Candid Dogs

“You cannot be serious!” Surely, there are plenty of dog photos on the Internet. Why add to their number?

I confess, although I like most of the dogs I meet I’m not a dog lover, as such. I don’t enough rapport with them, and, big dogs in particular make me wary. I’ve read too many reports in the news about children and sheep being savaged and killed by them.

As a consequence dogs rarely feature in my street photography. The featured image, above, is an exception. It’s a street photo I was pleased to take.

Moriyama Dog
The other shots I’m showing here are not really serious, except for next one, which doesn’t fully live up to my technical expectations. I call this photo “Moriyama Dog,” because the subject reminds me of the famous shot by Daido Moriyama — the one with which he is forever identified.

Moriyama was the most prominent exponent of the photograpic style known as “areh-bureh-bokeh” (“grainy, blurry, out-of-focus”), so I guess I shouldn’t be too upset that my own shot is all of these things, and more.

stray dog, in headlamps

I love Moriyama’s work and regard him as one of the five (or so) greatest street photographers, but I’d never attempt to borrow his ideas. The picture above is just a one-off snap, taken in a traffic jam at night on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Art Dog
I found the Winged Dog (below) in a Bangkok art gallery, in a curious exhibition which resembled a storeroom of discarded works. The image you see is actually the official display, complete with stacked pictures and packing cases. Somehow, the dog ended up as “top dog,” as in “every dog has its day.”

dog with wings, amid other artworks

If you look up “winged dog” on Google Images you’ll find all manner of strange creatures, including many ancient and modern gargoyles such as those mythical beasts which grace gothic cathedrals.

On PicClick (“Search eBay Faster”) I discovered an entire industry devoted to winged dog gargoyles. Well, that was a surprise!

Dog with Hat
Intrigued by the PicClick result, I tried searching for “dog with hat” and was presented with “Dog Hat in dog supplies” (i.e., to be worn by a dog) or “dog hat in men’s accessories” (to be worn by men). I don’t think I’ll be getting either of those!

The best I can do is to lend my own silly hat to a dog, as below. He looks equally stupid in it.

artificial dog sculpture, wearing my hat

Two More Dogs
Sometimes I chance upon a dog that’s dressed outrageously and I ask the owner if I can take a shot. I found the splendid creature below in a trendy restaurant (The Commons, in Thonglor, Bangkok), dressed in a black suit with a red kerchief around its neck.

white dog in restaurant

Naturally, other elements sometimes appear in my infrequent pictures of dogs, such as the next one which I’ve called “Cute, and the Dog’s Nice Too.”

poodle being admired; young female owner in shorts

I still think two legs are better than four, George Orwell notwithstanding. (The sheep, in Orwell’s novel “Animal Farm,” are persuaded to bleat the opposite — “Four legs good, two legs bad” — in order to drown out dissenting opinion during the farm animal revolution.)

Pensive Dog
I’m not sure if the next animal is “owned” or “abandoned,” but it looks in reasonable shape, if not as pampered as the two creatures above. Behind it, someone (the owner?) is donning a motorcycle helmet. Maybe the dog knows it’ll be on its own for a while.

Dog looks forlorn as person behind him puts on a crash helmet

Poodle in a Bag
Finally, here’s the ultimate in man’s determination to remain united with his pet at all times: the doggy bag. Looking closely at the image I can see the poodle is clawing at the man’s back pocket. I hope his wallet wasn’t in there! Dogs can be VERY expensive, can’t they?

poodle carried as if it were a shoulder bag

Showing the Abundance of the Earth

Whenever I see examples of Earth’s abundance I feel mixed emotions. First, I feel joy and I want to celebrate and give thanks, but I also feel a sadness: a sense that we are simply exploiting the Earth, always taking but rarely giving anything back.

Whether it’s agricultural products from renewable resources or fish from the wild, seeing the sheer quantity of them “en masse” can be truly shocking.

Pile ’em High
Retailers love to “pile ’em high” to attract attention and sell more items. The sales technique works every time, whether you’re selling books, beans, or, as above in the featured image, mangoes. And again, below:

The mango shop in Bangkok’s Thonglor district is one of those delightful stores that specialises in a particular type of fruit of the very highest quality. They’re doing it right. They care greatly for each mango, handle it gently and reverently, and source it responsibly. I think we can celebrate such a business and feel positive emotion, as long as they don’t use too many plastic foam sleeves.

