"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
On a warm summer day two years ago, a 16-year-old girl put on a skirt and headed to the SuperTarget in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla. As she shopped the air-conditioned aisles, a man knelt behind her, carefully slid a camera in between her bare legs and snapped a photo of her underwear. Police arrested the 34-year-old man, but the charges were ultimately dropped on the grounds that the girl did not, as required by the state’s Peeping Tom law, have “a right to a reasonable expectation of privacy,” given the public location. In non-legalese: Wear a skirt in public, and you might just get a camera in the crotch.
Locals were outraged. Most women slipping on a summer dress aren’t hoping to star in an amateur — or, worse yet, professional — porno, just as most men don’t expect strangers to take a snapshot of their package when they wear shorts in public. In response to the ruling, Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, introduced a bill making it illegal in Oklahoma to take unauthorized photos of someone’s private areas in public; it went into effect earlier this month. For the same reason, nearly half the states have had to enact similar laws.
When it comes to voyeurs who photograph or videotape up a woman’s skirt (known as “upskirting”) or snap a photo down a woman’s shirt (“downblousing”), though, “there are not many practical, legal remedies available to people who find themselves the victim,” says Anita Allen, a privacy expert and professor at Penn Law. That’s if the woman even realizes she is a victim in the first place, which is unlikely, as the voyeur typically manages to go undetected. If the photo or video is published online — which, increasingly, it is — it would be difficult for the subject to ever come across the material. Even if she did, how could she recognize one underwear-clad rear as her own?
Privacy experts say the failure of the law to catch up with technology has allowed for a kind of Wild West online, a frontier of rogue pornographers from all over the world. It’s such a craze in Japan that cellphone cameras now come with a shutter sound that alerts bystanders that a photo is being taken; in that country, even the iPhone 3G features an extra-loud anti-upskirt alarm.
A quick search of PhoneBin, an online gallery of photos submitted directly from cellphones, is enough to cause any woman to briefly contemplate hauling off her sundresses to the nearest Salvation Army. Photo after photo — shot right between a pair of legs or at a distant, low angle — shows women wearing skirts in public. It’s easy enough to imagine how the photographer pulls it off: kneeling to the ground, pretending to tie his shoe, standing a few steps below on the escalator pretending to send a text message. Others are clearly failed attempts. For example, a user comments on a grainy photo of a woman’s skirted rear: “Nice arse but you need to get closer to the ground and more upskirt if you want to be taken seriously.” Yes, even pervs have strict aesthetic standards.
A keyword search for “upskirt” on the photo-sharing site Flickr turns up 36,368 hits. One user has taken 48 candid shots of women’s stockinged rears walking up stairs in the Paris Metro subway station. The vast majority of these photos, however, are not upskirts at all, but close-ups of women’s body parts taken in public places like the subway, parks and street corners. Some Flickr members specialize in these types of shots, many with a particular area of expertise: breasts, bums, nipple slips, whale tails (the top of a thong peeking over the waist of a woman’s pants), camel toes, legs or feet. Amazingly, one user has amassed 1,455 photos of disembodied, hastily framed shots taken with a cellphone camera of various body parts — feet, breasts, butt and legs — that could belong to any woman, really. Similar shots can be found on many other popular photo-sharing sites, like Fotki and Photobucket.
Some gather in groups dedicated to all manner of candid photography to salivate over photos and engage in back-and-forths about their craft. In a discussion thread in the group “The Upskirt Arena,” members wax poetic about their artistic preferences. The discussion becomes repetitive very quickly. One user writes: “Personally I love the unsuspecting one’s [sic], but being a fan of upskirts I enjoy all of them.” Another responds: “Yeah the unsuspecting ones are my favourites as well!!!” And another: “Its [sic] all so very sexy getting a flash of that forbidden public zone.” Yet another: “I like either unsuspecting ones or accidental ones, not posed ones.” And so on, and so on.
Susan Gallagher, a professor of political science at University of Massachusetts Lowell who teaches classes on gender, privacy and politics, points out, “One of the tricks in pornography is that the target is unaware, because then you have power.” She says upskirting presents a lesser sexual challenge than, for instance, the “Girls Gone Wild” franchise, that indefatigable chronicler of the spring break rite of boobs and booze. The essential difference here is that candid photographers — rather than the female subjects, in the case of breast-flashing coeds — are able to be the sexual aggressor but without actually having to confront a woman.
