Canals Are Streets Too

As a street photographer I wish there were more canals and fewer streets. Canals are wonderful places for taking pictures but there are not enough of them. Those we have — in Amsterdam, Venice and Bangkok — are overrun by tourists, each one of whom seems to come equipped with an expensive camera.

Given that there is such a lot of competition from both tourists and serious travel photographers, I’m a little surprised that great “street photos” from the canals are not more widely seen. After all, the canal — in a very real sense — is just a street with water instead of tarmac.

In cities where canals criss-cross the urban landscape, people use them in much the same way as dry-landers use the city street. They travel from A to B via the canals; they transport goods on them; and very often they set up shop right there in the middle of the water.

There’s only one major difference. The pace of life on the canals is necessarily a whole lot slower. Five miles an hour is considered fast; twenty miles an hour, while possible, is definitely frowned upon.

Damnoen Saduak
I am fortunate in being able to visit one of the world’s most popular canal systems, near Bangkok, not as a tourist but as a relative by marriage.

My partner’s aunt has a house right on the main canal at Damnoen Saduak, the most famous of Thailand’s floating markets. There, it’s great fun to snuggle under the mosquito net at night, listening to the water lapping beneath the polished teak floor (although maybe less fun to be woken at 5.00am by the deafening racket of long-tail boats revving up their engines).

There are two ways to photograph the action at Damnoen Saduak: from the side of the canal or from a boat. You can get great shots either way, but those from a boat undoubtedly have the edge, especially if you want to get close-up portrait-style shots.

Portraits taken in natural light nearly always require the use of a reflector to balance the light and provide some illumination from below. But that’s only for dry-land photographers! Once you’re on a boat you can dispense with all the accessories because the water itself provides the reflection you need. I think even tourists are beginning to notice that their shots of each other on boats look better than those they take on dry land.

I’ve emphasised the similarity of canals to streets and I’ve suggested that street photography is something you can practice on a canal, but I have to add a word of caution. Don’t expect to do what’s commonly called “hardcore” street photography, either from a boat or from the canal’s edge. The atmosphere is much too relaxed for that. People are happy and smiling; their movements slow and predictable. Their way of life fits them like a glove, without all the hassle and friction normally sought by the hardcore street photographer.

The Garden Centre
For my featured image (at the top) I’ve chosen a lady in a boat who looks as relaxed as it’s possible to look while still actually working. She’s a one-woman garden centre, selling pot plants and refreshments at reasonable prices. I like the way her face is in shade whereas her wares are strongly illuminated by the sun. This seems appropriate, seeing that she’s tucked away quietly at the side, making no apparent effort to give anyone the “hard sell.” I think she needs all the commercial help I can provide.

In the sunlight, on the other side of the canal, another lady (above) is well-stocked with apples and young coconuts, ready to punt her way to a busier part of the market. She seems more extroverted and more likely to suggest a sale than her competition across the way. Both ladies, you can be sure, have been photographed hundreds of times — every week, during the tourist season.

I’ve recognised both of these subjects in other people’s photographs, but not as often as you might expect. They are usually in a group scene, along with all the other vendors.

If you go to Google Images and search for “Damnoen Saduak floating market” you’ll see what I mean. The photos brought back by the search are quite different from mine. With scarcely an exception, they’re all general shots of the crowded market, of dozens of boats laden with colourful goods. None of them really gets behind the gaudy spectacle of the market to the real world of individuals and their personal traits and characteristics.

Up Close
On the canals, the street photographer’s imperative to “get in close” can lead to pictures that are both more meaningful and more beautiful. On the occasion when I took these images I think I was helped by the presence of my elderly Thai father-in-law, riding up front in the boat, smiling at the ladies as we passed. His protection made me less of an alien intruder and more like “one of us.”

My favourite image from this short boat ride is of a younger woman who was selling assorted goods, including shopping bags and…yes…framed insects. She’s leaning on a thick bamboo pile which keeps her boat from moving out of position. I suspect she also has another, more conventional job elsewhere, but as I recall this was a Saturday, a day on which many people — one or two of our friends included — like to earn extra income trading on the canal.

Can you get this sort of image on the street? I don’t think so. Despite being so close to the camera, the woman shows no signs of being aware of it. She’s smiling at our whole party of people, not making direct contact with the camera. Although it’s a candid shot it has many of the qualities we expect in a proper portrait: good light, nice pose, interesting props. Nonetheless, I’m still going to claim it as a street photo. That’s why it’s here. Because canals are streets too.

The Pleasures of Red

Red is a wonderful colour. For the Chinese it’s the colour of good luck and for others it’s the colour of passion. Too much of it is said to cause people to become agitated and lose their temper; too little leads to lethargy, caution and lack of vitality.

Street photographers in search of red usually have to rely on finding someone wearing a red dress or standing against a red background. It’s rare to find an entire collection of subjects and settings composed primarily of red or even vaguely reddish colours. In fact, at the risk of being overly cautious the street photographer may choose to avoid red altogether. It’s not the easiest colour to incorporate into a picture.

Personally, I love red — and orange and yellow — and I find them uplifting in comparison to the pervasive greys and browns of the typical city street. Any image composed primarily in red will be eye-catching. If you can offset this intense colour with some deep black, so much the better. You may have to wait for Chinese New Year before this combination comes along, but the wait will be worthwhile.

My featured image (above) was taken during Chinese New Year when workers were bringing extra lanterns for a street festival in Phuket Town. It was the Year of the Snake — or “little dragon” — so the twisting cables of the crane on the truck are significant. It’s best to represent the snake symbolically as it doesn’t like people seeing its body — or so the Chinese believe.