More Worrying
I’m more worried about the packaging of strawberries and cherries, as seen in the image below. Of course, these products look even more magnificent. They’re beautifully presented and appear utterly beguiling when a shaft of sunlight illuminates them, bringing out their brilliant colour.

But if all the strawberries (and other fruits) in the world start being packaged like this, I think it would terminate our planet very quickly. We’d become buried in a mountain of plastic.

Is there anything particularly poignant contained within the image? I’m not sure. I guess it depends on your attitude towards elaborately packaged products. The stallholder is checking her phone and doesn’t seem too concerned. I think she completes the image and the message it contains.

Yes, We Have Bananas
On Bangkok’s abundant food stalls you can find up to 27 different types of banana, often in two different shades: green and yellow. I think they’re wonderful to see when there’s no sign of packaging. Maybe no one’s invented individual sleeves for bananas.

I wish I could say the same for cantaloupes. At New Year’s, my partner’s father was given three cantaloupes by three different people and each one came in its own elaborate gift box. It’s becoming impossible to give fruit as a present without ensuring that it meets prevailing standards of gift-wrapping. You get plenty of gratitude, but it comes with more fill for the dumpster.

Pomelo Mania
One of my favourite fruits is the pomelo (above), the ancestor of the grapefruit. Driving through the salt flats near Bangkok, motorists come eventually to dozens of stalls selling pomelos and young coconuts at wholesale prices.

Again, in these places there’s the expression of abundance which I find so poignant, obliging me to ask the driver to stop so I can take some pictures. Here’s one with a scrawny cat passing a red bin. I don’t think the animal is greatly impressed with all the fruit. You can starve amid plenty.

Funeral Wreath
If you do happen to starve you’ll be needing a funeral wreath, the bigger the better. Here’s one, about to cross the road on its way to the temple. I wonder what sort of wreath we can give the Earth when we’ve finally killed it?

Why Words Shout Out Loud In Street Photos

If words appear in a photo it’s impossible to ignore them. They shout at us loud and clear. Even when they’re in a foreign language we feel their power. We know they will speak immediately and directly to anyone who understands their language.

In a street photo, words can eclipse the rest of the content. Writ large or small they are the first objects to catch the eye. What’s more: they’re everywhere: on posters, on street furniture, on tee-shirts and newsstands. You can’t easily avoid words when you’re out on the street, so maybe it’s best to make good use of them.

Sometimes I try to combine words on a sign or poster with other parts of the image, making them seem to comment on the action. Words are static within a photo so it’s important to contrast them by showing activity as well, otherwise you’ll end up with nothing but a still life. The result may not be a bad picture, but in street photography we’re mostly trying to capture the actual life of the street.

In my featured image (from Singapore, above) there can be no doubt about the subject, which is labelled in letters writ large. Once you’ve been lured inside the restaurant you’ll be able to read the “small print,” including a warning sign (at the top of the picture) and the apologies for “inconvenience.”

Colours and Contrasts
I often talk in this blog about the deliberate use of colours and contrasting content to create a meaningful composition. Sometimes the meaning can be discovered later, once you’ve processed the image and examined it more closely.

When I took the following picture I was struck by a combination of blues and blacks, with only a hint of any other colour in the frame. The lady’s face reminded me of an elderly aunt from my childhood, while the dog offered a wonderful contrast in both age and colour. Likewise, the coffee in the advert looks warm and inviting, whereas the lady and the dog are well wrapped up against the cold.

Only when I looked at the image more objectively did I realise that the old lady was clearly not a customer of Caffé Nero and was unlikely to have been waiting for a skinny latte or cappuccino. I have to say I’m not happy with the dead space at the lower right, but I like the contrast between subject and setting.

Photographers tend to be more attuned to visual appearances than to the written or spoken word, making them less likely to pay attention to the effect of words on the viewer.

