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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WRITING CLICHE NUMBER 5,218 STATES THAT YOU SHOULD WRITE about what you know. Mine your own experience. Use your memories and dreams as a kickoff point for the Great American Novel, or, at least, the Okay American E-book. But while the “know-it-do-it” school of technique offers writers a pretty sound foundation for scribblers, photographers need to learn how to leave their native nests and fly into unknown country. The best pictures sometimes are where you, comfortably, aren’t.
Shooting an event or lifestyle that is completely outside yourself confers an instantaneous objectivity of sorts to your pictures, since you don’t have any direct experience with the things you’re trying to capture. You’re forced to pretty much go instinctive, since you can’t draw on your memory banks. This is certainly true of combat photographers or people dropped down into the middle of fresh disasters, but it also works with anything that’s new to you.
Take square-dancing. No, I mean it. You take square-dancing, as in, I’d rather be covered in honey and hornets than try to master something that defines “socially awkward” for yours truly. I can’t deny that, on the few occasions that I’ve observed this ritual up close, it obviously holds infinite enjoyment for anyone who isn’t, well, me. But being me is the essential problem. I not only possess the requisite two left feet, I am lucky, on some occasions to even be ambulatory if the agenda calls for anything but a rote sequence of left-right-left. Again, I concede that square-dancers seem almost superhumanly happy whenever doing their do-si-doing, and all props to them. Personally, however, I can cause a lot less damage and humiliation for all concerned if I bring a camera to the dance instead of a partner.
Shooting something you don’t particularly fancy yourself is actually something of an advantage for a photographer. It allows you to just dissect the activity’s elements, using the storytelling techniques you do know to show how the whole thing works. You’re using the camera to blow apart an engine and see its working parts independently from each other.
In either writing or shooting, clinging to what you know will keep your approach and your outcomes fairly predictable. But when photography meets anthropology, you can inch toward a little personal growth. You may even say “yes” when someone asks you if you care to dance.
Or you could just continue to maintain your death grip on your camera.
Yeah, let’s go with that.