When It’s All in the Gesture

In street photography, it’s great to see a demonstrative gesture, unless it’s an upraised finger telling you to shove off. I like gestures for one very good reason. They contain their own decisive moment.

Gestures are a form of visual language, perhaps without the syntax of signing (for people who cannot hear), but nonetheless a language which carries meaning — often aimed at those who certainly can hear but don’t want to listen.

Gestures have meanings such as: “Watch out!” “Isn’t it obvious!” or “I don’t care.”

Sometimes it’s essential to see the movement of a gesture to understand it fully. When you ask if a person is feeling better you may get a silent wave of the hand in a seesaw motion which means “So-so,” (neither better nor worse). That’s not a great reply from the street photographer’s point of view.

Over in a Flash
It’s not easy to photograph gestures. They last only a split second and they’re very hard to anticipate.

The best way to get them is to find someone who chatting with a friend and making constant gestures to illustrate their conversation. You’re guaranteed to get a result if you time the shot perfectly.

My featured image at the top of this post shows two young men making playful grabs at some passing girls. Neither of the girls shows any interest whatsoever, which is rather the point of the photo. They even ignore the camera.

young woman in cap, pointing and shouting

Warning Gestures
This is the “Watch out!” moment, as demonstrated by a young woman who’s in charge of the ferry boats as they pull in to dock on the Chao Praya in Bangkok. I wanted to take a picture of her because I love the jacket.

Looking at the shot closely on my return to base I could see that her outstretched arm is greatly lengthened by extra-long fingernails. That was a “plus” I hadn’t expected.

Subtle Gestures
Sometimes gestures are much more subtle and therefore harder to interpret. My last shot falls into this category.

Woman in animated conversation. In a window behind her is a poster of person with shaven head being massaged by strong hands

Here, the subject is in animated conversation with someone off-camera. I happen to know the other person was a male who seemed to be trying to chat-up two girls at once, outside a beauty salon.

He was making progress, but there was some verbal sparring and the members of the group soon went their separate ways. This time, the subject’s hesitant gesture was reinforced by the seemingly brutal manoeuvre demonstrated in the poster.

Two gestures for the price of one.

What ARE They Looking At?

When you photograph people in close-up on the street the result can fall into one of two categories: the subjects are doing something, or they’re doing nothing.

Yet there’s probably a third category which I might call “just looking.” In this case, the subjects are not doing anything in particular, they’re just staring at something outside of the frame.

In other words, they’re not absorbed in “doing” but in “looking” — which is a state of absorption that requires no action.

woman with hand over her mouth, wondering where to go

The Fake and the Real
The American art critic Michael Fried talks a lot about the virtues of depicting absorption in photography and I agree with him. In his great book “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before” (Yale University Press, 2008) he argues that the act of absorption is key to creating the impression that the figures within an image really do exist in a world of their own. If they acknowledge the camera, or appear to pose for it, they become actors in a theatrical world — and the picture loses its authenticity as an art object.

Michael Fried doesn’t discuss street photography, as such, but he does give detailed analyses of those constructed imitations of street photography made separately by Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. I think many street photographers will be dismayed that the art world, as represented by Fried, chooses to accept fake street photos instead of real ones — when the two are utterly indistinguishable, except in technical image quality.

In fact, I would go further. I think Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia do indeed fall into the theatricality trap, by using actors to recreate street photography scenes. Surely this is the very definition of theatricality: the imitation of real life by people who normally enjoy a very different existence of their own.

Show Us Reality
In Four Quartets the poet T.S. Eliot wrote: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Maybe that’s why we tolerate the fake and reject what’s real.

I insist on showing real people leading real lives; I photograph them in candid moments when they’re unaware of the camera; and I like them to be absorbed in some activity because, as Fried says, it places them in their world without intruding into ours.

Is this the only way of doing photography? No. It’s what I feel is the right way to take pictures on the street. After all, back in the day (the 1960s) everyone said: “Keep it real.” No one said: “Keep it fake”.

Two women, looking out of frame

Street Photography on a Rainy Day

It’s a question of feeling. Rainy days nearly always evoke a bittersweet emotion in people who venture outside. On such a day you can capture this feeling and preserve it for the future.

