Street Spirit (all these things into position)

B&W version of “Blue moo” on 500px. Lol I guess.

I question how many studio shooters pray for Jesus to adjust their light setup, though they might ask his assistance with some subjects. Perhaps some landscape shooters ask Athena to steady their tripod while Apollo swings his golden hour rays into alignment. But is street photo the most inherently spiritual?

This is just me muttering to myself late at night as I ponder why street photography feels the way it does, so don’t take me too seriously. What started as a text turned into a blog post of my rambly thoughts as a casual street shooter who thinks about it more than practices it. Taking photos requires a lot of preparation, thought, trial, and error. But street is the one genre that stands out to me as a form where I might say it feels like a higher power gives you gifts, and success is largely dependent on them. You still need to be aware and thinking, and to some degree prepared, but you only get one chance at a moment, and it seems like if you get out there and open yourself to it, and take the shot, you’ll sometimes be given gifts beyond your own reach. Not just nice light, which can be predicted, but puzzle pieces fitting together for only an instant.

I was reminded of that by one of Winogrand’s most famous later photos, of the woman stepping out of a crosswalk, which can be seen here, from this page. (I don’t want to take it or hotlink it.)

There’s awareness and experience at play there, but also so much luck. (Garry would probably say it was mostly luck, and he was just framing the scene and grabbing it to see how it’d look later.) He was prepared with his focusing and had a feel for his field of view before he even looked. He saw the interesting looking person coming and reacted. Maybe he knew in the moment that he was going to place her head into that blank area of white sky, making it stand out so prominently and filling an empty space. He probably didn’t have time to recognize the small contribution of the white gap separating the buildings in the center, and the top of the tree kept separate from the building, filling a white space that might have lessened the connection running between her gaze and the car. You could go on forever, finding little pieces that contribute to the whole. But the car going through, and her turning to look towards the car just as it’s leaving the frame. The arrows on the sign, one paralleling the subject’s body and the other continuing through her gaze to the car in the background, like a meta diagram of the photo itself. And then the way the wind blew her hair so it wrapped across her, and one strand of hair mimicked the strap blowing below her bag. No one can control, expect, or plan for all that; the moment existed for a split second and it was served up when he hit the button. Decades later it’s a sliver of time that’s still admired, because something special is going on there.

I think that really touches on why street is sometimes treated in a zen monk spiritual way, like a quest to find and communicate with some kind of truth, and capture the face of it. Landscapers might say they’re getting in touch with creation through the careful admiration of nature, and portraitists capture the soul and essence of people, but street has this element of entering into a partnership with the almighty, or fate, or the energetic flow of intention, or however you want to think of it. You place your vision and attention in a dynamic place, set your intention on capturing a fleeting moment, and see what your silent partner arranges within your frame. When street transcends unplanned reportage of everyday life, and becomes art empowered by the potential for beauty and profundity within even mundane moments of living, it often seems largely due to the assembly of elements beyond the photographer’s control. That’s both powerful and humbling.

This shot is a cheat-street since I wasn’t shooting a stranger, but it’s unposed, and I’ve always felt like his choice of a camo backpack was interesting against this background. He’s caught in a pensive moment, sandwiched between the trappings of military aggression and the realities of it, with his hand on the strap. It feels like a turning point moment.

Probably any form of photography can feel sacred and “informed from above,” but most seem to have that connection in the motivation and in the end product, while street connects to that feeling as a part of the process. Miksang might come closest with its contemplative philosophy-of-seeing approach, but the nature of its spirituality seems more reverent than an active partnership give and take. Star trails can be awe inspiring and soul stirring, but the action of putting your camera on a tripod and setting a timer has more in common with manufacturing than ritual. Compared to that, in a way that might be fairly unique to it, street shooting can feel like raising the camera in prayer. I’m not a religious person, but in those occasional moments I can understand the joy someone might experience when they feel like a deity has taken notice of them. I wonder how many others feel this way.

I felt like I had one of those moments with one of my favorite of my own shots:

As in the Winogrand shot, I saw the dramatic looking musician and went out of my way to get a shot of her, but after that very little was in my control. I had a few seconds to grab my shots before my extended proximity to her might make her uncomfortable. I was shooting with my phone, so I couldn’t even control the shutter speed, but the 1/15 it bottomed out at for typical low light shooting created a balance of clarity and blur that strikes me as just right for this moment. Her glance toward me just as I took the shot. The line that continues her gaze. The side tunnel on the right, framing her and mirroring the vertical white and horizontal black of her face and hair. The slight separation between hair and collar to better define her. The swooping lines of the folds in her bag, which flow into the lines of light on the left. The hanging light at top center. The bright lines on the shoes of the walker in front. The cart entering the frame from behind me just at that moment. The interesting looking track #3 sign filling in a space where various lines meet. I didn’t do any of that. This was a moment of chaos and I couldn’t do much more than take the shot as soon as I arrived at this position, which was about as close as I could get to her without feeling invasive. And I pulled the lever and waited to see what was delivered.

Postscript: After going through my own thoughts on this, I read a little more about Winogrand. This article made two comments that stood out. I ended my own thoughts with a slot machine metaphor, and it described Garry’s decline in later years this way: “By the end, Winogrand wasn’t even bothering to focus or keep his camera steady at the moment of exposure. He just clicked away, playing the world like a slot machine and losing every time.” I noted that the best street photos seem to come from opening yourself to possibilities so that you can receive the improbable instants of luck, and it shared Garry’s perspective on it: “When he was asked how much of a role accident played in his work, Winogrand replied ‘99%’ — and at some point, his luck just ran out.” I might put it a little differently: I think circumstances toward the end of his life rendered Winogrand no longer the antenna he’d once been, so he developed reception issues and had trouble tuning in to receive.

State Street (Flickr)

And faadeee… outtttt…. again: