Every picture tells a story, don’t it?
Susan Sontag, in her critical essay collection, On Photography, writes that each still photograph is a privileged moment. Nowhere is this more true than on the streets and in other public spaces, where realities are interpreted by the photographer and his or her lens, where each moment is a unique blend of location, light and movement, and of the photographer’s tools, technique and vision, and of happenstance, as these elements come together in a particular way at just the right moment to create a unique candid image.
The king of what’s commonly referred to as street photography, a Frenchman by the name of Henri Cartier-Bresson, famously talked of the decisive moment in photography, the moment when it all comes together in a scene, the optimal moment to release the shutter and produce a memorable photo. He phrased it much more eloquently, but then he was a Frenchman.
Out on the streets, I’ve released that shutter thousands of times in the last few years, trying with varying degrees of success to capture all manner of decisive moments, and the thing about photos is that they’re but a split-second fragment of a greater reality. While a good photo tells a meaningful story, all photos are surrounded by stories. Stories about the taking of and the making of the photos – in a sense, portraits of the photographer. Also stories of the places the photos were taken, and of the people and the events depicted in the stories, or records of life around the photographer. These contexts are often richer than the photographs themselves.
My unremarkable photo of an interior wall looks to be a forgettable snapshot. Why did I take it? Why did I keep it? What possible stories could I tell about it?
I almost always have my camera with me and regularly take photos of people, places or things I find interesting around town and for personal memories. This photo was taken in one of my favorite cafes in Tokyo. I like the place because the coffee’s good, the cafe is run by a team of friendly women, the space, though designed to an industrial chic aesthetic, is comfortable. It’s set back from the street and I like that it has a glass facade that softens the concrete bunker ambience. I enjoy sitting with my coffee at the counter looking out at the street.
The cafe is interesting because it also regularly doubles as an event space; sometimes it’s a pop-up store, or a makeshift art school, or the site of a product launch or project collaboration, or it functions as a yoga studio. You get the idea. It has some soul. It’s quirky. The management is creative.
Anyway, back to my photo. A few months ago on a cold winter’s afternoon, I dropped in for a coffee. The place was pretty full - it was a Sunday - and I sat at the back, where I noticed the heart shaped photo collage. It was new and seemed a perfect addition to the space, adding some color and a playfulness to the neutral, hard edges of the interior, reflecting both the femininity of the staff and the creative energy of the cafe. I liked the plant positioned in the left of the frame and the girl who was sitting by the plant and who balanced the scene perfectly. The problem, photographically, was the three chatty young guys, sitting with their luggage on the right between my camera and the heart, who didn’t fit the mood of the scene at all.
The guys eventually left, but by then so had the girl, and I ended up with a simple picture of a somewhat melancholy empty urban space made cheerful up by a large spotlit heart of snapshots taped to the wall, and a plant flanked by a few stray photos, which I kind of liked anyway.
Back at my computer, as I was processing the photo, I noticed that the heart collage images were of the cafe, its staff and customers. And I remembered the time I visited a few weeks earlier, when a photographer was taking what I assumed were promotional shots for the business. As I looked at the photos under the magnifying loupe, I noticed that in the center there was a picture of me, sitting at the front counter by the window. I had unknowingly taken a self-portrait. And my portrait was, unknown to me, part of an artwork hanging on the wall that I framed with my camera and took a photo of. I like the poetry and symmetry of that and I like that this photo relies on a different type of timing and serendipity to that espoused by Cartier-Bresson. And so my snapshot holds a special meaning for me, rendering it not so unremarkable.
1. For those of you in Tokyo who like good coffee, the cafe is Lattest, in the Omotesando neighborhood.
2. The collage, sadly, is no longer there, so the photo is now also an archival record of an artwork that no longer exists.
3. Henri Cartier-Bresson actually said:
To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.
To take a photograph means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second– both the fact itself and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.
5. Every picture tells a story. If you have a photo with a story you’d like to share, the A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words collection might be just the place for it.