Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery in Street Photography?

Like everyone else, photographers learn from other people’s experience.

If you want to succeed — at cooking, carpentry, or rattlesnake venom extraction — you need to bear in mind how people have done it before.

The real problem arises when an original idea is at stake, as it often is in the creative arts. So is it OK to nick it?

A Glorious Past
Great painters of the past had no qualms about borrowing ideas from their teachers and peers. A few of them, like Raphael, even borrowed from their own students when a particularly talented apprentice joined their studio. Nonetheless, the whole process of “invention followed by imitation” can be irritating, especially when you’ve not yet had time to exploit your original idea.

I remember toiling in the hot sun, walking around Thailand’s fabled “Ancient Siam” — a 200-acre tourist attraction otherwise known as “Ancient City” or “Muang Boran.” It’s a favourite place of mine for personal reasons rather than because it’s a good location for street photography.

On one occasion I found an unusual but effective angle for taking a shot, only to be interrupted by some tourists wielding DSLRs. They noticed my viewpoint and crouched down beside me to get similar pictures.

I know I can’t claim ownership of a camera angle, but, even so, such blatant imitation was annoying. Photography is all about “Look at this…look at this” — and even more about “This is how I see this…this is how I see this.” Yet even acquaintances who notice me take a picture, sometimes walk back to the same spot and snap it for themselves. That’s a good reason for working alone.

Inspiration or Imitation?
If you imitate a photographer who’s in the process of taking a picture you’re little better than a karaoke singer belting out “My Way” in the style of Frank Sinatra.

Don’t be silly: you’re doing it his way!

But what about someone who sees your work, becomes inspired by it, and then tries to make something similar? Do you complain about it in a vicious blog post, or do you blithely accept that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”?

There are key differences between inspiration and imitation, the first of which is the time lag. It’s OK to be inspired by masters of the past. After all, they’ve had their day in the spotlight. They won’t mind if you learn from their work, or even if you copy some of their ideas. That said, it would be stupid of you to copy their style in its entirety as critics would soon point out your plagiarism. But you won’t mind if the critics say: “She was influenced by….” or “He built on the work of…”

A Transfer of Spirit
Inspiration is much less specific than imitation. It’s a transfer of spirit which leaves you free to express yourself, using the uniqueness of the moment to create something fresh and new. Imitation, on the other hand, is slavish copying, an attempt to reproduce an original effect by looking for the same composition and using an identical technique to record it.

Even so, there’s a thin dividing line between inspiration and imitation.

If you bop down and photograph a dog walking alongside its owner are you imitating Elliott Erwitt or being inspired by him? That’s a good question because you may never have heard of Elliott Erwitt yet you may have glanced at one of his most famous photos and entered that experience into your understanding of visual language. The entire process of “imitation” may happen below the level of your consciousness.

Such was not the case when I took the featured image (at the top of this post). Just before I took it I muttered under my breath: “I can’t resist it. Sorry Mr. Erwitt.” In fact, I didn’t think I was taking a serious shot which I could ever use. But then, looking at the photo on my computer I can’t help liking it.

Yes, I know it’s derivitive, but there are significant differences between it and Erwitt’s photos. For a start, it’s in colour. The dog looks more festive and jaunty than one of Erwitt’s sweatered chihuahuas. My dog is going places, not just hanging around looking snobbish-but-cute. Looking at the picture I can recognise my own style, not just a pale remnant of Erwitt’s style.

Territories of the Mind
Novelists have a habit of staking out certain “territories of the mind” that often correspond to territories in reality. Think: Thomas Hardy and Wessex or Emily Bronte and the Yorkshire Moors.

In this respect street photographers are no different.

Martin Parr began his career by making the English seaside resort his “territory of the mind,” later going on to colonise other places at home and abroad where he could photograph similar subjects with minor alterations to his style.

Even before looking it up for confirmation on his website I can detect that Martin Parr was heavily influenced — inspired — by the late Tony Ray-Jones. He, too, photographed the British on their days off at the seaside and did it so successfully that I would have been inclined to leave the subject alone, had I taken up street photography in the 1970s. It’s to Parr’s credit that he wasn’t deterred.

I hasten to add: I’ve never been inspired by either Tony Ray-Jones or Martin Parr.

Another example is the American photographer Berenice Abbott who took her lifelong inspiration from Eugène Atget. You can see his influence in her compositions, for example, in the way in which she would photograph a shop front, not head on but slightly to one side. (I’m always doing that — see below — but not because of Berenice Abbott or her mentor).

mannequin peeps out of shop door

A Transference of Culture
I don’t think you could accuse either Parr or Abbott of imitating the photographers who inspired them. They were simply participating in the transference of culture, a phenomenon in which we all take part.

Yet there are obvious dangers if you visit a place where an accomplished photographer has taken shots that have already brought him attention and critical acclaim. If the place and its inhabitants haven’t changed very much, you’ll find it hard to photograph them in a style of your own.

It’s easier in prose. Writing allows you to dig below the surface of things beyond which the camera cannot venture. In his book “Lacon, or Many Things in Few Words,” Charles Caleb Colton — the 18th century English writer who incidentally coined the phrase “imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery” — wrote: “Nothing is more common than to hear directly opposite accounts of the same countries. The difference lies not in the reported, but the reporter.”

