Is Anything Off-Limits for the Street Photographer?

A few years back, an enterprising student posted a blog that went viral on the Internet: “Shit My Photography Professor Says”. It had such gems in it as: “Don’t take pictures in graveyards. What are you even doing there?” and “Ugh. Just by looking around, I think none of you should procreate.”

Part of the joy of reading the blog was in trying to figure out the professor. He sometimes seemed inspired, at other times crazy. I didn’t always agree with him (I profoundly disagree with his idea that the photographer has to “hurt” the viewer) but I was certainly struck by his list of off-limit subjects.

“Didn’t I say no bums? This is someone who does not seem to share your white supremacist views.” And my No.1 favourite: “Don’t you dare go to Chinatown. Leave the f*****g Chinese alone.”

Did the professor have a point? Or was he being unnecessarily censorious if we bear in mind that students are just beginning to explore the world? It seems absurd to shut them off from half of it. Yes! Half of it!

No Fire Hydrants
Although the professor said: “You can photograph EVERYTHING,” he was quick to add: “Seriously, you can take photos of anything your little heart desires…except: homeless people, fire hydrants, old people, Chinese people, children, African Americans, street performers, Italians — and absolutely no nudity.”

I think I understand why the professor sees the world in these terms. He doesn’t think that art should be easy — and he’s right, up to a point. In the American context, a lot of the subjects in his off-limits list are sitting ducks. The Chinese trade mostly within Chinatown, street performers anchor themselves to one place for the day, and fire hydrants and gravestones are not going anywhere fast.

Most of these subjects are photogenic; all are easy to find; and few of them care if you snap them. But will they take you closer to becoming a photographic artist? Not in the professor’s view.

A privileged white student points an expensive camera at a sleeping black vagrant and the professor feels nothing but contempt for the student. But maybe the student’s intentions are honourable? Maybe he or she wants to show the plight of the homeless — a subject that’s often addressed by younger photographers.

I’m more open-minded than the professor. I would never talk down to students. I don’t have a political agenda. I don’t feel guilty about being white or owning a house. I once shared a rental with ten friendly Jamaicans and I love to take pictures in Bangkok’s Chinatown because it contains life, movement, colour, people of all ages — including old people and the occasional Indian.

Perhaps one reason why the professor warned his students away from certain subjects is that he wanted them to avoid clichés. Homeless people, Chinese traders, old people — too many photos of these subjects lack the spark of originality. They’ve almost become a commodity, like those uninspired stock photos that are used for illustrating newspaper articles. “Can you give me twenty old people, half a dozen homeless and couple of Chinese, please?” (This is not the professor speaking. It’s me trying to make a point.)

No Elderly People
My featured photo (at the top) is of an elderly person walking past Selfridges in London. I didn’t take it because he was old, but because he was stylish. In fact, I don’t think of old people as being “off limits.” You can’t, when you’re my age. If I listened to the professor I’d never be able to take a selfie!

So is any subject legitimately off-limits?

Yes. If, by taking a photograph, you collude with someone who’s doing evil — that’s off-limits. Why? Because you’re placing the viewer in the same position. You’re making the viewer collude in the evil.

So, professor, I guess you feel you belong to a society that oppresses homeless people and you don’t want to collude in their oppression. You have every right to take this view, but it’s not one to foist on other people. Within western societies there are many cultures and sub-cultures — in fact, so many that I think you can legitimately stand apart from “society” as a whole and view it dispassionately through a camera.

With the one exception I’ve stated, surely every subject is fair game?

Walk Around or Stand and Wait?

What’s the best policy for taking street photos? Should you walk around, actively looking for pictures, or is it better to stand in a promising location and wait for the right subjects to show up?

Personally, I like to walk — or at least I combine walking with occasional spells of waiting. Other photographers are more static. In a busy city like London they’re prepared to wait and let the world pass by. It always does, eventually.

When I walk, I sometimes come across other street photographers lurking in the shadows. We might nod to each other or even have a brief chat, but then I’m off again and the other one remains behind. It would appear I’m in the minority when it comes to choosing between Walk and Don’t Walk.

The Urge to Walk
First of all let me say I’m not a great fan of the French word “flaneur.” It’s become synonymous with “street photographer,” which is absurd if most of us don’t do very much walking. It means “stroller” but also “idler,” “saunterer” and “lounger.” I wish the French would make up their minds! I guess a Texan would talk about “moseying,” which is a whole lot more menacing, if every bit as relaxed.

It’s the relaxed connotation that offends me most when people mention “flaneur.” I’m not in an idle state of mind when I take street photos — quite the opposite. My head is buzzing with all the possibilities. “What if that woman pauses in front of the fountain?” “Will that guy put the dog down and look in my direction?” “Is my shutter speed fast enough for those skateboarders?”

