michal daniel – in your face

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Michal Daniel

In Your Face

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Rules. “Don’t stare, don’t point,” said mom. 
”Ask permission before making pictures,” say others.

That’s not for me. I want to get as close a look as I can, right in your face if possible, without you paying me any mind. If I can make a picture while you’re doing what you’re doing, unguarded, even though I’m right there in your face, that’s my goal.

But working with a visible camera impacts the scene. Not only can it irritate people, overt camera use also alters the entire existing dynamic, often destroying the very moment one wishes to record, before it is recorded. So my intention is to record the moments, while leaving everyone be, without them feeling observed.

Hard to do. Few succeeded like Walker Evans did, his camera hidden under his overcoat, lens peeking through a button hole. But even Evans kept his distance and could not get in people’s faces without his intent being noticed.

In 2001, after a quarter of a century of trying to be invisible with a standard camera, I finally found the perfect photographic tool which I use to this day: a plastic digital camera that fits on a digital organizer. The camera and organizer are now obsolete and the camera’s highest resolution — 640×480 pixels – is today the lowest resolution on the market.

640×480.net is where I put my keepers.

“Don’t mind me, just organizing here,” is what I exude in the process of picture making.

The Eyemodule2 — or “eyemod” as I call it and its output — is small, silent, and doesn’t resemble a camera. It’s just a bump on my PDA. When I use it, I look like I have a reason to be holding it, staring down at it, in the palm of my hand — a reason having nothing to do with photography. I behave as if completely absorbed with digital organizing, paying no attention to the people I photograph. To them, I simply seem like any other self-absorbed pedestrian.

I do love the digital Brownie “personality” of this camera, its color palette, tight dynamic range, near pinhole depth of field and the softness of its cheap lens. When enlarged to wall size, the eyemod prints start to resemble watercolor paintings. But all that is secondary. Most importantly, the tool helps me achieve my primary goal: recording people’s unguarded public selves, from the nearest proximity possible, while unnoticed, and leaving them to continue, undisturbed.

In the introduction to Walker Evans’ book Many Are Called, James Agee wrote of our guards: “Only in certain waking moments of suspension, of quiet, of solitude, are these guards down, and these moments are only rarely to be seen by the person himself, or by any other human being.”

This is my collection of some of these unguarded moments.


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Michal Daniel



146 Responses to “michal daniel – in your face”

  • This makes me feel uncomfortable, really intrusive, yet captivating. When you have the knowledge that the subjects of these intimate portraits have no idea their images will be blasted across the web. Is it cruel?

    Very rarely do you get this close face to face with complete strangers, I might be partially this that makes me concerned.

    I am drawn to it though, the textures, the intimacy, the feeling that it is not quite right.

  • Michal,

    your terrrrible!!!

    auntie gracie


  • these must have been a lot of fun to do.. the camera distortion makes everyday people into david lynch characters and exaggerates expressions to the point to caricature in some cases..

    the low resolution makes them look like tv grabs to me.. moments caught straight from the box of life perhaps.. yes – compelling stuff to me


    Michal, hat’s off to you! You have proved what a camera (any camera) can do when it is put to it’s proper use! I am amazed looking at most of these faces…what expressions! Yes, since they are unguarded, this is so raw and strong! I could have gone on and on and on looking at these faces without even a trace of boredom…

    You made my day Michal…wish you all the best…



  • IMO, this is a good example of how photographs do not need a literal story to create a powerful and personal body of work. These images allow the viewer into the relationship between photographer and subjects, and really encourage the viewer to feel, rather than be told a particular story. I really like this work. Congrats.

  • Absolutely wonderful stuff.
    I’m not a big fan of in your face stuff, but this is something else. What marvelous faces, what marveous fun. I absolutely adore the last shot of the sequence. Brilliant.