We can take heart from the Reverend Colton: there’s no permanent ownership of territory, whether of the mind or place. You can be inspired by others but look with fresh eyes and trust your own judgement.

The Problem of Public Art in Street Photography

As a street photographer I’ve been keeping an eye on all these quirky bits of sculpture that keep appearing in places where you least expect them. I quite like one or two of them, like the Oscar Wilde memorial (above). Yet so many public sculptures are beyond awful.

What on earth were people thinking when they decided to ruin a lovely street corner with a cluster of fried eggs (Santiago, Chile), a crumpled plastic cup (Bristol, UK), or a drift of mischievous pigs (Adelaide, Australia)?

I usually avoid photographing statues and sculptures — in the same way as I avoid street performers, beggars, vagrants, and undercover police officers who are posing as beggars and vagrants. From a photographic point of view they’re all sitting ducks. Some of the sculptures are sitting ducks quite literally. An 85-foot tall duck sculpture by Florentijn Hofman supposedly “spreads joy around the world.” No it doesn’t, Florentijn. Stop it.

A Sample Collection
You can find collections of ghastly public art on Pinterest (including the duck sculpture and the others I’ve mentioned), where every piece contrasts unfavourably with all those wonderful examples of slick design elsewhere. Here’s my own collection — sample above — put together for this article. It’s called “Whose Idea Was This?” (click the link to see the full hideousness). Just imagine yourself taking a serious street photo anywhere near them.

…Thank you for coming back to read the remainder of this article after being exposed to those “amusing” examples of (mainly taxpayer-funded) public sculptures. I didn’t include any with real quality.

Quirky But Brilliant
You see, I’m not opposed to quirkiness per se. London’s distinguished memorial to Oscar Wilde (the featured image at the top) who is shown reclining in a coffin-shaped piece of polished granite in Adelaide Street, conversing exuberantly — his hand dangling a cigarette — is genuinely entertaining and moving. Created by Maggi Hambling and installed in 2004, it makes a real and meaningful contribution to London life. Its inscription, from Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”.

My image shows how naturally Londoners interact with the Wilde memorial. However, the piece has not been without controversy.

Charles Spencer, former theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph, found the representation of Wilde “loathsome” and threatened to break it up with a sledgehammer and pneumatic drill. But then, he was equally disparaging of Hambling’s wonderfully evocative tribute to Benjamin Britten on Aldeburgh beach, calling it a “hideous pile of rusting scrap metal.”

Such philistinism! When widely published critics are so bone-headed about visual art it’s not surprising that local councils give the OK to mediocre work elsewhere. Hambling’s Wilde memorial emerged from decisions taken by a committee of distinguished artists, including the poet Seamus Heaney and actors Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen. It’s the genuine article: fine art for the street.

Serious But Aloof
In our photos we can mock — or celebrate — the sculptures that have taken up residence in our cities. They vary in size from tiny busts on pedestals to huge structures that can be seen from miles around. Some of them disrupt the flow of pedestrians, others provide welcome shade. The worst of them are sometimes placed there as “photo opportunies,” in front of which people can take family snaps and selfies.

The coil at the entrance to Singapore’s Scotts Square (above) is an example of the “aloof style” of street sculpture: large, in keeping with the size of the buildings around it, but not in any way intrusive. Called “Undetermined Line” it’s by the New York-based French sculptor Bernar Venet, who once said: “It is not art if it doesn’t change the history of art.” Primarily a conceptual artist he explores ideas about indetermination, disorder, chance, and unpredictability — very much what I try to do in street photography. I like his work!

Unserious But Intrusive
I wish I could say the same for some of the sculptures closer to home. Britain is regularly assaulted with kitsch projects designed to involve the public not only in admiring but actually in creating the sculptures. They’re later put on display, mercifully for a short time, before being auctioned as garden ornaments. In the last few years we’ve had outbreaks of multicoloured cows, giraffes, even Wallace and Gromit figures, dotted around the streets.

Are they fun? Well, yes, they’re amusing and for that reason you can’t disapprove of them. They come and go, unlike some of the permanent installations that appeal to the same craving for visual stimulation. The street photographer has to find ways to come to terms with temporary sculptures, otherwise there’ll be a gap in the history of our artform when it comes to be written.

Whoever came up with the concept of painted giraffes had little consideration for the street photographer. Making a composition with such a tall object is too difficult. In the image above, I’ve solved it by chopping off the giraffe’s head.

Here’s my alternative solution (below). It’s the same giraffe, but head-only. I rather like the contrast between the figure of Victory on the solemn War Memorial in the background compared to the fatuously smug expression of the giraffe in front of it.

Mr. Spencer, can you bring the sledgehammer and pneumatic drill, please?

Do Street Photographers Need the Validation of their Peers?

Comedians get validation when people laugh. Politicians get validation when you vote for them. Street photographers get validation when you look at their work and don’t complain about it too loudly.

Among the many definitions of validation is this one from the Oxford Dictionary: “Recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile.”

I love the way “or” is repeated four times in that sentence! It’s like one of those vague recipes which says “use chicken, or beef, or lamb or turkey.”