I think the emotion people feel is modified or exaggerated by the amount of rain that falls. So in this article I’m talking exclusively about days in which the rain is light or moderate, not ones where there’s a torrential downpour with claps of thunder overhead.

The pictures you can get during extreme weather conditions are much more dramatic and the emotion is likely to be one of steely resolve rather than wistful melancholy.

I do, occasionally, take my camera out in a thunderstorm and I always get some pleasing shots. I’ll make these the subject of a separate post. This time, it’s light rain only.

Pretend It’s Not There
Maybe the best conditions are when the day is beginning to brighten but the rain keeps falling intermittently. At those times, many people will just pretend it’s not raining at all (as in the featured image above).

Rather than take out an umbrella the lady on the left pulls her coat over her head while the other, younger people just splash around as best they can. Those who are standing in the back of the mini-bus are probably wearing damp tee-shirts, but they’ll soon dry out with the whoosh of air swirling around them.

Do you see what I mean about the wistful emotion? No one’s laughing or smiling, but neither does anyone seem really unhappy. It’s just one of those days: and it’s not all bad. When rain falls in Bangkok, the air pollution is lowered. The dust settles into a muddy residue on the street. People can breathe more easily.

Huddle Together
When the rain intensifies, people’s mood becomes bleaker. Now’s the time to get serious about protecting each other from the hostile elements. Out come the umbrellas (always a favourite with street photographers) and it’s time to start trudging home.

In my shot (above), two couples are crossing the road in the rain, huddled together. The man in front seems to have loaned his jacket to his partner. It’s much too big for her and she looks a little embarrassed to be wearing it, a fact that adds to the feeling of the photo. The couple behind are bedecked with duck motifs, which seems appropriate.

Checking for Rain
Strangely enough, rainy day emotion can prevail even when it’s dry. Emerging from a small covered market, the man in my photo (below) checks to see if rain is falling. Everything appears fine, except that another man in the background is wiping his face as if he’s just been out in the rain.

I like this photo. It has a contradiction at its heart, but everything is in the right place. As in the other shots the tones are soft and pleasant, just the way I like them. I don’t know what I’d do without rainy days.

Is It Still Candid If Just One Person Sees You?

At its best, street photography is one hundred percent candid. When the subject is completely unaware of the camera, you place viewers in the privileged position of being able to scrutinise life on the street entirely objectively — without receiving accusatory stares from someone unknown to them.

Often, however, the subject of the image is more than one person: it’s a couple, or a group of people who’ve caught the eye of the street photographer. Unless all the people in the group are totally absorbed in their activity it’s more than likely that one of them will spot the camera and look quizzically at it. Sometimes this can ruin the image; on other occasions it can “make” it.

The Acceptables
I have a stack of images of both sorts: rejects and acceptables. My featured image (above) I count as one of the acceptables. I still feel a bit guilty about taking it because I probably ruined the guy’s shot. Or maybe he got an heroic portrait of the woman gazing and smiling into the distance. Let’s hope so. I like the image because the woman is central to it — and clearly enjoying being the centre of attention. By contrast, the man on the right seems to be totally unaffected by her charms, and, in a non-committal way, is checking out the menu immediately behind her.

The image works because it’s clearly been taken without permission being sought and granted. It has an air of spontaneity — and the woman’s smile is enough to brighten anyone’s day. It also works because it contains a complete scenario. Instead of being an impromptu shot of a friend or relative outside a tourist venue it’s an incident, a unique moment in which various elements come together to form the whole picture. Even the Honda scooter leans obligingly towards the young woman — and as if in response she leans back slightly, setting up a subtle dynamic within the frame.

Does the image have any faults? Yes. But I’ve only ever seen a dozen or so street photographs that could be described as “faultless” in all respects. In fact, those that seem to be perfect — in composition and photographic quality — can sometimes appear too staid, lacking the vitality we’ve come to expect in street photography.

And Again
Here’s another shot (immediately above) when the subject notices the camera. Thank heavens she did! Everyone else is shown in back view, so without the subject looking towards me the picture would have no focal point. As it is, the image springs to life, making it more interesting than a mere “study in blue and green.”

