Something Mysterious is Going On

Cities are deeply mysterious places because it’s almost impossible to understand the full truth of what’s happening. People are moving around, occasionally pausing in doorways to chat on the phone, but what are they really up to? Are they simply asking: “What’s for dinner?” and: “I’ll be home around eight” — or are they planning some complicated scam or plotting an assassination?

Maybe it’s because in my early teens I enjoyed too many Agatha Christie novels — around forty of them in succession. As a consequence I’ve always been aware that life is not as it appears on the surface. I’m wary of other people and I’m absolutely sure a lot of them are “up to no good.”

In another article, which I’ve not yet posted, I complain about the shape and style of the Agatha Christie Memorial at the corner of Cranbourn Street and St Martin’s Lane in London. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to sit nicely when there’s a crowd of suspicious-looking people hurrying past.

The Memorial
However, a few months ago I succeeded in getting a shot of the memorial (above) when the pavement in front was completely clear. OK, there are some very honest, hard-working men digging up the road behind it, but all the panhandlers, city-slickers, con artists, would-be showbiz personalities and street musicians who normally hang around it are nowhere to be seen.

It actually looks quite good! It’s a fitting tribute, as they say, to a woman whose work is so much better on the page that it is on the screen. Film and TV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels are nearly always dreadful, unlike the many brilliant versions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Clawhammer
Street photographers who enjoy mystery novels can easily find people, locations and incidents on the streets of London to inspire their work. When I walk through the West End I come across such scenes all the time. On a recent trip I was deliberately looking for “Places Where Bad Things Have Happened” — the title of an article I have in mind — and so I was ready to think the worst. Then I saw a man clutching a clawhammer (below).

I suppose it was the white protective clothing that attracted my attention. It reminded me of an incident in a recent TV police thriller in which a rogue pathologist dons a white jumpsuit before attempting to dispose of his victim by chopping up the body. Fortunately, there are no bloodstains on the man in my picture, so I’m sure he’s “on the level.” In fact, he’s wearing a visitor’s badge round his neck (the ribbon says “visitor”), so I’d guess he’s a hands-on designer who’s been working on the shop fittings.

The Incident in China Town
Later that day I was in China Town, south of Shaftsbury Avenue, trying to locate a restaurant where the Chinese Triads used machetes to chop up some customers, many years ago. On my way there I came across a scene which I’ve called “Incident in China Town.”

This incident appeared to be somewhat less serious than the one involving the Triads, but it was certainly attracting a lot of attention. I didn’t hang around to find out exactly what was going on (I’m not a photojournalist!) so I can’t tell you how it all ended. A woman was shrieking blue murder at the police, who were methodically going through some items on the ground.

I can read only one word on the white sheets hanging from strings in front of the shop. Because the word is on the other side of the sheet, the letters are reversed. I can just make them out. They spell the word “blood.”

The Plaque
The British public has always had a healthy appetite for murder stories. I remember when my late Aunt came back from London, having seen Agatha Christie’s new play “The Mousetrap.” She said she’d enjoyed every minute of it.

Ten or twenty years later I went to see the play and fully agreed with her. Although it has since moved from the Ambassadors Theatre to the St Martin’s Theatre next door it’s still attracting audiences after 26,000 performances over 64 years. Honestly, I can’t tell you who-did-it. It was so long ago!

Before diving into China Town I walked past the two theatres and found a trio of visitors enjoying themselves taking selfies under the blue plaque. They’re clearly fans of Dame Agatha.

Will “The Mousetrap” ever close? It seems improbable in the near future. The run is guaranteed until at least 2018 and I would like think it will be running for many years in the future. I recall it as being superior to the film adaptations of the Christie novels, not least because it was written by her specifically for the stage.

It’s not long before I turn my attention back to the people in the street. Even before leaving the vicinity of the two theatres I see two men who are in step with each other, although they’d heading in different directions. Is that suspicious? Are they in secret communication with each other? The man in the suit certainly appears to be saying something as he passes the man with the rucksack.