However, if you think about it (and it’s actually a very well crafted definition), the most important words are not mentioned at all but merely implied by “recognition or affirmation.” The words omitted are: “by other people.” Hence: “Recognition or affirmation by other people that a person or their feelings, etc…”

Validation isn’t about you. It’s about other people.

Sub-Atomic Validation
In 1964 physicist Peter Higgs (and colleagues) proposed the existence of a particle which came to be known as the “Higgs boson.” If it did not exist then the entire structure of modern physics — the Standard Model, our framework for understanding the universe — would be seriously undermined.

There was little more Higgs and his colleagues could do except depend on other people to detect the Higgs boson with super-expensive equipment. After all, the particle breaks apart after a ten-sextillionth of a second, so it needed something powerful, like the CERN Large Hadron Collider to detect it. Nearly fifty years went by, then in March 2013 CERN announced its discovery. According to Forbes: “..the total cost of finding the Higgs boson ran about $13.25 billion.”

This vast expenditure was made, not to validate Peter Higgs, but to validate the Standard Model of physics. I’m sure Prof. Higgs was chuffed (as the British say) and he added the Nobel Prize that same year to the many other awards which had acknowledged (but not validated) his work.

I’ve mentioned the elusive Higgs boson because the story of its discovery sheds a little more light on our use of the word “validation.” By all means apply validation to scientific theories. It’s still one stop short of outright proof. But we should be wary of seeking validation for ourselves — our selves — because no one can be defined entirely by the opinions of others, except in the eyes of the world.

Photographic Validation
So what does it mean to validate someone who takes photographs? Does it mean you have to like their work? Or does it mean you want to acknowledge the sincerity of their motivation even though you may have reservations about their approach and the results they get with it?

In both psychology and photography, validation does not have to mean agreement.

The Psychology of Validation
For example, a close friend may have done something stupid that has landed them in a lot of trouble. You don’t want to condone their action but if you want to stand any chance of influencing them you need to validate them in such a way they can come to terms with what they’ve done. To invalidate them is to abandon them: a sure way of encouraging repetition of the mistake.

Psychologist Dr Karyn Hall has written: “Validation is one way that we communicate acceptance of ourselves and others. (It) doesn’t mean agreeing or approving. When your best friend or a family member makes a decision that you really don’t think is wise, validation is a way of supporting them and strengthening the relationship while maintaining a different opinion.”

Psychologist Dr Marsha Linehan (cited by Dr Hall) has identified six levels of validation from which you should always select the highest level appropriate to the problem.

The first and lowest level of validation is “being present,” listening to the person’s problem or dilemma. The second is “accurate reflection,” summarising and commenting to show you understand it. Third is “mindreading,” or making an intelligent guess about it. Four is understanding the person’s actions in terms of what’s happened to them in the past. Five is generalising: saying “anyone would have done the same.” Six is sharing their experience as an equal, based on similar experiences of your own.

Getting Straight To It
If you can go straight to number six and share your own experience directly then do so. Failing that, work your way back down the list. Your only option may be to listen and occasionally reflect, much as an expensive psychiatrist does. (Yes, I’ve seen “The Sopranos.”)

Apropos Street Photography
What does this have to do with street photography? Everything.

Whereas the person who photographs friends and family needs no validation other than a few likes on Facebook, the street photographer takes images of and for the public at large. Your friends may not be interested in pictures of people they don’t know, but you want to show your photos to someone besides yourself.

Some photographers work around this issue by joining online communities where they build a clique of admirers by exchanging mutual praise. Invariably the comments you read in these community galleries are very cryptic: “Nice capture!” “Gorgeous subject!” “Your shot reminded me of when I was there.”

Friendships develop and validation, of a kind, takes place. But I think a person can be left with the nagging sensation that it’s all a bit fake. You start to question: how long has the other person actually spent looking at my pictures? Wasn’t that comment about the composition (“Great composition!”) a little bit glib?

You end up thinking: isn’t the whole “community thing” an elaborate charade, a theatrical performance where everyone afterwards says: “Darling, you were wonderful”?

Many photographers join societies, such as the Royal Photographic Society, which give official validation in the form of “distinctions,” enabling you to place letters after your name. I’m mildly irritated when someone ignorant of photography asks: “Are you in the Royal Photographic Society” then loses interest in me and my work when I say I’ve never applied.

I’ve nothing against the RPS, but any institution that claims to arbitrate in matters of art is fallible, however stringent their procedures.

In the 1860s, the Salon de Paris, run by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, rejected the work of Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Cézanne, and Degas so frequently the artists clubbed together and formed their own association. I don’t know if Sotheby’s could put a current value on the works refused by the Salon, but it would be interesting to get an estimate.

Every artist desires recognition, but it’s quite possible to function perfectly well without it. Vincent Van Gogh famously never sold a painting, but his work was none the worse for it. Franz Schubert had only a small circle of admiring friends, few of whom came anywhere close to appreciating the full extent of his genius. His reputation is still growing after 200 years.

