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Everyday Astonishing: On Street Photography's Relationship to Chance

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This post is part of a series called Street Photography.
Supporting Your Street Photography: How to Stay Focused and Productive

The subject of street photography—real life—is inherently unpredictable. So when street photographers make a compelling picture of a subject they can’t predict, was it luck or was it skill?

As commonplace as photography is nowadays, the mysteries that surround an established photographer’s process continue to persist. I remember myself as a new student of photography, there were so many pictures to reject on my contact sheet, when I came across a good one, I wondered how responsible I could have been for making it. Was it just a shot in the dark, a “Hail Mary” that happened to finally hit, or was I developing a skill for capturing certain moments and certain subjects?

This is one of the most important discussions to have about photography, because it’s a question many people have about the medium—including those in the fine art community. Chance is at the heart of many of the central questions in photography, including the nature of how photography depicts the world, how photographers can harness the power of an unpredictable medium, and how to cultivate luck.

Using the Camera to See in Ways We Cannot

Cameras see in ways that humans cannot. For us, time unfolds constantly: one second into the next, it just continues moving forward. But cameras record slivers of time and distill moments into a single still visual. Making street photography, as Garry Winogrand so simply put it, is a way to “see what the world looks like in photographs.”

Time and opportunity are the street photographer’s muse. You can’t know exactly what will happen in any given 1/125 of a second, but if you decided to release the shutter, you had a hunch that the coming fraction of time, compressed just right, might make a good picture. When we take a picture, we are betting on the future based on our instincts and our experience, and we hope that our position and angle, depth of field, shutter speed—and all the many conscious and unconscious decisions that brought us to be where we are, seeing what we see—are capable of capturing this unknowable sliver of forthcoming time.

We walk the streets, like Diane Arbus said, “in a condition of being in a state of conversion to anything.” This is the core of the street photographer's stance. It is a way of being with the world, a particular comfort with not knowing, an invitation for chance to play a role in our picture-making and our lives. We look forward to being converted into the next moment—whatever that moment might comprise.

The picture we imagine in the moments before we click the shutter and the photograph we make are never an exact match. The camera can capture tremendous detail. It can record more depth and width in a scene than we can take in at once. It can freeze and blur objects in motion (and hint at the nature of time). We can only ever imagine what the photograph will be: there is always something more to the photograph than what we experienced and anticipated in the moment. Each picture contains its own universe.

Perhaps here we have stumbled upon a partial, but nonetheless astonishing description of the creative act at the heart of serious photography: nothing less than the measuring and folding of the cloth of time itself.—Paul Graham

Yet there are those who are more adept at walking into the unknown and coming out with a picture that has meaning. Obviously those photographers have a deep knowledge of and familiarity with their equipment, and they put their time in photographing, but if their subject is unpredictable, how are those photographers in the right place at the right time more often than others? Does luck or chance have something to do with it, as it so often appears to the viewer who is not privy to the photographer’s process?

Gladly Accepting the Unknown

The answer is yes and no—but mostly no. Street photographers can’t perceive exactly what they are just about to create: the future is innately unknowable. They are not like painters, who deliberately make brush strokes here and there on a canvas and are in total control of their output. But still, street photographers do have some power over the unpredictable ways of the future. We have two important ways we can take action toward making good pictures: we can recognize opportunities when they arise, and we can understand and make use of the law of cause and effect. 

Flushing Avenue, Border of South Williamsburg and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, 2016. Photograph by Amy Touchette

Being Open to What Opportunity Looks Like

If I had to summarize what street photographers do, I would say they are in the business of intuitively seizing opportunities that come their way. Luck doesn’t always come with a sign above it that says, “Follow me, I lead to really great things.” In fact, some metaphorical signs above good luck seem to say just the opposite.

Think of a time in your life when a really unfortunate event led to something really fortunate. Often referred to as “a blessing in disguise,” these events couldn’t have transpired without one another. In retrospect, we change our opinions about the so-called misfortune and become thankful it began the chain reaction in the first place.

This dynamic also plays out on the street—albeit not usually in such extreme disguise. For example, as you look through your viewfinder you might think, “Wow, this picture would be so beautiful if a woman in an orange dress walked into the frame.” Not long after, a man in a red suit walks into your frame. He’s not who you were hoping for, but suddenly the picture turns into quite a beauty nonetheless, and you snap the shot. Who needs the lady in orange, now that the man in red came through?

Opportunity or “luck” comes in many different shapes and forms, and the majority of them are impossible to predict. But we can get into the habit of being open to the ways that luck manifests, and that’s the skill that successful street photographers have (and regularly hone). It is why, as I so often say in these articles, that to photograph is to receive a lesson in living. Many of the skills involved in being a good street photographer are the same skills it takes to live an easeful and fulfilling life. One of the biggest is learning to go with the flow, to accept what is laid before you, and to take advantage of the gifts life offers—and there are always gifts.