As you can see, the photo is not exclusively a composition in red. It contains orange (the side of the truck) and yellow (the worker’s tee-shirt and the lanterns’ tassles and inscriptions). There’s hardly any green or blue in the image. Do we miss them? Not really, although the picture may seem unusual because of its restricted palette.

Fortunately, anything unusual tends to go down well in street photography. Street scenes are all too familiar to most people, so you have to find ways of showing them in a new light. Hence, “unusual” equates to “good” in the street photographer’s lexicon.

When a Red Scene is Ready Made
The best source of red is undoubtedly red paint. It’s not always welcome, especially in the more conservative parts of London. There was, for example, the notorious case of the woman who painted her house in vertical, candy-coloured red and white stripes, taking revenge on her neighbours who’d prevented her from demolishing the house and adding an underground swimming pool to its replacement.

Red is often seen to be too “forward,” too provocative — as though it were being worn by a particularly aggressive Parisienne prostitute. That seemed to be the case in Kensington, where the adjoining houses now look unusually drab in the dull light of a typical London day. Nobody of class wants to look like a prostitute (or live next to one) but neither does anyone wish to seem dull and uninteresting. Neighbours! Don’t you just love them?

Red is not inappropriate on the facade of a public house (a London “pub”). Here it is (below) on The Coach and Horses in Soho. The paintwork is imaginative and bold, with white highlights and black window frames to alleviate the pervasive red — which seems to step forward towards us.

For the photo, all I needed was a man using a red phone (he was already in position when I walked past). This time there’s no yellow or orange, although the red itself has an orange tendency. The only jarring note is the blue bin on the right, but even that is counterbalanced by the vertical blue strip on the left.

Incidentally, this is the pub made famous by the patronage of the late Jeffrey Bernard — immortalised in the play “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell” in which Peter O’Toole returned to the London stage to take the part of the hard drinking journalist beset by various ailments.

The lone, male figure in my photo may trigger some people’s memories of the journalist, the play, the actor, and the legendary performances that followed.

When Red is Over the Top
The residents of London can breathe a sigh of relief that no artist has painted a mural as overwhelmingly red as the one (below) in Bangkok. This work, by the Japanese artist Motomichi Nakamura, is one of the most startling — and gigantic — murals I’ve ever seen.

Of course, the mural doesn’t lend itself to street photography, because what else can you do except reproduce it? Any live action in the street will always be completely smothered by the tormented expressions of the red creatures on the wall. Here I’ve done my best, cutting off most of the mural while capturing a glimpse of the street alongside it.

In a curious way, the photograph works because the hugh graffiti-like mural — for all its jumble of alien forms — is actually better organised than anything on the street. The real world seems to be a mess compared to the jolly gathering of ghostly life-forms with their impassive stares and rictus grins.

Motomichi is a philosopher and scientist when he speaks of the colour red. As he says on his website: “(It) increases the pulse and heart rate, and raises your blood pressure. Red also has the smallest refractive index and visually it appears closer than reality.” By using it together with black and white, he makes his creatures — what he calls his “cryptozoological monsters” — look larger than life.

The Tendencies of Red
As pure colour, without being darkened by black or lightened by white, red can tend either towards yellow or blue. Red with a yellow tendency can be called “tomato red” (Coach and Horses) while red with a blue tendency is a kind of “berry red” (Motomichi).

It good to be aware that red has as much variety as any other colour, not only in appearance but also in meaning. Stock market prices are dropping if they’re shown in red in New York or London — but red figures in East Asia denote a rise in value.

Whether it means plus or minus, “passion” or “danger,” red in the street photo is impossible to miss. I never leave home without it.

Finding Great Compositions in Unpromising Subjects

If you were to ask me what I like most about street photography I’d have say it’s this: looking at an unpromising scene then somehow finding a composition that pleases me.

The sensation gives me a real buzz. It’s like winning a bet on the horses. You’re hoping your horse will come in, but you don’t really expect it. When your horse actually wins you feel you’ve cheated the odds, because the odds are nearly always against you.

For the street photographer, an unexpected winnings in an unpromising situation is “something for nothing.” It’s catching a bird with your empty hand. It’s manna from heaven.

On a Quiet Day
Recently I was taking shots in London’s Camden Market on a morning when most of the day’s visitors had still not arrived. It was early in the tourist season. Only a few people were walking around the food stalls which were just beginning to get ready for lunch.

I didn’t expect to find a single composition in the lunch area and was thinking of moving elsewhere. At that point, several things came together at once. Three chefs in a shabby kitchen started rummaging around in an interesting manner. A girl wearing a lovely stripey jumper walked into the scene, then a man paused in front of me holding a blue coat (see the featured image at the top).

With luck or judgement (I don’t know which) I managed to get each of the foreground figures so their profiles appear clearly against the background. Given the jumble and complexity of the background this was a definite bonus. If the man had moved a few inches forward the shot would have been ruined.

Getting Technical
Fortunately I was fully prepared for this kind of shot, although I didn’t expect to get it. With the camera in Aperture Priority mode I’d stopped down my 40mm lens from f/2.8 to f/5.6, giving 1/1000th sec. in the bright sunlight. I usually “expose to the right” (i.e., ensure that the shadows get enough exposure) but the mixture of white shirts and black stalls made me avoid setting any exposure bias.