Finally, I would mention that “Validation” was the name of a 2007 movie, starring T.J. Thyne as a parking attendant who not only validates tickets but the customers themselves. He compliments them on their appearance and their personal qualities, in the process becoming hugely popular. He even finds himself in the news, validating George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. Then his life hits a snag when he meets a beautiful woman, a photographer who won’t smile at his compliments…

Who won’t smile! We’re back to the comedian. “They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.” (Bob Monkhouse).

Validation? Forget it!

Will Street Photography Last for a Thousand Years?

I’m sorry for the ambiguity of the title. There are two questions here: will people still be taking candid street photos a thousand years from now? And will they still want to look at the street photos we’re taking today? Please note: I’ve already discussed the latter question from a 500 year perspective (“Will Anyone Want to Look At Our Street Photos 500 Years From Now?“)

Looking Back
To help us think about it, we can look back a thousand years, and, in the absence of photography, consider other media such as writing, painting, and sculpture.

For example, in The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, those charming observations of daily life in Heian Japan are still vivid and alive, much like the best candid photography of today. Although the incidents the author described took place a thousand years ago, they have an immediacy that speaks to us directly across the centuries.

So, yes, literature stands the test of time. Painting is more problematic. A thousand years ago painters in the West had not yet felt the need to portray daily life in their work, concentrating almost exclusively on religious themes. Eventually, artists like Pieter Bruegel the Elder could make ordinary life the subject of their work, as in his painting The Peasant Wedding of 1567 (below).

Ceramics and Sculpture
In both East and West, ceramics and sculpture from two thousand years ago bring us closer to the subject of daily life than do the more recent paintings of the early middle ages.

For example, in China, the funerary statues of the Terracotta Army, buried with the Emperor Qin Shi Huang around 210 BC, depict thousands of soldiers with individually modelled faces and physiques. Other figures, of acrobats, dancers, musicians — even bureaucrats — are probably the nearest we can get to “street portraits” in the art of that period.

For greater realism, for really candid poses and “decisive moments,” you would need to leap forward to China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907) for the finest quality wooden and ceramic figures like the one shown below: a woman playing polo. I think the person who made this figure could look at today’s street photos and find much to admire in them, while being a little surprised that so many photographers still cling to black-and-white, but that’s another matter.

[Woman Playing Polo, Tang dynasty, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo: Sailko. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Back to The Future
Having glimpsed the past, let’s turn the clock forward.

According to the late Professor Stephen Hawking, the human race will not survive the next thousand years unless it escapes planet Earth and heads off into space.

As the juggernaut of civilization moves forward, internal threats to human life become added to those from space itself. Professor Hawking noted: “I believe that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as a sudden nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers.”

A genetically engineered virus? Heaven forbid!

People of the thirty-first century, voyaging the universe, will view our landscape photography and be reminded of how the Earth developed over millions of years; then they will check out our street photography to see what happened on Earth in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Changing the Viewpoint
By looking both backwards and forwards I’m doing what all street photographers do: changing the viewpoint — the angle, the perspective — trying to understand our role and position in the world, while all the time recording what I see around me.

Does it all matter? Clearly the future of the world matters hugely, but it’s less clear whether humanity’s future is of the greatest importance.

We may find ourselves replaced by beings of superior intelligence, when AI (artificial intelligence) runs amok and figures out ways to outwit us. Maybe AI will apply the brakes to stop us from destroying the planet, keeping us under control as pets in much the same way as we keep cats and dogs.

Perhaps intelligent robots will demand all the fun of doing street photography.

If there’s any photography.

If there are any streets.

Must Street Photos Always Be Imperfect?

We live in an imperfect world — photography records the world as it is — therefore photography is always imperfect.

Looking at the impeccably finished images of advertising, fashion, and landscape photography you could be forgiven for overlooking this fact. After all, creative people strive for perfection — or at least try to make their work as good as it can be. Only in the street or on the battlefield does reality successfully resist our natural urge to make it appear aesthetically perfect.

I have a measure of sympathy with the view expressed by Canadian photographer Patrick La Roque, who makes this philosophical comment in one of his YouTube videos:

“To my mind street photography is not so much about location as it is about a method. It’s a way to approach photography; it’s a way to accept randomness and chaos; a way of reacting to what’s going on around you. I think this can be applied to anything.”

I agree that it’s necessary to accept — and perhaps even revel in — the chaos of the street. However, I don’t think we should necessarily carry this chaos directly through to our finished work. Like all artists, the street photographer brings order to chaos. That, surely, is the fundamental process of artistic creation.

Order and Chaos
A while back I read Camille Paglia’s book Sexual Personae and have already quoted passages from it in Street Photography Is Cool. Paglia believes the opposition of order and chaos is what produces all great art and literature. She finds figures in Greek mythology to embody each concept: the god Apollo represents order and control, while Dionysus represents chaos and the dark forces of the underworld that drive the energies of nature.

Working quietly in a studio, a painter may struggle to find inspiration but has no such trouble in bringing order to a composition. Outside on the street, the photographer can tap into the energy that’s being expended everywhere, but finds it harder to impose order and control — especially with an instrument that records what it “sees.”

In my featured image (above) I’ve placed three versions of “Downhill Walker” next to each other with varying degrees of straightening. Individually, none of the images looks perfectly straight because the woman is walking down a hill on which both a litter bin and a tree are at a slight angle. Placing the three images together, with the litter bin upright in the centre, seems to be the only way of making it look satisfying.

