The Street: A Shifting Canvas

Many things have been referred to as ‘poetry in motion.’ To me, it is with reference to photography that the metaphor rings true. As still as the capture of moving objects in one split-second frame maybe, it is one of the most alive and the most potent of arts. This implicit potential is especially present in photographs portraying motion. Photography of non-living objects does not necessarily entail photography of still or lifeless objects. Objects that lack life may yet be alive, and brimming with activity. And worthy of observation.

A wave on the verge of breaking, a spinning Ferris wheel, sand kicked up by running feet, a flag flowing in the wind… all these make for examples rich in potential. Their still images invoke a sense of anticipation; it is not only the skill of observation which is applied, but also that of imagination in expecting and predicting implied motion. They appeal to the intellect as well as to emotion. The concept of motion in photography itself is a topic worthy of a thesis of its own.

The genre of photography that never ceases to intrigue me is street photography. Be it the busy confusion of the main road, or the quiet routine of a neighborhood lane, streets are seldom stagnant, and seldom boring. One may spend an entire day in the same spot by a street, with the ‘eye’ of one’s camera aimed in the same direction, and click the button unwittingly every half-hour and still be able to assemble a multifarious array of shifting, changing, dynamic forms, with no single photograph like any other.

Many factors play pivotal roles in the creation of such an array: lighting, movement, time, weather. Any single one of these acting on their own could produce as dynamic and surprising results; acting together, the effects are unpredictable, to say the least. What makes street photography all the more valuable is that it is impossible to recreate the exact conditions that brought about a certain picture.

Photographs taken during a traffic jam on a Monday evening evoke a sense of urgency of the vehicles returning home. It is not the drivers, but the vehicles driven by them, that take on a life of their own and represent this urgency as they wait impatiently for the light to turn green. A plethora of expletives can be captured in a single photograph. A picture showing a million droplets of water on the surface of glass through which are visible a multitude of uniformly black umbrellas, rushing through the sleeting rain sends a chill down one’s spine; the blurriness recreates a feeling of capriciousness, a foreboding mirroring the skies above.

A small neighborhood lane photographed on a Sunday morning tells the tale of a schoolchild’s life: leaving behind all thoughts and memories of the daily drudgery of homework and routine, he is free to play and explore the street near his home with others like him, and never run out of possibilities; just as the photographer would not run out of possible frames to capture motion and its implied meaning: the trajectory of a football followed by a flying chappal, flying kites, and paper airplanes, fleeting colors of the sky that darken without being noticed… nothing remains stable.

A crowded road in the old city contains more types of traffic than can be imagined. It is filled with pedestrians, autorickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, bullock-carts, push-carts, scooters, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, SUVs, vans, buses, trucks… none of which are out of place; each creates its own niche in the movement of the street. There is no periodic motion here, no traffic cop or signal conducts this movement. It is created on its own, organic, misguided, evolutionary. Layers of activity, from trade to street performance to celebration, overlap here. One may spend weeks together photographing this particluar scenario, and never exhaust all initiatives, nor exhaust oneself.

Experience has it that theory and practice are both witness to the fact that returning to the ‘scene of crime’ over and over in search of the same will never be satiable, but will instead open avenues to explore the ever-shifting canvas of the street. Photography is, and will always remain, in the fleeting moment, and nowhere else.

This entry was published on December 5, 2008 at 17:26 and is filed under ArchiRave. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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