Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Doing It Right

Photo: Lee Jeffries

Recently I ran a post on the ironies of B&W photography which featured some "beautifully lit homeless photos" I had shot on the run. Homelessness, as in so many other major cities worldwide, is rampant here in San Francisco. And homelessness as a photo "project" is often every bit as ubiquitous, exploitative and overdone. And yet, on those ever so rare occasions when it's real, one can still sense the originality, as well as the genuine emotion inherent in work that is both authentic and true. I'm not a great fan of tightly cropped portraits, but many of these do succeed, and of those that do, I haven't seen work as soulful and transcendent since Robert Bergman's A Kind Of Rapture.

Photo: Lee Jeffries

Lee Jeffries could have kept on walking, instead he chose to enter the very world he chose to photograph, not as voyeur, but as witness- and fellow human. You may dismissively conclude that he just takes pretty pictures of "unfortunates," but his photographs speak well beyond that, as do his personal interactions with those he photographs. If he's guilty of anything, it's of recognizing the innate beauty and humanity we all possess, and demonstrating beyond doubt that it lives within us all- no matter how much we choose to ignore or deny it.

Photo: Lee Jeffries


Noah Beil said...


His story about trying to connect with his subjects is admirable, but I don't see an ethical human connection in the photographs.

He wants his audience to know "these people are just like me and you," but I wouldn't want a portrait of me with snot running down my face posted on the internet. Would you? He's exploiting these people, even if it's raising money for a good cause.


Stan B. said...

I think his portraits walk a fine line- no doubt. And I do think some of his portraits a bit manipulative (particularly in terms of technique)- and have no problem seeing how others find themselves on the other siide of that line. That said, I think the majority of this work is quite formidable, and rings true.

One can't escape the eyes in these portraits, the looks of many are simply transcendent, to one degree or another. And to get that look, even that basic level of connection, from a group of people we often willingly choose to ignore on a daily basis, or even look upon as somehow slightly less than human, I think speaks to his behalf- and to theirs.

Eric Rose said...

I enjoyed the portraits Bill Jay did of some homeless folks he befriended on his daily walks. They were published in Lenswork, not sure if they are on the net. Since his passing his website has not been updated to even reflect the fact that he is no longer.

Stan B. said...

I'm sure there have been quite a few well done essays on homelessness throughout the... decades. And the massive evictions resulting from the housing crisis brought on by the 2008 recession have created an entirely "new class" of homelessness whose faces are not those of the more hardened, more "traditional" faces we have come to associate with the term. They're the faces of our neighbors... people who tend to look more like "us," and those faces are often those of children. I'm sure those essays are currently being shot and perhaps some reading this are already aware of others that have already been published.

I may not have explained myself very clearly in my initial comment (during lunch). Despite my own initial apprehensions as to how the homeless are portrayed in this particular essay (almost as illuminated religious icons from the Renaissance), the bottom line is that in spite of those particular aesthetics (as marvelous and manipulative as they may be), these photographs actively serve to remind the viewer that despite the dirt and grime, despite the threateningly hard times etched into every pore of their skin, one can still look directly into their eyes, and discern without doubt that the light is still on, their humanity worthy of our notice and concern.