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  • Writer's picturePaul Kessel

Luck and Street Photography

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

When I was a sophomore in high school, I tried out for the baseball team. I loved baseball and just like I always carry a camera with me, now, my baseball glove was always with me. I became a very proficient fielder. My hitting ability was mediocre. The coach watched me hit and the assistant coach pitched balls to me. Almost every swing resulted in a long line drive, the likes of which I had never done before. Each hit would probably have been a home run or at least an extra base hit. After a few minutes, I was assured a spot on the team.

In my three years playing varsity baseball after that, I never came close to hitting one pitch with the velocity, distance, and power as I did on that day. It didn’t matter if it was in practice or during a game. It seemed like the tryout batting prowess belonged to someone else.

Moving forward many decades to the present, I became a proficient street photographer. I made some decent pictures and a few good projects over the years. Then in 2019, almost 70 years since the baseball tryout, I achieved a photograph comparable to those baseball hits. My photo “Q Train” has won prestigious awards beyond my wildest dreams and has been written about many times. Comparison has been made to renaissance paintings. The photograph has been exhibited in many countries.

What accounts for isolated incidents like the two mentioned above? I am not referring to merely a rise in the level of proficiency or achievement. I mean a vast qualitative gain that is experienced as “not me”. Granted, hitting a baseball and making a photo are vastly different endeavors. Moreover, the outcome of one is free of the subjective judgement involved in the other. The baseball incident is more mysterious. The photography one can be accounted for almost entirely by luck. However, it clearly is not an instance of press the shutter often enough and anyone can get a good picture on occasion. I have enough good pictures before and after “Q Train” to rule out luck as the only important variable. Moreover, not one but many knowledgeable photographers have judged the photograph in similar ways. Most basically, it is a matter of luck combined with being prepared to utilize it. Twyla Tharp, the dancer, and choreographer writes about luck in her book, “The Creative Habit”. It is a long and brilliant discussion that has definite relevance for photography and particularly street photography where luck plays such a vital role. Recently, Matt Stuart wrote about the role of luck in his book, “Think Like a Street Photographer.”

Below are a few examples of photographs that highlight the role of luck.

In the photo of the girl in front of a store window, I never consciously saw the figurine in the background.

The second photo of the woman talking would be meaningless without the man with an infant walking by at just the right time and in the right spot. I never saw him. The picture became one about gender role change.

The third photo is highlighted by a beautiful parallel between the woman’s hands and the picture of hands on the side of the bus behind the woman and man. The bus appeared at just the right time.

Above is “Q Train”. I looked up and there they were. I had been looking at the back of my camera and didn’t see them enter the train and sit across from me. However, I was prepared to make the necessary settings on the camera to get the candid picture.

As for the “not me” baseball hitting performance, I will never understand how that happened.

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