I took a long trip with my wife recently around the Northeast and had the chance to look at quite a bit of work while we were out. One thing that constantly kept nagging at me was serendipity and photography.
My first encounter with serendipity on the trip was driving through the New York countryside and coming across the Aperture warehouse and bookstore. Both my wife and I were slightly confused seeing the sign as we zipped through town so we turned around and headed back. I finally bought a copy of Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places and my wife bought an August Sander portrait book. We brought the dog into the bookstore and spent an hour or two just looking at books.
Later in the trip I picked up a copy of Helen Levitt’s Slideshow and really got to thinking about how serendipity plays such a huge part in the photos in that book that are successful to me. Personally I could edit that book down to about ten photographs that I think are excellent and the rest are only so-so to me. The photos that are by far the best in my mind are the photos that contain, and I really hate to use this word but I have no other word for it, punctum. There I said it. The elements of the photos that could have only happened by being in the exact right place at the exact right moment and having one if not more magical things happening bring it home for me. Don’t get me wrong here, there are many other photos that are successful on a level of visual elements and geometric elements and even wonderful use of color but most of them just don’t make the grade in my book. I need something more.
That’s where good old serendipity comes into play.
I picked up another book of street photography by a photographer whose name I can’t even recall now. It was a Blurb book, self published, and contained black and white street photography from the last decade. Using the same editing measures I had just used I edited this book down to one photo. One out of about 75. Again there was lots of well taken photos in here but only one hit me on a level that I would consider worthy of memory.
Part of this has to do with the sheer amount of photos I have seen in the last 15 years. I have graduated to a different level of looking at photography and enjoy photography on my own terms now and not just the ideas handed to me by my teachers and peers over the years. I don’t think by any means that this is the way that everyone should look at photography. I think everyone needs to develop there own ideas about what they enjoy and find successful in photography. This is also not the only thing I look for when looking at photographs, it is just something I have recently become conscious of in my own likes and dis-likes when it comes to looking at photos.
I look at a lot of contemporary work and I feel that a lot of it is missing this element of serendipity. For the record here, I don’t believe this is the only thing that can or does make work successful, but is just one added element among many. It is however one of those elements that can push a photo over the edge for me into a photo that I just can’t forget. It is something I often look for in my own work and when I am out photographing. Sometimes the serendipity is simply discovering a place to photograph, sometimes it is one element juxtaposed against another, and sometimes it is just magic.
I was reminded of this once again when I went to see the Richard Avedon fashion show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I was once again admiring the photograph of Dovima with the elephants. Story has it that Avedon was walking by, saw the elephants, saw the lighting and had to make the photo. Avedon had a flair for waiting for the exact right moment to click the shutter. Considering he was using an 8×10 most of the time this makes it all the more amazing.