Glimpsing beauty

"Stephanie in the city" (Ian Garrick Mason, 2015)
“Stephanie in the city” (Ian Garrick Mason, 2015)

Last weekend my friend Stephanie and I went out for evening drinks, before which we did a forty-five minute twilight shoot on the sidewalks of Toronto’s Esplanade and in the alleys leading off it. Perched on a concrete outdoor staircase as I took pictures of her, Stephanie at one point looked at me curiously and asked what my “vision” as a photographer was. This essay is an extended and more thoughtful version of the answer I had to construct for her on the spot.

In fact, there’s not always a single answer to a question like that. Photography has many possible purposes, and a photographer may have a separate vision for each of his or her purposes – or even a vision for each particular shoot. But for the sake of brevity and conceptual clarity, I’ll focus only on my vision – or at least my underlying intuition – regarding the style of photography that Stephanie and I happened to be shooting at that moment: something which I might call “urban faux candid”.

My intuition concerns the meanings we assign to the sight of another human. In the world of villages and small towns where almost everyone knows each other or at least recognizes each other, a sighting is full of background knowledge: the person you see is so-and-so’s daughter; she goes to your church; she is two grades ahead of you in school. If she sees you too, a wave and a hello is mandatory and natural. Our glimpses of each other are embedded in a pre-existing, invisible bedrock of actual relationships and known history.

Not so in a big city. The randomness of a metropolis should not be overstated, mind you – after all, commuters pass through a limited set of locations on a daily basis, and it is typical to see faces repeated over weeks and months as one makes one’s way to work and back. But familiarity is not meaning. A second glimpse of a beautiful woman that one may have seen once before does not make her any better known to you. However much you may attempt to deduce from her clothing, her age, her hair, her way of standing, the presence or absence of polish on her nails, indeed whatever observations you may have captured from that glance and then filtered through your almost certainly inaccurate mental model of demographics, neighbourhoods, and character types… after all that, you don’t really know anything.

And then the subway doors open and she disappears into the crowd on the platform.

The wonder of that moment lies in both its impermanence and its indifference. She was there, and now she is gone. You may never catch sight of her again. For a few seconds afterwards you may even feel a small, instinctive ache in your heart – but your heart is worldly-wise and moves on quickly, letting your busy mind distract it from its focus of a moment before. The moment’s indifference touches you next, as you realize that it was subjectively yours – you felt it, fully, and no one else did – and at the same time, objectively, it had nothing whatsoever to do with you. The woman didn’t notice you, didn’t realize you’d noticed her, and wouldn’t have cared that you did, if she had. All through that moment (of yours) she remained concerned, naturally enough, only with her own purposes and her own thoughts.

Somewhere in this combination of the fleeting and the self-purposed, I think, is an echo of the old aesthetic concept of the sublime: the perception of beauty as an aspect of something that transcends us as individuals. The nineteenth-century Romantics saw the sublime in stormy oceans, and in sunlit mountain peaks. To them, the natural world was awesome and beautiful at the same time, and it didn’t care whether we observed it or not. It had its own purposes, its own mechanisms. Someone afforded a glimpse of the sublime was simply lucky; their personal merit had nothing to do with it. And luck has a magical feel to it that is close to grace.

It’s not really about sunlit peaks, of course; if it was, I’d shoot those. But I am attracted to this style of photography in large part because the final image doesn’t seem to assume its subject has been placed in front of a camera solely for the viewer’s pleasure. Urban faux candid (the faux is what separates it from traditional street photography, in that my subject is knowingly participating in a photosession) seeks to create an aesthetic in which beauty is apparent or discoverable – glimpsed – but not prioritized as the point of the picture. The subject is in the midst of getting things done. She (or he) has a life, and her own plans. You’re lucky to have seen her – and no, she doesn’t care that you did.

Ian Garrick Mason’s portrait, editorial, and architectural photography can be seen at www.iangarrickmason.com

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