It’s all deeply mysterious.

It’s a Man’s World, It’s a Woman’s World

The song “It’s a Man’s World,” made famous by James Brown, was written by one his girlfriends, Betty Jean Newsome, but it’s far from being a feminist tract. According to the song, man made the cars, the trains, “the electrolight to take us out of the dark” — and “Man made the boat for the water/Like Noah made The Ark.”

Despite these sentiments, no one seems to object too strongly to them. Maybe it’s because “Sister” Betty was a former club bouncer who’d been accustomed to frisking men and taking their guns away. She told the truth as she saw it. After noting that the world would be nothing “without a woman or a girl,” she ends the song with these two lines about “Man”:

“He’s lost in the wilderness
He’s lost in bitterness.”

Equality on the Street?
For all the talk of female equality, I don’t see much sign of it on the street. Men do the heavy lifting. They’re the people I see climbing scaffolding or digging holes in the road. They seem to make up the majority of Deliveroo workers in London.

Women may soon achieve equality in the office, but out on the building site or the battlefield — that’s a tough ask.

My featured image (above) is symbolic of women’s progress in the workplace. Many miles to the north of Bangkok, I emerged from a temple to discover the local militia in training. At least, I think that’s who they were. Their equipment was a bit rudimentary, to say the least — but they were all taking it seriously. They were all women.

All women, that is, except for the man in charge. You can clearly see his authoritative boots at the top right of the picture.

Must there always be a man in charge? Of course not. Feminists are still hoping that men have no innate advantage except in muscularity, cultural bias, and freedom from childbearing. That said, they do outnumber women (worldwide) by a ratio of 101.8 to 100, which is surprising, given how often they kill each other.

The Stats Say It All
If you’re thinking of taking street photos in different parts of the world, check out the demographics first. Not long ago, The Washington Post ran an article called “See where women outnumber men around the world (and why).

The article shows a map of the world (which unaccountably excludes Australia) coloured in various shades of blue and pink. The blue areas (North Africa, Middle East, India and China) are those where men outnumber women. The pink areas (North America, Europe, South-East Asia) are where women outnumber men.

Notably, there’s a dark blue hotspot in and around Saudi Arabia (because of all the male guest-workers from overseas) and a red area covering the former Soviet Union countries (which have never fully restored the male/female balance since World War Two).

“Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Estonia are among the countries with the largest female populations,” notes the article. In these countries, men’s life-span is considerably shorter than that of women. In Belarus, for example, it’s 65.3 years as opposed to 77 years for women (based on stats for 2015).

The fact is: in Russia and adjoining countries men die young because the culture of drinking alcohol — including cheap or imitation vodka — is especially destructive. Drink-related problems such as disease, road accidents and murders, have a marked influence on the statistics.

Going to Extremes
Of all countries, Australia has the most balanced proportion of men to women, there being 99.9 men for every hundred women. By contrast, the Caribbean island of Martinique has only 84.6 men for every 100 women; while, at the other end of the scale, the United Arab Emirates has 274 men for every hundred women, the most extreme gender imbalance in the world.

I’ve just googled “street photography” with United Arab Emirates, then with Martinique, to see if I can spot the gender imbalance. On a page called “Top 10 places to shoot in the UAE” I found several photos containing around fifty men and a dozen camels. There was not one woman in any of the shots, not even among the thousands of spectators watching Kushti Wrestling in Deira.

For Martinique the result was less conclusive, I found a tumblr site called Street Photography Martinque, but it seems to consist entirely of graffiti — with not a person (of either gender) in sight.

Heavy Lifting Takes Its Toll
With all the alcohol, heavy lifting, soldiering and killing (not to mention Kushti wrestling in Deira and spraying graffiti in Martinique), men have a tough life all around the world. Half the time they’re slaving to keep women happy.

