Chance and the effect of the real

As a practitioner I keep favouring a non-interventionist attitude. As a theorist, I keep being fascinated by indexicality, by the sense of unforeseen authenticity, the value of unexpectedness some documentary images, or documentary films, are able to communicate, provided that they (appear to) grasp the essence of real. However, as a theorist, I also know that such a sense of authenticity is itself an effect.

In Roland Barthes’ view the “effect of real” is created by the very unfunctionality of details that do not fulfil any office in particular except connoting the real. Barthes calls this “l'effet de réel,” indicating how representations look paradoxically more real when they carry a lot of details of little, if any, significance. From that standpoint the credibility of documentary images is indeed guaranteed—or, at least, reinforced—by irregularity, and deviation. The presence of elements of little significance that do not obey the laws of representative efficiency help construct the feeling that “it can’t be fake.” In documentary practice, such unfunctional details are usually unplanned, fortuitous ones: residues. These portions of unexploited material happen by chance to acquire a paradoxical status offering clues about the authenticity of the take.

Noel Burch seems to be one of the very few cinema theorists to have speculated (in  A Praxis of Cinema) on chance and its functions. He thus describes

“the fascination experienced by a creative artist when he contemplates and ‘displays’ objects or materials that he himself has not created,”

“the even greater satisfaction the artist experiences when he reworks (…) these materials fallen from another world…”

The decisive moment

Being fundamentally a photographer, I cannot avoid basing my reflection upon snapshot photography as an attempt for mastering space, place and the moment.

The decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson tersely defined it, is

“the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms which gives that event its proper expression.”

However, the state of the art, in snapshot photography, is not simply to release the shutter at the proper moment. Indisputably a major artist, Cartier-Bresson does not say everything about the process when he describes the photographer’s work as follows:

“A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye—these we should all have... If the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.” (The Decisive Moment, Simon & Schuster 1952)

The very notion of decisive moment is indeed quite ambiguous. It seems to concentrate [a whole sequence of operations] in one point in time. I myself came to understanding this in practice. Being no Cartier-Bresson, it took me a long time to realise that one cannot go chasing snapshots by:

  • idling around, waiting for something unexpected—but interesting—to happen,
  • grasping the camera, “recognising the significance as well as the organisation of form,” and pressing the shutter release button—to say nothing of focus and exposure adjustments that may be needed.

If one tries to work this way, what happens is, one does not get anything decisive at all. Decisive moments are fugitive ones, and while you are in the process of deciding there is something decisive about them, they’re gone.

The right person in the right place

In fact Cartier-Bresson himself gives another key:

“It sometimes happens that being unsatisfied you keep motionless, waiting for something to occur, sometimes everything comes untied and there will be no picture, but if for instance somebody happens to go past, then you follow their movement through the viewfinder frame, you wait, you wait… you shoot, and you go away with the feeling you have got something in your bag.”

This is fully congruent with my own experience as a photographer, as I shall show with two more examples.

Even before the “no parking project,” I was accustomed to take a number of pictures of a same pattern: a wall, in full frame, on a frontal axis, and a passer-by.

This simple scheme tended to construct some kind of relationship (on a plastic or anecdotal level) between the figure and the background.

One day I encountered an interesting graffiti in a street of Aix en Provence: a flashy, spray-painted kind of comic strip cowboy firing his gun: Pang! I prepared to take a picture. As I was waiting for a passer-by to act as an extra, a man came across and bent down not to be in the image, but looking very much as if he ducked down in order to avoid the cowboy’s shot—which is aimed however to the other side of the frame. I then realised that I had taken no time to consider whether I should take the picture or not. The man had bent precisely but unexpectedly while I was releasing the shutter.

Continued: Ducking the cowboy graffiti

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