Everything’s fleeting. Moments, movements, marriage, life. Photography allows all of this change and motion to be paused, put under a lamp and examined. In the best street photographs, you feel a tug, not just of the subject matter, but specifically, of the moment. Moment as it is/was vs. how it is/was seen. You get a sense that there’s a collusion between how a flat, two-dimensional photograph is compositionally organized, and how reality unfurled itself, all at once at that moment, unpredictably, in three dimensions. Great photographs make people open their eyes wide; they make photographers wonder if they were staged.
Inside that discrepancy — inside the difference between what’s flat in a book or hung on the museum wall, and what may or may not have really happened, a story can begin. But it’s your story as a viewer; it’s your imagination that’s running with it, not the photographer’s. The art is in having the chance (and knowing how) to set the table.
Great photographs (not just street photos) should be gifts that keep giving, both in meaning and explication, as well as in feeling. There’s too much art out there that makes you feel like you’re spelunking in a shopping mall. You’re prepared and ready for depth (you’ve even got your headlamp on) but the stores are all the same as last year, they’re all brightly lit and obvious, and nothing’s ever on sale.
What I’m trying to get at is whether or not there’s a difference between great photography and great art photography. I’d like to think they’re the same, but in looking around (museums/galleries/cafes/magazines/online) and talking to people, most people who say they like photography prefer “interesting” photography that tends to be colorful, sexy, funny and/or descriptive – just like television. You see what you get. Sunset, wow. Dog doing something human, double-woof-wow. Pretty picture = happy monkey.
In the end, great photography, especially portraiture, hangs its hat on the same tenants as street work. Suggestion. Mystery. Find the moment that has an unknownable past and future. An indescribable present, a constant that both yields and resists when you push and prod and try to juice it. Avedon made moments, too. The most perfect portraits suggest far more than they explain. Ask Rembrant.
Why is any of this important? Because when you look through a viewfinder, you have a choice and an opportunity. You can point the camera at what everyone wants to see, or what you want to see. Maybe you want to see flowers, maybe you don’t. Do you know what you want to see? How many flowers would a flowerchuck chuck if a flowerchuck could chuck flowers? (Answer: Card Is Full)
When I look, I try to ask for more. More questions, more unknowns, more unanswerables, more suggestion, more incompleteness, more doubletakes, more chance, more flow. Every once in a great while, it all clicks; I rarely succeed. In 2005, after too many pictures, I’m really happy with five. Or four.
Bring on the furry kittens.