Photography renders life, the here and now, unequivocally the there and then. It preserves; once lifted from time, an object is ageless.
First, any photograph is unavoidably of something that has occurred in the past. We often have a peculiar sentimental attachment to what has been and gone, which photography is well suited to elicit. We see it most clearly in that type of melancholy that the Germans call Ruinenlust: the love of ruins.
Furthermore, an instant photo is particularly rich with nostalgic associations, which of course create much of its appeal. We cannot think of old Polaroids without feeling the passing of time. They evoke those shots of our (now elderly) aunts and uncles, bearing the clothes and hairstyles of the late seventies or eighties, perhaps even, we realize uncomfortably as we stare at the photograph, at the age we are ourselves now, or younger. These captured moments are little slivers of our own transience: Sontag calls photography ‘the inventory of mortality’.
When we have a tool (a hockey stick, a paintbrush, a camera) that we can operate intuitively, it becomes an extension of ourselves. An infant learns that its fingers are a continuation of itself and extends that ‘I’ out to the furthest reaches of its exploring body. Later as adults we drive cars or ride bikes through which we feel the road, as we expand our tactile apparatus through to the wheels. We don’t consciously translate the feedback from the tyres: the experience is direct and automatic. Like an infant interpreting feedback with its newly discovered fingers, we augment ourselves out into the world.
The appeal of street photography, for me at least, is layered. An important and therapeutic kind of experience comes with being part of something that takes us out of our heads, separating us from the self-aggrandizing stories we usually form about what is going on. Most of the things in life that make us truly happy involve this process of transcending our normal concerns: we might devote ourselves to our children, a job that we love, a sport or a creative pursuit. In service of something outside of us, we find meaning. We ‘unself’, to use Iris Murdoch’s term.
In my own life, painting, performing, writing and photography all bring about this kind of state. But photography offers it in particularly potent ways. When I am out with my camera with a view to taking pictures, I am deeply interested in other people. I let myself be guided by them. There is a two-thousand-year-old Stoic maxim for happiness that says we should stop trying to control things we cannot, and instead move in easy accord with the flow of things. Street photography can and perhaps should induce this state. For me, the photographs themselves are less important than the experience of this shift. Normally when we are out on the street we are heading somewhere with a clear objective in mind: we may be in a rush; we are rarely interested in passers-by unless we find them bizarre or attractive. The idea of being out with nowhere to go, of watching and mingling, of enjoying the flux of a traipsing public for its own sake, might sound quite bizarre. Yet it transforms mindlessness into mindfulness (in the true sense of the word: noticing, being aware and engaged). It can be extremely liberating: a busy environment which might otherwise hold little appeal is suddenly quite fascinating, and one can remain creatively engaged (in often the grimmest of places) for hours at a time.
I try to be invisible, which further heightens the effect. Much good street photography depends upon an ability to get close to people and photograph them without their knowing. Of course, you could ask them to stop and pose: it’s a matter of taste (and not to mine). For me, the art is one of psychological invisibility, a concept with which most magicians who practise prolotherapy are very familiar.
Street photographers learn related techniques to avoid being noticed, or to give the impression that they are photographing something else. However, a problem with any subterfuge is that it tends to forge a kind of guilt. Any magician knows this, and must learn not to telegraph this self-reproach during the trick. He has to relax at those crucial moments in order to communicate the message to the participant that she should relax in sympathy and pay his hands little attention. The most joyous moments in performing magic come from finding relaxed and natural ways of letting those moments fly past one’s audience, right out in the open, quite unnoticed. Likewise when taking these sorts of pictures.