Now, you may or may not think this is a good shot. It depends on how you look at it. All I can say is: it’s the sort of shot I really like — whether taken by me or someone else. There are plenty of diagonals in it to give a sense of dynamic movement. By contrast there are static items piled up in makeshift fashion behind the stall.

However, it’s not just the many diagonal lines that lead the eye to the centre of the photo, there’s also the gaze of the two visitors. These two potential customers don’t seem to know what to make of it all. The stall may be a bit too exotic for them — like the hot-air balloon tattoo on the back of the chef’s leg. You, the viewer of the photo, are invited to see the stall through the eyes of these two people with their respective — and clearly different — reactions of amusement and cool evaluation.

Forcing the Composition to Work
Later in the day I’d moved back to Covent Garden which was intensely crowded on a Friday afternoon. After taking shots of multiple people I began to look for isolated figures, just for a change of tempo.

Two men sprawled in awkward positions on the pavement beneath a colonnade do not make a promising subject, especially when their heads are bent down over their mobile phones. My first thought was to walk past and find a different subject. I prefer the challenge of photographing people who are moving around rather than lying down in “sitting duck” mode.

Then it occurred to me: why not give equal emphasis to the column and the cobbled street? By the simple expedient of squatting down, unnoticed, in front of the two men, I took the shot you see below.

I don’t really like to force a composition to work, but in this case I think it’s successful. The two working men are resting during their lunch break. Their extremely casual positions are in sharp contrast to the formality of their surroundings. Gravity seems to be pulling them towards the ground, almost matching pound-for-pound the weight of the stones and the column. Behind them are feminine fripperies in the shop windows (including the season’s “must have” handbags) so different from the building and the sort of men who built it.

The Streets Are Surreal

The Surrealist movement in art predates street photography by only a few years. Yet back in the 1920s when it first got going, there would have been little chance of finding suitable subjects on the street. How the world has changed!

Walking down a city street in the early twenty-first century you could easily come across three giant fried eggs on which it’s possible to jump up and down. Or you can crouch in a large crumpled coffee cup, or admire a disembodied bronze hand taller than yourself.

Quite apart from all the deliberately surrealist modern sculptures, the cities’ inhabitants contribute surrealism of their own with multi-coloured hairstyles, lurid tattoos, piercings, and elaborate accessories.

In European cities we retain many of the old, classical buildings, against which the weirdly-presented passers-by seem even more surreal. A man with a high-viz jacket and a blue Mohican haircut, leaning against a white Doric column, is a ready-made street photo.

In fact, there are so many oddly dressed and outrageously coiffured people walking past the Georgian architecture of London that I don’t photograph them unless there’s a compelling reason for doing so. All I can offer for my featured image (above) is a scene from Bangkok: of a giant bottle of Kikkoman sauce with a scantily-clad girl standing in front of it.

The Mind of Freud
Surrealism sprang from the imagination of artists, inspired by the psychological explorations of Sigmund Freud into the subconscious mind. There was a tinge of Romanticism in the way it challenged rationality, introducing illogical elements into the picture, made all the more impossible by being depicted with the utmost realism.

From the outset, photography was a useful tool because it reproduced objects with great exactitude — much faster than Salvador Dali could paint a melting clock face. However, anyone wishing to make surreal photographs was obliged to create the scene, using ingenious sets with strange perspectives and incongruous figures.

Man Ray, the American-born artist who often used photography as his primary tool, became a master of the unexpected juxtaposition which delighted the eye while (slightly) disturbing the mind.

The Pioneer
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the pioneer of street photography, was strongly influenced by Surrealism — even though his work never became as overtly surrealist as Man Ray’s. In Paris he mixed with the Surrealists who gathered at the Café Cyrano in the Place Blanche and absorbed their ideas. In particular he was struck by the emphasis they placed on spontaneity and the subconscious.

On the streets in the 1930s and 1940s, Cartier-Bresson didn’t find the bizarre mixture of surrealist people, objects and artworks we have today, but he succeeded in taking images which have a surrealist edge. He found ambiguities, juxtapositions and gestures that communicate meaning where you least expect it.

Because of Cartier-Bresson’s continued influence, street photography has always been at least slightly surrealistic. It’s what sets it apart from photojournalism. A street photograph tries to capture the attention of onlookers by drawing the eye towards something remarkable, then rewarding it with other qualities such as great composition, vivid detail, or even emotional content.

Just Desserts
I’m quite shameless in using advertising hoardings, street sculptures and promotional events to bring surrealism to my images. Here, for example, is an outlet for mango desserts in Bangkok, topped with an Austrian-style feathered hat. (That’s on the outlet, not on the dessert).

If I could have shown this image to the artists and photographers in the Café Cyrano in the 1920s I think they’d have been very impressed. Would Cartier-Bresson have guessed that the two girls were taking a “selfie”? With a phone-on-a-stick? Probably not.

Gigantism Always Works
When you photograph the human figure, expand it to enormous size and place it on a poster — or create a three-dimensional model from it — you’ve surely entered the world of surrealism. Such works have the effect of dwarfing those on the street, while possibly inflating people’s sense of importance as they identify with the man or woman in the poster.

Highly realistic images of martial arts champions occupy a vast hoarding outside a gym in Hong Kong, their belt buckles alone being the height of a man. Walking past, I found a cluster of people huddled beneath them, probably placing bets. If I showed you the whole of the poster you wouldn’t see the people very clearly, so I cropped the image to leave just the “thumbs up” and the fighter’s medals. The long-fingered hand, on the left, seems particularly surreal — until you realise it’s pushing against a pane of glass, causing the fingers to splay.