  • Kathleen Fonseca

    POR FIN!!! EXCELLENT..these amazing faces are so graphically rendered that they are more like caricatures. i would not really call these portraits. They’re so distorted, interpreted by the lens in such an extreme way that they have slipped the finite bounds of reality and taken flight into the imagination. Your ordinary people have become characters. I could write a short story around any single one of them. AND you made your magic ‘in camera’. Getting “it” in camera is my own personal gold standard. Not that i am against photoshop or above using it. Just that i sooo respect when ‘man’ pulls fabulous imagery out of a box with a lens on it. I am incredibly excited by the lo-res quality, the gritty, smeary textures with the punched up edges..not a bit smooth, no creamy bokeh, a-o!!..just freaking great..you walked a fine line when you produced this..it’s easy to think, lo-res, lo-fi, throw it all against a wall and it’s so messy it all sticks. not so..not so. Even more difficult to demand good photos from lousy equipment. You did it. I am jubilant! You have no idea what a shot in the arm you have actually given ME though i would not go out shooting the way you do. I will still use a traditional camera and still claw out my candid street moments my way. What you did was give me the courage to keep on keeping on. I can’t say enough for this essay. Thanks, Michal, thanks DAH, thanks..wow.


  • KATHIE!!!

    yknow when im down like this,
    i would have loved to listen to Mr No.5
    brag about his young ‘uns and em shipwrecks

    ive missed you..
    thanks again michal

    auntie gracie
    (mrs. no. 2)

  • Kathleen Fonseca


    ohmygod, aren’t these faces just the best? I sooo get what you mean about Mr. No. 5..YES, YES, that’s what i meant, that they’ve risen above their grain of sand presence on this earth and become so much more..they’ve assumed literary stature somehow…their uniqueness has not simply been respected but exalted.

    And i missed you too GraciousGracie..our late night zzzz’s..your wisps of poems like murmurings in the dark..the way the house creaks, the tree sighs, and gracie murmurs..

    now..goodnight, Mrs. #2,

    xoxo Ms. #4

  • Yes. this has been my goal in photography also but rather than catching a particular person, i’ve been striving to capture groups, from 2 to whatever, interacting unconsciously.
    To capture the way we are is what photography’s great art is.

  • Ummm, I don’t get it.

    For some reason I feel like Jim right now. But, so what? You get to get close without anyone being the wiser. Walker Evans? I really don’t see the parallel.
    The subject matter doesn’t surprise me a bit. Shooting fish in a barrel. With the end result being what?… portraits of strange-looking folk–at least Arbus got to know her freaks — and the visual quality was amazing (not just technically, but compositionally/soulfully).

    This leaves me cold… I don’t see the point — and am well aware that I may be missing something. Sorry if this is harsh, but I’ve had a few well-deserved beers after a long week…

  • Hi Michal,
    This is a new dimension of the portrait photography. This is a daring approach, you are so close to the subject that it is difficult to reach there by most of the photographers. Moreover the expressions are original in nature, the faces are sometimes get distorted but that does the diminish the appeal in it.
    Good experimentation work.

  • Very exciting essay that I understand, among other interpretations, as a demonstration how technology deeply integrates our lives at a point we do not notice it anymore. The closiest portraits make me think about David Cronenberg’s Videodrome

  • JARED…

    you are not being harsh…that is your honest opinion…i am a bit surprised that you do not find some of these portraits intriguing, but so be it….please get in touch with me http://www.david@burnmagazine.org at some point so that we can come up with ideas to best serve your university peers….

    cheers, david

  • ALL…

    i am traveling today to Toronto for the Contact photo fest and a series of Magnum workshops….so i will be off of BURN for most of the day, but will do reports from the field and post again as soon as possible…you have enough to chew on for the moment…

    while i do find these portraits by Michal rather fascinating , i certainly would not one taken of myself…when i looked in the mirror to shave this morning, i saw the equivalent of one of his images..that was enough for me…maybe just cheap mirror glass???

    please enjoy your day…

    cheers, david

  • michal
    the snap on the back of your blurb book is a killer – brilliant.

    HONESTY MIRRORS:: horrible.. unfortunately we have one in our flat and now that i have glasses of the correct strength for my eyes i avoid it at all costs.

    BOB n DAH
    enjoy.. enjoy.

