Sunday, May 27, 2012

Words of Wisdom from Facehunter

Image by Yvan Rodic
It took me a while to finally get around to buying Yvan Rodic’s book, named after his influential street style blog, Facehunter ( I’ve been reading his posts for a couple of years now, but I don’t know if I would have considered myself a fan. The site doesn’t have the visual pop of The Sartorialist or the edginess of Jak & Jil. It doesn’t display as much photographic acumen either. The shots tend to be conventional, in sharp focus, and with minimal processing. It’s people in nice clothes shot in a straightforward manner. Big deal.  

I was surprised, then, by how impressed I was with his book. It’s quite the fetish item — full of beautiful images thoughtfully arranged. Most take up the entire page and are paired with another image on the opposite page. Some of these pairs explore a common theme. Some present a compelling contrast. But Rodic is careful not to reveal too much about his subjects. The captions beneath the images are characteristically minimalist: the name of the city, the neighborhood or event, followed by the month in which it was shot (e.g. London, Soho, January). Rodic writes, "My images are not meant to document reality; they are meant to tell you short stories" (p. 41). And yet we are left to piece together these stories for ourselves. He gives us no background, no comments, and no names.  

The images in question cover quite a range, differing dramatically in style, both in how they’re shot and in the kinds of subjects they depict. Some are playful, some serious, some pleasingly opaque. A few too many of them take place outside fashion weeks for my taste, but that seems to be his thing. Rodic, like a number of top-tier street style bloggers, jet sets around the globe shooting fashion weeks. After two months now of taking my camera out on the streets I can certainly understand the appeal. Stylish people are few and far between. It must be nice to be able to find them densely packed into a single location.  

What surprised me most about the book, however, was the insightfulness of Rodic’s characteristically brief commentary. I learned a lot about the art of street style photography from reading it and looking at the images, lessons I am likely to put into practice in the coming weeks. The biggest lesson: you don't have to shoot the people you find in the context in which you find them. This isn't, as Rodic points out a couple of times, social science. You can always move them to a more appropriate backdrop. It seems dumb in hindsight, but somehow that never occurred to me. Perhaps because I am a social scientist.

Here are some snippets from the book, followed by my reactions:

“Many street style photographers are magnetically drawn to brands and keep asking their victims ‘What are you wearing? Who cares! I’m not writing a shopping guide” (p. 18)

Thank you, Yvan, for helping me give up my lingering sense of guilt about not asking that exact question more often! It just feels unnatural to me. Nonetheless, I find it sort of interesting, and even perhaps ethnographically significant, when other people list brands on their blogs. 

“This young man is not representative of any particular kind of Berlin style. He’s a special case” (p. 41).  

I too am finding it more and more difficult to figure out what kind of style people are adhering to. As Rodic explains in his intro, style these days is about individual customization, not strict adherence to sartorial trends. Although that last point is debatable, it should be pointed out, in the case of this whole “gentlemen revolution” thing. When it comes to bespoke tailoring, you don’t mess around.

 “I get my best shots when there’s time for my models to play around and have fun” (p. 108).  

I certainly notice the same thing. And as time goes on, I’m taking more and more pictures of my subjects (or should I call them “models”?), trying out different poses, and allowing them time to relax into the shoot. The first few days I went out, I took an average of three pictures of each person I stopped. Now it's closer to 30. I would like to be able to take up even more of my subjects’ time, but I’m not there yet. It feels presumptuous and a little self-important. I’m not Yvan Rodic, the Facehunter, after all. His reputation buys him more time than mine.
   “I photograph the people who seduce me” (p. 208).

A nice, pithy summation of a complicated internal dialogue. It lets one off the hook of constantly trying to figure out what their own thing is. “It’s not that I shoot people who are like this or like that. It's not that I'm documenting trends or capturing the mood of the era. I photograph the people who seduce me. Get over it.” I might steal this line for myself. 

“I want them to wonder whether it’s real or a setup. Street style is supposed to be spontaneous, but sometimes I try to organize a picture so that it’s just on the edge of looking real” (p. 211) 

I'm with you, Yvan, that it’s good to let go of the illusion of spontaneity. There’s nothing natural about posing for a photo by a total stranger. And if we're not capturing reality anyway why not stage our shots? It reminds me of the crisis of representation anthropology went through in the 1980s. "If it's impossible to document culture objectively and without bias," went the critique, "then why bother trying?  Let's all write prose poems instead." (OK, so that's a gross oversimplification, but you get the point).

   “I can spend five hours in a city and not get a single shot if I don’t see anything that really ‘shocks’ me” (p. 256).

Good to know. It makes me feel better about all the times now that I've gone out and not taken any shots. Yesterday, for instance, I hit the Clark Park Farmers Market and just wasn't feeling it. I couldn't tell if it was them or me. 

Check out Yvan Rodic’s blog at Or click to buy it through Amazon.   

And for the academic bibliography geeks out there, here’s the full citation for the book as well: Yvan, Rodic. 2010. Facehunter. Munich: Prestel.  


  1. Brent, I LOVE this post! So well done. I haven't looked at this book yet but I will now. Such great observations about his commentary.

    Ah, the brand thing. ME too! I love when bloggers list the brands in case there is something on the subject that I want to look for to buy for myself. But somehow it seems inconceivable when I am the one approaching people. Why is that? Either way, no plans of adding that to my blog. The only time I list a brand is when the person brings it up in passing and there is an interesting story accompanying it.

  2. Ah, actually flipped through his book the other day when in the bookstore, might get it after your post! I think the Facehunter shows that it's not about the camera - he uses a point and shoot, but his shots are stylised against good backdrops with no distracting elements. He has a distinct vision, and tends to shoot more quirky, offbeat style that appeals to a certain aesthetic.. some would say hipster (but almost anything 'interesting' is considered hipster these days).

    I guess the brand thing is the difference between fashion and style, in a way? People who are really into fashion appreciate brands and labels, while those that are more into overall style and aesthetic may be less interested in brands and 'omg where did she get that from i need this in my life pronto!'. Personally... reading about brands on fashion blogs are about as interesting as writing an essay... oh wait, you're an academic. Whoops.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.