Slightly Incomprehensible
Personally I prefer surrealism to be more subtle, dropping little hints of incomprehensibility here and there.

Pottinger Street in Hong Kong is one of the best-known photogenic hot-spots (Kai Wong, formerly of Digital Rev, goes there from time to time). The hairdresser’s notice board changes frequently. When I was there it said “Stay, Gold, Pony, Boy” which presumably means something to somebody. And, oh yes, the railings are covered in knitting.

That’s really how I like my surrealism. You can keep your burning giraffes and “honey sweeter than blood.” For me it’s “Stay, Gold, Pony, Boy” and knit me a jumper for the Bank of China. It can get quite chilly in Hong Kong.

Is Street Photography Riddled with Clichés?

Street photography is an acquired taste. It’s often criticised for showing people in unflattering situations and invading their privacy. Some critics claim it to be contrived or even faked. Yet by far the most damaging criticism — and one which is hard to deflect — says street photography is (to use a hackneyed phrase) riddled with clichés.

The definition of the word cliché normally refers to stereotyped expressions, such as an over-used phrase or a popular homily. We now apply it to other forms of expression beyond spoken language: to art, design, fashion and, of course, photography. Anything that’s trite or commonplace through constant repetition can be considered a cliché.

Sadly, clichés are a bit like faded movie stars who’ve lost the unique look for which they became famous. Every cliché starts out as a strikingly original thought — embodied in art or language — only to become trite with overuse. The phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” is a prime and self-referential example.

Street photography, taken “en masse,” certainly betrays a high level of cliché, a fact which is surprising when you consider how life in the street is constantly changing. I’m not a mathematician, but I reckon there are more potential combinations of figures, objects and environment in street photography than there are molecules on Earth.

Where the Problem Lies
The problem lies chiefly in two places: in reality’s superficial similarities — where one man in a grey suit looks much like any other — and in how we interpret what we see, selecting subjects which other photographers have previously chosen with demonstrable success.

Let’s take the similarities first. Street furniture in every big city normally conforms to a pattern: the bus shelters are similar to each other, the street lamps identical, the storm drains indistinguishable.

Take my featured image (above), for example. The brightly coloured plastic chairs say “Thailand,” the storm drain says “Bangkok.” I think you can also see the remains of a telephone kiosk on the right, now derelict thanks to the mobile phone.

However, in my treatment of the subject I’ve used these clichés to original effect, ironically by drawing attention to them. By chopping off the heads of the diners I’m left with a stereotypical meal, enjoyed on the sidewalk like a million other meals that day, with bowls, plates and beakers in clichéd pastel pink and green. I’m hoping the clichés have devoured each other. Am I right?

Now let’s turn to how we interpret what we see in front of us. In looking for shots we’re undoubtedly influenced by the work of other photographers. It’s hard to gaze into a shop window without thinking of Vivian Maier’s self portraits, or to see a vagrant without recalling Berenice Abbott’s “Bowery Bum.” There’s a temptation to take a similar shot, as if to say: “Look, I can do it, too!”

Puddle-Stepping Man
Is it wrong to imitate in this way? No one’s going to stop you, but only if you come up with something truly original and effective will people take notice. They’ll praise you, make you famous, and very soon they’ll start to copy you. In fact, they’ll turn your present-day originality into tomorrow’s cliché. Seriously, doesn’t Henri Cartier-Bresson’s puddle-stepping man in “Behind the Gare St. Lazare” (so original in 1932) look a little bit trite after so many imitations?

There’s a touch of Cartier-Bresson in my photo (below) of a mother and son taking a photo outside the former site of the Photographer’s Gallery in London. The clichés are obvious: the fancy decoration on the lamp-post, the ubiquitous phone kiosk (affectionately retained by popular demand), the counterbalancing red of the frequently seen CCTV notice.

But what delights me is the boy’s momentary lapse of concentration as his mother attempts to show him how to take a photo. He’s probably tired from skateboarding and fascinated by the bottle of water he’s carrying. The way in which his hand is frozen in mid-movement competes for “the decisive moment” with his mother’s adjustment of the camera (alarmingly pointed in my direction).

My shot does not imitate any photo ever taken by Cartier-Bresson, but his influence is there and I’m happy to acknowledge it. Despite the presence of ubiquitous objects — and despite the influence of HCB — I think I’ve avoided cliché.

In Quirky Mode
Does my final photo (below) do the same? I’m not so sure. Once you embrace the quirky mode of street photography there’s a greater danger of falling into cliché.

Visual humour has an obviousness that can be unsatisfying. We look at the image, we “get it” immediately, and move on. There’s no reason to linger if the point of a photo is (say) the apparent substitution of a football for a man’s head because the subject is standing in a certain position. These visual quirks have been done to death. I’m no longer amused.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist taking a shot of the Jimmy Choo shop in Hong Kong, prior to its opening. I wonder, did the shop designer plan this amusing scenario deliberately, with candid photography in mind? Or was it the PR company, looking for snaps that go viral?

I’ve no idea. But I have huge admiration for the original image, shot by Los Angeles-based photographer Cass Bird, with the Danish model Nadja Bender. Their whole photo shoot for the project was outstanding — and based on the idea of juxtaposing vintage and modern designs.

My juxtaposition — with the storeman at the receiving end of the fashion world’s chain of command — is somewhat more quirky. I think it works. You tell me.

Finding a Face in the Crowd

The street photographer can take distant shots of people in the rush hour and the result is nearly always the same: cut-out, cardboard figures in an urban landscape.