  • Burn is veering off into the banal and weird. When enlarged to wall size??? 640×480 enlarged to wall size? Oh, come on.

    Burn seems intent with officiating at the death of photography.

  • Very compelling Michal, I love the way some of the people shown are in mid expression. It does seem to be a bleak place; did you choose your subjects to project this particular view of humanity? By this I mean is such a melancholy, lonely place the habitat of the majority of people in their unguarded moments or are these people chosen to project a particular mood to the audience.

    I must admit that I would be uncomfortable taking such photographs. While we all wish, at times, for an invisible camera; would we really be happy with it? I certainly would not want to get caught using such a device as yours. Openly photographing is one thing, such stealth photography is another. That said, I can see why you use this technique and love the way you are using technology to produce something that was not intended by the manufacturer.

    Congratulations on such a riveting essay,


  • Jim, have you seen these photographs enlarged to wall size? No? Neither have I: but I’m happy to take Michal at his word. I have read before that some of the early digital files that you would expect to be eclipsed by the latest camera and print technology look rather good when printed large. Not the same as the latest techniques, but good.

    Besides the enlargement issue, what did you think of the photographs? The technique?


  • “Burn is veering off into the banal and weird” That’s a pretty outrageous take coming from a wrestler of your note Mr Powers

  • imo permission is an element of photography chosen by the photographer. you either work with or without it. that doesn’t mean you can appreciate both sides. each has it’s place. i happen to work “with” i love this place.

  • Reminds me of Thomas Ruff’s jpegs

    mixed with Bruce Gilden. You could also go and enlarge these at wall size, which is what is supposed to be compelling about Ruff’s work (the patterns of compression of the jpeg that take priority over the image itself, sort of a mosaic).

  • Sometimes I wish I could photograph with my eyes by just blinking. Creative. I like it!

  • With both old digital technology and moving subjects, it takes considerable skill and talent to overcome the substantial shutter lag. So kudos for harnessing this aged equipment so effectively.

  • I know quite a few people doing variations on this theme. Most do it by hip shooting and cropping. The final effect is the same, and I tend to like it. Not something I do much myself these days, but the emotional impact is undeniable. Does tend to polarize opinion somewhat though.

  • I love them! Nice work and a great idea!

  • Utterly surreal. The Man Ray of our times. I personally adore this essay but then I am one who considers it a compliment to be called weird. The “death of photography”? If so, I am happy to be a pallbearer. Michal is a damn genius IMO and I am delighted to be introduced to his work. Would I want to be his subject? Why not. Hey, I look worse than this in my bathroom mirror.

    To my eye, this is visual poetry. No, it’s not pleasant or flattering or even true-to-life. But it IS real and gritty and original. It would not ever be my style because I really love making connections with my subjects, even in my street shots, but it sure as hell works for Michal and that’s all that counts.



  • Thank you David and thank you all!

    I am overwhelmed. When I got to Kathleen Fonseca’s message, tears came.

    @ian aitken – I am very aware of the inherent “cruelty” of making these portraits/caricatures public, but that is part and parcel of all portrait photography.

    @jared iorio – When I spoke of Walker Evans, I had “Many Are Called” in mind: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4156233

    @david alan harvey – First, thanks again!!! Second, I’m glad I made you look in that mirror of yours, through my eyes! Bull’s eye! :-)

    @david bowen – The on on the back of the book is my favorite as well…


    I consider it the signature image of the set. Though the photo was made without Johny knowing, he is not a stranger to me. On that day, sitting in an East Village McDonald’s, I thought I may be seeing him for the last time: he just found out that his girlfriend died of a heroin overdose, in Florida. Next time I saw him, he was clean, employed, and when I told him of the photo, he demanded a print. I was over the moon with happiness to deliver it, the next day!

    That particular image is also the one I had in mind when I said that some of these have been blown up to wall size. As such, it was purchased for the corporate collection of Northland Organic Foods:


    It is hung in their corporate mansion, facing the main window. I’m told that at night, “Johny rules the neighborhood.”

