Stop and think about some of the best images you’ve shot. Not necessarily the most technically proficient. The ones that, for all their flaws, you wouldn’t trade for anything. I know I have a pile on my hard drive, mostly of people I love just being their usual selves, or of things I’ve experienced that, even though I won’t soon forget them, I’m glad to have the photographic reminders of. I’m sure you have them too, blurry or hurriedly-composed shots (if you even gave a second thought to composition) of a thousand memorable moments.
A lot of what we think of as “art” catches those same everyday moments. The only difference is, there’s just a bit more attention paid to the finer details.
That brings me, in my usual roundabout way, to the writer Robert Fulghum, who wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, and other bestselling collections of essays. This isn’t Thoreau or de Montaigne territory. Fulghum’s essays aren’t often concerned with events that wouldn’t happe to anyone else. He described What On Earth Have I Done, his last essay collection, as “adventuring out into the world as it is and noticing it and talking about it… being aware out there and being aware in here.” His essays, in other words, are more often written about the moments in life that we too often pass over or take for granted, in order that we might stop, reconsider, and quit taking them for granted.
Another Robert — Robert Doisneau, whose centennial happens to fall this week — shared Fulghum’s knack for observing (and, in the case of his best-known image, Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, recreating) intimate everyday moments. Doisneau begain photographing at sixteen, and while he would one day be regarded as a street photographer on par with Henri Cartier Bresson, he started out taking photos of the cobblestones beneath his feet because he was too shy to approach human subjects. By most accounts, that shyness never quite left him. Thankfully, though, it also didn’t keep him from capturing images that became synonymous with a certain notion of France, but that also gained fame in the world at large because their everydayness resonated with the rest of us.
It’s understandable to want to make a grand statement, and to want leave our mark on our craft, if not the world. With very few exceptions, though, life’s not usually made up of such sweeping, grandiose stuff. Our lives can seem — or even be — stultifyingly ordinary. But take a look around your own life, and your own world as it is. A pretty eventful place, no? Dive in!
The solution isn’t necessarily to try and escape what we see as mundanity (though that can be helpful sometimes), so much as to observe it closely, even lovingly. Both Roberts’ works endure as they do not because the people in them are extraordinary; it’s because they’re extra ordinary. They’re so normal that we’re pulled into these little microcosmic worlds sometimes in spite of ourselves. We’ve known, or even been, these people; these portraits, whether with words or photographic processes, are familiar to us because they’re drawn from a life we recognize.
On the Web:
The official Robert Doisneau site in French here, and in English via Google Translate here. Robert Fulghum’s official site is here.