You get that one moment. That’s it. You either get the shot or you don’t. And let’s face it, most often, you don’t. And in some types of photography, there’s no second chance. I love that. I hate that.
Yesterday was a cold, bright, sunny day. A good day for a guy with a fine little street camera to take a walk through the city. As I was walking along I saw this dark gash of an alleyway running between a building and a parking garage. I have a thing for alleys, so I decided to wander down it. But it was on the other side of the street; I had to wait for traffic to clear before I could jaywalk to the alley.
As I stood there I saw an obscure shape moving in the alley. A guy. A guy with a red hat. And I knew there might be a photograph to be made.
This is what I love: sometimes you can anticipate that moment. You can see the shot developing. You can visualize all the elements potentially moving into place. Potentially, that’s the key. It’s all about the potential, because any number of things can happen to totally fuck up the situation. A cloud might obscure the light. A car might pass in front of you at the critical moment. A passerby could throw off the balance of the composition.
I saw the guy with the red hat. A moment earlier I’d noticed a doorway with a red logo at about head level. I figured there was a good chance the guy was going to walk out of the dark alley and into the light. So I hurried to my right so I could include both the red hat and the red logo — and the moment I began moving I also began to kick myself in the ass. I was thinking “Idiot, you should have closed in on the alley and caught the guy stepping into the sunlight.” But it was too late to change my mind. I’d committed myself to a wide shot.
Sometimes the shot never comes together. You know that going in, of course. Sometimes all those elements you saw moving together simply move away from each other. The guy could turn around and go back down the alley. He could step out of the alley, but remove his red hat. Somebody could could open the door with red logo. So many things could go wrong.
But they didn’t. Things not only didn’t go wrong, they actually got better The guy stepped out of the alley and into the sunlight, just like I’d hoped he would. His red hat was almost perfectly in line with the red logo on the door, just as I’d hope it would. And then a little black and white dog followed him out.
So I took the shot.
The guy gets lost, the red hat gets lost, the red logo gets lost, even the little dog gets lost. I think the photo might work if it was printed very, very large — but dammit, it doesn’t work at this scale. It just doesn’t.
Even when all the elements do come together — even when it all coheres perfectly and organically, as if it was predestined — even when you get the shot you want, it might not actually be the shot you want.
It gets worse. I got the shot I wanted. I knew it as soon as I released the shutter. I’d no idea it wouldn’t turn out, of course, but at that moment I knew I’d got the shot. I felt satisfied and full of myself. For maybe half a second. Even as I was lowering the camera, I saw the guy hold something out in his hand. The little dog leaped up to get it. And I missed it.
Photography is a brutal bastard. And I must be masochistic, because I’m okay with that.