what wide lenses show us about gun owners

12 February, 2007

I’m putting finishing touches on my paper this weekend, but I had to share this website with you. [1] The general idea:

Whether it’s 39% or 50% of Americans, it’s still an awful lot of people. I started wondering just who they were, what they looked like, and how they lived. Such was the genesis of Armed America: Portraits of American Gun Owners in Their Homes. The idea was to photograph a hundred gun owners, in their homes, and do a gallery show…. [2]

but it turned into a book. The website has a few you can browse, with quotes from people about why they own guns.

I’m struck by two things in these images. One, they are made with a wide lens, 25-30mmish. I base this on my experiences with the widest lens I have which is 28mm (on my crop sensor) [3]. As I’ve discussed before, I believe that shooting portraits wide is always a choice with artistic/philosophical implications in itself, apart from the typical ones common to making any image or portrait. If one wishes to shoot a Pretty McCuterson image, for a headshot say, one shoots with a long lens [3]. On faces, this has an effect that is often referred to as “flattening the features.” (I don’t really like this phrase, but I can’t think of one that describes the effect any better, so.) OTOH, with a wide lens headshot, the features are anything but flat.

Figure 1. Artist Penny Broadhurst. Photos by flickr user Danny North, all rights reserved [4]. On the left, focal length 16mm. On the right, 300mm.

Wide lenses expose people, in one of two ways. They can either fill the frame with the person, warts and all, which is what my last post on the subject was about. The intent can be to distort the subject, or (as was actually the case with the Leibovitz images, which were made the winter of 2001/2002) they can aim to expose the true person. As those shots prove, the context external to the image greatly determines the interpretation of the image when a wide portrait fills the frame. In 2006, never having liked the subjects personally, I read those portraits as sinisterizing, but when made, and when originally read by the culture in Vanity Fair that winter, they were meant to lionize, to represent resolve and strength and bravery. (If they can stand up to Leibovitz’s piercing gaze, why, they can stand up to TERROR!!1!one!!1!).

Another aspect: when looking at a person, we look at their eyes first, and our eyes spend most of their time there as they hop around taking in the rest of the face. In a portrait such as the leftward one, when we take in a face in the normal way, we do the same thing, but when a face comes to us as distorted as on the right, this is disrupted. In this way we see that traditional, “long” portraits allow subjects to exert some control over how they are seen through use of their gaze. Meet the camera’s eye? Look away? All the same choices that we make every day in meeting people’s gazes (imagine the artist coyly looking down or angling her head while looking at the camera–she doesn’t, and we learn about her because of it). But in the portrait on the left, the photographer has interrupted this process and forced us to see the face his way, that is, only able to look at the eyes (which he’s obscured) after taking in the nose and teeth, and hence sending us a message about the subject’s eccentricity.

Here’s one of my favorite wide portraits. The subjects fill the frame, but my aim was to capture the nature of childhood and of summer:


Figure 2. July 2006, therefore, mine was red, as we ate through the holiday package. One thing I love about this picture is that D is, like J, “showing me his tongue” — but he doesn’t realize that a white one won’t make his tongue a fun color. He was to find out later, to his dismay, at which he burst into tears and accused me of stealing his popsicle. (Since MY tongue WAS a fun color, you see.) Hey, he was three.

These gun-owner pictures (go look now, if you haven’t, I’ll wait for you) expose a different way. It’s more like this other image of mine, which is the one that made me aware of the possibilities of wide portraits:

Darlenes Avenue Unisex Barber Shop

Figure 3. Darlenes Avenue Unisex Barber Shop. Made at Honfest, Baltimore, MD, June 2006.

Figs. 2 and 3 were taken with the same focal length, 28mm. While there’s outside context important to understanding this image (as there always is), you don’t need it like you do for the Vulcan portraits. A lot of the information about the girl is in the image itself.

Rephrase that; it’s not really info about her, but about what she represents. About HER would be: more detail in her face/her bigger in the frame, and an un-distracting background. You’d be able to look into her eyes, and it’d be more about her as a person, and the trophy (if there at all) would be an accessory secondary to her, like D’s popsicle or Broadhurst’s lipstick. Here, the Honette is secondary to the trophy, to her hair and her clothes and the whole Hon thing, and so this shot is about her as the incarnation of the event. The image, in the end, is not about the girl at all, but about Honfest, and children in adult costumes they don’t understand, and pride, and so on. (You get more about her from this image Dr. B made.)

