Goals and Projects in Street Photography

In street photography, goals are good but projects are problematic.

There’s a big difference between, on the one hand, setting yourself a simple goal, and, on the other, directing all your efforts into a specific, rules-based project.

Having a goal, such as getting one great shot each day for an entire week gives you plenty of freedom to grow and develop as a street photographer. Projects, on the other hand, are restricting. They tie you down to taking pictures to fit a pre-ordained concept.

The photography world is awash with projects. It’s no exaggeration to say I could list hundreds of them. You could, for example, follow film crews on location at night and “steal” their light for your own street scenes. Kevin Cooley has already done it. Or you could photograph various cities around the world from the comfort of a taxi. Daniel Duart has already done it.

Perhaps it would be a great idea to photograph people running in the rain. Thank you, Danny Santos. Or maybe you’d get great shots if you photographed people looking at electronic screens in dimly lit rooms (Dennis Chamberlin) or took pictures of “Dogs Who’ve Licked Me” (James Friedman).

All of these accomplished photographers succeeded admirably with their various projects, but they were not beginners. Moreover, many of them carried on with other work at the same time, gradually building their themed collections over time.

Why Projects Are Popular
It’s easy to see why projects are appealing. They allow you to focus your attention on certain aspects of the world and they give you direction and motivation. Above all, they increase your intentionality, which makes them very popular in art schools because they help students assemble a coherent body of work before the end of the semester. I’m not knocking them! I just wouldn’t recommend them to anyone who is trying to acquire a full set of skills in street photography.

Projects are a form of “concept art” in which the dominant, organising principle comes from the mind of the photographer rather than emerging naturally through interaction with the external world.

Genuine street photography requires you to have a conversation with reality, to watch people intently and respond to their moods and actions within the city environment. If you’re following some self-imposed directive, such as photographing “women with red hair using mobile phones,” you may end up with a coherent set of pictures, but just think of the opportunities you will have lost!

The Simple Goal
No, I prefer to set a simple goal. When I go out to take pictures I have just one idea in mind. My goal for the day is to get one good shot. OK, I nearly wrote “great shot,” but they’re as rare as hens’ teeth. Let’s say it’s a shot I wouldn’t mind showing as an example of my work.

Having a simple goal is wonderfully liberating. When I get two good shots in one day I think I’ve doubled my work output. I took the featured image (above) on the same day as the one below, and there were a few more besides.

Avoid Restrictions
Because the street photographer already works under a huge number restrictions, it makes little sense to impose more. For example, the first restriction is: “Don’t take posed pictures.” This means you have no control over the poses your subjects assume, so you have to wait for them to occupy the frame as you wish them to be.

Another restriction is: “Don’t arrange the background.” You can be as choosy as you like about the background you include, but you can’t deliberately replace one background for another. Even if you add clouds from your “cloud bank” (some photographers have these!) with ingenious work in Photoshop, you’ll be reducing the veracity of the image. It may look better, but it won’t be as satisfying as an undoctored scene which records a particular moment in a specific place where everything is exactly “as it was.”

Given these restrictions (and I haven’t even mentioned natural light, because some street photographers use portable flash) street photography becomes even harder when you burden it with additional rules. Applying further restrictions may allow you to create images that share similar characteristics, with the result that your works reinforce each other when viewed in succession or side by side. But restrictions can also make them become formulaic and lacking in vitality. I think that’s a trap to be avoided.

When You’ve Found Your Style
Only once you’ve achieved a personal style and found a way of interacting with the world that consistently yields good images, can you branch out into projects without fearing their impact on your work.

I would still add a word of caution: don’t make the project too big. For example, a set of six street scenes with desaturated colours except for bright red letterboxes can be delightful; a set of fifty would be depressing.

My simple goal needs no word of caution. With reckless abandon I’ll pop into London tomorrow in the expectation of getting one good shot….

Why Does Everything Have to Be Awesome?

I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, the redwoods of California, the skyscrapers of NYC and the mighty Mississippi — and yes, America is awesome. But why, oh why, oh why do Americans (and increasingly Europeans, Brits, Aussies, and even the Chinese) want absolutely everything to be awesome?

I’ve just had another email from Awesome Books, but the books are exactly the same as the ones you can buy on Amazon, except there appear to be fewer of them. How awesome is that?

Far From It
As an activity, street photography is a far from awesome, which is one of the things I like about it. It’s all about photographing ordinary people in their everyday clothes, going about their normal business, on regular city streets. I don’t think I’d want to turn this activity into anything more spectacular, although I’m sure others will make the attempt.

For example, you could abseil down a city storefront with powerful flash gear and photograph passers-by as they gaze at you from below. You could “play dead” by lying on the ground clutching your Leica and photograph anyone who tries to steal it from you. Covered in silver paint, you could become a “living sculpture” of a 19th century photographer who springs into life and takes a picture whenever someone gives you a coin.

If you stage any of these stunts, I’m sure you’ll be written about in the media as a street photographer whose work is “awesome.” You’ll be pushing the boundaries of the medium as far as they will go. That’s what “awesome” is all about, isn’t it?

What It Really Means
Awesome means “provoking feelings of awe” but used as a slang word it just means “very good” or “amazing.” The Urban Dictionary describes it one of the three words which make up most American sentences, the others being “omygod” and “shit.”

Awesome things (taken from Internet discussions) include the singer Bono, pizza, a tea party held by someone called Edward, the fans of Veronica Mars, “that Calvo chick,” and “riding a rocket lawn chair through a strange portal while dressed in a disguise with a cat that happens to be a chef on your back.”

OK, the last one is definitely awesome. It would make a great street photo if it were not pure fantasy. In the meantime I’ll have to take what’s possible, namely the pizza (below). At least it’s wood-fired and stone baked!

Awesomeness in Art
Provoking awe has long been the purpose of religious art. The great medieval cathedrals still have the power to leave us open-mouthed as we wonder at the mysteries they evoke.

A new and more down-to-earth human element emerged in the Italian Renaissance beginning with the murals of Giotto, but it quickly became smothered by the awesomeness of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Now, in the present era, our most highly acclaimed artists are people who work on a colossal, awe-inspiring scale — like Damien Hirst with his “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.”

Even Bansky, who for several years painted wryly amusing urban graffiti, eventually had to “go awesome” with Dismaland, a full-scale funless entertainment park, a nightmare version of Disneyland.

By contrast, to take up street photography is to take a step back from awesomeness. The street photographer has seen the alternatives: the landscapes covered with plastic (Christo), the 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds (Ai Weiwei), the gigantic colour pencils of “Reverse City” (Pascale Marthine Tayou), and has made a conscious decision to go back to basics — to look closely at the reality of urban life.

Looking Closer
To be frank: most street photos don’t seem at all awesome if you print them large for the exhibition wall. They work best as small scale images — fragments of life rescued from the muddle and chaos of the street.

Yet if you look closely at the finest examples of street photography, you can’t help but be amazed at their qualities. After all, it’s possible to be humble and awesome at the same time.

In music, Franz Schubert inspires awe with his small scale works — his songs, chamber music, piano sonatas and impromptus — as well as with his late symphonies. The same is true of the other great classical composers. It’s not the scale of their work that matters so much as its profundity: the degree to which it puts you in touch with the wider workings of the universe.

Does street photography have the potential to bring us closer to the truth? I don’t see why not. If we stop searching for awesomeness by making big statements with Big Art, I think we can find it on the street, in small scale works that enable us to see more clearly what is actually there.

Those Impromptu Street Portraits: Valid or Not?

Like most street photographers I occasionally take impromptu street portraits. They’re hard to resist.

For example, one day I was walking along a street in London when I spotted a man smoking a cigarette. I managed to get a shot of him before there was any conversation between us, but because he was looking directly at the camera I felt I had to say something afterwards.

We had a brief chat and he kindly let me take another photo. I asked him to look away from the camera. The resulting image (shown above) is very close, super-sharp, and technically more accurate than most street photos. I like it, but it’s not at all the kind of image I normally seek. Let me explain why not.

Why Candid Is Better
As soon as the subject becomes aware of the camera the spell is broken and something is lost. I’m sorry if this sounds a bit obscure, but if you feel the same way you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

I want to show the world as it really is, not as it wants to be seen. Most people begin to act as soon as they know they’re “on camera,” smiling, posing, putting on their “best face,” raising a rabbit-ears salute or making some other gesture. There’s no end to the contortions performed by the public when they think they’ll end up on Facebook or Flickr.

Of course, you may be lucky (as I was with the shot above) in finding someone who “gets it,” who sees you taking candid pictures and knows the kind of shot you want. But it’s better to maintain the convention of “the invisible camera,” taking candid, unposed shots whenever possible.

When a subject looks directly at the camera lens a peculiar process is set in motion. After the image has been processed and displayed, the subject appears to be looking at the viewer. But in no sense can the helpless subject make true eye contact with those who view the image. When it comes to scrutiny, it’s a one-way street: the gaze is from viewer to subject, not vice versa. For this reason I find that the people depicted in most street photos often project a kind of defensive, accusatory stare which they seldom use in other circumstances.

The Specialists
Many photographers specialise in street portraits, often gaining considerable critical and commercial success. Brandon Stanton’s series “Humans of New York” is a notable example, a remarkable collection of faces that leaves you marvelling at the variety and beauty of the human race.

Stanton has now divided his collection into various series: “Intimate Stories,” “Refugee Stories,” “Invisible Wounds,” and so on, his project morphing into literary territory, beyond the purely photographic. He writes: “Somewhere along the way, I began to interview my subjects in addition to photographing them. And alongside their portraits, I’d include quotes and short stories from their lives.”

I like Stanton’s approach. It works, especially with the addition of text. I wouldn’t call it “street photography” in the classic sense, but it’s perfectly valid, if not entirely original.

Many photographers have attempted to meld biography and portraits into a new artform. For example, British photographer Adrian Clarke, a former civil liberties lawyer, took the same road, moving from visual images to a combination of words and image. He made an initial impact with his series “Framed” — depicting subjects who had served long prison sentences for crimes they didn’t commit. In later series such as “South Bank is Shrinking” (2008) and “The Road to Low Newton” (2009) he accompanied his images with biographical stories told in the subjects’ own words.

I’m not wholly convinced by these brave attempts to create a new artform. They seem to involve too many compromises. We never learn the real story of the subject’s life, just a personal, one-sided version of it. Only a well researched biography or novel can present a full account of an individual living in a particular place through a particular period of time. By contrast, a street portrait without accompanying words leaves you guessing and prompts your imagination to provide the backstory.

Beyond Travel Photography
When you travel to a foreign city there’s an added impetutus to take street portraits because you can include both the person and the place in which they live: two for the price of one! Even better, you may be able to photograph them in the actual performance of some unusual occupation that’s unique to the area. Three for the price of one!

Their performance may even involve birds or animals. That’s four for the same price — and by now you’re probably in China, photographing an elderly gentleman engaging in cormorant fishing on the Li River in Yangshuo. It’s OK. I’ve seen it before. Yes, he’s very photogenic and the fishing is genuine, but his main activity is not cormorant fishing at all — it’s having his photograph taken.

I think it’s best to avoid the ersatz image: the synthetic, fake, false, faux, mock, simulated photo which takes you away from the nucleus of street photography towards its outer reaches. Keep it candid. Keep it real — even if the resulting photo is less technically correct.