Not So Good
I can make no excuses for the following image. OK, it’s a decisive moment, and the girl who’s feeding the fish is unaware that I’m taking a picture of her. However, this time I’ve been spotted by another person in the image, not the central figure but the young man on the left. He looks straight at the camera and doesn’t seem entirely pleased about it.

Whether or not you think this image works depends entirely on the story you make up to understand what’s going on.

For example, you could interpret the young man’s gaze as showing a measure of guilt. In some parts of Thailand, feeding the fish is illegal — and people are prosecuted for it — whereas in other parts it’s an accepted part of tradition. Some people even feed wild catfish which they later catch for food.

I don’t think there’s any legal problem here, neither do I think the young man is worried about it. I also doubt if he’s a catfish farmer. Perhaps he’s thinking I’m taking a cheap shot of his attractive girlfriend, in which case he’s partially right, but I wouldn’t have done so if she’d simply been standing there. No, I think he’s on a date, and somewhat embarrassed to be seen taking part in the “girly” activity of fish-feeding in order to please his friend.

Do you see what a difference the story makes to the way we see the image? If the stare is accusatory rather than guilty or embarrassed, it becomes the main message of the image — completely unrelated to the activities taking place. But if, as the viewer, you can set your mind at ease and tell yourself that his stare is part of the picture’s internal narrative, all is well. You can then see the picture as a balanced composition.

So Many Interpretations
It’s good when a photograph enables various interpretations, each one dependent on the reaction of the viewer. We make up stories to explain the situation depicted in much the same way as, in our minds, we complete the actions of subjects when they are caught mid-movement. By adding our own idea of movement — or by adding an imagined narrative — we bring the image to life and make it memorable.

One More
The final image (below) I took more recently. The light had faded on the streets of London’s West End, so I walked across the river to the South Bank which is more open to the evening light.

There, I spotted these two people sitting in a composition that could not have been better had I tried to organise it. However, I had to double back to take the shot because other passers-by were getting in the way. On my second run the young man noticed me although his friend remained oblivious. Afterwards, I said “hi” and explained why I took the shot, but I didn’t take another.

The large scarlet portfolio indicates that the two subjects are creative people, taking samples of their work with them. The young guy’s knowing look suggests he’s probably aware of serious street photography and he has the presence of mind to remain cool about it. I’m reluctant to remove the only blemish: the distant figures which get entangled in the woman’s hair. Apart from that, it’s a shot I like.

As I suspected, half a candid photo — when only one person is looking at you — can be better than a posed shot in which both are gazing into the lens.

Where Are All the Happy Faces?

If you exclude photos of people “smiling for the camera” in non-candid shots there are relatively few images of happy faces in street photography.

Wondering if this thought is really true I checked several street photo hashtags on Instagram and the results confirmed it. Everyone is very serious on #urbanstreetphotography and a lot of the subjects are downright miserable on #streetscenesmag. I scrolled down to view hundreds of photos on #ourstreets before coming to the first happy face – and that one belonged to a dog.

I’m not sure how to account for this phenomenon, because there are quite a lot of happy faces in my own pictures. As I walk around London or Bangkok I see plenty of people having fun, sharing a joke, or ribbing each other about something. Even people walking alone, chatting on their phones, will occasionally stop and chuckle (although I admit I more often hear them shouting expletives down the phone, cursing whoever is on the other end of it).

If there are plenty of happy people on the street but very few in street photographs I can only come to one conclusion: photographers have an agenda which is biased towards misery. Even when they’re not depicting the disadvantaged, the homeless, or those in need of something a bit more substantial than getting their picture taken, photographers are showing emotionless people who seem to be downtrodden by the weight of city life.

Come On, Cheer Up!
My own pictures have an unusually high proportion of happy faces in them. I’m drawn to any display of emotion because it helps to make a good shot. Fortunately, in London and Bangkok there are more positive, happy emotions on public streets than negative, hostile emotions – even during political demonstrations. (Alas, that has not been the case in yellow-shirted Paris this year).

