Hacked Off

If you’ve visited this site during the past month or so, you’ll have noticed the lack of updates and the absence of featured pictures at the top of the posts.

Sorry! The site got hit by the dreaded “Japanese Keyword Virus,” one of the most difficult computer viruses to eradicate, even given the many helpful “10 step” processes that security bloggers have posted.

The Japanese Keyword Virus turns your keywords on Google into links to Japanese sites selling clothes and accessories. It’s a kind of SEO spam that hijacks legitimate sites (like this one!) and ruins your reputation on Google.

Moving On
My son transferred and rebuilt most of the site to a new server, and I added the missing pictures. It all seems to work now, but there’s the also the impact of the more serious Covid-19 virus which has prevented me from getting fresh photos on crowded city streets.

I can post a few more articles, but it’s likely that their appearance will be intermittent, rather than on a normal weekly basis. I want to continue to entertain everyone (like the guy below) but eventually I’ll run out of decent shots.

At that point I’ll just provide an index to the existing articles (currently buried deep in the blog) and then update only when I have something new.

Because of this, it’s best to sign up for the newsletter if you’ve not done so already.

May you all be virus-free!

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.

Walking Around a Roman Wall

What did the Romans do for us? Well, here in my home town of Colchester (Essex, UK) they built a rather nice wall, much of which is still standing after nearly 2,000 years.

Not being able to venture too far afield during the recent (and seemingly endless) pandemic, I started to wonder whether the wall could serve as a backdrop for some street photos.

I took all of them with the new Fuji X100V, intermittently over a few days.

One Shot
On one day I took just one image (above).

Walking into Lower Castle Park, I was struck by the sudden appearance of yellow blossom in some shrubs near the railings.

There’s a great view of the wall from this viewpoint — and I noted the lone figure of a man in the distance. All it needed was something more… then the cyclist arrived with not one, but two bikes!

Changing the Direction of View
Here’s the same stretch of wall (above), looking back towards the gate through which the cyclist passed in the previous shot.

It was a lovely summer’s day in The Lockdown, with small family groups enjoying the sun. Recently, everyone had been “on tenterhooks,” waiting anxiously for the virus to disappear.

Oddly enough, I can say that the tenterhooks themselves have quite literally passed. For it was on this piece of land in the seventeenth century that Flemish weavers stretched their cloth – on devices known as “tenterhooks.”

The presence of the Roman wall makes the seventeenth century seem like modern history. Meanwhile, weeds constantly colonise the ancient structure, giving it a beauty never intended by the original builders.

Walking the Wall
One day I set out, with my partner, to walk around the wall in its entirety. It’s not a major trek, the wall being around 2,800 metres long, in the shape of a rectangle.

Today it varies slightly in height, according to its state of preservation, but much of it is 6 metres high and nearly two and a half metres thick. Its construction is said to have required 40,000 tonnes of building material.

Walking around it is far less onerous than building it, but don’t thank the Romans. They made the local Britons do most of the work.

The western stretch, running up Balkerne Hill, has little archways set within it, bricked up in the modern era to help preserve it.

One of the best preserved parts is the long stretch at the top of Balkerne Hill, past the huge gate (the Balkerne Gateway) which served as the main entrance to the town in Roman times.

Pressing On
OK, so this mini-project is degenerating into “wall photography” rather than street photography, so we’ll press on quickly to the far side of town where the wall is buttressed in Priory Street with huge bastions.

Another man walks past a wall! Oh dear!

I guess if I waited in a given position for a couple of hours, something more interesting might happen, but, remember, there were very few people around during this stage of the 2020 Lockdown.

So to conclude: here, in rapid succession are shots I took to complete the journey. First, I asked my partner to walk on ahead.

Yes, I know it’s cheating, but the light was great and I could have waited here for hours before anyone else passed this way.

Next, I snapped a cyclist heading towards the wall.

I did, in fact, wait a couple of minutes for someone to provide a point of interest in this shot (below) near Duncan’s Gate. No, there wasn’t a Roman called Duncan! The gate was named after Dr P. M. Duncan who excavated it in 1853. The little boy in the picture probably doesn’t know that.

And finally here’s a closing shot of a girl hurrying through a small archway set within the wall on the northern stretch where we started.

At least the above shots have something in common, so I think the idea of walking the wall was valid in street photography terms. However, such a project needs more time. I’ll work on it some more.