My photo above, which I’ve called “More Long Stem Roses,” shows men hard at work in Bangkok’s flower market, shifting heavy loads of bouquets which will later make women swoon with joy.

OK, many of the flowers will be used for religious purposes, but we don’t normally associate elegant roses with back-breaking work.

There’s no doubt about it. It’s tough being a man, especially in a woman’s world.

When the Subject Date-Stamps the Image

I love it when a subject date-stamps one of my street photos — when it mentions the day of the week, or the name of the month, or tells us the year in which the shot was taken.

The art of street photography and the concept of time are irrevocably intertwined. In all photography, time is embedded in the still image: a passing moment fixed forever in the representation of the subject. If you want to know exactly when that moment occurred you can look up the EXIF file and find out the time and date of origination, unless processing has stripped away the details and consigned them to the unrecorded past.

Yet I find it surprising that so few street photographs carry any visual information to indicate time of day, day of month, or even a reference to the current year. I guess it’s because everyone now has a mobile phone and wristwatch so there’s no longer a practical need for clocks in public spaces.

I’m not suggesting that every street photo needs to refer directly to the date. That would be absurd. But it’s good, occasionally, to remind ourselves that our images are located precisely in the flow of time, even when many of them may look deceptively timeless — at least for now.

I say “for now” because although street photos don’t look dated for the first year or two after they are taken, they do assume their place in time once a decade or two have passed. Fashions, car designs, buildings and street furniture change quite rapidly, making our photos a record of the past in less time than we care to imagine.

Landscape photographers can play with the concept of time more easily: balancing the ephemerality of changing seasons against the relative permanence of geological features such as rivers and mountains. Only when something really dramatic occurs — as it did recently with the complete collapse of Malta’s famous Azure Window — can we locate a photo of such a feature in the flow of time. Pre-2017 the Azure Window existed. Post-2017 it did not.

So if time is inextricably bound up with the photo, regardless of the subject, why is it good when the subject declares the time overtly? Why do I sometimes like to see “2017,” “Tuesday,” or “March” — or other such specific, time-related reference — within the image?

I’m not sure if I can answer that question. It just feels right.

What Day Is It?
The best way I can explain my feeling about this topic is to look at a specific example. My featured image (above) shows a girl wearing a tee-shirt that says: “Sunday, Funday.” The photo is one of my personal favourites, although I think some viewers will find it rather ordinary. I took it on a Sunday when not much was happening. The streets of Bangkok were quiet and everyone seemed a bit hung over from the night before.

Thai people are very aware of the days of the week. My partner and her friends always exchange “virtual flowers” in specific colours to mark Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc., on Line (the oriental equivalent of WhatsApp). In case you’re interested, the “lucky colours” are red for Sunday; yellow for Monday; pink for Tuesday; green for Wednesday (day); grey for Wednesday (night); orange for Thursday; light blue for Friday; and purple for Saturday.

My photo has a prevailing atmosphere of “ennui,” evoked by the anxious gesture of the girl on the left and the downright miserable expression of the man who is entering the frame from the right. Only the figure in lucky Sunday red seems cheerful. The central figure, the girl with the “Sunday, Funday” tee-shirt, is neither sad nor happy but just stares dreamily into the distance. She hopes for the best although her day could go one way or the other.

I’ve checked the EXIF and I can confirm I took the photo on a Sunday. In fact, I remember it well. The photo captures my own mood at that moment as well as the collective mood of the subjects. Up to that point my day hadn’t been very successful and could have gone downhill even further. But getting this shot turned everything around. Maybe those lucky colours really do work!

What Year Is It?
Time seems to pass slowly for young people but all too quickly for older people. This is mostly because we fall into regular habits as we get older and the days become less memorable as a result.

My next photo (below) shows an elderly man standing in front of a poster of four young children and looking at something which has attracted his curiosity beyond the frame. Whatever can it be?