    David edited what I supplied to him, to make this slide show. I asked him not to take any images out of the mix but he ignored me and slashed away anyway. Here is the complete set as I see it, in the order it appears, in the Blurb book:


    @Jim Powers – Here is one, hot off the press:


    I use interpolation software and massage the image during the enlarging process, so when it is finished, you don’t see any pixels. The closer you get to the wall sized print on canvas, the more the image appears to be a like a water color painting. I do not think what I’m doing is killing photography. I’ll leave that to all those who stage, invent and then photograph fantasy, abuse Photoshop, or both.

    I have to bring up one more thing. The eyemod is not at all the only camera I use. I make a living as a live entertainment photographer. Here is my other website:


    Here is more about that:


    Thanks again to you all! I’m thrilled, moved and truly happy!!!


  • I have to agree with Jared on this one. Although I do find some of these portraits exciting and intriguing, I think these portraits are low fruit. Not necessarily because they were captured using the PDA camera, but because most of the people in the photographs happen to have naturally expressive faces.. I didn’t see a moment captured, just voyeuristic and slightly exploitative snapshots of visually interesting people. I know photography can take many forms and the aesthetic is not inherently “low fruit”, and plenty would argue that this series of photographs has far more levels of meaning beyond the purely aesthetic. I actually like the idea of using the PDA camera, and I suppose one could look at this series as a statement on technology and privacy. It’s just that these photographs feel unethical (plenty of room for debate I know!). Like secretly taking a photograph of a passed-out homeless person with a cellphone camera because the photographer doesn’t have the compassion or tact to look beyond the surface.

  • Richard Mark Dobson

    Amazing pictures Michal. I get a sense that instead of looking at these people I am them. So close I can hear them think, like I’m inside their heads……brilliant!

  • I have loved Michal’s project 640×480 since the moment I first met him and I am very happy to see his work here. For me, what I love best is how this work has evolved and bent from his earlier, beautiful and very traditional work (his beautiful work of his homeland Czech republic is very special) and it’s relationship to some of the work he does with theatre. Knowing that Michal is originally from Czech Republic, I can’t help but here that strange and magical sense of humor, of the oddity, that is Czech laughter, love and literature. Laughable Loves ;)))…and i do love all the swelling, pixelation that comes with these small, hand-held devices, especially important in our TV/ComputerMonitor/Cellphone/Digital camera lives. In some senses, it feels much more like the life of urban living than do the beautifully composed med format pics also common now. For me, it is still that humor, that collision and that authenticity that excites me….

    death of photography?….egads…..i say, the fully, exploding, meandering, bifurcating, multiplying face of photography….that photography is not, not any longer, the province of newspapers, expensive-equipment phootgraphers, wealthy or narrow-minded, but photography is, one of the great collective expressions….we are snapping the world around us, passing it along the web and facebook and cell phones and more of us take more photographs than ever before…this doesnt mean the pictures are better, nor does it signal the demise of the practice, but it’s expansion….just as digital moving cameras doesnt mean Studios will not produce movies but that movies might better reflect the diversity of the lived life around…

    thank you so much Michal for sharing your mad, strange, celebrant photographic life. I am so thrilled to see you here.

    hellos to that other photographer in the family :))


  • @Mike R – “did you choose your subjects to project this particular view of humanity?”

    I don’t know who said it but they were right: every portrait is a self-portrait. I am extremely aware of the fact that on the street I photograph only people who fascinate me. And I am dead certain my fascination with them stems from identifying with them. I truly am all the people you see in these photos.

  • Love you, Bob Black! :-)

  • what characters!!!
    what fun!!
    the lines on a face
    tell the story…
    where are these characters?
    I will,
    no doubt,
    be looking for them on the street…
    once again,
    it is VISION
    that takes a photo,
    not the gear!!!!
    in your face…..
    Curious David,
    which one did you see in the mirror?

  • John

    “I know quite a few people doing variations on this theme. Most do it by hip shooting and cropping”

    Lisette Model and others have used this technique. Kinda like mining the negs for gems.