After all, neither Rome nor Colchester was built in a day.

If you’re visiting Colchester and would like to know more about its Roman history, take a look at:

Friends of Colchester’s Roman Wall

Visit Colchester, Britain’s First City

The Colchester Archaeologist

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.

When Your Street Photo Really Has to Be Square

Just before taking the above image I felt the familiar set of mental signals that tells me: “this is potentially a good shot.” The composition has all the elements I like: movement, purpose, engagement, colour matching (orange), colour distribution (blue), a curious object — no, two or three curious objects!

Yet even as I took it I had a sinking feeling that it didn’t quite work. There was a blank area at bottom left, too much car at top left and distracting detail on the other side of the pillar on the right.

I didn’t store the photo with the ones I like best until after I’d thought generally about the square format. I’d made several other images square by cropping them — and now I saw the potential for rescuing this one.

As a square image this photo works in a way it never could as a rectangle. I’d already tried it in portrait format, but that was even worse than landscape because it gave a distant view of the street beyond, distracting attention from the woman’s activity. Only a perfect square can counteract the diverging verticals, as long as one of them (I chose the grey pillar) is nearly upright.

Taking Another Look
If composition plays a major role in your street photography, as it does in mine, you’ll find that even slight adjustments can make a huge difference to the overall effect. Heavily cropping away two opposite sides is considerably more than a “slight adjustment,” so you need to know what you’re doing.

It helps if you go back to your work after a month or two and view it objectively. Once you’ve done so, try to recall what prompted you to take the shot and what you felt about it at the time. By cropping to a different format you can stay more true to your original intention than if you simply retain the entire image.

But be careful!

Cropping to square can lead you to places you’ve never been before. You’ll gradually start to see square compositions in reality. You’ll become a square street photographer. You’ll turn into Vivian Maier.

We readily accept Vivian Maier’s images because she shot with a square format Rolleiflex and saw a square image in her viewfinder. Today, the ubiquity of the 35mm format with its 3:2 ratio means that we’ve come to expect street images to be landscape or portrait, not something in between. Even the layout of web pages in WordPress (as here) makes the square image look slightly out of place, like an intruder in an otherwise well ordered world.

One Focal Length, One Aspect Ratio?
Nearly all good street photographers recommend the use of prime lenses rather than zooms. They do so because there’s no time in the heat of the action to mess around with changing focal lengths. Yet there’s also another reason: encouraging beginners to see subjects not only in terms of the subtended angle but also by the rectangle it creates.

Their advice is good. However, as you gain more experience you can start to become more adventurous and versatile. I’m not suggesting you mount a heavy zoom on your camera, but I do think you can start to vary the rectangle in your mind’s eye — changing occasionally from landscape/portrait options to seeing the composition as a square.

The Studio vs. The Street
Fitting people into a square format is easier in the studio. For example, in the days of Page Three glamour shots, photo editors on “The Sun” would urge photographers to use short models who could curl up into a compact shape to fit the tabloid page.

man on phone, squatting

In taking candid shots on the street we can’t be as deliberately selective as the pin-up photographer. Yet sometimes a person assumes a position that positively invites a square frame. Here’s one example (above). I took it from a boat on a canal with the camera in a portrait orientation.

Above the subject’s head to the left was a long fluorescent light which I’ve cropped out because it unbalances the composition. The result is a neatly composed and very candid portrait of a person in an everyday (if somewhat unusual) environment, taken from an angle that’s rarely possible on a normal street.

What’s Wrong With Square?
Finally, I think I should mention one problem I’m sure you’ve encountered with square photos: their static tendency. With all sides perfectly equal in length there’s no natural dynamic to encourage the onlooker’s eye to move from left to right or up and down. The invitation is just to stare at the centre because you can see the whole photo at one glance.

It’s because of the static nature of the square format that I’ve introduced diagonal lines in both of the images I’m showing here. The first one has the orange pipe on the left while the other has the foreground pole on the right. These two elements do much to enliven the images, making both of them more aesthetically satisfying than they would have been otherwise.

I could never make the square format my standard aspect ratio. Street photography cries out for dynamic rather than static treatment. But on some occasions there’s really no alternative to using the balanced, symmetrical, traditional, honest, totally conformist, hundred-percent kosher, strait-laced square.

BNE Was Here, There, and Everywhere

Going through my photos from Bangkok from last year, I came across the featured image (above).

