Making the Shot
I was left with a heavy heart after missing the shot during my previous day in New York. It was like developing a roll of film only to find it blank. Sometimes those decisive moments escape you.
I was in Manhattan as part of an American road trip. A trip that ultimately spanned six-months, 38 states, and more than 20,000 miles on the road. As such, my time spent travelling across this vast country was divided with careful economy. I often found myself under pressure to capture a place within strict time limits; a few days here, a few hours there. The previous day highlighted the downside of this photographic reality; striving for a shot that would not come under duress. So I wrote it off and moved on. In the city that never sleeps, I slept deeply.
The next morning I pack my gear and head out into blazing sunshine.
In China Town I find an abundance of umbrellas protecting pale skin from harsh rays. Storefronts are shrouded in shadow and multicoloured awnings make murky caves of entranceways, the streets beyond bleached with sunlight. Shoppers loom out of dark doorways and into the daylight; their bright figures in stark contrast against the shadows. Traders can be seen silhouetted against banners dense with Asian glyphs, while ever-more parasols jostle for space on the sidewalk.
TriBeCa was deserted. I couldn’t even find the Ghostbusters firehouse. There wasn’t a possessed pram or a ghostly apparition in sight. Not even a glimpse of green or a splash of slime on the sidewalk. I did eventually find the firehouse. But it was entirely the wrong kind of invisible; hidden beneath heavy scaffolding and draped in thick canvas.
One World Trade Centre, the colossal faceted spire that signalled my arrival in New York before all else, drew me to the cavernous Oculus beneath. Sunlight poured between the ribs of the roof and a latticework of shadow was thrown across the floor below. People flickered in and out of the light and darkness.
By this point in my visit the many miles on foot were slowly sapping the stamina I needed to keep raising my camera. My enthusiasm for chasing photographs was beginning to ebb away with my energy. Sushi helped. But often in this situation—whether it’s by exhaustion or better judgement—I eventually just slow down. It’s much healthier to shrug off any tension and simply take in your surroundings. Wandering and seeing the city with no pressure to make the shot is a sure way to spot new opportunities. And, well, to enjoy it too.
On this occasion I decided to switch things up after stopping. I began shooting wide instead of long. Moved from individual subjects to whole scenes, and then on to the great urban structures themselves. When I want to wind down I concentrate on the simplicity of light and shadow, form and texture. Minimalism, with no pressure or reliance on a subject. A fresh way of looking at things that ultimately unlocks more potential.
Soon afterwards I find myself at the New York Public library, a lavish Mecca of classical architecture and great works of literature. I wander the marble hallways and silent reading rooms, moving between quiet corners and bustling halls, until I come to rest in a grand space packed with extravagant detail. I stop to people watch.
A great archway is illuminated in the darkness here, backlit with natural light from an unseen window. An enormous pendant lamp hangs from the ceiling, glass glinting and candle lamps flickering. Elaborate carvings twist around graceful curves like an M.C.Escher illustration. The tones of light also evoke the artist’s work; cool masonry shaded in graphite grey like the range of an HB pencil through my viewfinder. Three handrails fall downwards, disappearing into the pool of light.
People come and go in rapid succession. Their figures shadowy in front of the bright archway, as they dart back and forth. A small child tiptoes and stretches at the top of the stairs like a gymnast warming up for the bars. Other visitors move between him and I. He stretches out with one foot, from one handrail to the next, a ballet dancer performing on point. I fire off a few shots, shorts bursts between visitors flashing across the frame. But the moment is hidden in a fuss of bodies.
I know exactly what I’m after; the small boy alone in this grand space, a freeze frame of his balletic movement. My heart thumps with the prospect of catching it, or missing it. I push forward, closing the distance. I cut out the other onlookers with decisive footwork that enables me to hold my ground and hold focus on the scene. A man wanders down the stairway and looks on as the child stretches. There’s a nice interplay between the two but the adult lessons the image, reducing the scale and distracting from an otherwise quiet moment.
I will the child to repeat his movements once more, holding my breath in anticipation that the frame will clear of everyone else. A lady approaches from the left. The boy reaches out with his foot. A space clears in the foyer. The door opens to my right. I fire off a flurry of shots just as the child stretches his leg, tip-toes pointing before connecting with the central railing. There’s a moment as if everyone else around us has frozen, the stage cleared for the star. The boy holds his form, his foot on the central rail, his figure silhouetted within an ornate frame. And then time snaps back into gear and the bustle resumes, the moment lost from the present but captured for the future.
A rush of adrenaline always arrives at times like these. On this occasion it flooded my senses as the walls were closing in.
But the final photograph is actually the result of relaxing, letting that scene come to the camera rather than chasing after it. It more than makes amends for missing the shot the previous day.
Had I not mixed up my approach with a wide angle and a change in focus, I would never have captured this scene. It would have been viewed with tunnel vision, my hand forced by a long lens. A balletic silhouette in isolation perhaps, but with none of the scale or sense of place.
It was an important reminder, a lesson played out right in front of me. If you go after a moment on the street under too much pressure, trying to force a photograph as if directing the scene, it becomes reluctant to show itself.
Sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and watching the world go by. After all, street photography is about spotting those moments that would otherwise go unnoticed. It’s about people watching. It brings to mind the words of Henri Cartier Bresson. ‘You just have to live and life will give you pictures.’
Making the Shot is part two of a two-part story. See Missing the Shot for part one. Read the latest stories from Photographer's Note, as soon as they’re published, by subscribing.
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