The Revealing Moment
For example, sometimes you can catch people momentarily lost in thought. Maybe they’re actually lost, which is even better. Either way, they’re likely to be unaware of your presence, at least until you’ve taken the shot.

In Bangkok I took this photo (above) of a gentleman with a wise face, not unlike the Chinese figures you see guarding the Royal Palace. There was no time to worry about the background, which is cluttered almost beyond acceptability, but I like the shot. Why? Because it preserves the integrity of street photography.

The camera remains invisible. The onlooker can enjoy the same privileged viewpoint as that enjoyed by the reader of a novel. The photo lets you enter the world imaginatively and without confrontation. You can put yourself in the man’s place rather than confront him with impersonal scrutiny. In other words, this really is a street photo, not just an impromptu street portrait.

Can Street Photography Be Picturesque?

When I was a boy, my parents bought me a set of Cumberland Pencils with a vividly coloured landscape on the front captioned “Keswick on Derwentwater.” I was amazed at the picture. My home county (Suffolk) had no lakes or mountains — and it certainly wasn’t as colourful. Even then I was a bit suspicious of pictorial representation.

What we call “the pictorial” or “the picturesque” is essentially a way of looking at the world, discovering its most appealing features and presenting them to their best advantage. It is never completely truthful. The artist or photographer will probably remove any ugly or discordant elements from the picture. He or she may intensify the colours, lighten the shadows, and make sure the image looks more cheerful than the original subject.

At its most extreme, the process of prettifying the subject can end up as “chocolate box art” — or indeed as pencil box art. In other words, it’s a form of advertising in which there’s an element of persuasion involved.

The Techniques of Advertising
I think such persuasion is acceptable in commerce. After all, you’d hardly expect chocolate manufacturers to place unappetising pictures on the front of their products. But when the product is neither chocolates nor coloured pencils — when there’s no product as such, just a photo — why do so many people try to give it the pictorial makeover? Why prettify the image when doing so will make it less truthful?

The answer is that photographers are constantly tempted to use the techniques of advertising to make their images more appealing to the viewer and hence more popular than those of other photographers. Their photos will say: “Look at me! I’m more attractive than the photo next door.”

As a result, the art of landscape and cityscape photography has progressed hand-in-hand with commercial and advertising photography, becoming ever more beguiling and seductive. Only the hardened street shooter seeks out the general truth of reality, not concentrating on specific subjects as a documentary photographer does but selecting various and unrelated subjects that make good images.

Collectively, the best images of the individual street photographer add up to a vision of the world that will give the viewer an insight into reality that cannot be gained from painting or literature. The vision needn’t be unpleasant or depressing. For all its ills the world is not unremittingly awful. In places it is joyful, colourful, and alive with beautiful people. There’s nothing wrong — or untruthful — in showing the good things of life. Let’s not give our descendants the impression that we never enjoyed ourselves. That would be blatantly untrue.

Back to The Lakes
What I failed to appreciate as a child was the fact that Cumberland — now part of Cumbria, the Lake District — was, and still is, extremely beautiful without any exaggeration being needed to make it so. It has all the necessary elements: soft light, subtle tones, lakes, islands, mountains, and buildings made of local stone. Perhaps not by coincidence it was the birthplace of William Gilpin (1724-1804) who was one of the first to use the word “picturesque” (in his 1768 “Essay on Prints”) to describe “that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture.”

Today, cultural critics have a habit of dismissing Gilpin as a progenitor of middle-brow aesthetics, but I think this description does him a disservice. He helped to bring the beauty of nature to the attention of a wider public, especially to city dwellers for whom the railways were making the countryside newly accessible.

Cruelly satirised even in his own day for suggesting that artists should “add a tree” here and there to improve their compositions, Gilpin eventually became the quixotic figure of William Combe’s comic poem “The Three Tours of Doctor Syntax,” the first of which is titled “The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque.” Riding around the countryside on his old mare Grizzle, the earnest curate Dr Syntax searches for the picture-perfect landscape but succeeds only in getting lost.

The “Acceptable” Subjects of Street Photography
Are we in danger of getting lost when we search the streets for appealing subjects, then try to compose the image in the best possible way?

Clive Scott certainly thinks so, and says as much in his book “Street Photography: From Atget to Cartier-Bresson.” Noting that photography quickly became the “chosen medium for representing the picturesque,” he notes: “…the photography of the city seems simply to have become obsessively preoccupied with a new range of visual topics: people leaping puddles, empty chairs, road sweepers, markets, shop windows, café mirrors.” These subjects, he argues, are essentially a “photographic record of what is already a picture.” In other words, they are picturesque.

So what is the proper subject of the street photographer? Where should we point our cameras? Is what we’re doing worthwhile or are we not simply selecting scenes that have already been authorised by other photographers?

There are more questions, too. When we look for the most compelling arrangement of figures, when we balance our pictures by making sure “that lamp post” is in the right position, are we not guilty of following Dr Syntax — sorry, William Gilpin — in his advice to add a tree here and there?

Academic Over-Think?
If you read Clive Scott, or even this blog post, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that it’s possible to “over-think” street photography and worry too much about your motivation for doing it.

There really is nothing wrong with presenting a pictorial image that evokes pleasurable feelings in the viewer. If the viewer’s response has been conditioned by seeing other, similar images — well, that’s something you need to bear in mind. There’s no point in perpetuating the obviousness of a worn and tired aesthetic. As William Egglestone says: “I am at war with the obvious.”

I’ve illustrated this post with some accurate and largely unimproved images of the town where I live. Yes, they’re picturesque, but the town really does look like this — perhaps not as beautiful as Gilpin’s Lake District, but not unattractive in parts. In good light, on a fine day, I wouldn’t dream of searching for anything else.

