You’re a photographer standing on the sidewalk. Your camera is focused. The light is perfect. Shadows make sharp angles and dramatic contrasts in the street. That moment of stillness has arrived where you can capture exactly what you want—your perception of reality and maybe even art.
There is a beggar. His black arm is outstretched across a white expanse of sidewalk. A white hand, hanging slack, ignores the beggar’s plea with callous indifference. In your sights you have a most striking social image, which cries out across the immense gulf between peoples! You’ve gotten lucky.
This image was taken by photographer Minhaj Haque a 23 year old immigrant artist who prides himself in his representation of New York City grit through street photography and guerilla filmmaking as he covers the underground lifestyle.
Did you think you were alone in this creative act? Oh no! You are not alone in this blissful state of making something new. Who or what else contributes to the creative act?
It’s not just the photographer who creates the art. Whether it’s just a person or two or a nearly deserted city street corner, the subject matter is an active participant in the creative process. Later on, the viewer of the art will also have a hand in the creation.
This photograph of the New York street was taken by photographer Berenice Abbott whose work I love. According to Abbott, it’s hard for any artist to choose her favourite work. “I always say “how can you choose among your children? You love them all.”
But Berenice says with passionate vision, “Suppose we took a thousand negatives and made a gigantic montage…containing the elegances, the squalor, the curiosities, the monuments…the strength, the decay, the past, the present, the future of a city – that would be my favorite picture.”
The photographer When we look at photographs, we focus, naturally enough, on the photographer’s skill, choice of subject matter, composition and all the technical details about the camera. At that very moment, it is her imagination and perceptiveness of a lifetime combined with all thought, feeling and judgment within her which creates the image and the art. But if the subject is a person, that one photograph alone can tell the viewer at least two stories, that of the photographer’s life and the subject’s life. Everything in those lives is recorded in that single instant when the shutter snaps.
Take a look at this photograph by Vivian Maier, the babysitter and compulsive photographer, whose work has just recently been discovered after her death in 2009. Devotion to her art marched her all over New York and Chicago, camera always in hand, to take pictures apparently for her eyes only.
According to her official website, this artist was “strong, heavily opinionated, highly intellectual, and intensely private. She wore a floppy hat, a long dress, wool coat, and men’s shoes and walked with a powerful stride. An unabashed and unapologetic original.”
Have all you Jungians in the crowd “analyzed” her photograph yet? Her shadow [and we know what that means] dominates the foreground and stretching out into the distance is something that looks like a huge and jagged crack. A split in the psyche perhaps? How distant she is from the other humans in the picture. She is very large and they are very tiny. Enough said.
The subject matter [people] I love this photograph taken of an elderly woman traversing Madison Avenue with her walker.
Walking around New York City, I’ve always had a feeling that some street “theatre” [people caught up in the human drama of life] might break out on any corner at any time. Often it does. In this photo I can well imagine something interesting could occur.
Such a fantastic contrast of young vs. elderly! We can easily imagine this old woman’s life, which must be painful to say the least. But she seems unaware of the contrast she makes with the young, supple woman in the poster.
What does that tell you about her? Perhaps she has those very admirable qualities of determination and persistence in the face of severe physical limitations. Or maybe she doesn’t give a damn about the contrast and just carries on as best she can.
This photo starts a conversation about the old woman. I could easily imagine an entire life for her and this could be the inspiration for a short story or maybe even a novel? And so, she has, in addition to the photographer, contributed her entire life up to this point in time to this creative process. Art begets art.
Subject matter. Place or setting The place in a photograph is a lot like a setting in a novel. But it’s more than just the place your characters go about. It sets your atmosphere and mood of perhaps loneliness and despair or joy and excitement. A really good writer will spend much time selecting just the right details to convey these feelings.
Just look at this photograph of the New York jazz club, the Village Vanguard [beside] taken in 1976. What does this place contribute to the photographer’s creative process? Yes, it contributes the material and the setting but I think it also contributes much history, mood and atmosphere of place. Many of the jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane played here. I sense the excitement of exploring the myriad of really interesting places in New York City and this is one of my favourite spots. If you look long enough, I think you’ll begin to hear the music.
This is another photograph by Vivian Maier which looks like it was shot in front of The Metropolitan Museum of Art sometime in the early nineteen fifties of New York City. The setting [the museum] tells us something about this woman and contributes much to the whole photograph. Along with her pearls, dress and hat of the woman, the picture tells me that she is of a certain class—the ones who have time and money for lunch at the Met. Perhaps so but what is she looking at off camera? Who knows! Maybe she’s just careful in the traffic. A great photo, as with any art including writing, raises scores of questions. It’s not the answers which are important just food for the inquiring mind.
The viewer Let’s look at the viewer [that’s you and me] of the photograph. What do we contribute? We are the ones who appreciate, assess and comment upon the work. And if enough people like and talk a lot about a photographer’s [any artist’s or writer’s] work, then we add something—recognition of the art that went into the creation. Just think of Vivian Maier who kept her treasure trove in hundreds of boxes which was discovered only by chance after her death. It’s the viewer who can make the difference between a photo that gets stuck at the bottom of a drawer and one that hangs in an exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I remember reading that the novelist Proust said reading literature enlarged our sense of what was considered “normal”. And that would surely increase our understanding of human beings. Of course, this would apply to any form of art. That way we might grow more accepting of others. If we hope to break down barriers among ourselves and lose our fear of the other, the stranger, this would seem to be a good thing to do.
Urban areas make us bump and jostle up against one another and tensions can arise from that. But I think that a certain energy and creativity can also grow from that. When we reflect that creativity is born of a magical interchange among the photographer, the subject matter [people and place], and the viewer, we see that we may love street photography because it makes us stretch ourselves.
What else does the viewer gain? If serendipity is at work, the viewer may be greatly inspired to create something after viewing that elderly lady and her walker because it illustrates the human condition. So art inspires art.
We humans are very very curious and social in nature. Looking at street photography somehow enlarges us by giving us a sense of who our fellow humans are. Perhaps we can say that street photography allows us to be gawkers at a safe distance.
Have you had that creative moment where everything just suddenly comes together? Maybe it’s after days, months or even years of trying. What did it feel like? Please leave your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.
If you like to read about and think about art, life, love and creativity, why not explore my two trilogies set out below.
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing. I am working on a seventh novel provisionally entitled The Wondrous Apothecary which I hope to have published in 2018.