Back to the gun owners. The images are taken at home–not on a range or outdoors, not USING their guns, but in the context of their lives. They’re about how their guns fit and their relationship with them. Some hold them as if to shoot, some to present it as an object. Some present them before them on a surface. Some show that they are unloaded [5]. Additional important context is added by the captions–indeed, without them the pictures have far less impact. It’s a fascinating project and I look forward to the book.

My other thought: ownership. If there are pets, they are pictured, and only young children are pictured, there’s no 12 year olds or anything like that. These are more fascinating the more you think about it. Children and pets…possessions of a sort, but also things we steward, as are guns. Guns aren’t necessarily disposable, note the guy with the bayonets on his wall–he’s a collector and like art his guns will survive him, he’s just holding on to them. OTOH, you can throw a gun in a river and the law won’t care; try that with your cat. There’s a continuum of possessions on display here, because defining people through their possessions was the explicit aim of the project.

First let’s do pets. The idea here is to describe American gun owners. Someone — the people? the photographer? While it’s clear he’s let the people pose themselves to a degree, this choice isn’t clear — has decided that pets are integral to these people’s identities, to their life in their homes. Pets are a few things in these images: one is property, but they are also signifiers of the subject’s compassion, statements that counteract the aggression of the weapons.

And pets — specific types of dogs, in this case — can also be a signifier of the subject’s commitment to personal defense, and its flipside/root, their feelings of vulnerability. This reminds me of one of the main points I got from Bowling for Columbine: that our gun culture’s “home protection” meme is driven by an Americanized fear of the Other that is fueled by our diversity, which we prize on the surface, but which runs counter to a lot of human instincts in the end. (Interestingly, the two representatives of the Other in this sample express defensive reasons for ownership that can be read as responding to their Other status. Young Black Man #1 holds a “semi”automatic [6] rifle and poses with his halfbreed pit bull, and simply says “I just think it’s a good thing to have.” He doesn’t say why. And #2 holds his .38 and wears a shirt that has the word “peace” written in 60sish letters in the shape of a gun. He says “I think everybody should have a gun. It levels the playing field.” Interesting choice of phrase in a race context, is it not?)

Kids are something else. All the children on display, alongside the pets and the guns and the furniture and the tattoos and so on, are young. More than one couple refers to their unborn children and the love they’ll instill in them for guns. Kids are signifiers of the owner’s commitment to safety, ways for them to distinguish themselves from criminals and the people who leave loaded guns under beds for toddlers to shoot each other with. However, once they become the right sort of age to actually be able to shoot a gun, they disappear from the images.

I don’t argue guns with people unless/until they’ve had the experience of shooting one [7]. Now, let me explain. I grew up as anti-gun, pro-“well-regulated militia”-half-of-the-Second-Amendment as the next liberal [8]. I had your typical vague understanding of guns and gun culture that most urbanite liberals grow up with. You know, constant gun violence and murders on the news throught childhood leading to the impression that guns=bad and scary , resultant faith in gun control good, Freudian snicker-y disdain for gun owners, aversion to the concept of hunting, anecdotes about accidental gun deaths and constitutional arguments in my debate repertoire on the topic….

Then I shot one. A bunch actually, across a range of calibers. Small handguns, big handguns, rifles and shotguns. (I was a good shot, too.) It didn’t change my personal attitudes much, I didn’t run out and buy any, but I learned something important, learned it viscerally when before I had only intellectually understood it: guns are FUN. They’re a thrill, when you make one go off, it’s like hitting the gas in a really fast car and going 0-60, all in that one instant. Any argument against guns that doesn’t understand that that’s what underlies a lot of people’s love for them — that you are asking people to give up not only their protection from their fears, but a large source of pleasure — falls flat to me now. And so, now my fear of guns is from knowledge, not ignorance, and I can see just how important a strong gun-safety culture is, and just how much of a lid it’s put on this incredible power that so many Americans have in cabinets in their homes.

Damnit, this post got WAY out of hand, and believe it or not I still have more ideas. After the paper’s in.

[1] E. Blair, personal communication.

