THE PICK-UP GAME
By MICHAEL PERKINS
STREET PHOTOGRAPHY, FOR ME, INVOLVES AN OCCASIONAL BOUT OF LONGING, in that I am frequently on hand to record lives that, at least in part, I’d like to visit for longer than the length of a shutter snap. Not all street scenes are inviting, of course. Often we chronicle things that we are profoundly grateful are not part of our own lives. Other times, we accidentally preserve something that is so shrouded in mystery that the resulting images provide endless wellsprings of speculation…just what was it that we thought we saw, both at the moment of taking, and later? And then there’s what the taking of these images says about us personally. Some of our eavesdropping makes us feel privileged. Some makes us feel stained by the ugliness of our invasions.
And then there are the blessed accidents, the pictures we didn’t set out to take at all, such as the photo you see here. I was actually not in active shooting mode when I passed this pickup game of handball in a neighborhood in Queens over the past summer. To tell the truth, since I was trying to find an address at the time, I might very likely have passed these players completely by, had one of their tosses not jumped the fence of their tiny parcel of blacktop and literally rolled to my feet.
The ball re-directed my attention, as did several clear, high calls of “hey mister!” and “sir, would you mind..?” Pitching it back, I saw the boys’ playspace as the tiny oasis it was, crammed in on all sides by the neighborhood’s skyward crush. Next, I noticed the wonderful warmth of the mid-morning sun, and took a few seconds to allow the combatants to resume play, and, more importantly, forget about the Nice Old Guy Who Gave Them Back Their Ball. I took only two frames, fearful that one of the players would remember having seen the Nikon around my neck. Fortunately, the game was a much better claim on their attention, and I liked one of the tries I had made.
Street work is, more often than not, a matter of being there when someone else’s life happens. Seldom does that life reach out and ask to be noticed, to make a request on your time. In such moments, all of life becomes, for an instant, a universal pick-up game, something in which we’ve actually been invited to participate.