Anglo Saxon four-letter words are the most violent in the English language, but you often see them on tee-shirts or scrawled on walls as graffiti. For years, a disused cinema in my neighbourhood had the “C-word” etched back-to-front in dust on an inside, upper window. It gave a “too strong” flavouring to any street photo which included it in the background, rather as if a bitter spice were being added to the dish of the day.

Word On The Street
One photographer who notices words is Richard Nagler. He published a book called “Word On The Street” (Heyday, 2010) in which each photograph contains just a single word surrounded by other content. He describes how he was working on a different project in Oakland, California, when he saw an elderly woman looking of a window above a large (and unlit) neon sign saying TIME. On that occasion he failed to get the shot because the woman drew the curtains, but he went back (time and again!) until he saw her at the window once more and captured something similar.

You can find the image, among others in the series, on Richard Nagler’s website.

Gratuitous Language
In stores and malls you often see words that seem purely gratuitous and meaningless, although they later take on meaning when the rest of the advertising campaign comes along.

Here’s a family in Bangkok who are time-wasting, maybe hoping that “something exciting” is on its way. It probably isn’t.

For excitement you have to go out on the street. There, girls parade with highly provocative, and, it has to be said, very amusing words on their tee-shirts. I particularly liked the one below.

Today, words and photography are inextricably bound together. You can no longer prise them apart.

The Art of Colour Matching

If your street photography is entirely black and white, look away now. Little of what I’m going to say in this article has anything to do with taking pictures without colour. It’s all about the art of colour matching.

The idea of matching various components of the image is not, of course, limited to colour photography. For example, in the absence of colour you can match shapes — and this has long been a favourite ploy of street photographers shooting in black and white. A bent elbow here, another bent elbow there. Voila! You’ve found two matching shapes in otherwise unrelated subjects — and the picture looks more satisfying as a result.

Exactly why images look more satisfying when there are correspondences within them is not at all obvious. Is it because we like to be reminded of coincidence? When coincidence is evident — as when two people assume the same unusual stance, or when two matching colours establish a bizarre commonality between otherwise unrelated parts of the image — there’s a satisfying sense of connectedness. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on our part.

When we’re cut loose from the world — when the doctor snips the umbilical cord and says: “That’s it, kid, you’re on your own now” — we start to grow as individuals. Some people lose any sense of connectedness to nature, to the world around them, and even to other people. Yet even they may respond to the “irony of correspondences” when a photo shows unlikely (and possibly misleading or even non-existent) “connections” between unrelated parts of the image.

Man on a Bicycle
Take my featured image (above), which shows a man on a bicycle, waiting for the traffic lights to change. His purple jacket matches the purple chairs and the purple lettering on the window. Purple is the dominant colour in the picture. There’s plenty of red (the bike, the backpack); there’s a solid rectangle of yellow — which fortunately is somewhere near the centre; and finally a touch of blue and a barely noticeable squiggle of green.

The picture “works” because of the colour matching and it would certainly look less interesting in black and white. Does the colour matching make it more meaningful? That depends on how you look at it. The cyclist is completely unaware that he shares the same colour as the table and chairs — and, in a further extension of the coincidence, his blue jeans match the half-concealed blue table as well. He has a double connection to the establishment where the managers are so proud of the price of their beer.

I think colour does add meaning to the picture. The subject looks like he knows his way around town. He’s dressed for the part: a real street warrior. That his surroundings should echo his personal colour preference seems perfectly natural. You could almost imagine the whole of London turning purple as he races through the streets ahead of him.

Man on a Tricycle
Here’s a completely different example of colour matching (below). In this image there’s no single outstanding colour which connects the man on the tricycle to his surroundings. They all do. All, that is, except for the garish advertising sign on the back of the man’s vehicle. It’s the one jarring note of modernity in a photo that otherwise makes you think nostalgically of a changing world.

man on rickshaw

First there were hand-pulled rickshaws, then there were tricycle rickshaws — like the one shown — to be followed by motorised vehicles like tuk-tuks and taxis. As a means of transport the tricycle rickshaw is a vehicle in transition, neither fully mechanised nor entirely unmechanical in the help it gives to the operator via gearing and braking. It spans two eras, belonging to both at the same time.

The pastel browns, blues and reds of the rickshaw tricyclist are echoed in the crates and awnings of the background. In fact, the background is so close to the street it’s almost foreground, with the passing vehicle just a metre or so in front of it.