I don’t mind if the French stroll and saunter their way towards their goal, I’m running full tilt at mine. Yes, I’m prepared to let life unfold gracefully in front of the lens, but I certainly won’t wait forever. I want to look, see the picture, take the shot, move on — that’s my philosophy.

The Better Strategy
For me, walking is the better strategy. It’s all about keeping in a positive frame of mind. By changing the scene, by varying the tempo, I convince myself that I’m getting closer to obtaining a great, candid shot which will make the entire day worthwhile. If I stand and wait for twenty minutes, I become gloomy and restless. I feel as though I can hear time passing, which is literally true when Big Ben chimes the quarter-hour (OK, it’s currently switched off for renovation, but you get the idea).

I think the street photographer’s mind needs to be fed with a constant flow of new possibilities. Ours is a creative process, but it’s one that involves selection rather than invention. The more possibilities you give to your creative mind, the more adept it becomes at handling them.

Or Maybe Not
By walking you can change the scene, the background, the light, the atmosphere and even the feeling of your photography from one shot to the next. If you’re looking for a coherent set of images, it may not be the right strategy for your work, even though it works for me.

Some street photographers like to “work the scene” by lingering to take a whole bunch of pictures from different angles, moving in for close-ups and generally covering the incident (or non-incident) as if they were journalists reporting a story.

If you’ve found a dynamic subject that offers the potential for multiple shots, by all means linger and work the scene. If people are playing or dancing in the street, you’ll get better shots if you study their movements and take more than one photo.

One one occasion in Thailand (see my featured shot, above) I paused in front of a store where men were unloading lots of goods. I liked the dynamism of the scene and took a few shots — which eventually earned me a long, hostile stare from the female supervisor. I’m glad I stayed to work the scene: her glare makes the picture.

On a similar theme, there’s the image you see below. Did I pause for that one? No, it was a “one-off.” I was just walking past.

The Beauty of the Transient Shot
I favour a cinematic style of shooting in which I, the cameraman, as well as they, the subjects, are in constant motion. When I shoot in this way I feel as though I’m in tune with the rhythm of the city, even though I’m still an outsider — an observer rather than a full participant.

The result of working in this way is to get images which suggest that life goes on beyond the frame, beyond what the image is showing us. In this way I can give a sense of something greater than the fragment of reality which I set before the onlooker. I’m hoping that the viewer of the image will continue the action imaginatively, or think about what lies outside the edges of the picture.

Here’s a dusty, urban scene (below) on which to finish. A group of people have alighted from a bus and they set off on foot towards their destination, two of them shielding their eyes against the sun. In a moment or two the bus will pull away, revealing the scene behind it; the people will have gone. Only the scooter and helmet will remain, waiting for their owner to put them into motion.

There will be nothing left for me to photograph. I must continue my walk.

Finding Still Life Compositions on the Street

I’ve written previously about the absence of people and the traces they leave behind. It was in a blog post called “Can Your Street Photo Be Devoid of People?” a question to which my answer was a cautious “yes.”

This time I want to look more closely at making a still life composition from the jumble of objects in the street. Apart from any other consideration, it’s a useful exercise which can prove to be helpful in regular street photography: when people are the main subject.

I was intrigued by the sight of a wrought-iron fence being gradually enveloped by the roots of the giant fig-tree (featured image, above). Oddly enough, the fence looked as though it had been painted quite recently, by which I mean in the last ten years or so. Perhaps someone else had found it charming and decided to take care of the tree’s friend (or lunch) by painting over the rust. You can see a dab of white paint on the tree itself: a clue as to its recent attention.

The other trace of human intervention is the existence of the colourful ribbon, placed there as a sign of special respect for this individual tree. Nature itself has added the leaves, while, all around, life goes on at a furious pace in the middle of Bangkok.

I spotted the composition from across the street. The top of the white post is the central target, but there’s enough interest in the frame, especially in the diagonals and arrows of the fence and the colours of the ribbon, to draw the eye to other parts of the frame. Contrast comes from the twisting lines of the roots up against the straight lines of the fence that nonetheless curls in the approved western style at the bottom of the image.

I much prefer this image to others I’ve taken of similar subjects, especially of the famous “Buddha in the Tree” in Ayutthaya. Wonderful though it is, the latter lacks the contrast of colour and form, and the deep shade makes it hard to create a great picture without a lot of post-processing.

Finding the Improbable
Walking through a Chinese temple, by the side of the Chao Praya in Bangkok, I was looking for an original composition: something which made an unexpected item the main subject, rather than an obvious vase, chalice or sculpture.