For example, take the featured image at the top of the page. In this shot there are at least five demonstrably happy people and one other who seems to be quietly smiling to himself. Yes, a couple of them have seen the camera, but their smiles are not forced in any way. They were clearly in a good mood at the time, perhaps because they were heading towards the ferry for a pleasant trip on the river.

joyful expressions

In the photo immediately above, the three girls in the foreground certainly haven’t noticed the camera, but they’re smiling and laughing at something they’re seen in the distance. In this instance, the crowd of people are walking towards a street festival, so, once again, everyone’s anticipating a good time.

You could say that I’m drawn to those occasions when people are likely to be in a cheerful mood — and you wouldn’t be wrong.

So Why Is Street Photography So Often Sombre?
I think the absence of joyful emotions in street photography could be because of conscious or unconscious awareness of photojournalistic images – and a desire by street photographers to emulate their high seriousness. I’ve often referred to street photography as “photojournalism lite,” and I suspect this holds true for a large proportion of it.

I hasten to add that there are many great images in the sombre style, together with many “deadpan” images that are neither happy nor sad. But that’s the whole point! Street photography needs to be all-embracing if it’s to reflect an accurate picture of life in today’s cities.

So the point I’m trying to make is this: life in modern cities is much more enjoyable than street photography (in general) would suggest. Even in the crowded streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown, where it’s tough to sell and hard work to shop, people can still pause in the streets and double up with laughter, like the lady in my photograph below. Really, the streets are not all doom and gloom.

woman, doubled up with laughter

Painting the Barrier

The new, wedge-shaped security barriers around Leicester Square have been given a makeover by London-based artist Charlotte Posner. Her brilliantly quirky and colourful work is said to be “highly collectable” but I doubt if anyone will be walking away with these particular examples anytime soon. The barriers are designed to protect us from truck bombs driven into the square at speed.

Taking street photos in London back in the summer I got a few shots of people walking through the barrier, including the featured image (above) which links up with my previous post called “Holding Hands.” I guess these two come into the “slightly ostentatious” category: showing off their coupleness to all who notice.

Charlotte Posner, painting

Charlotte Posner
Together with assistants, the artist herself was still at work when I visited (above), signing her creations. Her art is witty and very London: featuring a cosmopolitan collection of characters, sometimes bedecked or even fused with iconic London landmarks. They all have a cheerful, touristy feel, alongside images of burgers, strawberries and pizza — inspired by the summer but certain to lift the spirits in winter as well.

Having exhibited around the world, in Japan, Lahore, Hong Kong, New York and Singapore, Charlotte Posner has also attracted attention here at home. She has been featured on the BBC Culture Show and has shown her work at the Battersea Affordable Art Fair. Her art is undoubtedly commercial: more decorative and less political than, say, Banksy’s graffiti — and likely to appeal to a wide audience.

Taking the Photos
The barriers themselves, being low, are tricky to photograph because they trap the viewer’s attention and tend to conflict with the faces and expressions of the passers-by. As a result, I found myself taking pictures of legs (fortunately, one of my favourite motifs), all the while hoping that a shapely leg would soon enter the frame. It did (below).

London leg

Here, at one of the busiest places in London, you can expect to find thousands of tourists flocking to the shops and cinemas at this time of year. Even while the artist was still putting the finishing touches to her work, quite a few teenagers were climbing all over it for selfies (below).

Two girls crouching on top of barrier, for a friend's photo

You can’t blame them. It’s just concrete, steel, paint and inspiration. It’ll withstand the assault of sneakered feet clambering on top of it, at least for a while. I guess I should return to see how it’s bearing up.

If you’d like to see more of Charlotte Posner’s work, her website is here.

Is Street Photography Harder or Easier Than It Was 50 Years Ago?

I’m sure most street photographers would love to step back in time to a past era and take some shots, always on two conditions: a) they could use their current equipment, and b) they could return to the present day with the results.

Given the forward-only movement of time, that scenario is not going to happen, unless someone stages a re-enactment specially for the purpose. We can only consider the differences between subject matter (then and now) and equipment (then and now).

So let’s go back a mere fifty years, still well within human memory for millions of people.

