Excuse my French. Literally. But there’s a reason for it…
Have you ever discovered a sign, a shop, or even a building that you’ve never seen before, despite having walked by it countless times? I have. Everyone I know has. But why is this? Simple: modern city life is too fast-paced, too focused, too goal-oriented (when was the last time you wandered on the streets with absolutely no destination in mind?) for us to take in all the information and process it. That, my friends, is when street photography comes in.
Pioneered by flaneurs the likes of Eugene Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris during the first half of the last century (hence the French title), photographie de rue is a genre of photography as much as it is a type of lifestyle. With a camera in hand, a heightened awareness to surroundings, a rare appreciation for beauty in the mundane, and above all, an expert judgement in timing, it is possible to capture the “decisive moment[s]” taking place all around us in our daily lives. Coined by Cartier-Bresson, the now legendary “decisive moment” refers to the split-second occurence where every visual, emotional and philosophical element of a scene falls into the right place, allowing the photographer to preserve the essence of an event and immortalize a slice of it forever. That all sounds awfully abstract. That is why I shall now direct your attention to Shadow Study #2, my unabashedly artsy-titled street photograph that is conveniently found at the top of this article.
First of all, a crucial requirement for a street photograph is its spontaneity–it mustn’t be planned or posed. Simply put, the constant flux of urban life cannot be rendered in a setting that resembles a studio photo shoot. Instead, with a keen observation of their surrounding people, buildings, events, nature, and whatever else, photographers strive to document little snippets and happenings of life that cannot be replicated. That’s why I chose Rue Ste.Catherine, one of the busiest streets in all of Montreal, where tourists flock, street youths roam, and pigeons hold their seemingly never-ending parties. The When was near dusk, when the low sun cast tall shadows over pedestrians. The Where was near the fashion boutiques, where the latest models of outrageously expensive winter apparel changed hands. The What was that I noticed a gang of four (plus one for the little critter at the bottom right of the frame) strolling down the street, approaching my position. I took the liberty of volunteering them as my subjects. I raised my camera, bracing it with my left hand on the lens barrel. I put my eye to the viewfinder, carefully monitoring the development of the frame. I was then hit by the lack of tonal contrast in the scene. The camera-instincts in me immediately ordered my right thumb to spin the exposure compensation dial a click counterclockwise. Aha. Perfect exposure. By this point, it was just a waiting game. As the shadows of the G4+1 (no, it’s not a group of world powers) aligned themselves uncannily at the same angle, and as the gentleman to the left of the frame lifted his foot for his next step, and as the patch of sunlight spotlighted all my models like the limelights over a runway, I knew it was time to strike. With one smooth index-finger motion, I knew everything in my viewfinder clicked into place (pun unapologetically intended). A street photograph was born.
For those who are wondering why anyone would spend their free time (or the lack thereof) rambling on the streets, photographing strangers’ lower bodies and how the shapes and forms of their shadows echo that of a pigeon’s, allow me to justify this fine art. Street photography is important. Plain and simple. In an age where passers-by on the road bump into each other because they all have their eyes glued to the smartphones they are holding, it is imperative that we stay alert to what is going on around us. For there are so many beautiful signs, shops, and even buildings that have yet to be discovered and appreciated. The paradox of modern city life is that opportunities abound–so much so that every single one of them is at risk of being missed. The next time you’re walking down your favourite street, try to keep your eyes scanning around instead of staring downwards. Unless more decisive moments are about to be made by pigeons on the sidewalk.