The Role of Chance

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Imagine that you set out on a walk at a certain time, having intended to do it at that time and not another. Two blocks from your home you meet a stranger with a weapon. He assaults you. Neither the fact that he is where he is, at that time, and you were where you were, at that time, are accidents. But the convergence of both acts is.

Of such cases, Jacques Monod, the Nobel winning scientist and author of Chance and Necessity  concludes: “Chance is obviously the essential thing inherent in the complete independence of two causal chains of events whose convergence produces the cause of the accident.” These chance accidents, Monod concludes, are essential for reality to exist, for they create the possibility of “absolute newness.”

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The English art historian Horace Walpole was entranced by a Persian fairy tale about three princes from the Isle of Serendip who possess super powers of observation. In a letter penned in 1754, Walpole suggested that this tale contained a crucial idea about human creativity: “As their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” And he proposed a new word — “serendipity” — to describe this talent, which was a creative skill rather than merely a result of luck.

Monod and Walpole were onto something that most creatives understand and nurture.  Serendipity and chance breed the creative.  It’s an idea of the artistic process that has a deep pedigree. Leonardo Da Vinci suggested that art students observe the random spots and stains on walls, for in those creations of happenstance the artist would find an unrefined beauty, untainted by the complications of the rational ego.

In my experience, the most interesting photos aren’t summoned; they just happen, at times and in a manner of their own choosing. It’s less down to your skill than to your preparation. The best you can do is be open to it, ready and able to recognize and receive it when the chance manifests itself. Hence, the old adage “f11 and be there.” But it’s anathema to current photographic trends, with the fetishization of the super-sharp and hyper-real that’s accompanied the digital age. And that’s partly why I value it so much. The most enjoyable photographs, for me, are random. They are the happenstance convergence of optics and light. And in this sense they are always unique, singular, uncontaminated with cliched compositional considerations, more in line with a reality with too many possibilities to be reduced by the false values of clarity and precision.

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I find that being outside of the mainstream of photographic practices has liberated me in creative ways, differentiating what I do and how I do it from the general photographic culture. Given that I’ve gotten off the technological hamster wheel, I feel free to allow the serendipitous into my practice. Stick a lens on a body – any lens, any body – and shoot. Point at stuff and shoot – out car windows, walking down the street. Just shoot. Don’t worry about how sharp your lens is, or what film you’re shooting, or the tonal range of the scene. Don’t bother metering, just guess. But shoot.

I like to take my camera with me while driving  – an old meterless Leica with a 35mm lens, loaded with HP5 pushed 2 or 3 stops, exposure guessed at, focus approximated – and point it out the window occasionally and depress the shutter. Sometimes I get an image I like and I keep it.

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