Softcore Versus Hardcore Street Photography

Way back in December 1995 Bill Gates said Microsoft was “hardcore about the Internet.” He couldn’t have been blunter. Hardcore was the strongest word he could have used — and absolutely necessary in the circumstances as Microsoft’s entire business was threatened by the rise of Netscape and the prospect of its browser killing off the descendants of Windows 95.

When you juxtaposed the words “hardcore” and “Internet” in 1995 most people thought of pornography, which represented a larger proportion of Internet content than it does today. But the word had only recently become associated with sex and at one time had been two words, hard core, as in “there is always a hard core of trusty stalwarts…” (who are the most active, committed, or doctrinaire members of the group).

Today you can buy “hardcore” by the ton: bags of shingle to be used for building or ballast. Rarity is not a quality you can attach to anything hardcore, despite the implication that’s it’s somehow extreme or exceptional.

Hardcore Street Photography
All of which brings me to so-called “hardcore street photography,” a sub-genre of our art-form which, by virtue of its chosen epithet, claims to be the essence of street photography rather than a mere category of it.

If you’re a hardcore street photographer you don’t linger on the other side of the road with a 100mm lens, waiting for that woman in the black hat to drop her West Highland white terrier and pick a shopping bag. No, you’re right there in front of her with a 28mm lens, blinding her with flash, scaring the dog — and getting a dramatic image full of contrast, scowls and yelps.

Tough not gentle, gritty not smooth, urban not suburban (and definitely not country), threatening not inviting, unfussy not thoughtful, ugly not beautiful — those are adjectives that spring to mind when I think of hardcore street photography. There’s much to admire in it, but certainly not the Apollonian ideals of order, intellect and beauty. With hardcore street photography you’re getting down and dirty in the gutter, not looking up at the stars like Oscar Wilde but just looking at the gutter.

From what I’ve written you might think I don’t care for hardcore street photography, but that’s not so. For example, I have huge admiration for the work of Barry Talis whose pictures on the Flickr HCSP (Hardcore Street Photography) group are outstanding. Viewing his photos is like reading “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding’s tale of schoolboys stranded on a desert island without adult supervision. But there’s a difference. In Talis’s world, even the adults seem to behave as badly as Golding’s kids, displaying their own brand of sub-rational confusion beneath which lies violence, cruelty and despair.

I could write pages about Talis’s photographs: their portayal of religiosity, obsessiveness, angst, people looking guilty, dogs, raw meat, fire, water, hooks, chickens, dramatic incidents, arguments, accidents, threatening atmosphere and suggestions of cruelty and violence. But I mustn’t harp on about hardcore; I need to mention softcore street photography, as that’s more my scene.

Softcore Street Photography
The snag is: no one ever seems to use the expression “softcore street photography”. There was once a group on Flickr of that name, but “standards slipped,” according to the moderator, and the group was shut down. Photos are still online, but at last count it had 162 members and 4 discussions. By contrast, Flickr’s Hardcore group has 80,000 members and 3,107 discussions.

From these statistics you can deduce that viewers of street photography prefer to be shocked rather than titillated. They’re looking for extreme moments rather than decisive moments: for images can that take them to places they can’t reach by themselves.

In fact, as well as HCSP there’s an Extreme Street Photography group on Flickr (boasting 19,742 members) and, by serendipity, several Decisive Moments groups, most of them with fewer than a thousand members. One, called just Decisive Moment, does have 38,000 members — but that’s still less than half the size of the Hardcore crowd.

In street photography, the vast majority of participants want to be known as “hardcore” — not namby-pamby softies who are scared of getting their lenses dirty. However, I found one participant of HCSP who likes to take pictures of homeless and mentally ill people and who says: “I do drive by shootings from the comfort of my car, and I use a telephoto zoom lens 55-250[mm]….I could [sic] care less what the ‘purists’ have to say about my style.”

Well, what I can I say? He breaks every guideline. He comes nowhere near approaching the exuberance of a hardcore street photographer like Barry Talis or the formal perfection of David Solomons — but I wouldn’t dismiss his work out of hand. He has enthusiasm, an eye for an interesting face, a sense of humour and a recognition of absurdity. Unfortunately, he’s allowed the hardcore “rebel” streak in his personality to screw up his development as an artist and human being.

And so it goes with people who attempt street photography but don’t quite get there. The Flickr guy with the telephoto zoom isn’t hardcore at all. He’s not as hardcore as I am — and unlike him I don’t place my work into that category.

What About Me?
The featured image (above) is about as hardcore as I get. After all, there’s nothing more sinister than cuddly toys — unless you include clowns. The shot is in-your-face, the subject’s dismay at being photographed contrasts nicely with the total lack of concern shown by the toys, all of whom — along with the passers-by — are looking elsewhere. It’s a brutal image, but in a cuddly way.

Alternatively (see the image below), I’ve been known to intrude on people eating an uncomfortable lunch somewhere behind the London International Film School, where I once worked. The backstreet location in Covent Garden lacks any feminine charm of its own and here its toughness is augmented by the presence of a tattooed and heavily muscled man who hurries along the grey street past the doorway with its half-concealed red warning sign. It couldn’t be grittier or more urban, could it? But hardcore? Not really.

So if you’re asking for definitions, I’d say:

“Hardcore street photography is a style of candid photography that takes an uncompromising approach to depicting people in an urban environment, mainly by getting close to the subject to show action, interaction and raw emotion.”

“Softcore street photography is a style of candid photography that cannot be considered ‘hardcore’ because it places aesthetics above content and in so doing tends to dilute the rawness of the street.”

