Anyone could sit on a coffee shop patio for hours, taking pictures on their smart phone of passersby and call it street photography. But, for obvious reasons, that doesn’t rise to the level of what Henri Cartier-Bresson pioneered as an art form.
Like the famed French documentarian, Gary Gruber possesses a keen ability to intuitively isolate moments — on film with a “real” camera — of strangers’ daily lives. And, like Bresson’s, his images rendered in black and white set them apart from what people typically “see” so as to focus attention on the most essential — and not necessarily the flashiest — moments in time. “You walk down the street and all of the sudden all these elements come together and unconsciously you raise the camera,” Gary says. “Things happen when they’re supposed to.”
The concept of things happening when they are supposed to could explain what set Gary on the photography pathway. When he was just 6 years old on vacation with his parents and they were lunching with friends, he spent an afternoon taking photos from a hotel patio with their Rolleicord twin lens reflex camera. His father subsequently bought him a Canonet rangefinder camera, which he took with him to premed school at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa. It was there that a friend whom he describes as a “very lively, buoyant spirit,” spontaneously jumped on the hood of an E6 Jaguar and said, “Let’s pretend I’m a fashion model and you’re a photographer.” Ultimately, Gary ended up in the journalism program at New York’s Syracuse University.
Gary shot most of his street photography, from the mid-’60s to mid-’90s, on the East Coast and in Europe. Unfortunately, two years’ worth of work no longer exists: He was living in Pennsylvania, where he grew up, when Hurricane Agnes struck in 1972. “I had all of my negatives and prints from 1967 through 1969 stored in the basement of our home, which was flooded,” he recalls.
In recent years, Gary has turned his attention to series of images that, while still a mirror of ordinary life, have resulted in a considerably more studied approach. One of his recent subjects is a common sight in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, where Gary lives: pool-cleaning hoses snaking across the surface of the water. “You watch them and see the way the light reflects, the effect of wind and time of day, and it creates a harmony different from everything else you observe,” he explains of his fascination with an object that others overlook.
Though Gary used a digital camera for the series of 150 pool-hose photos, he primarily shoots on film. His talents beyond photography include building motorcycles and cars, plumbing, and carpentry. “I have a machine shop in my garage,” he says. “I fiddle with a lot of things. I have even designed jewelry for myself.” And just as he spreads his ability to work with his hands to everything from fixing appliances to rebuilding engines, Gary says he doesn’t like to “pigeonhole” himself with regard to photography. “The things I have been doing recently are very different from what’s gone before,” he says. “As you grow, you find new ways of relating to the people or things you photograph because of the way you have been affected by the life you have lived.”
None of these photos were taken with a motor driven camera. None were taken with a camera that focused the lens for me, or pre-set the exposure.
In each and every instance, I had to see 1/30 of a second into the future -- it takes the mind about 1/60 of a second to shift gears from ‘thinking or observing’, to ‘doing’. The camera itself burns another sixtieth of a second from the moment the shutter release is pressed to the instant the image is recorded mechanically on film. In between these two tiny fractions, we must account for finding the correct point of focus and calculating an accurate exposure – a lot of work in a little time.
To achieve what Henri Cartier-Bresson deemed ‘The Decisive Moment’, the photographer must move mentally (and physically) ahead of the subject, anticipating not only where they will be, but when they will be. When these criteria have aligned, the photograph is taken, the moment captured, and that 1/30 of a second is preserved for all to see. For me, this is as good as it gets.
The technology available today cannot (in my opinion) substitute for the vision a person must possess to successfully record these brief instances for posterity. You can avail yourself of a multi-frame-per-second-image-collector that can focus and adjust itself for changing lighting conditions, or one that can complete the task in well under the antiquated thirtieth of a second, but without the ‘eye’, all is for naught.