Arts & Culture

Lucky shot? Photography and chance

6 min read

Scholar looks at happenstance and art in study of the ‘accidental’

Chance smiled on Joe Rosenthal in late February 1945. The young Associated Press photographer was atop Mount Suribachi to cover the Allied troops’ capture of Iwo Jima when he heard that soldiers were preparing to raise an American flag. It was the second attempt of the day, for authorities had decided the first flag — placed a few hours earlier — was too small. As five Marines and a Navy corpsman struggled to erect the Stars and Stripes, Rosenthal hastily found a good vantage and clicked his camera’s shutter. In one four-hundredth of a second, he captured what is arguably the most recognized image of World War II.

In subsequent years, Rosenthal’s photo became the subject of controversy, as the public and media began to wonder if he had staged the scene. It was just “too perfect,” some said. It couldn’t have been pure luck.

Robin Kelsey, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities, has no doubt that Rosenthal’s photo was the product of good fortune, an almost incredibly lucky break for a photographer. And that’s precisely what makes it so captivating, he says.

“It is maddening to think that this photograph, which is so artfully composed in all its particulars, was essentially produced by chance,” says Kelsey.

Chance and madness are the focus of Kelsey’s latest research project — a historical study of the “accidental” and the role that it has played in photography.

He has found Rosenthal’s image to be a helpful touchstone for discussion of how luck, opportunity, and skill intertwine to improve, complicate, or even undermine the photographer’s art.

“Throughout photography’s history, chance has been a source of charm, confusion, and also discomfort,” Kelsey says. “How much credit for a splendid picture should go to the operator of a camera when the process is subject to luck? Why do the effects of chance in photographs often move viewers more forcefully than those of intention?”

Questions like these inform Kelsey’s analysis, which unfolds from the initial years of photography through the 20th century and on to the present day. He studies the work of writers and practitioners such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred Stieglitz, Frederick Sommer, and John Baldessari.

Tentatively titled “Photography and Chance,” Kelsey’s work will be published in fall 2009 by the University of California Press.

“There is a historical conversation since the beginning of photography about the role of chance,” says Kelsey. “That conversation evolves, though, in part because the meaning of ‘chance’ changes over time.”

Kelsey has identified several distinct historical conceptions of chance. In the early years of photography, he says, chance remained a “theological problem, a threat to a divinely determined universe.” Kelsey suggests that later in the Victorian era, however, economic concerns largely replaced theological ones.

“A new anxiety emerged about the relationship of chance to modern markets, such as the stock market,” says Kelsey.

In the early 20th century, the rise of Freudianism offered yet another approach to ideas about the unexpected, where a slip of the tongue was “an accident linked to a deeper system of meaning.”

The contemporary era has introduced new notions of chance that are strongly informed by scientific and technological development. Kelsey points to chaos theory as one such example.

“Through chaos theory, also known as the ‘butterfly effect,’ we have learned that for certain phenomena what seems chaotic is actually part of a deterministic system,” he says. “But that system is extremely sensitive to initial conditions.”

Kelsey sees the digital moment as a kind of “conquest over chance.”

“We have such powerful ways of processing the image that chance has been mediated to an unprecedented extent,” Kelsey says.

In each chapter of the book, Kelsey examines a photographic practice that brilliantly grapples with one or more of these historical conceptions of chance. For example, in one chapter he focuses on the artist John Baldessari’s photographic work from the early 1970s, including the series “Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square” (1972-73). Baldessari, according to Kelsey, used chance both to rid art of the overwrought subjectivity associated with abstract expressionism and to address the role of chance in photographic composition.

“The 1970s,” Kelsey says, “was a time when the use of stochastic [nondeterministic] simulations was moving from the physics lab and the Pentagon into mainstream culture in the form of war and role-playing dice games. Baldessari’s work, to my mind, meditates on this interplay of randomness and desire.”

Regardless of the era, Kelsey argues, chance has always been an issue for serious artistic practitioners because it can call into question their claim to authorship over the image. Even in practices where “fastidiousness is important,” Kelsey says, photographers have often remarked upon developing their prints that there was something in the image of which they had no prior awareness. He calls this the “blind spot,” which the camera only reveals after the click of the shutter.

When considering the influence of luck, particularly in Rosenthal’s case, Kelsey likes to refer to the law of large numbers.

“Many thousands of photographs were taken during the war,” he says. “At some point in all that click-click-clicking, a masterpiece was bound to emerge.”

Or he compares the photo’s success to the random movements of a hermit crab, who in walking back and forth on the beach happens to leave tracks that take the shape of something beautiful.

Both arguments, Kelsey acknowledges, are maddening.

“We suppress this madness not just because we love to believe in the great photojournalist who can capture the reality of war, but because in some sense the madness undermines the meaning of photography itself,” he says.

No matter where they stand on the issue, Kelsey estimates that most readers will be able to personally relate.

“In the digital era nearly everyone is a photographer,” he says, “and nearly everyone has a story about a quickly snapped image that turned out just right.”

Having taken photos for years, Kelsey has a few examples of his own. But his favorite “lucky” photo? It’s an image of his daughter’s second birthday party.

“My camera battery died right as my wife brought little cakes out for the children, who were sitting expectantly in their chairs, so I missed the initial scene,” Kelsey says. “I rushed to change the battery, then looked up, clicked the shutter—and caught my daughter and her friends, half sitting, half standing, in exquisite disarray.”

In addition to his passion for photography, the book is an outgrowth of Kelsey’s longtime interest in probability and chance.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about baseball statistics as a young boy,” he says. “My best friend and I talked about them constantly. He went on to become a statistician — and a part of me has always been a tiny bit jealous. So I suppose this book is my chance to play with numbers, to bring together two subjects that I have long been passionate about.”