The Art of the Happy Accident

Some of us are always on the lookout for the unexpected. As an amateur photographer, in the time before iPhones, I developed the habit of carrying around my camera, and with it a certain level of alertness to something noteworthy that might turn up in the landscape, cityscape, or right in front of my nose wherever I happen to be. It’s true that there may be an element of obsession around not wanting to miss a great shot. And who goes anywhere without their phone these days anyway? In a previous post I wrote about appreciating and paying attention to the world of small things that easily go unnoticed, being open in a way that allows us to stop to take note, listen, see be rewarded with the recognition of a beautiful and sometimes mysterious narrative of small things going on in nature all around us.  

It’s hard to characterize the intuitive nature of readiness that I’m referring to.

Being prepared to make art isn’t an accident or driven by happenstance. But art can come out of readiness to create. I live for encounters with the unexpected, those beautiful surprises, large or small, that when the right conditions play out can be preserved in a memorable image. For me it’s about building a practiced presence in the moment, a sensibility I try to maintain in moving through the world. Obviously, spending a lot of time observing nature leads to opportunities to witness its wonders up close as well as serving as a kind of practice in and of itself.

When I think of any one of many accomplished artists whom I admire, including writers, I imagine them not only working hard to create opportunities to find and capture a unique glimpse or a window into a subject, but also to react meaningfully to the ephemeral with a practiced eye, ear, or hand, to tap into a well of insight in order to express it as something that can be experienced as truth. Robert Capa comes to mind. His often-spontaneous photographs capture an instant with dramatic eloquence combined with a remarkable sense of composition. That’s what makes that kind of artist a masterful one. Some of the best portraits (see my previous post on portraiture) come out of an interesting combination of spontaneous and staged. But they can also come from being present in that artfully prepared mode.

I imagine, too, that there are many categories of artful preparedness. It’s one thing to be in the right place at the right time. And some of us appear to have a knack for that readiness to discover and record some spontaneous event or scene that we happen to encounter. It’s another thing to put yourself in that place—sometimes a dangerous one—with intention. To live life doing so. Photojournalism of the highest order comes to mind. We all share powerful images that have been seared into our cultural and historical memories, thanks to the readiness, masterful skills and intentional risks that some of the most talented visual storytellers have taken. Not that there isn’t some element of luck involved or an almost magical convergence of elements and timing that leads to a masterful and memorable result. As a kid growing up with Life Magazine during the heartbreaking, revelatory, and ever turbulent 1960s and 1970s, the searing images of war and the striking display of popular culture in action that I studied as I tried to make sense of our country reeling through unprecedented change became an inspiring if not frightening visual resource as well as an enduring record.

Now, with smart phones in nearly every hand, endlessly looped cable news cycles, and the vast proliferation of Instagram communications and other image-driven apps, there’s a different kind of casual recording, not for art’s sake but for some other need to keep a record of where, when, who, what. For me, it’s unsettling at best to stand in a museum exhibit surrounded by people who, rather than linger over the works in front of them, simply snap a photo (whether permitted or not) and move on. While I understand the desire to have that image on file to savor long after I’ve left the exhibit, and I value having it to go back to, taking the image only for that purpose represents a loss of a kind of engagement that I still value. I see the moment of sharing the same space with a masterpiece, new or old, which still stubbornly carries a kind of sacredness for me, becoming for many little more than the act of recording at the expense of the time they might otherwise spend taking in the presence of the work and engaging with it meaningfully in real time. In my experience, powerful memories are built in such interactions, memories that I fear we as a culture fail to appreciate when all we’re there to do is snap a shot of the work of art for the record.

I have to admit that when I do photograph exhibited art I try my best to create something new and interesting with it compositionally.

From the trivialization that comes out of the I-saw-that culture we live in, I return to hunting for the unexpected.

While I love the perfect storm cloud…
or flower…

or spectacular image of an animal…

that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about an element of uncanniness, ambiguity, mystery in the unexpectedness of a fleeting circumstance,

the happenstance of being in a certain place in that moment and seeing something extraordinary, something not necessarily explicable.

And loving it even more for being that.

I think it was Capa who said “If your photographs aren’t good you’re not close enough.” There’s always a tension around that for me. Inadvertently finding myself alone on an isolated off-limits beach and waking a sleeping elephant seal weighing several thousand pounds was not one of my wisest moments, perhaps, but I’m still proud of the photo I got…and of escaping, somehow, with my pockets and daypack loaded down with more than 40 pounds of beach rocks I had stuffed in them.


Rare as they are, I also enjoy an odd narrative sequence when it arises arbitrarily on the street, leading to a mini-story.

What was this man doing? Who was following whom? Did he totally turn the tables on me?

What is going on here?

We don’t really need to know the answers, though it’s fun to speculate about them. And just let curiosity be our guide.

I live for the poignancy of an evocative scene,

an endearing and ambiguous expression communicated or a compelling message delivered.

Blurring the line between the staged and the spontaneous…

Elevating the humble to the exalted…

These are the little miracles, the how-did-that-happen moments of elements aligning that I enjoy capturing most in my photographic explorations.

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