Or maybe softcore street photographers tend to gravitate towards the classier part of town, which, after all, is still a great working environment. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

 

The Charm of Pedal Power

Why are bicycles so charming and photogenic? You would think they’d make terrible pictures, being cluttered with chains and spokes and odd bits of metal here and there. But no, a bike can lift the spirits, especially when there’s a pretty girl riding it.

Or not. That’s the point — even at rest, leaning up against the railings, a bicycle seems appealing. It could be because we look at it and imagine a pretty girl (or guy) riding it. Or it could simply be because we imagine it in motion, doing what it’s meant to do. It allows us to move at a greater speed than we can achieve by running — and to do so without resorting to any source of energy other than our own. Surely, that’s a really beautiful notion?

Jules et Jim
Just think of the movies that have featured bicycles. The definitive film of the French “New Wave” was Francois Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim” — and what are the scenes we remember from it? Why, it’s surely those with the bicycles, with the eternal triangle of Jules, Jim and Catherine cycling with exhilarating freedom, accompanied by Georges Delerue’s delightful music.

For an article called “The greatest film scenes ever shot” in The Guardian newspaper, film director Ken Loach picked the bicycling scene in Jules et Jim as his chosen sequence. He wrote: “The sense of enjoyment with this trio on their bicycles is perennial. It’s completely evocative of that carefree young moment, the age when people are carefree. And then of course, for these three, it will all be ruined by the war.” (WW1).

When the Wobbling Has to Stop
Yes, there’s also a poignancy associated with bicycles. Youth and cycling go together. As we get older, we tend to wobble more dangerously when pedalling on two wheels. A judge, dismissing the arguments of a motorist who’d knocked a man off his bike, said a cyclist must be “allowed his wobble.” He included the exaggerated wobbling of elderly people on bicycles. Maybe he was a cyclist himself.

There’s poignancy in my featured image (above), but not because it shows the ephemerality of youth. Rather, it’s the contrast between the elderly man with his two sticks and the other, faster means of transport in the background.

The image is an example of “layers,” with three types of transport occupying three layers in the photo: the man with the sticks, the parked bicycle, and the white van behind them. The poignancy of the image is fairly obvious, but it’s not entirely negative. At least the man is making intrepid progress, whereas the bike is locked to the black pole — and the van is stuck in traffic.

Tough Bikes
Bicycles are beginning to lose their integrity by becoming tougher and — heaven help us — motorised! Pedalease, the makers of the bike below, offer electric bicyles as well as the ruggedised Big Cat Fat Bike shown in the photo. It’s certainly eye-catching. The two policemen seem to like the look of it, while the woman with the black bag examines it closely as she walks past.

Personally I would hate to ride such a monster. It looks burdensome, like a heavy DSLR camera with a big zoom lens. When obesity invades the bicycle you lose the sense of lightheartedness and freedom which two thin wheels can provide.

On the cycling track and even in road races, it’s the lightweight, super-strong bikes that give their riders the greatest advantage.

Here’s a shot (above) I took of British cyclist Hannah Barnes, on her way to winning an Izumi road race around Colchester town centre. It’s not a “street photo,” as such, but it’s a study of human grace and power, allied with advanced technology and super-thin wheels.

Somehow, I can’t resist taking a shot when someone of interest passes me on a bicycle. The resulting photo is not always as complex or meaningful as the featured image at the top, but I can often find amusing contrast, as below.

The colourful bicycle is almost the antithesis of the woman’s black jeans, cap and cape. I panned the camera to get the shot and the 1/800th second shutter speed hasn’t quite frozen all the movement.

Disturbingly, the only part of the picture in sharp focus is the triangular cape with its colourful, hand embroidered edging. It’s as though the cyclist has had second thoughts about dressing entirely in black. (Please note this was taken well before the national mourning later in the year).

Sadness edged with hope? Or just a regular costume to protect against the sun? I have no idea. As Francois Truffaut said: “I begin a film believing it will be amusing — and along the way I notice that only sadness can save it.”

Sometimes the same is true in still photography — and sometimes it’s the opposite. What appears to be sad can actually seem joyful on close examination.

Allow Themes to Emerge

This blog post is all about one single tip for the aspiring street photographer. It’s this: don’t set yourself specific tasks or place yourself in the straitjacket of a “concept.” Just take pictures and allow themes to emerge.

You may not recognise them at first. You’ll see various subjects in the street — shoppers, workers, entertainers, people making deliveries, others standing around in groups — and occasionally you’ll make your selection and take a picture. You’ll probably think your choice is governed almost entirely by other factors, such as expression, gesture, dress, lighting and background. But it’s not.

There’s always an original motivation which propels you towards one subject rather than another. Clearly, this motivation lies within the photographer and doesn’t form part of the outside world.

For example, if you frequently take photos of people in groups, does each particular group have some unique quality that deserves your attention? Of course not! You’re attracted by many different groups, for reasons of your own.

Maybe you have a deep tribal instinct, one that’s normally hidden but which emerges when you look at the world through your camera. Or maybe groups disturb you and you want to come to terms with them.

Whatever it is, you choose to take pictures of people in groups — perhaps without being fully aware of it. The photos get mixed in with all the others you take: of people by themselves, small details, crowds, dogs…

The Emerging Theme
After working at street photography for a year or two you’ll see themes emerging naturally. Going back through your pictures you’ll notice the subjects which have held your interest. Perhaps you’ll even be able to assemble a few collections: galleries in which there’s some commonality between shots.

The process I’ve described is one I’ve noticed in my own street photography. First and foremost I’m attracted by contrasts. I like to see one idea (or shape, or colour, or an entire culture) pitted against another. Yet I’d been taking street pictures for a year or two before I realised how endemic the process had become. Now, I don’t think I could stop myself seeing peculiar contrasts even if I tried.