It’s so easy to see a crowd of people as being composed of anonymous, faceless individuals — scarcely individuals at all, just components of a seething mass of humanity.

Then suddenly you spot someone who doesn’t quite go with the flow. Maybe this person is trying to move in the opposite direction. Maybe her expression is out of tune with the rest. Perhaps she is laughing, or crying, or merely turning her face towards you — and you notice how beautiful she is, how she contrasts with the sullenness of the rush hour commuters.

The person who stands out in the crowd can be a man or a woman, but seldom a child. For the “face in the crowd” shot you need the subject to be reasonably tall.

Yet while height is one factor, it’s not the only one. The subject’s face, seen in the context of an otherwise anonymous crowd, must have “something about it,” something memorable and therefore worth committing to the long-term memory of photography.

Realisation
Finding a face in a crowd is not a theme I’ve developed to any great extent — on the whole I tend to avoid preconceptions — so I don’t have a stack of photos to illustrate the concept adequately. However, my featured image (above) shows you the gist of what I mean.

Taken in a busy market place, the picture is a detail from a crowd photo. I’ve cropped it because otherwise the lady in the white hat is too far over to the left — and the purple parasol becomes the main subject. Cropped further, centralising the “face in the crowd,” results in too great a loss in resolution. (I took the shot with my old Fuji S5Pro).

For all its faults, I’m reluctant to reject the image because it captures something that moves me, a quality that would be lost in a posed portrait.

I think it’s because of the crowd.

The subject seems to be so very much at home among a crowd of people, even when they pass her in the opposite direction. She is thinking seriously about something, but she is not “lost in thought.” She glances to one side — and it’s this glance which, for me, makes the picture.

In the next photo (below) we can see the faces of other people besides that of the main subject. The man looks towards us, but doesn’t quite make eye contact. Again, people are passing him — this time in both directions — but he stands steadfast without any outward sign of frustration. He seems to have caught the eye of the blonde woman on the right, but others jostle their way past him, looking for goods in the winter market.

I’ve called this photo “Face in the Crowd,” although not without a touch of irony. Most of the colours tone together reasonably well, except for one. The vivid pink of the Muppet-like toy at the back jumps out at us, drawing our eyes to its one eye.

Unlike the lady in the first photo, the man in the grey overcoat is not glancing, as such. He seems to be more like a character from a movie: Jason Bourne perhaps, pausing impassively while calculating the odds of survival.

The Cinematic Style
When the subject is a “face in the crowd” the photo immediately makes you think of the movies. That’s because you’re using a cinematic technique: the long shot before moving in for a close-up.

In films, the star is instantly recognisable, so it’s easy to pick out him or her from the rest of the crowd, especially when helped by framing, tracking or zooming. In street photography, where a single still image is usually the entire work, when you borrow the cinematic style it allows you similar freedom of composition.

Foreground figures can be out of focus; people at the edge of the frame can be chopped in half. The onlooker will see the still image as being filmic: with the extras moving in and out of frame while the camera dwells on the starring actor.

This is true of the image below, which I took at around the same time as the featured image at the top of the post. The girl with the pink parasol looks round and sees my camera. She doesn’t have time to react self-consciously, unlike the woman on the left, who may have seen the camera and is deliberately looking to one side while primping her hair. The whole composition could be a frame from a movie.

On the Waterloo Steps
Where better to find a face in the crowd than on the steps of London’s Waterloo Station during rush hour? I often find myself here, having crossed the river to chase better light at the end of the day.

I wonder how many people who pass through Waterloo Station’s main entrance appreciate that it’s a memorial to the dead of the First World War? The steps are spanned by Victory Arch and flanked either side by gigantic lamps supported by obelisks.

In this place I’m always reminded of “The Face on the Waterloo Steps” at the beginning of John Cowper Powys’s novel “Wolf Solent.” Powys’s anti-hero — on his way to the West Country of his childhood to take up a new job — sees a vagrant wearing a look of “inert despair.” The man’s face haunts Wolf for the rest of the narrative. It’s an echo of the war. Thus begins a search for identity and meaning in one of the twentieth century’s great literary works.

Alas, I’m already haunted by other images, so I have no wish to photograph my own version of inert despair. I prefer this image (below) of a man with a bicycle, struggling with determination against the flow of the crowd.

Unlike Powys’s anti-hero he seems to exude heroism, with his camo jacket, tight grip, and deliberate movements. He is surrounded by much younger people who, like Wolf himself, are still undefined by their limited life-experience, but this man with his own transport clearly knows who he is — and where he’s going. He’s more than a face in the crowd. He’s a complete figure.

Can You Hear a Street Photo?

The short answer is no. Of course you can’t hear a street photo. It’s entirely silent, unless you give it an audio soundtrack.

You see: I could never be a politician. I’d answer the interviewers’ questions directly and truthfully. “Are you going to raise taxes?” “Yes, if we feel like it.”

Silence is one the greatest qualities of the still photo. Every point the picture makes — every joy or sadness it brings to the viewer — has to be achieved soundlessly. Even if you show an image of a screeching cormorant, or a brass band, or a nuclear explosion, the sound is notable only by its absence.

Schubert’s Babbling Brook
Last night I was watching (on YouTube) the pianist András Schiff give a master class on playing Franz Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major. He pointed out that the left hand needed to sustain the tempo of the “babbling brook” which never pauses as the young pianist was obliging it to do. “The brook has to stay in its flow,” said Schiff.

