Serendipity, please

Serendipity doesn't just happen. ©Mike Davis/2010

I love images that elicit this reaction: “How did you ever get that picture?”

More than one type of picture can attract that kind of response, for sure. The one I’m talking about is a moment-centric photograph, an image that you have no idea how the photographer was lucky enough to be there to make. The quality of serendipity is often associated with these pictures, as if it were pure luck that the photographer happened to be there make the picture in the way he or she did.

William Albert Allard is the king of serendipity. I remember one conversation with Bill a few years ago, during which he talked about the greatest loss in the ever-shortening of time in the field would be the number of serendipitous moments in his takes. With less time to achieve assignments, there is less time to get to know subjects and learn when to spend time with them, which is the fount of unique moments.

Serendipity takes a lot of thought and connection to the subject to know the right time - and maybe some luck, if you think of luck as the coming together of preparedness and opportunity. You are in large measure in charge of your own luck.

I made the picture above yesterday as part of the team of photographers who produce pdxcross.com It has that quality of luck, of unique moment that you’re not likely to capture or see very often. It’s not earth changing but it is a nice moment, a connection between two people. One rider is making sure his teammate is all right after his buddy crossed the finish line and nearly collapsed. Turns out the rider had to run the last two laps of the race with his bike over his shoulder - about 4 miles - because he flatted and didn’t have a spare tire in the pit. And he had to reach the finish.

Where does serendipity come in? I worked to understand the dynamics of the course and realized that this is one of the toughest, in large measure because of a long hill that ends just before the finish line. So riders arrive at race’s end exhausted. This isn’t nuclear physics. A telling moment was likely to happen near the finish so I was there to see what happened, with the right lens, an awareness of light, a decision of how much of the scene to include, all to convey a quality that would match the moment to the best of my ability, having photographed more than 200 of these races.

How do you increase the likelihood of making serendipitous photographs? Connection to the subject is the singe most important thing. The more you know about a subject, the more likely you’ll know when to be there to make photographs with telling moments. And you’ll only be there if the subject trusts you enough to let you make the pictures. Establish a well informed relationship.

I’ve told a couple photographers I’ve worked with in this past week that if they have five minutes to make a picture, spend four of those minutes getting to know the subject and one minute making the picture. Simple.

And if you aren’t aware of it, William Albert Allard has a new book and gallery show out, of five decades of his work. It’s amazing. 

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