Of Hunters And Romantics

While photographic micro-scenes are everywhere, it sometimes takes a lot of work, and patience, to find them.
While photographic micro-scenes are everywhere, it sometimes takes a lot of work, and patience, to find them.
A totally-relaxed woman reads the newspaper front pages at the Newseum in downtown Washington, DC.
A totally-relaxed woman reads the newspaper front pages at the Newseum in downtown Washington, DC.
An obviously tired woman catches a catnap at the National Gallery of Art's courtyard.
An obviously tired woman catches a catnap at the National Gallery of Art’s courtyard.

Just about every street photographer you talk to these days is in pursuit of that elusive, candid moment when people are just being themselves, oblivious to anyone around them.  The less romantic interpretation of this search has been equated by some to a “hunt,” which I guess alludes to a photographer’s self-perception as a chaser of some sort, always at the ready with a camera and with the index finger on the trigger (or shutter release in this case).  Conversely, there is also a somewhat more romantic version of this street photography process.  This particular version (which we will call romantic for lack of a better term) alludes to the search for endless, small moments of human expression which take place every day in every city around the world.  At its core it refers to the desire to look for these fleeting moments in order to capture them in a photograph for all humanity to experience.  These different artistic approaches have lately left me wondering whether they are nothing but mere “distinctions without a difference,” or whether the street photographers who fall in either one of these categories are indeed different creatures practicing different forms of photography.

Arguably, a hunt conjures notions of finality, of a limited lifespan with a discernible beginning and an end.  At some level it implies that the relationship between the photographer and the subject is that of a pursuer and prey, with the final moment of capture crowning a day’s achievement by the mere act of having completed the capture.  What’s more, it would appear as if any talk of a hunt places the photographer at a different playing field as that of the subject of the hunt, as if referring to different realities that by definition have produced two very different, and distinct characters.  One is a chaser, the other the object of a chase.

In contrast, the romantic photographer doesn’t see the world this way.  For him or her it’s all about evoking human emotion in perpetuity, a desire to share what unfolded before his or her eyes for only a brief moment in the endless continuum of time.  These special moments are as random as they are unique, with only a split second decision standing as a stoic arbiter between moments that will be forgotten by history and moments that will be frozen for eternity.  That incredible visual zenith in an unfolding scene is what they live for.  For them, that “moment” like no other–the never-again visual second standing between immortality and oblivion.  It’s dramatic briefness renders it almost impossible to record on a regular basis, but the seemingly impossible odds will never stop the romantic street photographer.  On the contrary, they are the source of his or her passion–a passion which most will define by a handful of incredible “moments” captured over the course of a year out of the tens of thousands of photographs taken and thousands of miles walked during that year. Crazy? Perhaps, but not for that incurable romantic with a camera.

So next time you go out with your camera in search of those special, human moments that will visually reward you for the rest of your life, consider whether you will approach them as a hunter or as a romantic.  Will you just watch a scene unfold before you from a distant, vantage point, or will you make yourself part of that scene in order to feel the pulse and rhythm of the human drama taking place right before your very eyes.  Whatever you do, it bears remembering that you, the photographer, is what matters.  The camera is merely the equivalent of a painter’s brush, an instrument by which to translate your creativity onto a canvas that others can see.  In the end, it all boils down to the tireless pursuit of that short-lived moment in a scene when your eyes, your camera, and the strumming beatings of your heart line up in perfect harmony.  It is as rare as seeing a comet, but just as rewarding.