Far from Perfect
Maybe “perfection” is too strong a word. Most street photos are so messy they’re a million miles away from being perfect. We have to look at street photography differently from the way we view any other photographic genre. We learn to tolerate seeing one figure partially occluded by another; a face or a limb cut in two by the edge of the frame; or out-of-focus areas in the foreground.

In fact, these are all visual clues that tell us we’re seeing a genuine street photo and not an artificially constructed scenario.

girls snacking, chickens strutting

For example, you can tell that the scene (above) is a real street photo and not a staged pastiche. I don’t think I’d exclude even Canadian artist Jeff Wall from this statement: he’d pay the girls, buy the chickens, and devise the scene – but would he think of including a McGraw Hill logo which appears in the top right corner of the interior? I’ve only just spotted it myself — and McGraw Hill once published one of my books!

The image is very natural, very imperfect. Nothing counteracts the slant to the left and the chickens are dying to walk out of frame. Nonetheless, I like the image despite its imperfection because it’s not entirely chaotic. It pivots around the central strut holding up a tarpaulin which is out of frame at the top.

When It’s All in the Right Place
That said, there’s huge satisfaction in viewing — and even more in making — a street photo in which everything seems to be in the right place.

In the shot below, everyone is in a straight line, more or less equidistant from the camera. No, it’s far from “perfect” but it has a higher degree of order than the picture above.

Street scene with six people, one on a motorbike

For example, you may notice that each person is a lone player, except for the two girls walking away from us, side-by-side.

It’s this discovered order, chosen from the chaos of the street, which gives it a distinctive look.

So yes, street photos are always imperfect, but the street photographer is always striving — in vain — for perfection.

How Fast Does the City Change When You Take Street Photos?

Before our great cities were locked down, making their streets deserted, they were places of swirling humanity. In fact, in the busiest areas the scene could change dramatically in a few seconds.

Here are my observations about this phenomenon, written before the world was paralysed by SARS-CoV-2 from Wuhan.

So Many Opportunities
Big cities offer far more opportunities for street photography than you’ll ever find in a small town. Why? Not necessarily because they’re bigger but because they contain huge crowds of people who gravitate towards the most popular areas.

I hasten to add that you can take masterpieces of street photography in small towns. (The work of William Eggleston springs to mind.) But to make your task a little easier you really need the flow of the multitude, the variety of faces and physical types, the quirks and oddities you get when millions of people huddle together in a few square miles.

A Sudden Insight
When I was hunting for a photo to illustrate an article called “Does Street Photography Look Wrong If the Image Isn’t Straight?” (not yet posted) I discovered the image you see above. I looked at it closely and to my astonishment I noticed an extraordinary detail — one which is the inspiration for this article.

As a result, I can now prove that the modern city changes from minute to minute with such amazing rapidity you can take photos that differ radically from each other in both mood and visual content — even when taken just a few seconds apart.

The people in the photo above are waiting for traffic to clear before crossing a road near Piccadilly Circus in London. They seem to be mostly bored or agitated, impatient to resume their relentless flow after being put temporarily “on pause.”

Looking Closer
However, there’s one exception. If you look at the far left, arrowed in the version shown above, you’ll see a Chinese gentleman in a very cheerful mood, laughing and chatting with a woman in red. I’m not sure why he’s laughing. There’s a large bag of rubbish precariously suspended on the pigeon spikes immediately above his head. (London is full of lavish monuments, but it’s a bit untidy in unexpected places.)

I immediately recognised the man in question: he’s the person smoking a cigarette in another picture, one I’ve called (for want of a better title) “Checked Out.” I was intending to use this shot for an article called: “Does Street Photography Look Wrong If the Image Isn’t Straight?” (not yet posted).

couple with red suitcase, sitting on the rim of a fountain

Incidentally, I have no idea whether this couple were checking in, checking out, or just back from shopping. However, I can tell you that they were clearly “on pause” and enjoying it, having a break from the flow of the crowd.

But what crowd? There’s no sign of any crowd in my photo of the couple although they’re clearly in the same location. Can the city have changed so dramatically in such a short period of time?

Checking Out the Data
All these questions prompted me to look up the EXIF (detailed information which accompanies each image as a side file, accessible with a photo editor). What I found was amazing. I had taken the crowd photo at 16:55 and 20 seconds and the photo of the couple at 16:56 and 23 seconds. In other words, I’d taken the two images just 63 seconds apart!

Just think of all the changes that happened in that long minute. The crowd of people crossed the road. I must have walked a little way down Haymarket then doubled back to the Horses of Helios where I photographed the couple. By this time, the woman with the red coat has removed her shoulder bag (it’s on her shoulder in the first photo) and taken out her phone. The man has stopped laughing and has sat down and begun smoking a cigarette.

When I’m in reflective mood, like the man at 16:56 and 23 seconds, I try to figure out a mathmatical theory for estimating the number of street photography opportunities that occur each day in our major cities. I think the number just leapt from billions to trillions.

The mood and visual appearance of a city can change in the blink of an eye. Go with the flow, attune yourself to its rhythms, and try to grab at least one or two of the trillions of opportunities being offered to you.

