Parkour is a French term for running around the city like awesome, crazy yahoos who let no obstacle stand in their way. YouTube videos show David Belle, who is credited with inventing the activity around Paris in the 1990s, leaping across rooftops, flipping upside-down, swinging with the poise of a monkey, and ricocheting about like some impossible/reckless video game character with a million extra lives to burn.
Brooklyn photographer James Starkman's exhibit — "Let Go: Moment In Movement" at Yellow Peril Gallery (60 Valley St, Providence, through September 9) — showcases the New York Parkour group Bullettrun. Mainly a fashion photographer, Yellow Peril director Van Souvannasane explains, Starkman bumped into some of the fellas practicing on the street one day and arranged to photograph them. The group has performed at New York's City Center, Lincoln Center (where these photos were shown previously), and Fringe Festival. Choreographed by Nadia Lesy, their version of parkour (the term derives from the obstacle course used in French military training — parcours du combatant) leans more toward acrobatic flips and breakdancing than heedless forward momentum.
In Starkman's elegant color photos, guys dressed like skaters in T-shirts, shorts, and sneakers are frozen in mid-leap by the camera. A guy does a backflip off an outdoor stairway; elsewhere, two men vault obstacles in an abandoned Brooklyn power plant. The most striking images are a series of shots, apparently split seconds apart, of groups of men leaping in tandem on top of a roof. In one, a man dashes up a wall as two others hover in the air. In the second photo, four men are in the air at once — two are horizontal partway through a flip, two are suspended upside-down. They seem to float in defiance of all the laws of gravity. And their motion rhymes with the clouds lazily drifting across the sunny blue sky above.
Starkman's fashion work has a high-key, lush, and sexy style. These parkour photos are more clean, airy, classical — which has a regrettably civilizing effect on what's usually portrayed as deliciously wild, improvisational, outlaw kinetics. He focuses mainly on leaps and flips rather than pell-mell running. The camera feels locked in place with the traceurs (the term for practitioners of parkour) seemingly hitting their choreographed marks around him.
The results are pretty, but it feels like Starkman has missed something. Parkour, of course, is a cousin of skateboarding, stunt biking, snowboarding, and other extreme sports. In my head, I keep comparing Starkman's photos with maniac Boston-area videographer Lucas Brunelle's Line of Sight, which documents underground urban bike messenger racing — via cameras mounted on his helmet as he rides the wrong way through traffic with them. Brunelle puts you in the middle of raw, improvisational, breathtakingly dangerous action. Starkman's parkour looks — relatively — safe, and this drains away some of the thrills. To put it another way, the soundtrack you hear in your head while looking at his serenely orbiting traceurs is not gritty punk or metal, but Strauss's lovely Blue Danube waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Read Greg Cook's blog at gregcookland.com/journal.