The Rhythm of the Streets

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Rhythm is the life of space of time danced through.—Cecil Taylor 

The great poet and American pianist Cecil Taylor expressed a beautiful sentiment in that statement. He recognized and declared that rhythm is more than just a characteristic of music, poetry, or speech. Rhythm is natural and innate, a fluid thing that is ever-changing, active, and alive. Its power and beauty are best when experienced rather than just being observed. 

Cecil explored that concept with his poetry and music. I’ve used a camera, yet we both pursued an experience of creation that was beautiful, genuine and, at times, surprising. In my many years as a street photographer, I’ve discovered the rhythm of the streets. It’s an invisible thing that defies rigid definitions of the tangible. But it’s just as real. 

I can say that because other street photographers and I recognize the role and the importance of anticipation in this unique genre of photography. During its best moments, street photography is about the convergence of disparate elements in a scene, which achieve connection and meaning within the context of the frame. The resulting photograph succeeds not because it captures some pivotal action, but because unrelated objects play off each other like musical notes and chords. That’s where the rhythm lives, waiting to be discovered. 

The anticipation of a moment on the street could never happen without the existence of rhythm. I wouldn’t recognize the potential of a momentary encounter between two or three people on a street corner and how that might translate into something more than a snapshot. Where the average person sees chaos and disorder, as a street photographer, I recognize ebbs and flows, staccato beats, and long rests. The briefest moments and beauty are to be pulled out from that seeming disorder if one only knows where and how to look. 

Just such a moment occurred recently on a street corner in Downtown Los Angeles, where I observed a man cleaning the street with a pressure washer. As the nozzle released a concentrated jet of water onto the sidewalk, the man moved around doing his work while adjusting to the flow of human traffic around him. It was like a dance. 

I saw more than a man cleaning a sidewalk. There was the graceful curve of a black hose with a strip of vibrant red. There were different manifestations of water, including the triangular spray from the nozzle, the white foam at the edge of a puddle, and the wet reflection of a clear blue sky. Shadows both fixed and fluid were part of that tiny sliver of world and time. Though things changed from second to second, I knew instinctively that there was something to be had there. 

As he moved and others walked past, I performed my own dance. I moved along with him paying careful attention to the play of light, the gesture of his body, and the placements of shadows on the ground. I composed and pressed the shutter release button, each exposure demanding a new approach and a different decision. There was no time to review an exposure. I stayed in the moment and wove myself into the fabric of the rhythm. I had to keep shooting until the moment played itself out, and it was time to move on. 

I discovered what I had hours later when I ingested the day’s images into the computer. I let out a gasp when I realized what I had managed to capture. Though I had been conscious of the man, the hose, and the shadow in the lower right-hand corner, I hadn’t seen the shadow of the bicyclist entering the frame. It was the element and gesture that elevated the shot for me into something beautiful and unique. 

By being present and completely immersed in the rhythm of the street, I made a discovery that I would have been oblivious to. I now had an image that I was happy to have created, which could be further explored in Adobe Photoshop. [KelbyOne members can click here to download a smaller DNG version of this image to follow along for practice purposes only. Also, even though we’ll be editing this photo in Adobe Camera Raw, you can easily do the same steps in Lightroom Classic (LrC).

STEP ONE: Open the image in Adobe Camera Raw, and select the Crop tool (C) (LrC: Crop Overlay tool [R]). Using the Aspect Ratio pull-down menu, select 4×5/8×10. Click inside the crop boundary and slide the image until only the letter S from the word “Wings” appears on the left-hand side of the frame. Click the Edit menu icon or press the E key (LrC: press R). 

STEP TWO: Begin working on the image by applying a few global adjustments in the Basic panel. Set Exposure to +0.35, Contrast to +15, Highlights to +2, Shadows to –4, and Blacks to –18. This brightens the image as well as modestly increases the contrast. 

STEP THREE: Add some snap by tweaking the midtone contrast. Set Texture to +11, Clarity to +4, and Dehaze to +5. 