For example, take my featured image (above). Taken outside a Chinese temple in Thailand, it’s a nice jumble of colours, with an emphasis on the lady in pink who wears an inappropriate tee-shirt proclaiming “Playgirl Requested.” You can see immediately the clash of cultures and languages, but the contrast also extends to the two tourists at the temple entrance. They’re dressed in primary colours unlike the other women — and they face in the opposite direction.

You could argue that contrasts do not in themselves constitute a theme. Their inclusion in street photography is like adding seasoning to a meal. Perhaps you’d be right, but it’s not only contrast that attracts me to certain subjects rather than others. I also like pairs.

The Joy of Pairs
You’ve probably noticed there are two pairs of people in the featured photo. Communication passes between the members of each pair. That’s the joy of being in a group of two: you can be mutally supportive, whether you’re sightseeing or working seriously.

Here (above) are two cyclists who share the same uniform — passing under a bougainvillea bush (fuengfa in Thai) of much the same colour. It’s good when the pair of subjects share something in common with their surroundings.

Fortunately for me the world is full of pairs: lovers, brothers, sisters, married couples or just-good-friends. I spotted the scene below from the top of a bridge and hurried downstairs to take it.

The two young women with a similar taste in clothes and accessories were still in animated conversation, so I wasn’t disappointed. Moreover, I found a striking contrast with the (married?) couple on the right and the man sitting by himself on the left.

In a sense, the two pairs of people and the man in black form three distinct subjects in the above image. Their respective states of mind are entirely different: reflective (man in black), upbeat (cartoon couple), and somewhat concerned (married couple). Meanwhile, life goes on all around them.

Here’s one last pair: two girls in Singapore taking a selfie. What motivated me to take the shot? Their matching flip-flops, of course!

Other Themes
I think I have around a dozen other themes which have emerged naturally during the course of taking street photos. I’ll be talking about them in future blog posts and I’ve already mentioned one or two — such as “The Face in the Crowd” — in articles I’ve posted recently.

Off the top of my head, without thinking too deeply about it, here are some of the subjects to which I’m drawn:

People eating; shoppers going in an out of a mall; people playing with water; men working; women standing around “looking good”; people looking bored and anxious; anyone carrying something unusual; people who are extremely ordinary yet somehow beautiful.

I remain open to other ideas, but these will keep me going for a while.

Colourful Arguments

As I’ve said approximately twenty times in these blog posts, “contrast” — in the broadest sense — lies at the heart of street photography. So here’s a potential theme with built-in contrast: domestic disputes set against a background of cheerful colours. Ironic, huh?

Psychologists often talk about the influence of colour on our daily lives. It plays an active role; it’s not just a passive backdrop to be enjoyed or reviled. Colour affects our moods and behaviour for reasons that are still unknown but which probably date back to humanity’s distant past.

Because colour seems to affect us emotionally, people develop preferences for one colour over another. There may even be a gender-based bias, with women preferring warm colours while men — most men, not all men — have a preference for cool colours. There’s even some academic research to support this generalisation (Whitfield, T. W. A., & Wiltshire, T. J. 1990).

Domestic Dispute
Is it possible that both men and women find a clashing mixture of colours to be sufficiently irritating to provoke a domestic argument? In my featured image (above) it looks like these two people have a strong difference of opinion. In fact, a dispute with recriminations seems to have broken out while standing in front of a colourful array of chiffon scarves.

I’m not suggesting that the scarves are in any way responsible, but I’m struck by the difference in appearance between the man and the woman. She’s dressed in neutral colours: black skirt, white shirt, and carries a white shoulder bag. She’s also clearly cross about something and has put the man on the defensive. He in turn wears a turquoise tee-shirt, a jacket with bright orange flashes, and rides a bright red scooter with a red, but not-quite-matching helmet.

No wonder she’s upset! Happy couples tend to wear colours that complement each other. These two — if they are indeed a couple — don’t dress harmoniously, although the woman may have restricted herself deliberately to neutral shades because her man has no colour sense whatsoever. In these circumstances, the only way a woman can express herself is to raise objections.

Chromotherapy
The science (or pseudo-science) of curing people of ailments by using colour to correct the imbalance which is supposedly the cause of the problem is called “chromotherapy.”

Chromotherapy seems to me to be a colourful version of homeopathy. It has a huge following. It’s used successfully in many instances — and it has a large supporting literature which explains it in scientific language without necessarily winning the support of the scientific community at large.

Modern chromotherapy dates back to the work of Edwin Dwight Babbitt (1828-1905), an American spiritualist and physician who established his own college — the New York College of Magnetics — which issued degrees to students qualifying them to administer colour-based treatments. He even invented a device called a “thermolume” which was able to concentrate light in various colours on to different parts of the body. In another approach, he irradiated water with colour-filtered sunlight, claiming that water retained the unique energy of each particular colour.

Is there any truth in chromotherapy? I’d be surprised if it were completely devoid of truth, but reading about it is like wading through treacle. Its exponents elaborate on it with smatterings of quantum theory, possibly in an attempt to bring it up-to-date and make it seem respectably scientific. But I can’t bring myself to believe a word of it. Frankly, it’s only a matter of time before someone invents a comprehensive, colour-based religion in which every colour represents a pathway to God.

Colours in a Lower Key
Coming back down to Earth — and to street photography — here’s a more harmonious image (below).

In a sense, this photo is the reverse of the other one. This time the man wears neutral colours whereas the woman is dressed in tasteful pink. The goods on display show a marked preference for warm colours, with pinks and reds predominating.

As you can see, the woman is looking off to the left, away from the man. For whatever reason, her expression is a bit grumpy, as though she’s either bored — for lack of customers — or waiting impatiently to be served.

There’s another possible scenario in which the woman is the customer, waiting for her husband to show up with some cash, while the man in the picture waits patiently with the two rolls of material she’s trying to purchase.