I guess the clue is in the bubbles. A child was blowing some huge bubbles from inside a pram — it was definitely worth stopping to look. Meanwhile, my camera snaps the moment before the bubbles burst (at eight minutes to two in the afternoon). The EXIF doesn’t tell me the exact second but at least the image gives a big clue as to the year. “Opening 2017” places the photo in either 2016 or early 2017. The man’s light jacket tells us it’s summertime: hence 2016.

The photo of the man and the bubbles is not nearly as good as “Sunday, Funday” but it still has internal tensions which raise it above the ordinary. The overt mention of time — the statement of a proposed opening date the following year — is a factor that plays well when the theme is old age versus youth. But there is also the dignified expression of the man with the bag, which contrasts sharply with the cheeky attitudes of the children in the poster.

There is something disturbing about the Primark poster kids. I think some of them have been photographed separately then photoshopped together. Moreover, the girl with the long hair seems to have a huge left hand. It’s bigger than the boy’s hand in front. Can that be right? When I look at the poster I feel as bemused as the old gentlemen himself.

Time passes quickly for people, posters, shops and bubbles; slowly — but no less inexorably — for stones and mountains. With the progression of time, disorder in the universe increases. Stones and mountains eventually crumble; we’ve seen it with the Azure Window. As Professor Stephen Hawking says in “A Brief History of Time”: “The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.”

Photographers swim against the flow of time, bringing order by representing people and places in ordered compositions. Surely it’s worthwhile to give this activity a seal of approval, now and again, by allowing the subject to place a date-stamp somewhere in the image? It can’t do any harm.

Window Shopping for Street Photos

Sometimes I like to go window shopping for street photos. Well, why not? If I see a shop window with a particularly intriguing display I like to match it with a real-life subject of equivalent interest.

I need hardly add that this technique works a lot better in London than it does in Bangkok: the two cities where I take most of my pictures. London teems with glass fronted shops, their windows packed with the latest fashions, from elegant to quirky. Bangkok, on the other hand, is a city of malls; its street shops tend to be open at the front, with all the goods further inside.

If you’re a street photographer you can’t really ignore shops altogether — they’re too ubiquitous — so you’d better make the best of them. The potential variations on “person walking past” or “person standing in front of” (the shop) are pretty much endless.

For example, you can have people arguing in front of, canoodling in front of, reading, stretching, yawning, crying (and doing all those things that people normally do elsewhere) in front of the shop.

They could be going into a shop or coming out of it or simply lingering inconveniently in the doorway, much to the annoyance of everyone else. I very much like the idea that life carries on, despite the attempt of shops to persuade us that theirs is the only show in town.

The Good and the Bad
For the street photographer, shop windows have both good points and bad. In their favour is the fact that they’ve mostly been put together by a professional window dresser with a good sense of colour and design. They’re sometimes stunning, often original, and nearly always visually striking in one way or another.

The only big disadvantage of using shop window displays in street photography (apart from them becoming a cliché) is that they tend to be about two feet higher than the sidewalk. The effect is to give all the mannequins a godlike appearance, so that anyone browsing the display will see a race of superbeings, unwilling to stand alongside the common crowd.

Disassembled Mannequins
In one photo (my featured image, above) I’ve solved the problem by selecting a display which has yet to be installed. I loved the way the disassembled mannequins had been arranged — one torso revealing an unusual shade of grey.

I’d noticed the two pedestrians a minute or so previously and saw them approaching the window. Getting a shot without them looking directly at me — yet turning their heads in my direction — was possible because they’d emerged from the other side of a parked van. It was natural for them to look around it, but hard to see anything specific in the first split second. As you can see: you need several strategies to work in your favour if want to get a satisfying shot.

In the above photo, the pedestrians appear to be higher (and hence more prominent) than the figures in the window. There’s also an absence of colour, except in skin tones and from the warm light at the back of the window. The stonework is not entirely neutral and for once looks less severe than it normally does in photos.

The Avoidance of Cliché
As I say, it’s vital to avoid cliché when you combine real people with shop windows. If you can’t avoid it altogether — because “shop window + real people” is itself a cliché — you need to find an original variation.

