Serendipity’s Role in Photography

Most photographers will tell you that serendipity plays a large part in their work. Those fortunate moments when the gods shine on us. When the elements of a good picture fall into place, we are in the right place, we have our wits about us, and we manage to capture the moment.

Most photographers with a bit of experience will also tell you that if you really work at it, practically day in and day out, you may be fortunate enough to get a world class picture every year or so. If that notion was good enough for Cartier-Bresson it should be good enough for most of us. I’m happy to accept the philosophy.

I think the two most difficult aspects of photography are landscape and street shooting. Photographers will appreciate they have absolutely no control over any of the elements which make the difference between a mediocre picture and one which brings the bacon home. Landscape photographers will revisit a location many times, note the light, the time of year, weather patterns. They may camp for a few days, knowing the weather is changeable and will ‘happen’ for them. Similarly street photographers like to be around people, watching the elements which may form a picture and be ready when it happens. I’ve been known to follow two or three nuns for hours (that’s not true – but a lot of minutes anyway) and still fail to get a decent shot. Street shooting and landscape photography are like going fishing. Sometimes you catch something, sometimes you don’t. Either way it’s always good fun.

A few years ago (about 1972 to be precise) I was in Brighton, England, and happened to be looking at a wall who’s bricks had been carefully painted, alternately black and white. I took a couple of frames and turned to carry on walking when I saw this couple walking towards me. So I waited:

Brighton Promenade, England 1972

© Roger Garwood 2012

It was a one framer, no second chance, no control over the picture. Leica M2, 50mm Summilux, Tri-X. Exposure would have been about 1/250th @ f8.

I count this as the first conscious moment of being aware of the part serendipity plays its hand in the work of the street shooter.

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5 thoughts on “Serendipity’s Role in Photography

  1. Who was it who said “Chance flavours the prepared mind”?

    Yes, it is about being prepared to accept serendipity, but command of technique is needed to make it work

    Which reminds me of a photographer who abandoned his Leica for just one day and at his morning coffee ritual walked into a cafe where a well caroused couple were sleeping leaning against each other – His description was at least as visually powerful as the image would have been

    1. Thanks John. I don’t really think I wanted to be reminded of the one that got away! But we live and learn, sometimes anyway.

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