This past week the NYT ran a brief story on an agreement struck between the Los Angles City Council and the ACLU of Southern California that will allow homeless people to sleep on the streets anywhere in the city (with some minor restriction), not just on skid row, between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Although the Times does not comment upon it per se, the compromise has turned out to be quite controversial, particularly among those who think that the very presence of the homeless outside of skid row would be unsightly, especially if they were to congregate near the “late night restaurants” in the downtown area or in front of Ralph’s (a high end supermarket) near the Staple’s Center. The Times’ story did not include any photographs. However, on the bottom right corner of the web page on which the story appeared there was an ad for the New York Times Store urging people to buy this photograph:
The caption/ad copy reads, “A Bag Lady in Times Square – 1965” and if one clicks on the image they discover that it is a photograph taken by Larry C. Morris and is part of the New York Times Buildings and Landmarks photo archive. Priced at $600 for an 11 x 14 exhibition quality print ($755 framed), the Times entreats its readers: “Give someone a unique gift that will last a lifetime or decorate your home and office with distinctive photography …”
The irony here is rich and it really is hard to know where to begin. Homelessness is among the biggest problems we face as a nation; and yet it is also a problem we steadfastly choose not to see. Who among us has not averted their gaze at one time or another from those sleeping on park benches or beneath underpasses, or those holding signs seeking money for food, as if to imagine that if we don’t see them then they aren’t really there. And what better way to avert our collective vision than to romanticize the homeless person as the “bag lady”—the eccentric and often addled but loveable older woman, carrying her possessions from spot to spot, refusing the help of social services, and often driven by a maternal instinct that fights its way through the layers of mismatched, threadbare and disheveled clothing she dons. Never mind that this is no longer the face of poverty and destitution—if it ever was; it helps us put a public veil on what is otherwise too hard (or inconvenient) to confront. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. Seeing is believing.
Writing in 1934 Walter Benjamin noted that photography “has succeeded in transforming even abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment.” It may not just be a function of photography, as we find the commodification of poverty in other places as well, such as in the figurine culture; but as the Times demonstrates, it is very much at home in photography, and no less so than when cast in the black and white aesthetic of fine art photography and produced as an archival quality print that lends the aura of historical authenticity and the tinge of nostalgia to the image. As with another famous photograph from Times Square, this image seems to say, “that’s the way we were.” Here, it references a world where the homeless were bag ladies, and where bag ladies blended in with the commerce and culture around them, noticeable, but not uncomfortably so. We need not avert our gaze (as the man in the back looks on), but neither do we need to break stride to assist or intervene (as no one seems bothered by the woman’s presence). And what is left unsaid, but implied, is that we can salve our guilt by framing our awareness of poverty and homelessness through a lens that renders it as a fashionable “object of enjoyment.” So, you can donate $755 to a local homeless shelter or you can hang this picture on your wall. After all, it has an “enduring quality” that will “last a lifetime.”