Schubert often evokes images of the country. Wind, birdsong, the sounds of small animals scampering through the undergrowth — he makes us think of all these things and we can imagine many of them visually when they occur.

It appears that the auditory sense can trigger a visual response, albeit an imaginative one, but not vice versa. We see Schubert’s scampering animals in our “mind’s eye” when we listen to the music, but we don’t hear the rumble of thunder when we look at a landscape photo taken in a storm. I think there’s a simple explanation for this phenomenon.

Music is better able to represent particular subjects in sound because it can be very specific in its imitation. Just listen to Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from his opera “Peter Grimes.” You almost have to blink when he evokes dazzling sunlight striking the water at dawn — and the storm sequence nearly induces a feeling of seasickness later in the piece.

The Silence of Images
By contrast, a photo is very unspecific. The first photograph I ever took was of the Coldstream Guards’ marching band. If I looked at it today I could not recall what the musicians sounded like, or tell you what they were playing. I’ve lost the print I made at the time, but I can still remember that one of the drummers seemed to be wearing a dead leopard. To me, the image was notable for the absence of a snarl — but I couldn’t hear that either.

I’ve tried playing with the idea of representing sound, but nothing worked until I took the featured image (above). In the background you can see a women’s choir called “Funky Voices” performing at a local street festival. In the foreground a woman with red hair is holding the musical director’s dog, which appears to be listening intently — and silently — to the sound.

When the music is good we listen in silence. That’s the point of the picture. The photo, unable to evoke sound, has to show a person and a dog in silent listening mode. It works because the dog probably doesn’t understand the music but appears to be hypnotised by it. If there’s one false note you feel he might start howling.

Incidentally, I know the dog belongs to the musical director because I contacted Funky Voices to get permission to use the photo in a competition called Essence of Essex. I didn’t win. The prize went to a photo of a plastic hamburger. Somehow, I think the judges didn’t really “get” what I was trying to do. I don’t normally subscribe to the “labour theory of value” (something is more valuable if it’s more laborious to make), but, frankly, plastic hamburgers are way too easy in comparison to silent music.

Deeper Into Silence
Any exploration of the role of sound in street photography simply leads us deeper into silence.

My photo of a woman snoozing next to a sculpture of a banjo player is slightly surreal. Has she been lulled to sleep by the man’s playing? Or is she listening to the non-existent music in silence? No, she just appears to be in the presence of sound, which helps to bring the sculpture to life. The musician seems to glow with energy (when in fact he’s suffering the halo effect from boosted shadows).

The banjo player (I’m calling his instrument a banjo but it might be a zhongruan or some other oriental variation) is entirely silent because there are no strings to his instrument. His pose is sedate and undramatic, a far cry from the gyrations of popular music.

Jazz and rock ‘n roll musicians are more photogenic than classical artists partly because they move more violently when they play — and the camera freezes the movement. Likewise the camera also eliminates sound. We don’t miss its absence because we’re compensated by being able to scrutinise the frozen movement.

Yet if you think about it, there’s always something poignant about the absence of sound, especially when someone in the image is playing an instrument. Can you hear the guitarist, practising in the street in my photo below? No, and the cartoon characters on his shoulder strap can sing as loud as they like, but you’ll never hear them either.

No Laughing Matter

For every street photo of a person laughing I can find a dozen more in which the subjects are straight-faced or downright miserable. I reckon that’s about the right proportion. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Just imagine the absurdity of a world in which everyone walked around laughing their heads off all the time. It just wouldn’t feel right.

There’s too much misery in the modern world — and too much news about it — for laughter to occur with greater frequency in public. Yet when it appears spontaneously between friends who are sharing a private joke (as in my image below) it can bring joy to everyone who sees it.

Genuine laughter signifies a moment of happiness when, despite all the odds, joy bubbles up to the surface. It’s a rare and wonderful phenomenon to see on the street — and well worth recording. As Woody Allen said: “I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.”

Please note that I’ve qualified “laughter” with the adjective “genuine” — and I do so because there’s plenty of malicious laughter, cynical laughter, false laughter to be seen, both in public and private. Mocking laughter is ghastly to behold, especially when it’s captured permanently in a street photo.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky made much the same point when he wrote (in “The Adolescent”): “If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don’t bother analysing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he’s a good man.”

The Twin Founts of Laughter
Some people are more predisposed to laugh than others, but they can be fundamentally happy or sad. Laughter is a response to both conditions. “You have to see the funny side,” people will often say when misfortune strikes. Many of our greatest comedians have suffered from depression and quite a few have committed suicide. Laughter didn’t save them.

The philospher Friedrich Nietzsche noted: “Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.”

The science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut put it more amusingly: “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterwards.”

I don’t think it’s the job of the street photographer to make people laugh. We’re not comedians. If we show people laughing in our photos it’s because the phenomenon makes a good photo. It tells us something about the person — and about human beings in general — that you’d never see in a posed portrait.

Laughter in the Doorway
Because laughter can be either joyful or cynical, I like to photograph it whenever I have the opportunity. The other day I was walking along a street in London when I noticed two men standing in a doorway. One of them started laughing and I took a quick shot before he noticed me.

Maybe the shutter on my DSLR is too loud, but for whatever reason the laughing man saw me, scowled, and said: “I really don’t want you to take my photo.” Frankly, I was surprised. He seemed in such a happy mood!

I apologised, then checked the image (which wasn’t that great) and deleted it in front of him. I explained that I was taking pictures of people laughing, to which his friend chipped in with: “This guy laughs at everything.” We all ended up having a good laugh about it.

