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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

I (almost) Never Ask Permission

The essence of street photography lies in the ability to masterfully capture a moment as it moves from not-yet-a-photo to is-a-photo to was-a-photo. Just like “There’s no crying in baseball”, there’s no asking permission in street photography.

There is a hard worn truth in science called “The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle”. It basically states that the act of observing a phenomenon actually contributes to changing the nature of the phenomenon. While photography is not that iconoclastic, a similar rule applies.

Without getting too political or dealing with social principles today that I would prefer to take a blowtorch to, in my day you never ever asked a young woman permission to kiss her. When that moment approached, when two people realize at precisely the same time that maybe there is the possibility of a beautiful relationship about to form, as those two sets of lips start to inch towards one another, the absolutely last thing on your mind was to turn on the lights, kill the music, look the said young lady in the eyes and say “Oh, by the way, is it OK if I kiss you now?”

When Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase “The Decisive Moment” he was talking precisely about that kiss, so to speak. However, there have been a decidedly very small number of instances throughout my career that I did ask permission to photograph someone. On these very few occasions, the photo had already assembled itself. The moment was wide enough that my squeaking into the frame for a moment neither altered the emotions nor did they disturb the transitory nature of what was happening.

I put together a small collection of images on my web site called “Duets -- Two People Doing the Same Thing at the Same Time.”

I was walking down Hollywood Blvd in 1974 when I saw these two guys. They had already posed themselves:

I asked if I could photograph them, and they obliged. I wasn’t as inquisitive back then as I am today, or I might have inquired as to their clothing being duplicated exactly, the hats, the sunglasses, etc. While I can surmise several possibilities, I don’t do that with my photos. Steering people into a possibly counterfeit understanding of the nature of the image by using a provocative title is not my style.

I realized the instant I saw them that this moment was static, it wasn’t going anywhere soon, so I opted to have them relax rather than being ambushed. I did a lot of that in my career – which is why I probably became such an adept sprinter.

I was driving down Ave. 42 in Bermuda Dunes in 1980 when I spied this woman trimming her hedges. I approached her without my camera, introduced myself, and asked if she would mind if I snapped a few. She obliged me, I spent 10 minutes with her and brought her a print the next day. She is gone now, but this photo is deeply forged into my memory:

This is the only other time I can recall in the maybe 150,000 photos I have taken over the past 50+ years where I asked permission:

It was 1972 on the Asbury Park, NJ boardwalk. Phyllis and I were out for a stroll, and this guy, happy as a canary, stood there shirtless as we sauntered by. Nothing I was going to do could have spoiled this man’s day. I did not pose him. I just inserted myself a few feet in front and squeezed off a couple of frames.

Plenty of my photos resulted in confrontations and shouting matches after the shutter was clicked – most of them occurring in Paris during my semester abroad in 1970. But in every case, me and my camera escaped intact.

Certainly things have changed dramatically as our culture has become more hostile over the past 20 or so years. I do almost no street photography these days because I flat out despise having people staring at their phones in any of my photos. Yeah, I actually did an entire section of my website devoted to precisely that, and it was probably the only didactic moment in my career -- but once I had vented sufficiently, I stopped.

The old saying “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” has been my mantra for as long as I can remember, and that applies to photos as well as kisses.

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