Subject Matter
In the UK, Europe and the U.S.A. everyone dressed more neatly, often wearing jackets or long overcoats, ties and hats, usually in subdued colours. Automobiles had more interesting shapes, not being subjected to the same design rules dictated by the need for low fuel consumption. Nobody was using a mobile phone.

Just these three factors, quite apart from any others, make the street photography of 1969 entirely different to what we see in 2019.

Today, everything is more colourful and theatrical — and not only in Chinatown (see featured image above). People everywhere like to dress outrageously, proclaiming various messages via tee-shirts or accessories (even when they wear black, like the lady below). What’s more there’s no longer a single prevailing fashion: with people now preferring to dress in order to identify with their chosen group.

Tee-shirt says You're The First

What goes for dress, also goes for other visible forms such as posters, adverts, graffiti, and even shop window displays. As a result, the visual scene from the sidewalk has become more chaotic and more in need of being bullied into shape by how-and-where we point the camera.

Although some people are still using 35mm film cameras and black and white film, just as Henri Cartier-Bresson did years ago, the preference now is to originate the images in colour, using a digital camera. In itself, this change may not seem enough to revolutionise street photography, but that’s not the point. It’s the new facilities both on the camera and within the workflow which dramatically change the final image.

For example, take composition. “Back in the day,” Cartier-Bresson refused to crop any of his images, preferring to maximise the use of the 35mm rectangle with its 3:2 ratio. In fact, when making enlargements he even filed down the negative carrier in order to show the edges of the frame. War photographer Don McCullin commented: “I think I speak for every photographer and especially Magnum photographers, when I say that Henri really introduced the concept of perfect composition into our thinking.”

Today it’s much easier to improve composition by cropping the image. I think it’s fair to say that Photoshop has liberated us from the given rectangle, enabling any format we choose. Even so, many photographers (myself included) like to retain the 35mm shape whenever possible because of its inherent “Golden Rectangle” aesthetic.

Ironically, Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” went out of fashion, right around the time when the burst rate of digital cameras made it hard to miss.

If you shoot off a dozen frames in the space of a second or two you’re much more likely to get the perfect shot than if you wait for the right moment.

Personally, I still prefer to wait for the moment with anticipation and record it with a single shot. I think it sharpens my ability to see the moving scene in front of me. Here’s an example. If the camera had been in burst mode I would probably have selected a frame matching the one below.

woman walks past a poster featuring a gigantic hand holding a lipstick as if it were a gun

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
With digital photography we can try out more ideas, more quickly, and make improvements to our technique more readily. Yet there are drawbacks, too. Such a large number of people are taking photos, using excellent equipment, it’s hard to make any impact because everything’s been seen before.

Or has it?

If you develop an appealing personal style, you’re on the right track. When street photography with your favourite camera becomes akin to handwriting with your favourite pen, that’s when you’re beginning to speak directly to the onlooker. The same process will be valid fifty years from now, just as it was fifty, or even seventy-five years ago.

Street Photography in a Country Town, Part Three

I promised to show cheerful pictures from my Ipswich folder and here they are. If you’re read parts One and Two you will have seen some cheerful pictures already, but they’ve been interspersed with lurid images as well, together with references to dark episodes in the town’s history.

Let’s do this cheerful thing by taking a quick walk around the town.

Emerging from the station and still blinking in the bright sunlight I cross the road and take my first shot. It’s a group of three people enjoying a drink together (featured image, above).

I immediately doubt if I’ll get a better shot all day. There’s a big green tree in the centre of the picture; the man in profile is shown against a plain background; the other man turns to pick up his drink and the woman smiles. There are no jarring colours: just mainly greys and blues. Sure, you can take a happy picture in grey and blue!

Moving On
Approaching the town centre I walk past the enormous Willis Building, the exterior of which is covered in 890 smoked glass panels. Effectively the building is black from the outside, just the way Foster Associates wanted it. Modern architects can be so perverse!

