Mary's Three Kings

I participated in the PDXSQ (Portland Squared) event which is a 24 hour photo contest in which the central urban area is split into squares approximately 4x4 blocks in size. Each photographer is randomly assigned a square and has 24 hours from 5pm Friday to 5pm Saturday to shoot, edit, and select up to 5 entries for live judging Saturday night. The rules state that after exploring the assigned square, participants are allowed to roam the wider contest area.

This year was my first time participating and there were lots of ups and downs. I admit to learning a lot based on a re-evaluation of how I should have approached my shooting. I have a very opportunistic style but my very best shots are predicated on interactions with people and place. Twenty-four hours is a long time but I treated it like a ticking time bomb. Instead of taking my time to look, I rushed around without doing enough seeing.

Mary's Three Kings happened around midnight Friday evening after I started wandering the larger contest area. It's what I call a throwaway shot. By that I mean it's a shot that when taken, I promptly forget. It's a reaction to some alignment that at that moment lights up the scene preference center in my brain and compels me to frame and shoot. These types of shots are almost always reactionary, from the hip, a matter of instinct rather than calculation.

One of my photography mentors told me that an image should stand on its own without title, description, defence. Since this was an instantaneous reaction to a moment before turning my attention back to the conversation I was having, I don't have much more story than a random viewer might have. I do know where it was taken but there is enough context to establish a location (specific if you are a Portland native). I know why they are outside and given the prevalence of smoking ordinances across the US and the highlighted cigarette an uninformed viewer could deduce that as well. 

Another element about what I call throwaway shots is the accident of composition. I shot from where I stood. I might have leaned one way or another, taken a step or whatever. But this was my perspective at the moment before looking into viewfinder. Three. Always a propitious number in imagery. Two planes, a background with diagonal dynamism and foreground almost flat but slightly receding right to left. And the light. I don't know that you can find urban after dark lighting much better than that falling on these three guys. Every important detail of their persons highlighted. And the crowning element is that hand with cigarette highlighted hot against a velvet dark.

Here we have three guys, maybe 30's. Outside a strip club (from the sign, "girls," "dancers") smoking. They are there because of urban non-smoking ordinances. Man with cigarette held out. Is he offering to the man on the right? Is he preparing to put it in his mouth but momentarily using it to punctuate his exposition? It is that cigarette held out that makes this shot. It gives the image gesture that would have been lacking without it. Imagine this shot with the three guys each with cigarettes to their lips. It would have story. Some gesture. But it would miss the interaction between the three. What is that guy on the left saying? Is he offering the smoke? Is he making some lurid comment? Perhaps sharing some inside joke at his friend's expense? Maybe they don't even know each other and are three guys feeding their nicotine addiction. That gesture of interaction allows the viewer to start making up a narrative of their own based on their interpretation.

Now that I've said all that, one might get the idea that I'm rather enamoured with this shot. It's not bad. Truth be told, I didn't even select it for inclusion for PDXSQ judging though I regret that now. It's a throwaway shot, lucky hit -- lucky in that I had honed the tools of my craft to such an extent that I could react to an instant unfolding in front of me. Lucky in that I was there when it happened.