I think I’ve done this in the next photo (below), partly because the man is himself highly individual: leather hat, matching leather waistcoat, chewing gum in one ear (or is that a hearing aid?). However, what makes it slightly out-of-the-ordinary is the fact that he’s not looking at his phone (if that is indeed what he’s holding) but at something else, out of frame.

In both of these pictures the subjects are looking beyond the frame, having spotted something of interest in the wider world.

I often like to show people gazing, staring into the distance, or simply looking at something other than what I’m looking at (i.e., them). The same is true in the next picture (below), where I’ve tried to make good use of the greater elevation of the sightless mannequins, their non-existent eyes contrasting with the intent gaze of the real woman standing in front of them.

Here I’m drawing attention to the difference between the idealised world of visionary ideas (our many possible futures) and the individualised reality of the human race (our “here and now”). The mannequins are like a race apart, with their distended necks and identical faces. Amazingly confident in their stance they seem to herald the future: robotics, androids, artificial intelligence.

“But no” — the real woman appears to be saying — “the future really belongs to me.”

I hope she’s right.

Celebrating the Ordinary

Is anything ordinary? Sometimes I look at the world and everything seems in some way exceptional or out-of-the-ordinary. I once looked at the large black telephone on my desk at work and felt as though I were seeing it for the first time, even though I’d used it every day for a year.

Seeing the world afresh every time you go out to take street photos would be a useful knack, but it’s not easy to turn on and off at will. You need to wake up to a higher level of awareness — but not too high, otherwise you’ll start revelling in the sensation rather than taking pictures of what you see.

Elsewhere, I’ve suggested “limbering up” by taking a few shots almost at random, just to get in the mood. All you need is one lucky hit to place yourself in the right mental zone. Once there you’ll begin to see where the world deviates from the ordinary, where people and their surroundings become elevated to a plane of existence higher than you’d previously noticed.

I think it’s essential to “see” the image in reality rather than shoot first and hope something in the frame meets the criteria you’ve established. Some street photographers shoot and hope for the best, but I’m sure their hit rate is very low.

In the Mood
Of course, once you get into a mood where everything looks extraordinary, your rate of success should go through the roof. Every frame should be a winner! You may begin to wonder what’s happened, but the world has not changed. You’ve changed. You’ve begun to see the city with the clarity it deserves.

For example, have you noticed how adjoining buildings can be almost ludicrously different from each other, yet form a harmonious whole?

I shot my featured image (above) in London after a couple of hours shooting. By this time I was seeing shots I would never have attempted earlier in the day. I waited no longer than a minute or so for two dissimilar passers-by to cross at the intersection of the buildings. In the event I was obliged to settle for two blonde women, who, fortunately, differed in their style of dress while sharing two or three colours in common.

Does Anything Go?
If it were possible to “celebrate the ordinary” without really seeing it for what is — which is often extraordinary — then the street photographer could photograph anything and claim it as a celebration. That doesn’t work. A picture really needs to have some information within it that says: this is why you should look at me.

Take individual people, for example. Most people are not exceptionally good looking or physically imposing. If photographers limit themselves to beautiful subjects they’re presenting an overall picture of the world that’s fundamentally untrue. I think this is a serious problem with any personal style which cannot embrace all-comers. The same applies when you photograph the grotesque and neglect the beautiful. The world is neither one nor the other. It’s a mixture of opposites and everything in between.

Before the Parade
Sometimes I see ordinary people in circumstances that reveal their beauty, character, or a barely definable quality such as inner strength. It usually occurs during a pause in some action, perhaps in anticipation of a forthcoming event.

Here’s an example (above). I took the following image during the build-up to a Chinese street festival in the old quarter of Phuket Town in Thailand. I think these young women had been given certain duties — and were certainly not among the celebrants, as such. It was a blistering hot day and beads of sweat are visible when you view the photo at full size. Something, clearly, is about to happen.