Alas, all of those things will have to wait until our streets return to life.

When Street Photography Is a Game of Two Halves

There’s a “retro” feel to my featured image today although I took it only two or three years ago. It does, however, illustrate one important point: that street photography — like football — can be a game of two halves.

We are constantly told about the “Rule of Thirds” and how helpful it can be when we want to create a satisfying composition. The rule is even built into superimposed grids in photo editors, as if we’re incapable of dividing an image into three by the eye alone.

Divide by Two
I’m going to make it really easy. Stop dividing by three and divide by two! Have something going on in one half of the image and something else in the other half. It works, given the right subject.

I watched this little train go round and round for a couple of minutes at a Pre-Christmas Fayre (that’s how they spell Fair in this part of the world, no wonder my shot is retro!) The little boy looked good, like Harry Potter on his first day at primary school. I wanted to get a photo with both him and the man who was operating the ride.

Why It Works
The almost-vertical row of lights provided the perfect solution. It divides the image more or less exactly into two halves, while being strong enough to form a central, unifying feature.

Why was it good to make this a game of two halves? Well, look at the image.

Everything points towards the boy. The man is gazing in his direction, although not directly at him. The coloured lights illuminate the boy, as does the bright floodlight at the top of the pole. Another set of lights can be seen behind the boy, whereas the man’s half of the image is dimly lit by natural light.

The boy’s train even “steals” a reflection of the railings! This little guy has it all!

A Study of Contrasts
I could have used this image to illustrate the idea of using contrasts in street photography because it is essentially a study of contrasts: age and infancy; experience and innocence; past and future.

I could even have used it to illustrate the concept of “layers of time.” The background is a medieval castle wall, built on the site of a Roman temple using many Roman bricks. The train appears to be an antique from the early twentieth century (but probably isn’t). The people are two generations apart.

A Balancing Act
However, the image is essentially a balancing act between two worlds. Each of the human figures occupies a world of his own and seems to be very happy with it. The little boy is in the first half of life, the man is in the second. Both halves have their challenges and difficulties, but for a moment the two people are united in time and space, if largely unaware of each other’s presence.

Group of people walking down an urban street past a realistic photo of a park

A Walk in the Park
My second image (above) is entirely different. It’s just a curiosity: almost an optical illusion.

At first glance it looks like two pictures juxtaposed, without any separating gap. But if you look closely you’ll see that it’s a regular street shot of people walking past a hoarding covered with a very realistic photograph. There’s even some graffiti at the bottom.

I like pictures that demand a second (and third and fourth) glance before you can figure them out. This one is slightly understated because its half-and-half composition suggests deliberate juxtaposition rather than optical puzzlement.

Alas, I don’t think many people give it a second glance, a fact that doesn’t upset me.

It just gives me an insight into the way in which an onlooker “reads” an image, jumping to conclusions before scanning the bottom of the page. It makes me careful to avoid doing it myself.

In the meantime I’ll continue, intermittently, to enjoy the “game of two halves.”

Do Masks Really Help?

Taking street photos in Bangkok last year, long before the coronavirus pandemic started, I wore a mask because of the high air pollution levels. That’s me in the brown hat on the left, reflected in a large mirror. If I look a little wasted it’s because I’d just been discharged from hospital after a month of measles.

A few people giggled at the unusual sight of a masked Westerner — normally seen in movies robbing a bank — but they didn’t make me feel out-of-place. In fact, I started to enjoy this way of blending in with the community, crossing over from being a devil-take-the-hindmost “farang” (foreigner) to socially responsible Bangkok native.

Please note: I took all these pictures last year. Anyone featured in them without a mask has certainly been wearing one recently.

two health workers in masks, walking past a massive fire hydrant

Getting Serious
Mask-wearing in public has become one of the world’s most controversial issues. It raises a huge number of questions, two of which I’ll try to answer in this article:

First: Can a mask stop you from getting Covid-19?
Second: Can a mask stop you giving Covid-19 to others?

Can a mask stop you from getting Covid-19?
At the onset of the epidemic in the UK, health experts were scornful of the supposed effectivess of masks in preventing people from contracting the virus. They even warned against using them because of the danger of touching the mask, then touching your eyes or spreading the virus via surfaces. (Good point!)

three young women in blue and white uniforms, one with mask

There were also other aspects worrying the authorities. For example, many types of mask offer no protection against viruses.

At the very minimum you need an N95 mask with a respirator because it filters out 95% of airborne particles larger than 0.3 microns. Even then, many small “virions” (infective virus particles) can squeeze through.

Many lower-rated anti-pollution masks designated “PM2.5” (Particulate Matter, 2.5 microns across) are ineffective against viruses, although they’re useful for keeping dust, pollen and other airborne particles at bay. Here’s why:

Size Matters
Virions range in size from 20 nanometres to 400 nanometres, with the virion that infects you with Covid-19 being in the middle of that range, at 120 nanometres (or 0.0000048 inches). By contrast, a 2.5 micron particle (against which the standard anti-pollution mask is effective) has a diameter of 2,500 nanometres (there are 1,000 nanometres in a micron). Clearly, a coronavirus could pass right through a PM2.5 mask very easily, floating with others 20 abreast!

