The Touch of the Crowd

“Whether the spectacle is panoramic or thrust open at close quarters, the photographers are there to observe, not to participate.”

“There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching toward him, and to be able to recognise or at least classify it… It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear… so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him… Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself… This is… why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched.”1

Of all the words we have to describe the thing: mob, throng, mass, horde, or swarm, each with its own inflections, the most social is the term crowd. After it decisively manifested itself as a revolutionary force, 200 years ago, the crowd in enlarged mercantile cities tended to be perceived as a phenomenon of spectacle. […]

An individual like Baudelaire could stroll the streets of Paris, entertains by the thymus and manners of the endless passersby. Immersed within them he nevertheless adopted an outside view, a singular viewpoint, which, since then have been picked up by speakers in novels and by photographers beyond count. They have transformed the spectacle into an allegory of modern consciousness, equivocal and potentially frightening in its scope. Though huge urban gatherings might look benign, an urgency can suddenly well up in them as to overwhelm a stranger, or make states tremble. […]

Pictures of crowds united by one spontaneous emotion tend to have that effect, for their witness is understood to work in a separate psychological zone, necessarily detached from the crowd in order to capture its mood. One gets that feeling from Weegee’s crowds at Coney Island and from William Klein’s expressionist up-front views of clamor across the world. Whether the spectacle is panoramic or thrust open at close quarters, the photographers are there to observe, not to participate. Their awareness of their isolation can give to their work a characteristic self-consciousness. So we viewers, whom they represent, are often distanced from the energy of their photographs, as a theatre audience is distanced from an onstage actor.

1. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, New York, Seabury Press, 1978, pp. 15, 16.

Max Kozloff, Lone Visions, Crowded Frames, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1994.


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