It’s my guess that the laughing man in the doorway wouldn’t have passed Dostoyevsky’s test of goodness. I think he was afraid the photo would be too revealing — would tell us something about him which he’d prefer to keep hidden under the cloak of noisy laughter.

Seen But Not Heard
You see: it’s the noise of laughter that covers up any insincerity a person may be hiding. Once you remove the noise — as the photo is bound to do — all that remains is gesture and expression. From these we can detect whether the laughter is genuine or fake with much greater ease, especially in the quietness of the viewing moment.

I like that phrase “The Quietness of the Viewing Moment” but I’m tempted to erase it from this post before someone steals it for the title of a book on photography. Perhaps I should copyright it here and now with today’s date: 23 March 2017.

Yesterday
Considering its subject, I’d intended to write this article in a better mood. But after yesterday’s latest ISIS-related atrocity (the attack on the UK Parliament) I feel sombre, like most of my fellow citizens.

My final quote is from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who said (as recorded by Alan Wood in “Bertrand Russell, the Passionate Sceptic,” 1957): “The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.”

Genuine laughter returns once happiness returns, but not before.

Find One Subject, Wait for Another

All experienced street photographers know about the technique of finding a good, well-lit background, then waiting for a passer-by to walk in front of it. The result can be a great, original shot — or a terrible cliché, depending on the background and the passing subject.

You can take this technique further by finding a subject — one that may well, on its own, satisfy the average travel photographer — and try to complete the picture by waiting for another subject to move into frame.

I say “complete the picture” because, so often, a subject on its own does not constitute an effective street photo. Take my featured image (above), for example. I came across this woman selling rabbits in Bangkok. She’s a one-girl pet shop, sitting on the pavement with a stock of baby rabbits in small cages. I looked at her and wondered whether or not to take a photo.

You Need More than Rabbits
To be frank, I was reluctant to bother with it. I’d taken shots previously — I guess everyone has — of street sellers, street performers, street artists — and not one of them satisfies me as a genuine street photo. I remembered a Chinese man selling orangeade who smiled sweetly at the camera, another guy making insect sculptures out of straw, a woman making garlands. When I was a travel photographer looking for “local colour” they all seemed to be great subjects, but no longer. Now I need more than rabbits to make my day.

I had to admit, the old lady made a colourful image, so I thought I’d wait for a pretty girl to walk past. Freezing the action would also add some life to an otherwise static image. In the event I was fortunate to have the photo completed by a girl whose youth and femininity make her seem as vulnerable as the patient rabbits in their cages, if a whole lot freer.

For this technique to work effectively you need to find a subject that’s reasonably static and likely to be joined by another, possibly unrelated subject, in the immediate future. In the example of the rabbits I knew there was a busy clothes market just a few yards behind me, so there was a good chance of a pretty girl walking past. I needed to linger only a minute or so before getting the shot.

Early Beginnings
I started using the “find one subject, wait for another” technique a few years ago, building on “find a background, wait for a passer-by” which I learned from photographer and fellow student Paddy Summerfield at art school but had never put into practice until taking up digital photography. Here’s the image for which I first used it.

There’s busy road outside Bangkok’s Pantip Plaza, a shopping mall dedicated to selling computers where you could buy a hacked copy of Photoshop for less than ten dollars (no, Adobe, I didn’t!). On emerging from this place I blinked in the sun and noticed the curiously carved hedge, one of the better examples of topiary adorning the main thoroughfares. A motorcycle drew up alongside it. I almost had everything I needed for a picture, except for the blank space on the left.

On this occasion I waited for two or three minutes. Traffic lights can be slow to change in Bangkok, which I find very frustrating if I’m in a car, but this time it worked to my advantage. Eventually, two young woman walked past and I managed to freeze the action at the right moment.

I’ve always had some affection for this image, not just because it was my first experiment with a new technique, but because of the curiously human appearance of the hedge. Thailand’s state symbol is the “Garuda” (or “Krut” in Thai) a mythical half-man/half-bird from Hindu mythology, supposedly the winged mount of Vishnu. In Thailand you can see depictions of the Garuda everywhere, but few as startlingly humanoid as this one. I think the gardeners were trying to encourage the growth of a beak, but without much luck.

Worst Case Scenario
What happens when no one comes along to complete the picture? That’s a good question, if a little pessimistic. Nearly always, someone does indeed move into the frame, into the precise place where you hoped they’d go. The trouble is: nine times out of ten it’s the wrong person.

In street photography you need to be able to deploy an entire armoury of weapons at the same time. If one technique doesn’t work, perhaps another one will.

Take heart from the legend of the Garuda who, while on a quest to free his mother from servitude, received the gift of immortality from Vishnu. The Garuda’s magical descendants are able to change their form, build cities, and even have romances with human women if they so desire.

Magic is only ever half a step away and you can sometimes feel its presence on the street.

Why I Never Shoot Black and White

Sometimes, on those occasions when I’m viewing a terrific portfolio of black and white street photography by one of its many practitioners, I suddenly get the feeling that — yes! — B&W is the Only True Way.

When this happens, my aesthetic attitude towards photography suddenly flips so that black and white becomes “real photography” whereas anything with colour seems garish, tasteless, and maybe a bit too ordinary — like the real world.

What follows is an urge to rush out to buy a Leica Monochrome M or even one of those old-fashioned cameras you had to load with long strips of photosensitive material (you know the ones I mean). Film cameras! With Tri-X film.