STEP FOUR: Neutral colors dominate the image, but several vibrant accents will be good to accentuate the scene, so set Vibrance to +25 and Saturation to +15. 

STEP FIVE: The overall snap of the image and the color can be further improved by a subtle increase in contrast using the Curve panel (LrC: Tone Curve panel). Select the Point Curve option (the second icon to the right of Adjust) and set adjustment points on the lower and upper quarters of the curve. Pull down the lower control point to an Input value of 59 and an Output value of 47; the upper point that you added is just to lock that section of curve in place as you adjust the bottom point. 

STEP SIX: Several vibrant colors, including blues, greens, and reds, are essential to the success of this photograph, so we need to make them stand out more against the neutral tones. In the Color Mixer panel (LrC: HSL panel), click the All tab so you can see both the Saturation and Luminance controls. In the Saturation section, set the Reds to +9, Greens to +2, Aquas to –13, Blues to +15, and Magentas to +4. In the Luminance section, set Reds to +12, Yellows to +10, Aquas to –26, and Blues to +6. 

STEP SEVEN: Next, enhance the color contrast between the cool areas in shadows and the warmer hues that dominate the frame. In the Color Grading panel, click on the control in the center of the Shadows color wheel and drag it to set the Hue to 220 and the Saturation to 33. You can also click on the word “Shadows,” and then manually enter those values. Then set the Blending slider to 50 and Balance to +40. 

STEP EIGHT: The photograph could benefit from a slight vignette, so go to the Effects panel, and click on the triangle to the right of Vignetting to reveal its various control sliders (LrC: Post-Crop Vignetting). Set Vignetting to –8, and make sure the Style pull-down menu is set to Highlight Priority. Set the Midpoint to 77 and Feather to 51. 

STEP NINE: Now it’s time to move from global to more select adjustments using the new Masking features in Adobe Camera Raw. Click on the Masking icon (gray circle with dotted outline) in the toolbar on the right (LrC: just below the Histogram panel). Click on Select Subject, and after a moment, you’ll see a mask with a red overlay on the man cleaning the sidewalk with a pressure washer. 

STEP 10: Though the feature does a reasonably good job identifying the man, the mask still includes some of the hose. To subtract the hose from the mask, click on the Subtract button and select the Brush tool. After adjusting the Brush size to 3 and the Flow and Density to 100, paint over the area of hose nearest the subject. You can also clean up the small areas of the mask that include the sidewalk and the sign between his arm and leg. 

STEP 11: With the mask still enabled, go to the Light panel and reveal more details in the front of the shirt and pant leg by adjusting the Exposure to +0.10, Shadows to +42, and Blacks to +3. 

STEP 12: To further tweak the rest of the frame, but exclude the man, hover your cursor over Mask 1 in the Masks panel to reveal a three-dot icon to its right. Click on those dots and select Duplicate Mask 1. A duplicate of the mask called “Mask 1 Copy” will appear above Mask 1. 

Now hover your cursor above Subject 1 below Mask 1 Copy to reveal its three-dot icon. Click on that icon to bring up an option menu from which you’ll choose Invert. With the Show Overlay checkbox enabled, you’ll see a red overlay around most of the image, excluding most of the subject. You can fine-tune the mask as you did before by using the Add and Subtract buttons in the Masks panel. 

STEP 13: To deepen the densities of the shadows, go to the Light panel. Since this is a duplicate of Mask 1, it will still have the same settings as Mask 1, so move all the sliders back to 0, and then set Exposure to +0.11, Shadows to –8, and Blacks to –2. 

Though this mundane and ordinary moment might hold little interest to the average viewer, it’s intimate and personal for me. It reminds me of the importance of being present and paying attention. The true gift of photography doesn’t come from owning and using a camera, but from the license it gives you to observe the world. By welcoming it all with a nuanced eye, you and I embrace the magic that exists around us every second of the day.