Street photography demands we stay agile, open, and hopeful about the future. The longer we practice street photography, the more confident we become that we’ll be able to see and seize opportunity when it comes knocking, no matter what its shape or form.

Make Your Own Luck

There is the expression “you make your own luck,” and it definitely applies to street photography.

Street photographers aren’t clairvoyant, but they are very sensitive and aware, and they have spent many, many hours making art in the arms of life’s unpredictable nature. As a result, they’ve collected observations and experiences that unveil patterns and consistencies. One of the most important of these insights is that the world functions mainly on the law of cause and effect.

Everyone is aware of their physical and social surroundings, that's how humans navigate the world. Street photographers, however, practice a special kind of awareness. If you photograph the same place over and over you will begin to notice patterns. Maybe you start to notice how people tend to favor certain spots, like a park bench here or a stoop there. Or you start to see how foot traffic moves usually on the shady side of the street. In every neighborhood there are times of day that are busy with people bustling off to work or coming home with children after school. In every place, the interplay of sunlight and environment changes throughout the day.

If you spend enough time in a place, you can get an intuitive feel for its rhythm. If you get the feel for enough places, you can begin to get an eye for broader rhythms in how people and their environments interact and flow together. Do it enough and, even if a particular place is new to you, you will be able to see patterns everywhere. In our example above, the hypothetical window and man in a red suit, it's the combination of our openness to the possibility of chance and our awareness of flow—knowing how people move—that gives us the intuition to stay in a place until a picture comes along. Some places and times are better for picture making than others: you can learn to identify these "lucky" spots, and put yourself in them.

Creating Causes That Produce Effects

While staying open to the many forms that luck takes is key, and watching the flow of a place is essential to help us get oriented and aware, what truly unlocks our availability to make great pictures is understanding that we can achieve effects based on causes we put into place.

Luck is a word devoid of sense. Nothing can exist without a cause.—Voltaire

For example, when we are out making street photographs, there are certain things we can do to increase our chances of getting the pictures we’re after. We can encourage people to trust us by acting genuinely while we photograph. We can use certain words and embody certain emotions that help subjects who mistrust candid photography accept our taking a photo of them without their permission. We can wordlessly put people at ease by taking fluid actions, and we can prevent ourselves from causing effects we don’t want—suspicion and apprehension—by not taking jarring, inconsistent, or skittish movements. And we can choose to go to places where we feel engaged and present.

Putting Out Signals: The Law of Attraction

There are also some more mysterious cause-effect dynamics at play out there that are important to acknowledge. For example, when we take on a bad attitude or are cynical or paranoid we tend to attract more of what we are so upset about. Perhaps it’s all we see; because we are so embroiled in our negative mindset, a veil of our unsavory perspective falls over everything. Perhaps it’s also because of the law of attraction: we invariably send out signals that reflect our mindset, and the energy around us responds to those signals in like terms.

If we want to gain more control of the wild west that is life, we have to be what it is we are looking for, and not be what it is we despise so much. Changing our ways is hardly ever easy; usually it requires a deep, honest look at why we get bogged down in various thoughts and the energy of a champion to dedicate ourselves to new ways.

We are what we see, much like we are what we eat, so the first thing I do when I need to analyze and change my state of mind is to figure out what my eyes have been taking in. Mindfully curating your vision—surrounding yourself with news and people and settings that are constructive, and blocking yourself from news and people and settings that inhibit your growth and ability to make positive contributions—is one extremely effective way of gaining more control.

Causes that we ourselves put into motion, like these, may not directly or quickly result in the effect we want, and they likewise may not give the exact effect we want. But, like reins on a horse, riding without them relinquishes your control and, most dangerous of all, results in the misperception that you are not responsible for how you handle what happens to you.

Conclusion

What unfolds on the street is not predictable, and that’s what most street photographers like about it. Fast-paced, full of surprises, and wild in nature, they are addicted to the challenge of capturing it and are comfortable sitting in the unknown. To increase their chances of making compelling pictures, street photographers keep a loose grip by staying open to what might present itself and taking deliberate steps to invoke what they desire.

Street photography isn't just about recognizing the flow and capturing it. Practicing street photography well entails understanding that you are part of the flow and cultivating the ability to work within it by being conscious of the signals your presence sends and taking responsibility for the effects it produces. 

To hear street photographer Gus Powell and I discuss the role chance plays on the street, among other topics, check out B&H Photography's podcast, "Collaborating with Chance and the Essence of Street Photography."

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