At least Norman Foster provided a nice big swimming pool inside for use by the staff at lunchtime. Oh no! It’s been covered up so the space can be used for more offices. Big corporations can be so perverse!

colourful woman, monochrome bird

Anyway, I spot a double-whammy coming up: a gigantic seagull eating the remains of an ice cream while a colourful woman approaches, trundling blue and purple suitcases and carrying red green and orange bags. I hold my breath, hoping that a) the seagull won’t fly away, and b) that my reflection in the glass will be obscured by the passing figure. Thanks to luck I tick both boxes.

Only later do I learn that the underlying net income for Willis Towers Watson went up by 21% (hurray! that’s cheerful). But, oh dear, they still decided to fire 200 people from the Ipswich office. Result: Greedy Seagull 2, Cheerful Colourful Woman 1.

Market Day
It’s Market Day and the sign (below) tells us where to go. If you’re viewing this blog on a smartphone, you probably can’t read the small-print. In between Ipswich and Market it says: Est. 1317. That’s not a misprint. The market has been here since the Middle Ages.

three women walk past market sign

Recently, the renovation of Cornhill has greatly inconvenienced market traders, forcing them into side streets while the work continues. But customers, including these three women with their collective red, white and blue headscarves (a show of patriotism?) soon find their way there.

I take a few market shots, but not too many because it’s a subject I’m trying to avoid. Why? Because other street photographers tend to gravitate to markets, resulting in a surfeit of images of people buying flowers and fresh vegetables. Photographers are not just attracted by the colours but also by the feeling that markets are within a comfort zone where picture-taking seems legit, unlike the open street.

happy shoppers

A Field Day
On the other side of the temporary Cornhill hoarding there are plenty of happy faces. I have a “field day” snapping people as they walk into the sunlight. I particularly like the shot (above), with five cheerful faces and only one quizzical expression.

Perhaps for economic reasons, many people in Ipswich favour vintage clothing. There’s certainly no shortage of stores selling it. Whether you need it for normal streetwear or for special occasions, you can find a decent vintage outfit at shops like Twist ‘n’ Shout (below), mostly from the Beatles era.

couple walking past vintage store

Closing Time
In late afternoon the shops start to close, including Coe’s Newsagents, which (in my shot below) seems to have shut out a couple of last-minute customers. Were they hoping to buy cigarettes? A cool-looking dude in sunglasses strolls past, drawing deeply on his own cigarette.

The customers weren’t disappointed, however, because the proprietor spotted them and reopened the store. That’s the joy of a country town. I can’t image such a thing happening in London.

On that cheerful note, we’ll say goodbye to Ipswich for a while.

corner shop

Jolly Good Boating Weather

There’s marine photography and there’s street photography. And never the twain shall meet?

Boats and ships have featured in art for at least 6,000 years, the earliest dating from around 4,000 BCE in rock carvings on the Aegean Islands. You can see why. Isolated in a seascape, a boat is the only object in view when you look beyond the shore.

Today, the shore is cluttered with all kinds of objects — piers, buoys, lighthouses, wind farms, oil rigs – and all kinds of boats and ships. The presence of a vessel is no longer remarkable, unless there is something particularly unusual about it.

Nonetheless, marine artists and photographers continue to create masterpieces of their chosen artform by keeping their focus on boats and ships, in all weathers. There’s drama aplenty on the high seas. It’s enough to make a street photographer envious!

Street Photography Fights Back
Yet I think it’s possible for the street photographer to make a challenge by observing boats on urban canals and rivers. You don’t even need to go down the port to find potential subjects.

My featured image (above) shows a boatload of cleaners whose job is to fish rubbish and weeds from the canals of Bangkok. When a rapidly moving passenger boat passes them they bob up and down in the water, doing their best to remain upright.

We’re close enough to see the actions of the figures and even one or two of their expressions. Such a picture, I contend, carries the spirit of street photography, despite featuring a boat.

I’m intrigued by the fact that the person at the front of the boat has a chair which is fastened securely to the deck. Yet apart from the skipper at the wheel he seems to be the only one without a pole and basket. It’s this kind of detail I love to find in a street photo, even when it’s not on the street.

Two officials from the marine department on a jet ski

In the Spirit of Street Photography
Here’s another candid shot (above) which in even closer to the spirit of street photography. This time I’m quite near to the subject, being on a passenger boat that’s going in the opposite direction. We can see the expressions of both men very clearly. Those guys in the Marine Department really enjoy their work!