    One of the reasons I like this collection of photos is the low tech aspect. I’ve always used the latest whiz-bang gear in my work, but love using very old low end cameras, point and shoot cameras and home-made contraptions. Thirty years ago I shot hundreds of panoramas with a fixed focus Olympus half frame camera. It’s just plain fun.

    Michal is a working pro with a sense of play. This collection is an inspiration. I’d LOVE to see some of these big.

    Gordon L

  • Jim

    “Burn seems intent with officiating at the death of photography”

    Jim, the digital revolution is nothing less than the re-invention of photography. I love it.

  • Very impressive and fascinating work. It certainly demonstrates that the obsession with ever higher resolution pixel counts on camera sensors is techno-fetishism and marketing nonsense that has little to do with being able to take arresting images.

    As several commenters have mentioned, the portraits are really more like caricatures, and since they may be portraying the subjects in a less than flattering light, there might be some privacy issues here… My understanding of fair use editorial photography legality in the US is that as long as subjects are not intentionally portrayed in a demeaning or slanderous way, then permission is not necessary for publication in a non-commercial editorial context. I wonder if a few of these might push that envelope a bit, at least in the eyes of the subjects? Which raises a few questions in my own mind for pondering… when the photograph is an act of stealth, does the degree of physical closeness itself become an issue, not just legally but also ethically? I think it’s uncharted territory, because in that sense, this series of ultra-stealth and ultra-intimate portrait-caricatures are actually quite ground-breaking.

  • Sidney, I’m intensely aware of the legalities of what I am doing. Luckily, for now, there is a legal precedent, for work that is virtually identical to mine, in terms of stealth:

  • I have to comment on the “distortion” factor. A lot of these images were made as a pan. Most of the people in them were walking toward and past me. The eyemod has a very slow moving scanner, which writes each line of pixels horizontally, before it moves on the the next, lower line. This slow scan, while panning, results in distorted backgrounds. But as long as I am panning at the speed or my moving subject, they are not distorted, only the background is. I know, that is what creates the optical illusion of distorted faces. But in fact the faces are distorted very little, if at all. Here is an example of extreme movement distortion:


  • Michal,

    Thanks for the link. I never for a moment thought that you wouldn’t be acutely aware of the potential legal situation of what you’re doing. While the court decisions affirm the legality of stealth photography as art in principle, at least in New York State, they still leave many questions open… But as I said, I think your work is quite ground-breaking, and the future of this kind of intimate stealth work vis a vis privacy law is probably still uncharted territory. It will be interesting to see how things develop.
    Incidentally, I looked at your website and really enjoyed your theatrical photography, most especially the Minnesota Opera’s “Lakme”.

  • Michal, I think #13 spotted you snapping his pic.

  • Uncharted legal territory for sure, Sidney. For this and many other “staying clean” reasons, I will never allow any of these images to do anything but to stand on their own, or as a set, for purely “artistic use.”

  • Akaky, I love it when people look at the toy, while I’m making the photo. But don’t let that fool you. That does not mean they know they are being photographed. It means they’re trying to figure out what that is in my hands, and what I’m doing with it. Last thing on their mind is that I’m making their portrait.

  • Bob Black brought up Czechoslovakia in Transition:

    Web: http://www.proofsheet.com/transition
    Book: http://is.gd/woa9

    I think it is interesting to pull up here because nobody would ever guess these two projects were done by the same person. It points to the fact that each project demands its own point of view, and therefore its own tools. And it’s up to each of us to decide what that means, and how to implement it.

  • Ouch #5 makes my teeth hurt! (and I don’t have the greatest set in the world).

    Love this. When I was in Japan I thought of all the great photos one could do with a cellphone as half the population is texting most of the time no one would know what you are doing (turns out that Japanese cell phones can’t have the shutter sound disabled by law – of course that’s no longer a problem as phones go global).

    Death of photography? Give me a break. More like breathing new life into an old horse.

    And when I hear of the wall size prints I think of Ute Barth and Thomas Ruff. I’m sure you’d really HATE those two Jim (wink wink).

