Saturday, March 4, 2017

Photographing The Network

A while I ago I blithely put out some ideas about a notion of "the network" of relationships that one might be able to perceive, and I proposed that this was an interesting thing to ponder while photographing. In the mean time, Russ Lewis has written a somewhat tangentially related piece in which he seems to be arguing that "the network" in my sense, roughly, equals street photography, and is really where photography is best at. This is a slightly radical stance, I think, but I see what he's getting at. Worth a read.

Since then I've had a few opportunities to photograph around and about to specifically work with these ideas "in the field" (gosh does that sound poncy) and I've drafted a piece on the subject for LuLa with some illustrations to be, perhaps, published in the next few weeks (which is most definitely poncy!).

It turns out that this is quite a difficult thing to photograph. It only takes a little effort to perceive the relationships, but committing the idea, that thing you see so clearly, to film (as it were) is not so obvious.

I'm riding a subway. A young man boards, steps across the train car to clear the doorway, and finds himself standing almost next to a beautiful young woman much his own age, engrossed (of course) in her iPhone. She does not look up. I can tell, or guess with fair reliability, that she is carefully remaining glued to her iPhone in part to fend off any attempts at conversation the young man might make. He, in turn, is exquisitely aware of her, is aware of her iPhone gambit, chooses to respects it (good boy), and studiously ignores her. However, he remains where he is, she is visible in his peripheral vision. I feel sure that he's admiring her, while carefully not looking at her. He makes no attempt to engage her but they remain 24 inches apart for another 5-10 minutes, studiously ignoring one another, until I get off the train.

This interaction, and variations on it, happen 10,000 times a day on that train. They'll happen in front of you every few minutes if you ride a subway during moderate usage times. This is one of those relationships that makes up that interesting fabric of urban life.

How do you photograph it? How do you photograph that mildly fraught crackle of tension between two young bodies working hard to create the illusion of no crackle whatsoever?

How do I photograph the way the dew lingers in this spot a little later in the day, which in turn tends to encourage this variety of tiny flower to flourish in this spot rather than a little to the west?

In a way it is the same problem as how shall I photograph the flower so as to reveal its beauty? or how shall I photograph Half Dome to reveal its majesty and the sense of the sublime I feel at this moment? but I think perhaps it is more difficult.

Relationships, between people, between automobiles, between the plants of the forest, are dynamic things. They are revealed over time, through a thousand tiny gestures, through a 1000 repetitions. Any given slice of time appears to be simply a random assemblage. In general, it is the repetition of the nearly random that reveals that a pattern exists.

I have no particular answers here, but I do know that I have seen it done.

With people there are some obvious gimmicks, the sightline, the gesture or movement captured half-completed, the occasional moment of obvious body language, the grimace and the smile. Properly assembled, these can reveal. What of emotion concealed? You have to, I suppose, find the slip-up, the accidental momentary lapse. And you have to photograph it in a way that shows it to be a momentary lapse.

What of that dew and the flower? I have no idea! Do you simply shoot wide to show the moss here but not there, should helpful moss be available to reveal the pattern of dew?

What else?

I do know that inspiration is more likely to strike you if you are consciously aware of what the abstraction is that you intend to shoot. Or, more exactly, if you do not specifically set out to photograph "the network" I do not see how you can possibly manage to accomplish except by blind luck once in a very very great while.

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