I remember taking this image and when I look at it today I can recall my heightened awareness of the moment. I can remember noticing the matching colours of the jacket and the hanging fronds, the dark background (obviously) and the contrasting brightness of the women’s tunics.

But it’s the woman’s distant glance which makes the picture — and I’ll like to say I remember seeing that, too. If I did, I think I felt it rather than saw it. Sometimes there’s just too much going on in the ordinary life of the street to appreciate it all.

Canals Are Streets Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Laughing Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genuine laughter returns once happiness returns, but not before.

Why I Never Shoot Black and White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Can Your Street Photo Be Devoid of People?

I need to clarify some thoughts about the presence of people in street photos by asking: “Are people really necessary?”

I’m firmly of the belief that anyone embarking on the artform of street photography must concentrate on taking candid shots of people in public places. To do otherwise is to shun the basic principles of the genre and revert to being a general photographer whose portfolio includes flowers, trees, portraits, landscapes and more or less anything that makes a good picture.

However, I’m open to other ideas and I’ve recently been reading Michael Ernest Sweet’s admirable e-book “The Street Photography Bible.” In this he takes delight in quoting the Wikipedia definition of street photography, which includes the phrase: “The subject can even be absent of any people…”

The Wikipedia definition goes on to say that the image can depict a place “…where an object projects a human character or an environment is decidedly human.” In other words, the photo need only evoke a human presence; there is no need for the street photographer to include human beings in the image.

Maybe there’s no necessity for a street to be present, either.

The other day I was browsing some aerial shots of southern England with its manicured fields and network of roads and it occurred to me that nothing in the landscape looked natural. Over thousands of years the entire terrain has been carved up, worked and reworked, crops planted and harvested, houses constructed, destroyed, and reconstructed. Not a spare corner remains untouched or unmanaged.

An aerial picture of southern England is not a street photo, but it fulfills all the criteria of the Wikipedia definition.

I take Michael Ernest Sweet’s point that some photographers who are recognised specifically as “street photographers” — notably Daidō Moriyama — have shown images in which people are completely absent, but I’m still not persuaded by his arguments.

What Moriyama offers us is not individual photos but an entire experience: a vision of the teeming night life of Tokyo and Osaka. He collects his work into books and exhibits, into mixes and remixes. He leaves us with an abiding impression of life in the raw, of survival against the odds. In such an oeuvre, a few images need to be devoid of people, otherwise the cacophony of voices would be too exaggerated and would drown each other out.

So yes, Moriyama has photographed, as Michael Ernest Sweet says: “signs, posters, dogs, cats, mountains…” At this point I have to remind everyone that Moriyama is not a self-styled “street photographer.” It’s the world that has categorised him as such. A better epithet would be “artist” — an artist who reacts to the life around him and who finds ways of pinning it to the page.

Moriyama is closer in spirit to Japanese writers like Kafū Nagai than to many street photographers. Kafū wrote masterful descriptions of the same disreputable areas frequented by Moriyama. He was also responsible for my all-time favourite quotation: “…the world has become a most inconvenient place for people who walk in the shade.”

I certainly agree that many inanimate objects show an intimate relationship with human beings and can therefore become a subset of street photography. My featured image (at the top of the page) goes a little further in picturing some bar stools and an actual representation: a wooden figure of a human being.

Are inanimate objects the proper subject of street photography? Of course not. Like Moriyama’s signs and posters they may often be intrinsically interesting and could well form the material for a book or an exhibition, perhaps even without any pictures of human beings. I recommend (in my “100 Top Tips”) that street photographers turn their cameras on such objects from time to time. But our main focus has to be on people: their interactions, their emotions, their lives.

I once created a photographic project on religion as practised by ordinary people in Thailand. As you can imagine, it’s full of temples and worshippers, monks and supplicants. Yet one of my favourite images from it is this one (below) of the simplest possible shrine: a street vendor’s incense burner on top of a wooden stool. I saw it standing in a shaft of sunlight and felt moved to take the photo.

