 18/11/14, accessed at: http://www.dougiewallace.com/577240/the-omnibus/

References

[1] Jack Kerouac in, Robert Frank, The Americans, (Aperture: USA, 1978) p.5.

[2] Clive Scott in, Heather Shuker, Street Photography: rights, ethics and the future, accessed on 18/12/2014, accessed at www.heathershuker.co.uk/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Street-photography-Ethics.pdf

[3] Nick Turpin, Photography and Public Transport, accessed on 17/11/14, accessed at: http://nickturpin.com/blog/

[4] Joel Meyerowitz, Street Photography, Youtube Video (Aug 1 2008), accessed on 14/11/2014, accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Qjym5uliDw

[5] Kerouac in, Frank, The Americans, p.5.

[6] Susan Sontag, On Photography, (Penguin: London, 2008) p.4.

[7] Erving Goffman, Relations in public : Microstudies of the public order, (Transaction: New York, 2010) p.239/240

[8] William Meyers, ‘Candid Albums of Strangers’, Wall Street Journal, 28/01/2012, accessed on 17/11/14, accessed at http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970203806504577178772483121412

[9] Stella, in Shuker, Street Photography, p.213.

[10] Robert Frank in, Shuker, Street Photography, p. 215.

[11] Jacques Lacan, The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience, accessed at http://faculty.wiu.edu/D-Banash/eng299/LacanMirrorPhase.pdf, accessed on 21/02/2015

[12] Philip Brookman, ‘A Window on the World: Street Photography and the theatre of life’, in Sandra S Philip (ed.), Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera (Tate: London, 2010) p.213.

[13] Dougie Wallace, The Omnibus, accessed on 18/11/14, accessed at: http://www.dougiewallace.com/577240/the-omnibus/

[14] Nick Turpin, Public Transport, accessed on 17/11/14, accessed at: http://nickturpin.com/blog/

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