Social Acceptance
At the beginning last year, the mask as a fashion statement had not yet caught on in the west, but it was already tending that way in Bangkok, such was the level of acceptance.

two women, one dwith animal mask

In the west, it was thought that there would be panic-buying on a grand scale, diverting masks away from health professionals, care workers, shop staff, and others who need them most.

The UK’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty went so far as to say that wearing a mask “reduces the risk almost not at all.” The standard line was “wash your hands for 20 seconds” and “keep two metres apart” — simple advice that helped, even if it did not go far enough.

The World Health Organization (WHO) gave similar advice at first, but has modified it in the light of new research. It now appears that coughs can reach 6 metres and sneezes even further: up to 8 metres.

Perhaps, all along, the Eastern approach to wearing masks has been right, having been rooted in a tradition of covering part of the face whenever you have a cold.

man in red tee-shirt with yellow under-vest in a teddy-bear pattern, wearing a mask over his mount only

Unfortunately, even Bangkok natives don’t always wear them correctly. A mask needs to fit precisely over the nose, around the sides and under the chin. The delivery guy in my photo (above) has not covered his nose, which makes mask-wearing rather pointless.

Can a mask stop you giving Covid-19 to others?
The answer to this is a heavily qualified “yes,” but only if you don’t cough or sneeze while coming into close proximity with anyone else.

Coughing into a mask creates an aura of infective particles around your head, extending up to a metre — and liable to float in the direction of anyone nearby.

Theoretically, you need breathe in only a single, fully-fledged virion to become infected, although in practice (for many reasons) that number is very much higher.

In cold weather (almost never experienced in Bangkok) it’s easy to see people’s breath and avoid it. At other times, you can see only the exhalations of smokers and vapers. Obviously, this easily identifiable cloud will have just emerged from deep inside a pair of lungs — and is not the kind of “air” you need to be breathing during a viral pandemic, mask or no mask.

Good Reasons for Wearing a Mask
I’ve already mentioned the new research on the reach of coughs and sneezes, but there are other reasons, too, for wearing a mask during the pandemic.

When people go out for brief exercise or trips to the pharmacy, they may very well encounter others, who — while showing no symptoms whatsoever — may possibly be “silent carriers” of the virus. You can still catch a virus from a silent carrier.

A third reason is the way in which wearing a mask — or seeing others wear them — reminds us of ever-present danger. Of course, it would be a relief if we could stop thinking (and writing!) about this subject, but it’s better to seek escape by watching a movie in the safety of home rather than behave as normal outside.

In pre- and post-pandemic times we can — like the person below — occasionally let down our guard when off-duty, but, in the Age of Coronavirus (as I called it last week), those times seem very distant.

young woman with mask under chin, standing in front of an illuminated underwear mannequin

(All photos taken pre-pandemic!)

Shooting with the Fuji X100V in the Age of Coronavirus

Several weeks ago I ordered the all-black version of the new Fuji X100V, having talked myself into it while updating my article: “The Best Camera for Street Photography 2020.”

The coronavirus crisis escalated, and then, just as The Lockdown in the UK began, the camera arrived. So I have what is arguably “the world’s best street photography camera” but no streets with any people on them. So can I find another use for this wonderful little device?

In fact, the camera was always destined for a number of uses, indoors and out: such as general travel photography and product photography snaps on location. The X100V has the same X-Trans 26.1MP BSI CMOS 4 sensor as the Fuji X-T3 and X-T4, hence I knew the output was sufficient for these applications.

I figure: people will return eventually to the streets of London where I normally take pictures, so maybe I can learn exactly how the camera behaves before that happens.

I’ll take it to the local park.

swan on the boating lake

At the time of writing (March 29), the Government permits us one period of exercise per day, so this sort of activity is socially acceptable, as long as I stay at least a couple of metres away from anyone else. Frankly, I think I’ll make it 5 metres, given the fact that last year’s bout of measles has knocked out a chunk of my immune system.

Beginner’s Luck
One of my first shots is at the top of this article. I suppose it was beginner’s luck because I was intending to show the emptiness of the park when the man in red suddenly emerged from the Sunken Garden. A patch of red in the centre of an image is always a cheerful touch.

Incidentally, this shot is an out-of-camera JPEG, with no post-processing whatsoever — not even straightening. Here (below) is a 25 percent crop to give you some idea of the camera’s capability to resolve detail.


25 percent crop of man in red coat

I now have to ask myself is that as good as I can get with my full-frame Canon 5D3 and a 40mm lens? Well, it’s not far off. It’s good to know that I can still get an acceptable image, 15 inches wide, after cropping by 25 percent.

Here’s a second cropped image, this time of another lone photographer who is taking a picture of the River Colne that winds through Lower Castle Park.

With this shot I discovered that the Fuji’s out-of-camera JPEGs tend to render silhouetted branches by filling in the gaps between small twigs with a pale shade of blue. This cannot be remedied by adjusting for chromatic aberration but disappears (as shown) if you reduce both the blue and cyan channels with an image editor such as Photoshop. There’s always a solution, isn’t there?

lone photographer

Castle Park
At this point I should mention that I’ve long felt privileged to have this beautiful park a short walk away, along the river path. It has one of the finest collections of exotic trees in the UK. A few years ago I strolled around it with tree expert Christopher Howard who thoughtfully provides a detailed guide that identifies and describes the most notable of them. (Seems to be no hot linking to it — so please Google for “Colchester Castle Park Tree Trail.”)

two people and a dog

In the shot above I think I can just see the Caucasian Wingnut Gingko in the distance, but I’m not sure. It’s around here somewhere.