These candid connoisseurs also swap technical tips (for instance, how to inconspicuously shoot from the hip), legal pointers and advice on how to avoid getting in trouble with the law or having their account deleted for violating Flickr’s terms of service, which includes the directive, “Don’t be creepy. You know the guy. Don’t be that guy.” Director of community Heather Champ says that Flickr generally has a “high-water mark” for what constitutes a violation but adds, “I personally think that upskirting and downblousing are kind of forcibly invading someone’s privacy in a way that is very disrespectful.”
The question of where to draw a line between artistic street photography and fetishistic candids that reduce a woman to her toe cleavage is like that ever-unreliable definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology, puts the reality simply: “If you don’t want to be photographed walking the street, don’t walk down the street — it’s a public street.”
There’s a vast difference, though, between slipping a camera between a woman’s legs and taking a poignant photo of the homeless man sleeping in a doorway; the vast majority of candid shots on mainstream photo sites fall within the latter category. But, then, there are candid shots that don’t actually cross a woman’s hemline or neckline. A friend of mine had a man obviously take a photo of her ass while she wandered around an art museum in London; a colleague living in New York City has twice had guys whip out a cellphone and blatantly snap a photo of her rack (if it happens again, she swears she’s “going to go Kanye West on his ass”). Plenty more common is for women to have a cellphone camera pointed toward them, perhaps at an odd angle, in public and wonder: Wait a sec, are they writing a text message — or taking a photo of me?
That we are using technology in this way is hardly anything new. “Almost immediately upon the invention of amateur photography there was the detective camera,” said professor Gallagher. It could be concealed in your hat or tie, and “the idea of being able to record things without anyone knowing was a craze,” she says. The development of technology, and its accessibility, however, is changing our culture: Not only are spy cams available on the cheap, but cameras are now a standard feature on cellphones. The federal Video Voyeurism Prevention Act of 2004 was enacted specifically in response to these high-tech developments, and outlaws virtual peeping that takes place “under circumstances in which the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Of course, that is just to speak of the noncommercial candid photography that can be found online. A quick Google search turns up 60 pages of links to sites like “Upskirt Hunters,” “The Original Candid Upskirt” and “Upskirt Sniper.” The latter greets the viewer with a presumably enticing warning: “CAUTION: YOUR GIRLS [sic] PANTIES COULD BE ON THIS SITE!” A series of panty shots are stacked one atop the other, with a woman’s panty-clad ass in a gun’s cross hairs. Lest the viewers’ skepticism ruin the fantasy, the site promises: “These upskirt shots are 100% real. They are NOT STAGED and contain no models or actors at all. Every time we go to the mall, a restaurant or even church we have our camera with us rolling as many upskirts panties as we can get. These girls have no idea they we are filming them and probally [sic] never will.”
Locations that smack of the everyday — like public transportation, parks, malls, gas stations, movie lines and big box stores like WalMart — are favorites. For the same reason, many sites attempt a photographic narrative that climaxes, so to speak, with the upskirt, like a striptease the woman never knew she was performing: a couple of shots of an everyday woman walking down the street, blissfully unaware, and then — blam! — you’re this close to giving her a gynecological exam.
Nearly every upskirt site makes a similar promise of unaware and unwilling subjects; the essential erotic charge comes from the stealthy violation of a woman’s privacy.
Of course, the intrusion doesn’t always go unnoticed. Two years ago, on a scorching hot day in St. Louis, 22-year-old Karen Simoncelli wore a skirt to the local zoo. While checking out the lizard exhibit, she had a reptilian encounter of another kind. A toweringly tall, “weird-looking” man stood uncomfortably close to her, holding the long strap of a camera bag in his hand. She looked down and saw a camera lens pointing up her skirt. He saw her spot the camera and split. But she ran after him, screaming for bystanders to call 911 and hurling obscenities at him, while he made a beeline for the zoo’s exit. After catching up with him and throwing her strawberry smoothie on him, he finally handed over the camera. By the time he reached the zoo exit, police were waiting for him.
The next day, Simoncelli, a college student, discovered that police had found footage shot up seven other girls’ skirts. She chose not to look at the tape, but the police were able to identify her based only on the underwear she was wearing that day. Ultimately, though, he was released (and now has a warrant out for his arrest for an unrelated incident).