In a collection of other works — mainly photos of people but including some magnificent temples — the humble stool takes on a noble character. I suppose you could call it a “street photo in spirit,” and it was through taking this kind of shot that I decided to focus on the life of the street rather than on those more spectacular scenes which usually attract the photographer’s eye.

So in answer to the question: “Can Your Street Photo Be Devoid of People?” I would have to say: “Yes, if you’re creating a body of work that needs inanimate detail to complete the story.” But please make people your main subject, otherwise you’ll merely be a still life photographer. You might as well stay indoors!

Will Anyone Want to Look At Our Street Photos 500 Years From Now?

I like to think that people will still want to look at our street photos in the distant future, say, 500 years from now.

Why would they want to do that? For the same reasons we look at paintings from 500 years ago: chiefly for their artistic quality but also for what they tell us about the past.

Take, for example, the sublime “Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam” painted by Quentin Matsys in 1517. So that’s what the best-selling author of the early 16th century looked like! Erasmus wrote “In Praise of Folly” and numerous other works, capitalising on the invention of the printing press to such an extent that he’d written most of the printed books in circulation. We can be confident his likeness is accurate because he looks much the same in a portrait by Hans Holbein.

1517 was the very height of the High Renaissance and you don’t need to look far to find dozens of masterpieces created in that year: Raphael’s “Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary;” Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies;” Lorenzo Lotto’s “Susanna and the Elders.” Even Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was finished in 1517 after nearly fifteen years of intermittent work.

So, how many people look at the Mona Lisa today? Well, just about everyone — although most visitors to the Louvre seem to snap it with their cellphones. Wasn’t it Erasmus who said: “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king”? With our cameras we’re all a bit one-eyed today!

Pessimists will predict that if there’s anyone left on Earth in 2517 they’ll probably have more pressing things to do than look at street photography from 500 years ago. Will our descendents be huddling in underground shelters, taking refuge from nuclear fallout? Or will they be preparing for a voyage to the stars? Maybe they’ll all be in prison, locked up there by a small clique of uber-rich who own 100 per cent of the world’s resources.

Whatever they doing, I’m wondering what they’ll make of today’s street photos — our images taken in public spaces of people in their everyday clothes, pursuing pleasure and business. I like to think they’ll get some insight into what it’s like to be alive today. They’ll see wealth and poverty, often side by side. They’ll notice what we eat, how we travel, how we dress.

If anyone looks at my own pictures they’ll see we often go shopping, although they’ll probably be puzzled by the extraordinary difference between shopping in a street market and being welcomed to an upmarket department store with full ceremonial honours (see my featured image, above). Perhaps they’ll think the girls in my picture are religious supplicants entering a temple of worship. They won’t be very far wrong.

Personally, I’m not a pessimist. I tend towards being a “rational optimist” in the Matt Ridley sense (Google his book), despite there being so many setbacks as time moves on. In fact, I rather think that people in 2517 will be far more interested in our street photography than in most of the artworks with which our contemporary galleries are stuffed. In 500 years time, Matt Stuart’s pigeons will make more sense than Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.

In 2517 there could be an enthusiasm for period drama, just as we enjoy Elizabethan drama today. When Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” was adapted for television the production team researched surviving visual material from the era in which it is set (1500-1535). I’m sure this task will become a lot easier in 2517 when our photographs will be instantly available to those who need the information they contain. Immersive movies could have sets made from our street photos, digitally reconstructed from the millions of images we bequeath to posterity.

The world in 2517 will be unimaginably different from what it is today. In the worst-case scenario (asteroid hit, nuclear war, uncontrollable climate change, virulent disease, or robotic takeover) our street photos may exist only in digital form, streaming their way across the vast expanses of space, to be seen eventually in a distant galaxy by bug-eyed aliens who will puzzle over the way we travel, the way we dress — and our strange head gear.