“Eeee lad, you can’t beat a gritty, grainy photo taken with Tri-X, now can you?”

The voice in my head extolling the virtues of Tri-X has somehow taken on a working class Yorkshire accent, making me pause to reconsider my options. I start to wonder what on earth has possessed me to entertain even a passing thought that black and white film might, in 2017, be preferable to digital colour.

The fact is: I never shoot black and white. The pictures you see in this blog post were never intended to be black and white, they just ended up that way because they didn’t work in colour. In other words, my black and white photos are really failed colour photos. Making them monochrome (like those below) has rescued them from oblivion.

Why Do People Do It?
We see the world in colour and we have sophisticated tools that allow us to portray the world in colour with great accuracy — so why do so many street photographers still shoot in black and white?

For example, I was looking at the work of photographers in the BULB collective: BULB stands for (Bucharest Urban League of photographers for the Balkans). Their standard is impressive and I can honestly say I enjoyed looking at every image, even though 95% of their photos are in black and white. Only Niki Gleoudi presents a portfolio entirely in colour — and it’s her work to which I can relate most closely.

So why do Niki Gleoudi’s fellow members concentrate almost exclusively on black and white photography, rather than become inspired by her excellent colour compositions?

I think there are several reasons, the strongest of which is tradition. The long tradition of black and white photography has created an aesthetic (a way of looking at pictures) all of its own. It’s the habit of thought into which I flip when I view lots of very good black and white photos, like those of the BULB collective. I almost get the same religion — because it’s certainly very contagious — but then I wake up and return to colourful Earth.

Travelling South
Years ago, as a student, I travelled in Italy to study art and take photographs of the scenery and architecture (on black and white film). When I got back I developed and printed my shots of Florence, Venice and Rome, then framed and hung them alongside some prints I’d bought of paintings by Giorgione and Bellini. It occurred to me, even then, that the medium of photography was deliberately setting itself apart from painting by remaining black and white. How otherwise could it compete with the glory of Venetian colour?

“Back in the day” — in, say, the early sixteenth century — the Florentines were more than a little envious of the Venetian ability to use colour. The artists of Florence may have been masters of form but in their mastery of colour the Venetians — Giorgione, Bellini, Sebastiano del Piombo and colleagues — were incomparable. Only occasionally did the two camps merge, as when Sebastiano based his murals in the Borgherini Chapel on drawings by Michelangelo, adding colours that were deeper and more subtle than those you see on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

All the painters, from whatever school, used colour — but maybe the sea-going Venetians had better access to valuable colour pigments from the Orient. Or maybe the light was better in watery Venice than elsewhere in Italy. Whatever it was, the fact that so many Venetian artists were skilled colourists cannot have been accidental. Like the ongoing fetish for black and white photography it was a cultural phenomenon, with causes and effects.

One of the effects of seeing Venetian prints on my wall was to make me even more aware of the role that colour plays in composition. When you leave it out — or downplay it, as many painters do — composition becomes much easier. But you would have to be completely colour-blind to resist the seductive appeal of those rich fabrics, rendered so perfectly by the Venetians. Their colours create beautiful textures — and it is texture, along with colour, which is often lacking in black and white photography.

Typically, a black and white street photograph has deep blacks (that’s a must!), lots of murky shadow, plenty of white areas with little or no detail, and a cluster of shades that normally correspond to skin tones. All the subtlety gets crammed into these skin tones, drawing attention to faces, arms, legs and bare skin.

Once you drain the world of colour you remove some of its vitality. Nudes look more “arty” and less titillating in black and white. Surfaces — especially skin — appear less touchable, more remote, more suited to the ivory tower of the art gallery: that special place which is a mental concept as much as a physical one.

The Reinstatement of Colour
The first colour photographer to make a serious impact on the art world was William Eggleston who shot in black and white until around 1965. His photos of mundane objects and ordinary people in suburban Memphis, Tennessee and nearby states like Mississippi and Georgia had the power to change the prevailing aesthetic, albeit slowly. For example, “Creative Camera” magazine, founded in 1968, did not embrace colour until December 1984.

However, it’s not the art photographer who’s been the biggest counter-influence against the black and white aesthetic. It’s the travel photographer.

It’s impossible to look at the work of great travel photographers and say: “I wish they’d stuck to black and white.” What would Steve McCurry’s pictures look like if drained of colour? Indeed, what would images brought back from the far-flung corners of Africa, India, Pakistan, South America and Asia look like if they were all monochrome? Could we really bear to lose the vivid colouring of the clothes, headgear, ornaments and furnishings in which these images abound.

I could name dozens of travel photographers who demonstrate my point admirably. For example, recently I was looking at the work of Kevin Perry who travels to distant corners of the world, far from his native city Seattle, and brings back the message that the world is full of colour. I can’t imagine that anyone would wish him to photograph in black and white.

Years ago, when artists travelled south they were invariably astonished to discover a world of colour in the clear light of Africa (Paul Klee, August Macke) or the South Pacific (Paul Gauguin). It appears that our travel photographers do the same today.

So is black and white photography the product of our cloud-covered northern cities? Certainly the tradition has remained with us, despite pronouncements about the “death of black and white” made thirty years ago.

Personally, I’d hate to see it disappear altogether, but I’d also like see more street photographers making a bigger effort to get to grips with colour.

In my view, black and white street photographers are hiding in an ivory tower, setting themselves apart not only from the great painters of the past and present but also from the world of commerce and advertising. Surely it’s time to rejoin the real world?