There can be no wholly accurate interpretation of the photo. Viewers will have to create their own narrative to explain it. To me, it looks like the man with the cigarette dangling from his lips is trying to woo the girl by showing off two massive rolls of material in her favourite colour — but she’s refusing to be impressed.

In Pursuit of Ambiguity
The photo is impenetrable and therefore ambiguous, once we’ve imposed our own narrative on it. In street photography, ambiguity is a virtue, but science can’t tolerate conflicting explanations.

I doubt if any science is more complex than the theory of colour — so inextricably linked to human perception. Perhaps, in our observations of colour, we should think more about relationships than about the specifics of red, white or blue. Here’s what the master of abstraction Piet Mondrian had to say about it:

“Everything is expressed through relationship. Colour can exist only through other colours, dimension through other dimensions, position through other positions that oppose them. That is why I regard relationship as the principal thing.”

He was right. Spread the word.

The Urge to Simplify in Street Photography

Can you resist it? Should you resist it? I’m talking about the urge to simplify your street photos in order to make them more striking, giving them more instant appeal.

The compulsion to simplify is universal in the accepted canons of good photography, whether portraiture, landscape or fashion. Very few subjects look good against a busy background — yet photography, in reducing the world from three to two dimensions, turns depth into flatness whatever the background. It squeezes space together so that objects in the distance collide with those closer to the camera. Our eyes don’t really like this effect. It creates too much ambiguity.

If you browse the sort of photos that often win prizes you’ll find plenty of good work that observes the canons of good photographic taste. People have taken to heart the exhortation to simplify their images — to such an extent that many photographers have embraced abstraction as a natural culmination of this line of thought.

I can’t bring myself to say they’re totally wrong. Abstraction is indeed the end to which all photography tends — but I think we should resist it. In the photographic arts, abstraction is like entropy in reverse. Instead of being “a gradual decline into disorder” (one of the definitions of entropy) it’s a gradual decline into order – a superficial kind of order which the photographer imposes on the world by studiously ignoring ninety-nine percent of it.

It you listen to the advice photographers are giving to each other, you’ll find that “Simplify! Simplify!” is the universal cry. Once they’ve made this point, their next advice is usually: “Get closer! Get closer!”

Here, for example, is photographer Ron Craig writing on picturecorrect.com: “In most cases, the power of a photo is inversely proportional to how many different elements it has. A close crop on a quarterback is much more powerful than a wide angle shot of the full field of players…an isolated tree is more compelling than a busy forest view.” And what is the photographer meant to do about it? Craig says: “The first way to simplify an image is to…get closer to your subject.”

Begging the Question
Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the above, except to say that it begs a lot of questions. Are people who look at photos incapable of “reading” an image by enjoying detail and seeing how it contributes to the composition? What’s the real subject? Is it the landscape/cityscape or an object within it, or both? Why must the photographer make everything so easy for the eye of the beholder? After all, as mobile beings we can see 360 degrees by moving our heads, taking in all around us.

For too long, so-called photography experts have been fobbing off their readers by calling for greater simplicity as if it’s the only true way to forge a photographic style. Surely, the notorious Ken Rockwell, with whom I rarely agree, goes miles too far in saying: “Simplicity is the most important concept in photography… Simple ideas are stronger. Expressing them more simply makes them clearer.”

Ken, you sound like a meerkat: “Simples!”

If we reduce every idea to its most simple form we end up with slogans, propaganda, sound-bites, and all the other snippets of nonsense that serve as substitutes for thought, communication, art, and understanding. Complex ideas that have been reduced to a point at which they become nonsensical clichés include: “A picture is worth a thousand words,” “Shoot from your heart,” “Zoom with your feet,” “The camera is only a tool.”

“A picture is worth a thousand words?” Really? Which thousand words? Would a photograph have been better than the 272-word Gettysburg Address?

“Shoot from your heart.” Are you kidding? Your emotions on their own will not automatically enable you to take a great or even a competent photograph.

“Zoom with your feet.” Impossible! If you walk towards the subject you’re changing the whole perspective, not just the focal length.

“The camera is only a tool.” What!! You mean like a chisel? Or maybe a hammer? To say that the camera is only a tool is a bit like saying the Palace of Versailles is only a house.

All of the examples, above, are the result of reductive thinking where the thought has become so cryptically expressed it’s now essentially meaningless. I suppose it’s happened because we’ve had a century or more of advertising slogans which encapsulate a sales message to make it memorable.

“Good to the last drop.” (Maxwell House, 1915)
“The pause that refreshes.” (Coca-Cola, 1929)
“Look, Ma, no cavities!” (Crest, 1958)

Flick, and Move On
On the Internet, most photography is normally presented for instant appreciation and consumption. Users of Instagram, WhatsApp or Line are accustomed to flicking through images, spending about a second on each one before either moving on to the next or becoming “engaged” by clicking through to related content.

Did I say one second? That’s how long users seem to take when I look over their shoulders on the train. But photos have captions, don’t they? According to AdWeek, writing about Instagram: “Brief copy is popular. The average caption is 138 characters long, but Simply Measured [social analytics solution] found no significant correlation between text length and engagement rate.” I’m not surprised. I doubt if anyone pauses to read the captions.

The trend is towards ever-shorter expression of ideas and towards photography that can be appreciated in a single glance.

The very fact that still photography survives in a world where movies are every bit as easy to create should give us pause for thought. Movies require more than a single glance. They chew up time whereas a photo “embalms time” and makes it instantaneous.

I’d love to reverse this trend in my own street photography. I’m working on it. It may be a quixotic enterprise that’s doomed to failure, but I think it’s possible — just possible — to grab viewers’ attention on one level and encourage them to linger for a minute or two or longer in order to reach a deeper level of understanding.