Again, I ask whether the colour matching makes the image more meaningful? I think it does. Apart from the fact that the tricycle and background both have the “feel of the street” (perhaps from a patina of dust, or from the muted shades of old materials) they both make a perfect foil for the new, glossy advert which undoubtedly provides a bit of extra income for the rider.

The rickshaw rider is moving out of the frame rather than into it. I timed the shot so the vehicle and rider would be seen against the striped awning rather than the crates. I’m glad I did. This man is not cycling into the future so much as leaving the past behind. I hope he finds a passenger soon.

The Pilot
To complete my trio of colour-matched street warriors, here’s another image (below) which I’ve called “The Pilot.” He’s not, of course, the pilot of the aircraft behind him. He’s just a guy who happened to be standing in front of it at the time. Nonetheless, his blue shirt and (look carefully!) red belt match the colours of the airplane perfectly.

man in fron of possibly fake aircraft

I have no idea whether this plane (or glider?) is “for real” or whether it was once a funfair attraction. At any rate, it’s found a permanent — or at least immobile — home on the forecourt of a filling station to the north of Bangkok. The dude with sunglasses saw me taking his picture and gave me a Lewis Hamilton smile. He seems so connected to the plane in every possible way I could scarcely pass up the opportunity.

Whatever else it does, colour matching links together the various components of the image to create satisfying harmonies and correspondences. Like the Chancellor’s annual Budget it all adds up and I “commend it to the House.”

Take My 5-Second Course in Landscape Photography

The other day I got to thinking: I’ve been writing this street photography blog for three years. There’s been so much to say! But maybe I should tackle a different subject.

How about landscape photography? I used to take landscape pictures, but these days the above shot — with trees — is the closest I get to it.

So I went on to think very carefully about the pros and cons of landscape photography and decided that the whole topic could be boiled down to a course lasting no more than 5 seconds (if you read quickly). Please take a little longer to mull it over.

Here it is:

A Complete Course in Landscape Photography: Success Guaranteed

  1. Take an expensive camera and tripod.
  2. Go to a really beautiful landscape.
  3. Find a pleasing viewpoint.
  4. Take a photo in good light at dawn or dusk.
  5. Enter photo competition; collect prize.
Framlingham Castle at Dawn

Please don’t think I’m deprecating the work of landscape photographers. I love the results they get — and even I got up before dawn to get the shot immediately above, so I know the huge amount of work and discomfort that’s involved in obtaining great landscape pictures. Gosh, Charlie Waite actually carries a pair of steps with him to get a higher viewpoint (I’ve omitted that in my tongue-in-cheek list of essentials).

The Ansel Adams Approach
Yet the most accomplished practitioners of landscape photography make their mark by refining what is, after all, the very simple process I’ve described. If you don’t believe me, just watch a video of Ansel Adams setting off on a photo expedition, laden with plate cameras and other apparatus.

Half the battle with landscape photography is finding the right landscape. Photographers travel far afield, but they often go to places where many others have gone before. Consequently, the images they get tend to be similar, especially when aspiring photographers embark on those special tours where the guide takes everyone to the same Icelandic glacier or the same bend in the Colorado River.

Landscapes do, of course, change with the changing light, but, as you may have noticed, mountains stay largely in the same place over quite extensive periods of time. The same can’t be said for the restless occupants of a city.

On the Street
The street photographer is grateful for places like bus stops where captive subjects have to pause for a few minutes before transport arrives to whisk them somewhere else. To take successful street shots you need to call upon techniques and strategies unknown to the landscape photographer. You need speed, stealth, cunning and subterfuge as well as persistence, patience and the ability to anticipate the immediate future.

Landscape photography may capture some of the grandeur of the Earth but for most of the time it completely ignores the drama. Its images often suggest eternal stability when quite the opposite is true. The Earth’s crust is constantly shifting from Pangaea to the five (six, seven?) continents we know today, throwing up mountains as one plate crashes into another.

What’s needed is not still photography to take scenes that move so slowly, but stop-frame photography to show the motion over geological time. That’s not very practical, but there have been some remarkable movies of great terrestrial events, such as the sudden breaking up of a glacier, or the invasion of a tsunami, destroying all in its path.