As always, the street photographer needs a little bit of luck: in this case provided by an attractive background of trailing flowers. The jet of water from the back of the vessel gives the image an exhuberant touch.

The two images I’ve shown so far make a curious juxtaposition. The heavily masked figures of the cleaners, cloaked in green, betray the fact that they’re definitely lower down the pecking order in canal maintenance, compared to those impeccably dressed men on the jetfoil.

That’s the great advantage of street photography: we get to examine images at our leisure, all the time extracting additional information as we compare and contrast one picture with another.

Muddy Waters
Back in the UK I rarely get access to canals, although the River Colne flows past my window, just a few feet away. Further downstream it opens up into a large estuary and mixes with the sea surrounding Mersea Island.

Alas, it’s hard to get close enough to anyone enjoying “Jolly Good Boating Weather,” and frankly the weather isn’t always jolly good.

Wind surfers (below) protect themselves with wetsuits while they ply the muddy waters off Mersea Island. Before they stand upright they look like a giant dragonfly struggling to take off.

wind surfers starting to sail

In this shot I’ve included just a hint of the horizon to contrast with the extreme angles of the wind surfers and their sails. Does the shot please me? Not like the others. It makes me feel I’m drifting out to sea, away from those comforting but unforgiving city streets.

Eating Ice Cream

People are by far and away the best subject for street photography and I prefer to photograph them when they’re engrossed in some kind of activity.

Why? Mainly because they’re less likely to be bothered by the camera, so I can get a truly candid shot — but also because they reveal a little bit more about themselves in the way they conduct their chosen activity.

I’m not saying you can’t get a great shot of people doing nothing. Perhaps someone is looking into thin air, lost in thought. Depending on other factors that could be a terrific photo. Yet, after a while, the do-nothing shot becomes tedious because it’s so static. Yes, they’re trapped in a moment of time, but it’s a long moment — and we’re trapped in there with them.

Which brings me to the subject of ice cream.

At Least They’re Doing Something
On a summer foray into the streets of London’s West End I encountered a lot of people eating ice cream. It had never occurred to me before that such activity could be a proper subject for street photography, but I now think it is.

I think the featured image (above) is intriguing because I’m not sure what’s going on. Is the man about to take a bite of the Mint Choc Waffle? Or is he inspecting it to see if there’s something unpleasant embedded in the top of it? Why can’t his partner bear to look? Or has something caught her attention off-frame?

Although the scene itself is utterly mystifing we know everything else about it. For example, it’s labelled with the location: Seven Dials, a short distance from Bloomsbury and the British Museum. We even know exactly what sort of ice cream it is: a Mint Choc Waffle — one of the vendor’s most popular waffles, being twice illustrated on the side of the van.

I’m always talking about the value of contrast within a street photo and the above shot is a rare example of informational contrast: a surfeit of information about the context of the action, but very little about the action itself.

The End of the Ice Cream
The two young women eating ice cream in the next shot are doing so in unison. That always makes for a good photo, especially when the subjects are clearly relishing the experience.

In the market. Two people sucking ice creams.

In this instance, we appear to have joined the activity just as it’s coming to an end. They’re both getting the last lick of enjoyment from it, emerging into the open area away from the market to embark on their next adventure.

It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll
Only one of the two gentlemen in the shot below is actually eating his ice cream. The other one is probably looking forward to sitting down to enjoy it at his leisure. Again, it’s given us a nice contrast between the two subjects, quite apart from the fact that one is wearing black-and-white and other’s in red.

Are they perhaps rock musicians, or stage managers? If so they probably thought I was from the paparazzi, but they didn’t break their stride.

Two men in stylish gear, holding ice creams

Above the shoulder of man with the red tee-shirt (depicting our evolution from ape to rock star) is Hew Locke’s wonderful sculpture of the moon goddess Selene on the facade of the Nadler Hotel. She represents sleep.

Sleep is the epitome of inactivity and not nearly as photogenic as rock ‘n roll — or eating ice cream, for that matter.