Good storytelling, just like a good joke, lives and dies on timing. It comes as no surprise that photographer Beuford Smith knows a thing or two about timing. His black and white photography capturing the streets of New York all bear the same marker of sublime, serendipitous timing. Smith’s photographs are mementos of moments which he endearingly calls “gifts”.
His images are engrossing on their own, but the stories behind some of his favorite photographic moments are both hilarious, and at times heartbreaking.
One infamous shot is a powerfully uncomfortable closeup of a man crying. In a 2017 talk at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Smith recalled the moment that led to his capture of the image, describing a time when the photographer stumbled upon two men beating up a delivery person in the street; a man looking onto the horrible scene began pleading with the two men to stop, and as his pleas went unheard, his helplessness gave way to tears.
Other stories manage to capture the essence of the moment and then some. My favorite story from the same 2017 talk recalls the woman who Smith said, gave “good vibrations” as she offered to let him photograph her nude for some pictures she wanted to send to her husband who was in the service. Smith’s recollection of the session is priceless.