For me, street photography is the superior artform, although not often as easy on the eye. It’s more than a mere genre in a way that landscape photography is not. It contains the essence of photography: the ability to catch a moment of time in which the subjects in front of the lens will never again exist in those exact same positions.

The Grand Canyon will still be there next year, looking much the same as it did this year. It’s magnificent, I agree, and more uplifting to contemplate than a split second in the life of a shopper walking down Oxford Street. As a small boy I was profoundly impressed by a colour plate of the Grand Canyon and I used to examine it frequently. But if “the proper study of mankind is man,” as the poet (Alexander Pope) said, I know which one I find more interesting today. It’s the street photo that sets our imaginations rolling, rather than the landscape taken in “Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.”

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

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.

The Case of the Missing Author

Street photography would be so much easier if we could simply imagine a perfect scene and have it appear magically in front of the camera. I’m jealous of the novelist who is unconstrained by reality, allowing pure imagination to make invented characters perform to order. I’ve a good mind to borrow a couple of them.

Let’s pretend that Hercule Poirot and his friend and narrator Captain Hastings have retired from solving mysteries and have taken up photography. What would they want to photograph on the streets of London?

Poirot: “Ah, Hastings, mon ami, let us create the perfect photograph today. I want us to find a subject that will set my little grey cells working. It must be mysterious! Where, oh where, can we find such a mystery in London?”

Hastings: “Well, personally I think we should pay homage to our beloved creator. Now don’t look aghast, Poirot old chap. I don’t mean the good Lord above, I mean Agatha Christie. There’s a splendid memorial to her in front of where the Photographers Gallery used to be.”

Poirot: “What an excellent idea, Hastings. A memorial, yes. We could pretend to be photographing it while in actual fact waiting for something a little more interesting to come along, perhaps?”

Hastings: “Such as?”

Poirot: “Whatever you like. You really should have learned how to do this from our dear creator.”

Hastings: “Alright. What would I most desire? I don’t suppose, Poirot, that a beautiful woman would be out of the question?”

Poirot: “Not at all. You may have anyone you like. It’s purely fiction, after all.”

Hastings (giving his imagination free rein): “As it’s winter, I think a tall Russian model wearing tight leggings would be acceptable. And for you?”

Poirot: “Someone a little bit shorter. Maybe an elegant brunette holding a red rose. But that’s not enough, Hastings, there has to be a mystery. Perhaps they could both be carrying a body in a bag.”

Hastings: “Outrageous, Poirot! But yes, I see what you mean. It’s midday in Covent Garden, but here are two women, beautifully dressed as if for a special occasion — and accompanied by…a third person, a man holding two red roses, one for himself and one for my tall Russian model who needs both hands free to carry the body.”

Poirot: “Now we are making progress, Hastings. The third man must also be impeccably dressed in something spectacular and colourful.”

Hastings: “A red jacket?”

Poirot: “Be precise, Hastings. You can’t just say ‘red.’ It has to be scarlet, or crimson, or cherry, or wine, or ruby, or something like that.”

Hastings: “Candy?”

Poirot: “Indeed, Hastings, that colour must be specified as #D21502 if my memory serves me correctly.”

Hastings: “Let me recap, Poirot. Our perfect photograph would include the memorial to our beloved creator Agatha, together with a mysterious and somewhat theatrical scenario…”

Poirot (interrupting): “There’s nothing wrong with a little theatre, Hastings. We’re just round the corner from where The Mousetrap has been played for the last sixty-seven years.”

three women, outside theatre with The Mousetrap plaque

Hastings: “Don’t remind me, Poirot. She didn’t put the two of us in The Mousetrap! I’m beginning to have my doubts about this picture. Shall we see what we’ve got so far?”

Poirot: “But this is terrible, Hastings. It’s not what we wanted at all. Look, there’s another figure on the left — you can just see his arm. We’ll have to get rid of him.”

Hastings: “And the memorial. It’s awfully ugly, isn’t it? Whatever were they thinking?”