If you can’t keep the viewer’s attention for more than a second, what’s the point of street photography? It would simply be another meaningless activity in a throwaway world where everyone seems to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

My images tend, therefore, to be quite detailed, a bit cluttered but certainly never disordered. Sometimes I isolate a subject, such as the Woman In Red (the featured image, at top). Sometimes I take a subject that’s partially concealed (The Hidden Chef, above). You can take in these images at a single glance, but even these images — among my most simple — contain essential details which I think add to their meaning.

Fortunately, street photography is an art form that can accommodate complexity with relative ease in comparison to most other forms of photography. Elsewhere on this blog I discuss the use of layers and other techniques that bring complexity under control. We expect there to be complexity on the street and we miss it if the photographer consistently excludes it. You can’t show people interacting in an urban environment if you’re always cutting out the detail and replacing it with blank walls and negative space.

A virtue in life, simplicity can be an encumbrance in art.

 

Using Posters and Graffiti in Street Photography

If you’re a street photographer it’s almost impossible to resist taking full advantage of posters and graffiti: readymade artworks that provide a colouful and sometimes meaningful backdrop to your pictures.

Do we overuse them? Probably. But I think street photography would lose a vital element if everyone decided to ignore the posters, scrawls and daubings which either enhance or spoil the urban environment, depending on your point of view.

The Big Con
Using posters and graffiti in street photos has its pros and cons, and I’d like to start with the cons. The big con (in two senses of the word) is when the photographer simply steals the artwork and adds very little value to it. The end result is then little more than a reproduction of the poster or graffito, with maybe the inclusion of a random passer-by to give the photo a touch of credibility.

Frankly, that kind of street photo is no longer good enough. If the subject is the poster or graffito rather than people in the street you’re not creating anything new. The original artist should get all the credit, along with the brilliant technicians who designed and built your camera.

Theatre Posters
The featured image (above) is a shot I took recently of a woman walking past a theatre bookings office in London. As you can imagine, I was attracted by the vivid colours of the posters and so I hung around for a few minutes to see if I could get a valid shot. I was looking for something more than just a snapshot of the posters, although I think I could be forgiven for selecting the location: a lovely corner building with fabulous architecture, covered in posters that are reflected in the wet paving.

One or two people walked past, but I selected this cheerful pedestrian whose blonde hair stands out against the black window frame and whose scarf matches the deep red of the posters. It’s a decisive moment owing to her exact positioning and the fact that her arm is precisely vertical. I was lucky that her trailing foot is right next to the word “Stomp,” and that the “School of Rock” poster is so lively.

Looking at the posters in the photo I realise now that they’re mostly very masculine images. The word “Boys” appears prominently inside the shop and there are several hyperactive males depicted in the posters. The pedestrian seems aware of having entered a male domain and she keeps her eyes looking firmly towards the ground.

Fly Postings
In the image below, taken in Hong Kong, a man walks past a wall covered in repetitions of the same delightfully sleazy Uptown Rockers poster, indicating that we may actually be in a bad part of town. Fortunately, the man looks pretty cool with his reversed sunglasses reflecting his yellow backpack. Is he heading uptown or downtown? We’ll never know.

You may have noticed one interesting element in the Hong Kong image: the date. It’s very specific, March 11, 2016. In fact you could be sure that these posters would soon be replaced by others, not long after the stated date. Wall space is valuable in a city like Hong Kong, especially if it’s free.

I notice how quickly posters change in the city, sometimes through being defaced or else by having others pasted on top of them. This is not so true of my first image where the changing elements are the pedestrian and the rain. But in the second image we’re more conscious of the temporary nature of the posters. They’re here today and gone tomorrow — yet preserved forever by photography.

Everything Is Changing
When we take pictures in the street it’s a good idea to consider the different speeds at which the various parts of the environment are changing. People, animals, birds and traffic are obviously changing their position quickly because we have to raise our shutter speed to freeze their movement. Objects such as parked cars come and go after an hour or two, while the same news-stands and hamburger stalls open and close every day.

Posters like those in the Hong Kong photo are around for a week or two, while those in the London photo can be with us for as long as the show remains open. Yet please remember that everything in the environment — even the oh-so-solid buildings — are only temporary. In a century or two, most of them will be transformed out of all recognition. Your street photo will then have a different appeal for the viewer: it will be a record of life and the city as they existed at a certain time long ago.

I’m suggesting that we may not fully appreciate the street photos we take today because we don’t yet have the perspective of time to see them afresh. The photos taken by Berenice Abbott in the streets of New York in the 1930s would have looked very different to her contemporaries than they do to us today. We see a particular time. They saw only a particular place.

It’s really only in posters that we can capture a feeling of nostalgia without having to wait for the decades to pass. Their short life-span is just what we need to signify the passing of time, which is, after all, part of the very essence of photography because photography defies time.

What’s On
So here’s my parting shot. I call it “What’s On.” The EXIF tells me I took it on May 23, 2012, which surprises me because it seems like yesterday. The couple are checking out the entertainment events in London, the man looking towards “The Vocal Orchestra,” his partner checking out “Havana Rumba!” Clearly, opposites attract, a fact confirmed by his black “Tough Mudder” tee-shirt with its various pledges in contrast to her plain, silent white vest.

The photo suggests romantic summer evenings in a big city where there is more than enough to do. A person looking at this image in fifty years time might be reminded of actual events they attended during May/June that year. “Did we see The Girl with the Iron Claws? Or was it The Boy with Tape on His Face?”

Already, I can look at this picture and appreciate how everything has changed in the interim. It delivers the bittersweet feeling of ephemerality, the sense of “…Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu…” It suggests that there, in London “…in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” (Keats).