Every now and then, something comes along that is both completely fresh and so well-known you’d swear it has been around forever. In other words, there is a bit of genius and a bit of the obvious in every good idea. Sparks: Adventures in Street Photography, is the result of a very good idea.

We have all looked at pictures and wondered: “What is going on here?” Sometimes we peruse the details, looking for an invisible narrative, and sometimes we’re told in a caption. Sometimes we admit we’ll never know. Sometimes, though, if we are in a playful mood or if the wine is especially good, we entertain a fantasy. That guy jumping over a puddle? Actually, he’s on the run from the mob/his wife/space aliens/a restaurant bill. And that water? It’s not really water. It’s acid/gin/a flood of HC-110.

A picture is worth a thousand words, right? But how often do we imagine what those words could be?

Sparks is exactly that idea, made into a playful, funny, dark, imaginative, wonderful book.

The first hint that this is something unusual comes on the copyright page, where there is a statement common to literature, but rare in photography: “This is a work of fiction…resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”

Street photography fiction?

The second hint comes in the book’s epigraph, by Joel Meyerowitz. “Photography is too often about the pictures only. To me, it’s always been about ideas and the ideas that pictures generate.”

The ideas that pictures generate—yes.

It all becomes clear in the opening pair of story and photograph. The text begins: “What can I tell you about this photograph? I took it in Corsica in 2002, 25 April. Wendy and I had gone on a long walk and got completely lost. As we tried to guess our way back to the path we chanced across this abandoned car. The light was just perfect so I took a quick photograph and we carried on, wondering about what might have happened and how it ended up as lost as we were, miles from any road. A few minutes later we bumped into a young girl and a much older man…”

The old man tells a compelling story about eloping, about being chased by the bride’s father in what is now the abandoned car. I like reading narrative captions, so I bought the whole story.

And then the narrator continues, “We listened to him speak, said our goodbyes and wandered off, astonished by this story and happy we’d got lost in the first place. Except that none of it is true, it’s all a lie. Sure, it’s a picture of a crashed car in Corsica that I took while lost on holiday, but there was no mushroom-picking girl or bent-double grandfather, no eloping or midnight chases. I made all that up. Every photograph invites speculation and imagining…”

Image from pages 2-3 in “Sparks: Adventures in Street Photography” by Stephen Leslie, published by Unbound Press © Stephen Leslie

I will tell you right now—I love this twist. Writers have been stepping in and out of their own stories, confounding fact and fiction, calling attention to storytelling while telling a story, from the beginning of stories. To have a photographer create a narrative for their photographs is also not new. But Leslie’s narratives stand apart because they are fiction. They are original and edgy. He is easily as good a writer as he is a photographer, and from this first story about the car I did not put the book down until I was done.

A mundane moment of two people eating ice cream cones becomes an examination of their marriage, their history together, their hearts and souls. I look at the photo, read the text, smile, then re-examine the photo one more time, seeing everything that could be true.

Image from pages 6-7 in “Sparks: Adventures in Street Photography” by Stephen Leslie, published by Unbound Press © Stephen Leslie

One of my favorite opening lines in the book comes from a story about a balloon-seller who visits what he believes will be a children’s party, but when he arrives he discovers he’s attending a funeral where he is asked to tie balloons to the casket so that it will float away. “Pity the poor balloon-seller seriously considering a vasectomy due to the horrors of his job.”

There is a photograph of three women standing outside a large building, smoking cigarettes, in bathrobes. Leslie constructs a fine narrative that explains why they are there, then pulls the rug out from under the viewer again: he goes on to explain that the picture lies by excluding what was right next to the women (in this case, a fire truck). He concludes the story with “It’s a photo that works but it is not the truth. If anything it’s better, if slightly harsher, for being a lie. Photography often works that way.”

Image from page 20 in “Sparks: Adventures in Street Photography” by Stephen Leslie, published by Unbound Press © Stephen Leslie

I would be doing a large disservice to the book if I focused solely on the writing. This is, after all, a book of street photography. All of the writing is about the photography,and Leslie’s work is quirky and engaging.

Image from page 25 in “Sparks: Adventures in Street Photography” by Stephen Leslie, published by Unbound Press © Stephen Leslie
Image from pages 72-73 in “Sparks: Adventures in Street Photography” by Stephen Leslie, published by Unbound Press © Stephen Leslie

One of the things I enjoy about the images is that they all seem to be driven by the same sensibility and curiosity, perhaps by the same simple question:What the hell is that all about?

This is not art-driven street photography, nor is it photojournalism. This is, instead, a love of the arresting moment, the moment where we stop and try to make sense of what we’re seeing. That intense wondering makes for photographs that provoke interesting questions. Some of them are situational. Some of them are much deeper. The provocation makes for a fine collection, even without the stories. The stories, of course, give one possible answer to the questions we find ourselves asking.

There are many gems in this book. Leslie wonders about the lives of people in the background of his photos. He wonders about the unseen driver of a crashed truck. Who is that woman staring at a brick wall, when just beyond it is a thrilling landscape? How did that yucca plant wind up on its side? (Note: there are ten possible explanations.) Who is that man watering our garden?

To put it simply, this book is fun. It’s also funny, deep, at times disturbing, at other times profoundly hopeful. But every image gets remade in ways that hold a bit of genius.

Image from page 155 in “Sparks: Adventures in Street Photography” by Stephen Leslie, published by Unbound Press © Stephen Leslie
Sparks: Adventures in Street Photography
by Stephen Leslie
Publisher: Unbound
ISBN: 1783524898