It wasn’t just a creepy encounter — like a lewd comment made on the street — that she could shake off. “I had to have my fiancé for about a whole year walk me in and out of our house,” she said. “I have had a loaded gun next to my bed ever since. I constantly think someone is following me.” She says she’ll stare at a small sliver of her bedroom window that isn’t covered by the blinds and become convinced that “someone is watching me, someone is looking.”
Just as with Simoncelli, 44-year-old Lori Boyd, of South Orange County, Calif., felt a man hovering uncomfortably close while she was on her lunch break at the local mall. She looked down and discovered a camera pointed up her skirt. Only, instead of chasing him through the mall, she froze, unsure of who he was, and whether he might get violent. She “felt violated and weirded out that someone would get off on something like this” but pretended she hadn’t noticed it, and then, once the man had disappeared, reported it to the mall police. They said they had received a number of other complaints from women who had had the same experience.
Of course, not all subjects are entirely unwilling participants. Paris Hilton’s and Britney Spears’ pantyless crusade in front of paparazzi seemed intentional — if not sober or clearheaded. In some ways, it appeared to be an aggressive acknowledgment of their utter lack of privacy as famous females. Indeed, name a female celebrity — any female celebrity — and she has likely starred in an accidental crotch shot. And it’s hardly an issue of simply wearing panties and keeping one’s knees primly pressed together — just consider Alexandra Kerry, John Kerry’s daughter, who appeared at Cannes wearing a beautiful black dress that, much to her surprise, was rendered see-through by paparazzi flashes. Sites like X17, Perez Hilton, Defamer and Egotastic have made their name (and their money) on these dishy candids.
Then there are the public figures who are knowing, although perhaps not always enthusiastic, participants in the genre — for instance, female tennis players, who no doubt have come to expect tighty-whitey action shots to show up on fan message boards. It’s been suggested that Wimbledon should be redubbed “the birthplace of the upskirt,” and at last year’s Australian Open, three men were arrested for attempting between-the-legs shots of female fans. Innumerable tributes to tennis panty shots can be found on YouTube, including one titled, “Anna Kournikova — upskirt compilation.” And, last year, artist Dmitry Bulnygin premiered a nine-minute video filmed up the skirt of an unidentified woman as she played a match, and a rumor quickly spread that the star was none other than Maria Sharapova. No matter their athletic abilities, female tennis stars have simply had to accept that their crotch’s celebrity status could actually rival their own. And, as the Web threatens to turn us all into potential celebrities, we have had to make similar shifts in our own expectations of privacy.
It’s such a recognizable phenomenon that artist Richard Kern recently took photographic perversions from the New York City subway to a Manhattan art gallery with an irreverent piece titled “Upskirts,” featuring a total of 25 individual panty shots. But the piece lacks the shiver-inducing quality of real candids, because the subjects’ legs are spread far enough apart to suggest willful participation –maybe even enthusiastic consent.
On the other side of this online trend are women who are also publishing photos of unwilling subjects — only their subjects are the men who sexually harass them in public. The Web site HollaBack NYC encourages women to take quick cellphone photos of their harassers and send them in to the site for publication, along with their story about being groped on the subway, yelled at on the street or photographed by a stranger in a sexualized way. The message seems to be having a real effect: In August, a woman discovered a man taking a photo up her skirt with his cellphone as she walked up a set of stairs at a subway station in New York, and she yanked out her cellphone and snapped a photo of him. She sent the snapshot to police, which helped them to find and arrest the man within weeks. He currently faces charges of attempted sexual abuse, harassment and unlawful surveillance.
Upskirting cases are hardly the only recent challenges to our notions of privacy. Recently, three girls featured without permission on the Web site and companion book “Hot Chicks With Douchebags” — which consists of pictures featuring … yeah, you guessed it — filed a lawsuit, claiming violation of privacy. Similarly, “Girls Gone Wild” has been hit with a number of lawsuits from women featured in the series. Some have claimed that their privacy was violated, even though they voluntarily bared all in public.
These legal struggles — as well as states’ attempts to punish upskirting, downblousing and other ways of virtually getting inside a stranger’s clothes — seem to be just the start of a gradual cultural reimagining of what it means to be in public or private. As Gallagher put it, “The conventions that guide what is and is not a violation are currently under construction.” But, she adds, “Privacy is based on an expectation and, in general, people don’t have an expectation of privacy in public.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)