The bottle of standard cooking oil, used for fuelling the burners, was ideal. In the context of the holy sculptures it seemed completely out of place, at least on an intellectual or devotional level. Yet it fits into the composition perfectly, its golden colour blending with the gold of the sculpted figures in the background. I like the “everyday” connotation it brings to the image, which I’ve called “Holy Cooking Oil.”

When the Composition is Ready-Made
If I come across a composition that requires no skill or imagination to capture, I usually think twice before taking a photo. This one (below) I couldn’t resist.

On what looks like a free-standing sarcophagus in the middle of urban wasteland is a graffiti-like poster of a young man with a computer keyboard who appears to be trapped inside. He glares at us defiantly, his head emerging from a flat-panel display.

In my defence I can claim to have had the sense to notice its potential, take it from a good angle — directly from the front, centrally positioned, with straight verticals. I guess I can claim it as an “objet trouvé,” much like the “found objects” picked up by Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters in the early twentieth century. It may even please those, like the members of the widespread Stuckist group, who are opposed to “anti-art” (like found objects) but are in favour of “anti-anti-art.” You know it makes sense.

Keeping It Symmetrical
In the image above I’ve contrasted the symmetry of the object with the assymetrical background. The splashes of blue and red help to tie it all together. The same is true of the next picture (below), where the gold-coloured lamp post gleams in the evening light against the tower blocks of Hong Kong. This time, the out-of-focus lights help to balance the image, while the hint of an arrow at bottom left pulls against the weight of the large building on the right.

When I took the shot I was confident it would work. The light on the lamp post illuminates the tiny stickers, including the one of the rising phoenix. Although you can’t actually see any people, they’re everywhere in the image — behind the walls, cooking, eating, talking, preparing for sleep, only to rise again in the morning like the phoenix from the fire.

What Makes a Great Street Photograph?

It’s the question interviewers love to ask — and it’s the one that street photographers have come to expect. Their answers are usually non-committal. “It depends…” they’ll say, “…on things like style and approach, on what you’re trying to do.”

I’d like to find an answer that’s more definitive and which could be applied to most street photographs, regardless of styles and objectives. Surely there has to be some specific quality within the photo to prompt the informed onlooker to say: “That’s a great shot.”

Here’s my suggestion. A great street photograph must have an indefinable quality which cannot be expressed clearly in words. I think this is the key component and it need be the only component. The photo could lack all the other qualities we normally admire — pleasing composition, great light, an intrinsically interesting subject — if it has “that certain indefinable something.”

So that’s my definitive answer: something indefinable! Really, it’s not good enough. I shall have to explain what I mean.

Totting Up
My featured image (above) is a scene from a street market in Bangkok. From a technical viewpoint it’s not one of my best photos. For example, I can’t do anything about the blown highlights or the extremes of light and shade which were already there in the scene on an intensely sunny day. But it’s one of my personal favourites. There’s something about it I find utterly compelling.

The main elements that make up the image are the central figure who stands slightly apart from the others, a young woman holding a child, a stall-holder who tots up their purchases (I’ve called this picture “Totting Up”), and another man in the background who looks towards the camera.

The main figures are surrounded on each side by copious amounts of food and cold drinks, the sight of which is satisfying when we view a street scene taken in brilliant sun. Those durians look delicious, don’t they?

Yet it’s not the props or the environment which makes the picture what it is. Its indefinable quality lies partly in the pose of the main figure and partly in the fact that each person looks in a specific direction, except for the main figure who seems to gaze in two directions at once.

When I examine the pose of the central figure I awaken a residual memory of a figure from Italian art. Who can it be? I can’t find a perfect match, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s the figure of the goddess Flora in Sandro Botticelli’s 1478 masterpiece “Primavera.”

Could anything be less likely? Flora is the one who stands next to Venus, on the opposite side of the painting to the Three Graces, distributing flowers — the largesse of Nature. Her arms are in a similar position to those of the girl in my photo, although her hands are not actually touching. There’s also an abundance of fruit in Botticelli’s painting, which may have triggered my memory of it.

The Ambiguous Gaze
The two female figures in my photo seem to be looking at something off to the right of the frame while the stall-holder and the baby are looking down. However, there’s ambiguity in the gaze of the main figure who also seems to gaze directly at the onlooker, backed up by the man in the background.

I like the girl’s ambiguous gaze. It reminds me of the way I tend to look at every scene I photograph.

Ambiguity is a key quality of street photography, as it is in literature. I’m tempted to say it’s a quality that contributes to a photo’s overall distinction, but I can imagine an image which moves us in an indefinable way without being ambiguous.

I’m not saying that my photo lacks all other qualities. I’ve filled the frame, achieved good focus, blurred the background. There’s good distribution of colour and plenty in the image to please the eye. It’s a complex image — and again I’m tempted to say that “complexity” is another quality which makes a great street photo, were it not for the fact that simplicity can do the same.

