Bill Sullivan’s “3 Situations”

I think the term “environmental portraiture” is underused.

What does it even mean? Can’t any portrait be seen as an environmental portrait if it is considerate of the subject’s environment? How can it be ignored in the first place…even being on a white seamless is going to effect the subject’s context. Bill Sullivan’s project “3 Situations” utilizes the environment to bring focus to the subject. He photographs people coming through the turn styles in subways. In “3 Situations,” Sullivan photographs people going through the subway turn style, in elevators, and sitting in Times Square. In all of the sections, the subject is the only factor to change. With the unifying element being the situation, do we ignore the environment or does it play the role of the second subject?

Here is a selection of Bill’s “More Turns,” part of the “3 Situations” found on his website.

from Bill Sullivan's "More Turns"

from Bill Sullivan's "More Turns"

from Bill Sullivan's "More Turns"

from Bill Sullivan's "More Turns"

After digging through more of Bill’s site, I also found his rules of situational photographs… very interesting!

Here they are:

1. The image or photograph must be candid

2. The context of the situation must be clearly established

3. The background behind every subject in a series must be the same

4. The photographer must always be visible to the subject(s) in the photograph

5. The moments the images are to be taken must be defined before the pictures are taken

6. Secondary image(s) can be attached to the primary image if needed to clarify an established context

7. The camera should not play a visible role in the situation unless its visible presence has a role in that scenario

from Bill Sullivan's "More Turns"

from Bill Sullivan's "More Turns"

Here is Bill’s writing on the project, found on his website:

I was tired of the conventions in which most photographs of people are taken. And I was tired of the results that  often seem to pass for poetry. I needed something to be objective : I wanted the context to be clearly established . I  wanted play a role in the situation, but I wanted the situation to take a photograph of itself for me . I would design the scenarios in which this could happen, and then the situation could be responsible for creating the picture. The poetry would be as much in the design of that scenario as from any photograph that might come from it. These situations would include me but I would disappear as any kind of typical photographer. I would simply play a role in the  scenario. I would become someone waiting for an elevator, a man reading the New Yorker waiting for a friend to pass through the turnstile, or simply another tourist watching someone having his or her portrait done. The situations were mapped out, tests were made, and special clothing was worn. I became a spy for the obvious.

Situation 1: The Times Square Portraits (Time Port). I  developed or redesigned a scenario that made use of an existing portrait-making setup. The scenario consisted of people sitting at night in Times Square while street artists  drew their portraits for a small fee. Unknown to the subjects, from a distance of about five fee,  I was able to make the camera disappear.  As I stood there intently watching their portrait being made,  I took their picture as I leaned in as close as physically possible to the eye of the artist drawing their portrait.

Situation 2: The Subway Turnstile Pictures (More Turns). I developed a situation so that various subjects could be defined by the constraints of exactly the same mechanical apparatus. The scenario consisted of someone passing through a subway turnstile. At the moment that the subjects passed through the turnstile, unknown to them, I took their picture stationed at a distance of eleven feet. I stood there turning pages of a magazine observing subjects out of the corner of my eye, waiting for only the moment when they pushed the turnstile bar to release the shutter.

Situation 3 : The Elevator Portraits (Stop Down). I developed a situation in order to manufacture group portraits. The scenario consisted of elevator doors opening and closing. At the moment the doors opened, unknown to the riders, I took their picture stationed at a distance of ten feet. I stood looking lost either next to a shopping cart or with my back facing the elevator doors, quietly taking frame after frame as the doors opened and closed.

from Bill Sullivan's "More Turns"

from Bill Sullivan's "More Turns"

This leads me to a conclusion… more photographers should write about their projects! Bill’s writing not only helps me understand his work but also makes me trust him as an image-maker, lending enormous credibility to his efforts. He makes not only a commentary about photography but also about photography’s role in criticizing social norms. Bravo Bill. Can’t wait to see more!

Bill Sullivan’s “3 Situations”

1 Comment

  1. These images are great. I like his attempt to define environmental portraiture, and he definitely is taking a fresh look at it. It reminds me of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s street series (

    Although he clearly defines his intentions, I’m not sure I would call this environmental portraiture. Sullivan definitely blurs a lot of lines, but I would classify it more in the documentary and fine art cross section of photography than environmental portraiture. When his subjects become more static, less spontaneous and surprised is when I think of a more traditional sense of environmental portraiture.

    check out his main website, the other two parts of this project are great.


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