  • Michal! :)))))

    exactly :))))))))))….ok, i have to shut up. doing the editor stuff, means i must not give too much of my opinion ;))….but, I am happy you are here and have shown your Czech project…a great collision and range between the two, which both tilt toward the same idea:

    celebration and reverence for the beauty and oddity of life :)))




  • Kathleen Fonseca


    To love this essay you must truly love the landscape that is the human face. Not everyone does. We all enjoy varying degrees of empathy. Fascination with faces and expression varies from one person to the next. Autistics lack the ability to empathize to some degree or another which produces social alienation because they cannot read and interpret visual social cues. Many (most? all?) are even repelled by eye contact. i sometimes think it is almost as difficult to be ultra sensitive to human expression. I can be moved to take a photo because of powerful or even sublimely subtle human expression when actually the photo meets a ¨so?¨ reaction from others who regard the expression as too commonplace to warrant shooting at all. This confuses me because i used to think we all ´saw´ the same things when we look at people. It has become clear that we do not. How many times have i looked through the lens at a total stranger and suddenly seen overwhelming sadness, illness, despair, seething emotion, that i could not ´see´ with the naked eye. I am sometimes so struck that i take the camera away from my face to look at the person again, blinking to somehow clear my vision thinking the camera has deceived me. When i am editing i am hyper aware of the effect of altering levels, curves, or contrast on the expression and personality of the subject. With a simple slide i can turn an innocent child into a lolita, a sympathetic expression into one of melevolence, young and immature into wary and street hardened. This is not a power to take lightly or with moral indifference.

    Michal, when i said your photos have been distorted by the lens, i was not referring to the physical dimensions or characteristics of the face, it´s geometry as it were. I was referring to the distortion that results from elminating mid tones and heightening contrast contrast. Your camera has created exceptionally strong portraits of people whose faces were already out there in terms of strength, edginess, mental or emotional instability, substance abuse or wear and tear from hard lives. Your attraction to extreme facial expression and the use of a camera that sees none too delicately are a perfect marriage resulting in overhwelmingly strong characters that inhabit the far extreme of human expression. Expressions that most will appreciate because they´re that strong, that over the top. It is unfortunate that so many are inhibited by legal considerations and privacy concerns to really enjoy the experience of this essay. Life is so short, i will let Michal worry about these concerns while i enjoy the hell out of his work.

    ¨Like secretly taking a photograph of a passed-out homeless person with a cellphone camera¨

    As a street shooter who sometimes shoots from the hip, sometimes through the viewfinder, sometimes asks permission, sometimes interacts, sometimes doesn´t, i am upset by this statement. You might see stealth shooting as being completely amoral. I can only speak for myself but the kind of photo you describe is one i would never take. Also children in vulnerable situations, cripples, sickness are others that i think very hard about. Never say never but till now, i shy away from those subjects. When we look at Michal´s photos, we share the same responsibility to respect the subject as the photographer who shot the photos. If you laugh at, despise or feel contempt for one of Michal´s subjects then you defeat the purpose of the photograph. YOU the viewer takes the photo into an insulting and demeaning place. If, on the other hand you appreciate the infinite variety of human expression and the uniqueness of each of us then you honor the subject. That does not mean that all photos will be flattering to the vanity of the subject, just that it is up the photographer and the viewer to honor the unique soul and landscape of the subject. Not sure if i am making this clear..it´s hard to actually write about but this is what i really feel and the moral code that i shoot by.


  • “When we look at Michal’s photos, we share the same responsibility to respect the subject as the photographer who shot the photos”

    I don’t see stealth shooting as amoral, as a documentary photographer it is often necessary to shoot from the hip or take photographs of people when they are unaware that they are the subject of my photographs. I use the example of photographing the homeless person because I feel like Michal’s photographs border on unethical voyeurism. I do appreciate the infinite variety of human expression and all of our unique qualities, but knowing that many of the people being photographed in this essay would feel exposed, degraded, and taken advantage of, I think this appreciation is easily lost. In this situation the photographer didn’t respect the subject, so how can the audience be told to be respectful?

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