Roman Town Houses
Among the key features of Castle Park are the Roman Town Houses, of which little remains other than the foundations that were revealed and excavated in the 1920’s by the archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1890–1976). You can glimpse them in the shot below, to the right of the flowers.

daffodils and an archaeological site

These town houses are among the earliest domestic dwellings in the UK. They certainly pre-date mine.

Below is another view which shows several adjoining houses in outline, with their mosaic floor tiles.

Roman Town Houses

In the Roman era, what is now Castle Park was truly urban, so I think I’m nearly 2,000 years too late to get a decent street photo in this location.

No, It’s Not Really Street Photography
At this point I realise that street photography is pretty much impossible in the Age of Coronavirus. There are very few people about and I can’t use any of my normal strategies for getting the kind of shots I like to take.

Here, for example, is what happens when I venture out of the park on to the street. Nothing! It’s a lovely cobbled path — a great background — but not much chance of anyone walking along it.

Verdict on the X100V
The light weight yet solid construction of the X100V make it a joy to use, quite apart from any other considerations. I love the flip-up screen. On the other hand, I’m still trying to get used to the optical viewfinder with its slightly disturbing view of the lens ring.

It’s clearly going to be a great camera for the street, especially when I add a lens hood (not shipping at the moment).

I doubt if I’ll have the opportunity to take truly urban street shots for several weeks. Maybe I can get a few if I visit the pharmacy next week, with the X100V concealed inside my coat.

Sadness and Joy
In the meantime, the following two images demonstrate the difference between NOW (virus) and THEN (pre-virus).

First is the Bandstand, a few yards away from the Town Houses, taken with the X100V during the lockdown. Like the “Man in the Red Coat” this shot is an out-of-camera JPEG with no processing except, this time, for a tiny bit of straightening.

Castle Park bandstand

And here below is the same location during summer, a year or two back, of a Humanist wedding (taken with my Canon 5D3).

Humanist wedding in progress

I wish I were using the X100V under happier circumstances like those above, but normality WILL return. Until then, I’ll have to dig out some pictures from my archive to continue this blog.

Take care!

Birdwatching on the Street

What? No people in the street? Don’t worry, you can always find a feathered friend, or two.

Somewhile back I wrote a blog post called “Street Photographer Goes Birding.” It was a bit “tongue-in-cheek” because it featured a tiny Goldcrest sitting outside my window, to which I subjected my standard street photography technique: taking a candid shot with a 40mm lens. Being only a few inches away, this — the tiniest bird in the British Isles (barely an inch long) — filled the frame very nicely.

I can understand the allure of bird photography. Because birds flit from one position to another so quickly, photography enables us to study them more closely. We get to see them mid-movement, perhaps when they pause for a split second and seem to be considering their options.

In fact, bird photography is very similar to street photography in all but subject matter and the type of equipment you need to do it. Birds go about their daily business such as shopping (catching worms), working (building a nest) and chasing the opposite sex (chasing the opposite sex). There’s really not that much difference between them and us.

They’re also similar to us in the fact that photography can make them feel uncomfortable. For this reason, the bird photographer often builds a hide (a bit like a bird building a nest!) and uses a telephoto lens on a tripod. This is not a good practice for street photography, so taking “ad hoc” photos of birds in the street has to be done with a standard lens — and the subject’s forbearance.

The Chinese Winter Heron
Having made a complicated artwork from this particular subject I’ll not easily forget the obliging bird that posed for me one lunchtime in Ayutthaya. (There’s a single frame from the series at the top of this article).

My objective was simply to take some shots of a passing barge-train, slowly making its way towards Bangkok. In the foreground there was some rusty hauling gear which I thought would add something to the image. Then, as luck would have it, a large heron, disturbed by the barges, flew into the frame and settled on the foreground object.

Over the next minute or two, the bird hopped around, sometimes looking directly at the camera with an old-fashioned Jack Benny stare, before flying off into the distance.

Woman watches an egret against a backdrop of the mighty river

More River Birds
I took these next two shots (above and below) on the east bank of the Chao Phraya near Wat Rakhang Kositaram (Temple of the Bells). In amongst the thousands of pigeons flocking around the waterside, are several scrawny white birds which squabble among themselves, seizing any opportunity to gain a favourable perch.

I’m not a birdwatcher but I guess they must be egrets of some kind. Looking them up online I’m grateful to for identifying them as Great Egrets (black feet) and Little Egrets (yellow feet), rather than Intermediate, or Cattle Egrets. Please tell me if I’ve got this wrong!

Two large egrets, squabbling

Keeping it “Street”
There are human figures in the first two images but not in the third one. Maybe it’s time to call a halt to discussing birds otherwise they’ll edge out the human species altogether. If you look at this same location on Google Street View you’ll see they already have!