Theory & Practice

The Camera is God

Trent Parke on his near year-long street photography project, the transience of life, and putting people under the microscope

Trent Parke

Trent Parke No.376 .Portrait of a boy on a street corner. Adelaide. Australia. 2013. © Trent Parke | Magnum Photos

The project, The Camera is God, saw Trent Parke shooting on an Adelaide pedestrian crossing, at the same time of day, every day, for nearly a year. Capturing pedestrians waiting for the lights to change, bustling and jostling, yawning, fighting, shouting. Parke used a shutter release firing constantly at a rapid rate, removing control of the images made from his hands, and in so doing mimicking the omniscience of CCTV cameras around the world: “I didn’t try to control who my camera captured, but let life and chance decide. There are security cameras all over cities now, doing the same thing, watching daily life happen in front of them.”

The final images were created by cropping in on his photographs: ”I zeroed-in on particular faces from the crowd, captured on the 35mm film and enlarged them.” The faces and forms in Parke’s final images vary in their clarity – some are ghostlike, ephemeral while others are rendered recognizable by merely stepping away from the image, some which at first seem almost in focus, “evaporate into a pattern of grain close up” Parke explains. The role of the film’s grain was key for the photographer, “It was like putting people under a microscope and seeing them at the level of particles and matter. People looked familiar even though they were anonymous, like when you have a dream about someone and you wake up you try to remember them and you can’t grasp that hard outline of a person’s face.”

Trent Parke Candid portraits of people on a street corner. Adelaide. Australia. 2013. © Trent Parke | Magnum Photos

“So much of this work is about the transience of life,” Parke explains. “We are here one minute, gone the next. Human existence is but “a speck on a clover” to use a line from Dr Seuss – who I have always been a big fan of. It’s about how a fleeting moment on a street corner could be symbolic of the transience of a single human life.”

Here, we share an extract from Parke’s diary, which he kept over his months of shooting on this corner in Adelaide, alongside a selection of the images made over that year.

Trent Parke Candid portraits of people on a street corner. Adelaide. Australia. 2013. © Trent Parke | Magnum Photos

Today, as I stood on the same corner I have been standing on for the past three weeks (an hour earlier due to daylight saving finishing, which made it from 4 pm until 5 pm, instead of 5 pm until 6 pm) I was suddenly confronted by a situation.

Above the constant sound streaming from the looping and overly familiar songs on the iPod, I hear a sudden screaming and movement behind me. I am listening to the songs but I am not really listening to them. They help calm me from the anxious state I find myself in while photographing on the street.

Even though I have worked the street for almost twenty years now, that state seems to get worse, rather than better. Each day I have to push myself out the door. Especially at this moment when people know that I am photographing them. The reactions have been widespread. Unpredictable. That is the street.

Ranging from creased angry brows, being constantly sworn at, to many middle-finger birds (from sweet innocent looking girls mind you), to musclemen poses and stage-quality solo performances. The camera somehow drags it into full sight, especially using a long lens.

But I stray as usual.

Trent Parke Candid portraits of people on a street corner. Adelaide. Australia. 2013. © Trent Parke | Magnum Photos

From behind where I stood, I could almost feel the rush of something coming towards me. Taking the earphones from my head as I turn around, a man and a woman are fighting and flinging each other to the ground. Suits and women in high heels are scurrying from their general direction, as the couple circle wildly in all directions, screaming and shouting at each other.

For a change, the people on the opposite side of the road are not looking at me. Even the busker sitting behind me on the pavement with the old guitar has stopped playing. Now embraced in a tight wrestle, the man throws several punches, they connect with the woman’s stomach. In retaliation the woman claws at the man’s face and body, ripping his green t-shirt down the middle and almost completely off.

They wrestle to the ground. The crowd pushes further back and watch with a certain unknowing but also with fascination. Not knowing exactly what to do and with fascination at the fact that it is happening right here on the street in front of them. That was, however, until the man managed to break free from the woman’s grip, get to his feet, and repeatedly stomp on the woman’s head. Blood flowed. In the end he was dragged from her and after pushing people away, staggered off down a parallel street. The woman, who finally was helped to her feet, screams a name, which I couldn’t quite decipher, and runs after him. On the street corners, people whisper whispers to fellow onlookers, which I wish I could hear. In an instant, the normal flow of the street resumes.

Trent Parke Candid portraits of people on a street corner. Adelaide. Australia. 2013. © Trent Parke | Magnum Photos

People are once again waiting for the lights to change, rushing to trains and trams … Unbeknown to her, a woman drops a cardigan and continues to walk on. A man picks it up and runs two blocks to give it back to her. She smiles a sweet, slightly embarrassed, smile. ‘Which way to Rundle Mall?’ ‘That way’, I point. Another person, ‘Which way to Chinatown?’ ‘That way’, I point. Another person, ‘Which way to Rundle Mall?’ ‘That way’, I point.

Policemen converge on my corner. Behind me the busker who has resumed playing stops again as the police approach him first. ‘Can you tell me what happened?’ one of them asks …‘I just arrived’, he replies….‘didn’t see nothing…’ The policeman turns to me, raising his eyebrows suspiciously in the process.

‘I know you were here ’cause I saw you earlier, in fact I have seen you every day’ ‘What happened?.…What were they wearing?’ Which way did they go?’ ‘That way’, I point… They run off clicking and talking into black walk talkies.

Trent Parke Candid portraits of people on a street corner. Adelaide. Australia. 2013. © Trent Parke | Magnum Photos

OWWWW there it is again. I reach for the shooting pain in my lower back. Yesterday, as a result of carrying a tripod around the city, I bent over only to find that I could not straighten up again. And the pain…. like electric currents, stabbing and spasming through my hips and spine. As the lights change, the traffic now momentarily obscures my view of the other side of the street. I watch the highlighted white reflected sunlight zip from car to car, like lightning bolts.

 Back to my corner… he emerges from the shadow of the building into the light. There he is … the big clock on the other side of the road says, right on time … the sad boy in the white collared shirt who everyday stands in the same position on the same corner at the same time. He remains motionless, staring at the street before the lights eventually change once more and he walks his same sad slow walk off into the west and the blazing setting Adelaide sun.

I wonder who he is. I wonder where he goes.

Trent Parke No.268. Candid portrait of a man on a street corner. Adelaide. Australia. 2013. © Trent Parke | Magnum Photos
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