[2] Armed America: Introduction

[3] As a point of reference to non-photographers, what this means is that there is more in the image than your eye would really comprehend if you were looking at the scene. The human eye “sees” about equivalent to a 50mm lens, which is often called “normal” for that and other reasons. And on the other side, “long” lenses — telephotos — see only a small piece of what the eye sees, which is why they are used in, say, sports photography, where one is far away from the action but wants non-diorama-sized images of it.

hot girl-on-lens action, RFK Stadiumupper deck
Supplemental Figure 1. Right, me shooting with a telephoto lens at a ballgame. The lens is a 200mm, IIRC, and I could not even capture the whole infield in the frame, I was so “close.” In contrast note the antlike nature of the ballplayers, left. That was with a 65mm focal length.

[4] This is fair use, right? I’m used to Creative Commons licenses on flickr images.

[5] To other urbanite liberals unfamiliar with gun culture: responsible gun owners of a certain type will, when showing you their guns, either unload them in front of you or show you that they are unloaded. It’s an etiquette thing. I learned this at a party at my ex’s boss’ house years ago, when we were ushered into his basement room chock-full of guns, and as he picked each one up he, with ritualized deliberation, showed us the empty barrel or clip before handing it to us.

[6] While fully automatic weapons (weapons which fire as long as the trigger is down) are almost impossible to legally obtain, many semi-automatic guns (which fire one or a few rounds per shot), such as this guy’s, are convertible to full after purchase.

[7] I also don’t argue animal rights, animal welfare, vegetarianism/veganism, or animal research with anyone who hasn’t read Animal Liberation or its equivalent. The argument devolves very quickly otherwise, whatever the conversant’s position, because it’s a rare person (like Peter Singer) who has thought through ALL the implications of the position, without personal investment in a particular outcome. I’m not an intellectual/experiential snob about much, but these are my exceptions.

The resemblance of this to how a pro-gun person might refuse to discuss guns without reference to the 2nd amendment is not lost on me.

[8] With one key experiental difference: I used to help my dad make bullets. He owned several guns and had a bullet press, and mostly what I remember is how fun it was to use, and how I was under very strict instructions to handle them as little as possible and wash my hands afterwards. I didn’t grow up in gun culture though, my parents divorced when I was 7 and my mom had basically sole custody.

Oh, I just remembered, once he put his hands over mine with an airgun and we shot bumblebees in the garden. OK, two key differences.


6 Responses to “what wide lenses show us about gun owners”

  1. K Says:

    Some thoughts on the lack of children over 12. Once children reach that age they are no longer in a category that’s similar to pets. They are no longer a possession, if you will. They have they’re own sort of independence.

    Twelve-ish could also very well be the age when the child gets his first gun which would mean they (and their parents) believe, even if they don’t (can’t?) articulate it, that they belong in their own gun-owner picture.

    Finally, 12 is the age when many would begin to be self-conscious about appearing in photographs.

    Many more thoughts on gun ownership but I’m not about to wade into that discussion first thing in the morning. Thank you, however, for giving me something to think about.

  2. Momb Says:

    Bumblebees, huh? If I had known that, I’d have divorced him sooner.

  3. Dr. Birdcage Says:

    I was struck, also, with the portraits and commentary of the two African American men as well. An interesting project, and I’m not sure how/what I feel about it, but I’ll be interested to see the rest of the book. And thanks for the link to my picture šŸ˜‰

  4. furcafe Says:

    I actually went (camera) shooting & had lunch w/Kyle Cassidy once, many years ago when he came down to DC to photograph the anti-globalization/pro-Palestinian protests ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/furcafe/78334709 ). He was still (sort of) shooting w/Leicas back then although he had already pretty much switched to digital. That reminds me that I also have a standing invitation from him to hang out w/him in Philly . . .

  5. […] just to prevent suicide. I’m not advocating this as why you should support gun control, I’m not completely on any particular side of the issue. Just keep in mind, when the NRA types get rabid about their purported “rights,” that […]

  6. kyle cassidy Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful review — someone just pointed it out to me. There are a few 10-17 year old kids in the book as well as one photo taken with a 200mm lens. I wrote an essay about that shot for amazon.com but they eventually decided not to run it, so I might put it up on the armedamerica.org website. Lens choice I think was a significant factor in the book. I photographed nearly everything with a sigma 12 – 24 — which created some difficult lines but seemed to be the best way to capture people’s environments.

    — Kyle

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