It has the kind of juxtaposition I like: with the surfeit of visual messages on every object, including the woman’s body.

Most prominent of all the messages is one that says: “BNE Was Here.” It’s a message you’ll come across again and again if you take street photos in the cities of the Far East.

For example, here’s another one (below). I took it because of the distinct oddness of the couple: a girl with a big floppy ribbon in her hair and a boy furtively holding a cigarette while carrying in front of him a multi-coloured bag as though it contained something of especial value.

an awkward situation

The man, about to get in a pick-up truck, glares at me — perhaps worried lest I record some kind of illegal transaction.

Can you see the sticker in the background: “BNE Was Here”? I think this adds something extra to the image — not mystery, exactly, because these stickers are so ubiquitous — but a reassuring sense of familiarity when it’s most needed.

The BNE Affair
In case you missed the media coverage of BNE I suppose I should provide a brief explanation. BNE (or B.N.E.) is the logo used by a person who started scrawling traditional graffiti nearly thirty years ago. After a few years he turned to stickers, churning them out in their thousands and covering our cities with them: especially New York and Tokyo, but also Prague, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

Especially Bangkok. Here’s another example:

prominent sticker on lamp-post

(I snapped this shot on the way to lunch: that’s my son in front with his arm on his mother’s shoulder.)

Of course, there’s so much graffiti and so many stickers in Bangkok you could be forgiven for not noticing them. However, the media did start to pay attention and articles about BNE appeared in The New York Times and Forbes magazine.

Journalists even succeeded in tracking BNE down and getting his comments, learning that he not only generated about 10,000 stickers a month but also had help from colleagues to put them in place. His presence on key websites, like Flickr and YouTube, was greater than that of many multinational corporations.

Man With a Brand
Having built a brand that sells nothing, “BNE” saw the light (so the story goes) and decided to donate it to a good cause. He explained to Forbes magazine that he was spray-painting a wall in Jakarta when a woman said it must be wonderful to be rich enough to use paint in this way. So he agreed to paint her fence as well, listened to her life story, and learned how people in her city had to go without food because they spent so much money on water. This was the beginning of the BNE Water Foundation.

“BNE is a global movement dedicated to helping people in need get access to clean, safe drinking water and basic sanitation. We raise funds + awareness with art and BNE products.”

Click on BNEwater.org today and you get taken to a Water Damage Restoration Removal & Air Conditioning Repair service. Oh dear, whatever happened to all those donations?

Scandal Breaks
In 2014, scandal rocked the BNE venture when ANIMAL (animalnewyork.com) announced: “In a brazen act of chutzpah even by the standards of the graffiti world, where gaming each other is commonplace, pseudonymous global sticker-bomber, BNE, has fraudulently claimed to have collaborated on t-shirts with Banksy, the undisputed king of street-art, for the benefit of World Water Day.”

Apparently, BNE had falsely claimed to be collaborating with Banksy, whose work, unlike BNE’s ubiquitous stickers does at least have the combined virtues of invention, variation and humour.

Failing to receive any t-shirts — and aware that the product would not be authenticated by Banksy — donors started to ask for their money back. PayPal reversed all the payments and shut down BNE’s account. In a follow-up post on ANIMAL, BNE was described as “the sticker-bombing con artist BNE.”

The Unseen Tee-Shirt
This is a story of our times. Hundreds of people were prepared to believe an anonymous street artist when he said: “You do not get to see the artwork on this tee until it arrives at your door.”

Oh, that’s OK. Don’t bother to show us the product. Don’t tell us your name. We’ll just give you the money. And don’t tell us how you spend it.

BNE relied heavily on the power of photography to spread the word and establish a presence on the Internet, taking his “brand” beyond the city street and into the minds of people everywhere. I guess I’m continuing to promulgate the same virus with this article.

If it was genuine, I salute BNE’s intention to help solve the water crisis in the developing world. If it was not genuine, then I’d cry “Shame!” The message itself: “BNE Was Here” was certainly not always truthful. In many instances, “BNE Was NOT Here” would have been closer to the truth.

The BNE stickers will probably appear in future pictures, next time I walk around the streets of Bangkok. I’m not too worried. It’s unobtrusive compared to the Sainsbury’s bag in the UK. Its in-your-face colour ruined a lot of my local street photos, until I finally accepted it in the shot below. Thank heavens THAT’s gone.

Couple with four bright orange bags

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.