Poirot: “Lamentable, I agree, Hastings. And if you examine it closely you can just see the outline of that dreadfully amateur Miss Marple — looking for all the world like Vivian Maier on a bad day — both of them our chief competitors. We have no choice but to crop the whole memorial from our perfect image.”

the featured shot, cropped

Hastings (in dismay): “But if we erase our own creator we’ll be lost.”

Poirot (raising his finger): “No, mon ami, we shall not be lost. We shall be free.”

NOTE: It was so nearly the perfect shot: I was waiting for someone interesting to pass the Agatha Christie memorial at the corner of Cranbourn Street and St Martin’s Lane when this group of people crossed in front of me. They were mysterious for sure! Alas, the book-shaped monument is so ponderous I tried to crop it from the image (as above), thereby removing the one element that gave it an extra twist.

Elephants Part II, At the Erawan Shrine

In Part I of this short series I paid a visit to the Erawan Museum in Samat Prakan, a few miles south of Bangkok. This time we’re in the very heart of the city, at the Erawan Shrine. It’s important not to confuse the two. They couldn’t be more different!

The Erawan Shrine, located alongside the Skytrain track between Siam and Chit Lom, is a popular destination for people who wish to pray for health, wealth and happiness. It had curious beginnings.

The Two Hotels
Construction of a hotel on the site in 1956 was delayed by a series of accidents, so the authorities took the advice of an astrologer and ordered the construction of a shrine. They wanted it to exorcise the presence of bad spirits, the area having been used, many years previously, to display and shame criminals in public.

The decision proved to be very wise, because, from then on, construction progressed without incident. However, the Erawan Hotel was later pulled down and rebuilt as the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel in 1987. This time the shrine was expanded to make more room for the increasing number of devotees and it’s now one of the busiest places in Bangkok.

People washing themselves

A Great Place for Street Photography
Wherever crowds gather, there you’ll find a great place for street photography. The Erawan Shrine is particularly good because people are concentrating on their religious devotions. I’m always discreet and respectful on these occasions — and now and then I’m rewarded by a shot that pleases me.

There are several ways of approaching the subject: by entering the shrine and mingling with the devotees (great for close-ups — see featured photo at the top); by lingering just outside the railings in the neutral territory of the street (photo immediately above); or by going up to the walkway that connects the various malls (image below). I’ve tried all these strategies and found the second one works best for my style of photo. It allows me to include a group of people and to see what they’re doing and how they’re interacting.

View from above

Tragic Events
Alas, the recent history of the Erawan Shrine has shown that the bad spirits are fighting back, despite all the supplications. In 2006 a man with a hammer destroyed the sacred statue of Brahma. The incident took place in the early hours of the morning and was witnessed by two street cleaners who promptly beat the man to death.

Again in 2015 the shrine was struck by tragedy when a terrorist detonated a bomb next to the railings (those you see in the bottom left of the photo above). Three kilograms of TNT killed 20 people and injured 125 others. Suspects were eventually arrested but the court case, at the time of writing, is still in progress several years after the incident.

View from outside the railings

Life Continues
I took some pictures in 2016, not long after the site had been restored. There was still a sombre mood, but it was already getting back to normal (above).

People lighting incense sticks

Today, the life of the Erawan Shrine continues much as before, with people attending for private reasons: praying for family, friends and self. They light incense sticks (above and below), cleanse themselves with holy water, and make offerings at the shrine.

A haze of smoke from the incense

Tourists visit the Erawan Shrine from all over the world and it continues to be one of Bangkok’s most popular destinations. Moreover, it’s attended by people of different religions. Even atheists can acknowledge its beauty, or admire the demonstrations of traditional dancing which often take place there.

The many faces of the devotees are a gift to the street photographer, as are the dappled sunlight and incense smoke which add to the atmosphere of the venue (below).

People with serious expressions

A Decade of Images
I’ve taken pictures at the Erawan Shrine on many occasions over the past decade. Those at the top of the article and the one below were made in 2011, four years before the bomb.

I wonder, has awareness of the event changed my photographs? I don’t really think so, but it does make me see the earlier pictures in a different way.

There’s no escaping the fact that life is sometimes cut brutally short, whether through ignorance or evil intent. Yet it always regenerates and over time that in itself becomes a cause for reflective celebration.

woman placing candle