“To want to discover something that thought itself cannot think” 1 – is perhaps the reason why some of us look at street photographs, or indeed any photographs.
For me, some photographs create a strong sense of something beyond thought, a stillness. It’s not a static slumping type of stillness, but more a feeling that we are on the brink of an abyss looking beyond, yet indifferent as to time and place. It is difficult to describe because as soon as we bring awareness of it into focused attention, it changes into something else, amenable only to intuition. So we can only approach it sideways, like playing tug of war with ourselves 2
Everything in its place
Alex Webb, a favourite street photographer of mine, has a wonderful knack for distilling order from chaos.
Here, each figure is made to be together at this instant, almost. The “almost” figure, hiding behind a book, accentuates the belonging of the others to each other. This ability to orchestrate many parts into one whole provides a sense of completeness. Our minds, abhorring chaos, find a place of immediate rest in this completeness.
A photograph by Awoiska van der Molen:
The tree sits as a sentinel on the edge of a dark wood. We immediately see its foliage and boughs but it is the blackness beyond that draws us in. As in much of her work, Awoiska celebrates shades of darkness. 3
The darkness conjures up a sense of the ineffable and the imagination is invited to play. I am reminded of a verse from Tennyson 4:
Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, has flown.
Come into the Garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad
And the musk of the rose is blown.
Paul Caponigro 5 explores the texture of darkness in this study. The darkness has its own solidity and place of repose. It is the stuff of the photograph in that here darkness is more than the absence of light.
Darkness beckons us to inquire about what is hidden. We leave the certainty of superficial surfaces to search for a deeper meaning. We close our eyes to shut out the light, taking refuge in our internal world. We leave the world of surfaces and rest in the hidden.
The photograph 6, “Transience” by Sacha Ferrier, is based on the bedside table of his dying wife.
The symbolism in this photograph needs no explanation. The underlying pathos, “tears of things” 7 confronts us with the transient reality of existence and installs in us a fresh attitude to the things around us. Objects acquire a new significance reminding us of the fact that, as Heidegger said, being is time. 8 9
There is forlorn starkness (Wabi) about the image of a single pine tree. In this photograph by a master, Bien-U-Bae, we experience a moment of solitude, even in the crowded places of our chattering minds.
Continuity of Consciousness
“Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, at the moon only when it is cloudless?” 10
This picture of long grass, also by Bien-U-Bae, points us to ordinary moments.
In today’s headlong race for consuming experiences we look for special moments. Experiences between these special moments get squeezed out as not meriting attention. They are erased from memory, edited out of our lives. We live hopping from one special moment to another and in so doing we pay little attention to each and every moment. We sleep-walk through life.
In looking at long grass afresh we remind ourselves of the specialness of seemingly ordinary moments.
In another photograph by Caponigro, the fleetingness of running white deer is as difficult to clearly see as are the ordinary moments in each day.
A photograph by Minor White:
The chipped rim and scorch marks of this bowl point to a lifetime of drama (Sabi). The dramas have gone; the bowl remains, its lived-in age bearing testimony to its own experience, calling to mind the past that made them.
Japanese street photographer, Noguchi, tells a story here about a woman’s determination to go about normal life despite adverse conditions. Difficulty need not lead to suffering. Difficulty we cannot always avoid; suffering we perhaps can. A sense of nonchalance in adversity connects us to something bigger than us.
The Little Detail
Blossfeldt’s rigour gives a sense of other-worldliness to commonplace things. Detail in approach is everything. His uniformly blank backgrounds, consistency of angle and use of natural light from northern windows together create the little details that transform his plants into more than plants. The plant, cut away from its own roots, becomes a new thing to be contemplated, like ikebana in a Japanese alcove.
In this paradoxical 11 photograph Cartier-Bresson challenges us to make sense of things much like a puzzle or zen koan. We look at the face with the cigar and we look at the man peering through a black void. Our minds cannot keep both subjects within attention at the same time and is confronted with a discontinuity in flow. With effort, the photograph appears to make sense, flow is re-established but a lingering doubt remains.
In the 1990s I was a student of Masunaga Shiatsu in London. During diagnosis we were taught to look for the hidden unmet needs or the yearning (kyo) of a person beyond the obvious presenting symptoms (jitsu). Photography has the power to help us experience ourselves as unmet needs (kyo) much like any art or music. But some photographs do this more obliquely by searching for the hidden within us, demanding to be peered into. It is these photographs, often quiet ones, that I enjoy most.
- Søren Kierkegaard; Kierkegaard, Søren (1985). Hong, Howard V.; Hong, Edna H., eds. Philosophical Fragments. Princeton University Press.p. 37. ISBN 9780691020365 ↩
- I have been interested in Japanese Aesthetics for about 45 years.
The best summary I have found of the scene is Graham Parke’s article at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Parkes, Graham, “Japanese Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries/japanese-aesthetics/> ↩
- In a manner that would have found favour with the novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (1886–1965) who extolled the virtues of shade in his essay “In Praise of Shadows” Vintage Classics (1933) – this is a short very readable work – in fact a little gem. ↩
- Alfred Lord Tennyson “Come into the Garden, Maud ↩
- Caponigro was a student of Minor White, who did much to explore Stieglitz’s ideas about Equivalents ↩
- https://alternativebarnsley.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/interview-sacha-ferrier-on-transience/ ↩
- The “tears of things,” derived from Book I, line 462 of Virgil’s Aeneid perhaps best translated by Robert Fitzgerald as: “They weep here / For how the world goes, and our life that passes \ Touches their hearts.” ↩
- Heidegger – “the basic idea of Being and Time is extremely simple: being is time. That is, what it means for a human being to be is to exist temporally in the stretch between birth and death. Being is time and time is finite, it comes to an end with our death. Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we constantly project our lives onto the horizon of our death, what Heidegger calls ‘being-towards-death‘ ↩
- In “Late Spring”, a favourite film of mine by Ozu Yasujirō, we patiently watch little happening, but as the generational conflict between father and daughter quietly builds up, we suddenly catch our breaths in a realisation that we too are patiently waiting whilst little is happening. In this waiting, objects of our experience call out and intertwine with our consciousness imbuing us with a sense of solidity until we recognise that our lived bodies are also objects of experience. The sense of solidity collapses and we are left with little to cling to. So we let go…https://youtu.be/aQMQnHyUwJM . ↩
- Yoshida Kenkō Essays in Idleness ↩
- By paradox we mean the truth inherent in a contradiction. . . . In the paradox the two opposite cords of truth become entangled in an inextricable knot . . . but it is this knot which ties safely together the whole bundle of human life.”
(G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, 1926) ↩