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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Police vs. photographers (still more)

A report in the Long Beach Post shows that the police there have photographers directly in their sights. If I read this correctly - and I think I do - then Long Beach police are instructed that it is now within their power to detain any photographer that they catch taking pictures in a public place, when the individual officer thinks that the pictures lack an "apparent esthetic value."

The mind boggles. Along with all their other weighty responsibilities, the Long Beach police now must serve as art critics? What training will they receive to perform this new function?  A semester-long course on the history of photography and its place in art history in general? And so that photographers have fair notice -- in order to avoid getting pinched for what the police think is bad art -- will the police then publish lists of what is acceptable and what is not?  Will representational photography in the romantic tradition be allowed? But anything edgier or more abstract prohibited?  So that anyone trying that kind of photography -- never mind the long list of celebrated photographers who have specialized in it over the years -- should expect an arrest? I expect legal challenges, sooner rather than later.

Police Chief Jim McDonnell was apparently trying to be helpful with this clarification, that photographers may be detained when they are observed "not engaging in 'regular tourist behavior.'" So it seems that Long Beach resident Sander Wolff, the individual subject of the article, got out of line -- his conduct diverged from "regular tourist behavior" -- when he took pictures of a refinery. The article shows one of Mr. Wolff's photos that got him in trouble. It's the kind of photograph of an industrial scene that amateur and professional photographers have been taking for over a century. It would be easy to find similar photographs at any major art gallery. Maybe a "regular tourist" would give the scene a pass, but so far as I know, this kind of photography never before has been treated as criminally suspicious. Not in the United States of America at any rate, the home of the free.

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