Frequently in these articles I talk about “contrast” being a main constituent of street photography — in the sense that the image may contrast one idea with another: such as a baby sitting on a Roman wall. A sense of time and the passing of time is nearly always a factor which contributes to a photo’s greatness, especially in an art-form such as street photography where ephemerality is almost unavoidable.

Does the featured image have contrast? It does for me — because I remember the glory of Botticelli’s painting and am struck by how the ordinariness of my little market scene contrasts with the flowing beauty of the Florentine work. The contrast gives my photo an added poignancy. Can this be the indefinable quality I mentioned?

Smartening Up
I hesitate to add any more photos to this post because I can’t use up two favourite images in one article. I don’t have as many as I’d like! But here’s one, “Smartening Up,” that almost makes the grade.

Again, it’s not technically great, but it has an indefinable something. The girl with the sandwich shows a touch of anxiety, perhaps caused by the strange behavior of her colleagues. The three figures form a nice pyramid, but that’s a fairly obvious quality of the composition. Less obvious are the circles.

There’s a pink, circular fan; a purple, circular bowl; a blue circular mirror; and a white, circular cover to the car’s fuel tank. Everyone and everything – the auburn-haired women, the stool and the car — has a circle. But the black-haired girl has none. Maybe that’s why she’s anxious.

Of course, such a suggestion is absurd, but the photo makes a point of addressing the absurd, so we’re tempted to go further and invent bizarre ideas to explain it.

Indefinable? Beyond words?
I’m not sure if anything is indefinable and completely beyond the power of language. Analysis gives us greater insight — and I think it can do so without destroying the magic of the image.

I don’t claim any of my photos to be “great” in the face of all the intense competition from other, better known photographers, but I sometimes have an indefinable feeling which tells me I’m probably going in the right direction.

Dealing With Shop Decor

For the candid photographer, shop decor is a ready-made backdrop –too good to ignore yet often out of bounds because stores prohibit photography on their premises. I can see their point of view. The interests and privacy of their customers must come first.

However, I don’t like to admit defeat. Some photographers — Michael Huniewicz springs to mind — go to North Korea and come back with hundreds of forbidden images, so I think I can grab a few shop interiors in other countries without being reprimanded.

Malls in Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong are reasonably tolerant of photographers, providing no one gets unduly disturbed. Here, pragmatism has triumphed out of necessity, because among the best customers are tourists with expensive cameras around their necks.

The Indoor High Street
The design of the modern mall works in favour of the street photographer because the whole area is essentially a network of indoor streets. The only difference lies in the shops themselves. They blend seamlessly into the public areas with scarcely any barriers between the “street” and the interior of the shop. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re in the shop or outside it.

When there’s a physical barrier, it’s often a huge, plate glass partition separating shop from street, allowing potential customers to see the goods close-up without committing themselves to a visit. As a result, store design has become increasingly theatrical, with shops competing for attention by staging ever more eye-catching displays which many passers-by snap with their mobile phones.

As you can see from the photo below, the passer-by does not have to enter the shop to get a picture. The heads of the beasts seem to stand guard over the privacy of the customers. If photographers were to venture inside they’d find most of the animals looking in the wrong direction.

Golden Age
We live in a Golden Age of shop decor and it’s hard to imagine what will come along next. Can it get any more inventive, any more surreal? Store designers have the whole history of art from which to borrow, including everything since Dada and the Futurists. Maybe the future of art itself belongs to these creators of new shopping environments. Once they’ve exhausted the history of art they’ll have to become truly original — as I think they already are in the Far East.

For example, I can’t think of any art historical precedent for this cluster of golden legs advertising the presence of a shoe shop. It seems to have attracted the attention of the two passers-by, one of whom could use a new pair of trainers.

Moving Inside
I took my shots of the large beasts and the cluster of legs from the public space between stores. But if you want to get a better shot — and who wouldn’t? — you need to move in a bit closer. You need to be inside the store, or at least within its entrance.

My featured photo (at the top of the page) shows you the kind of image I prefer. For a start, it’s better lit than the others. The store lights were not the most intense I’ve seen, but the translucent background added wonderfully to the overall effect.

I was actually inside the store, but only just. I’d waited a minute or so for the right moment then stepped forward when the customers were in good positions. The main figure, in particular, was approaching the camera but still looking from side to side at the clothes. She seems to be the “New Arrival” referred to by the sign. Her black and white Yves St Laurent tee-shirt is nothing like the colourful clothes in the store. Surely they can’t both be in fashion?

The danger in using shop decor as a backdrop for street photography is that it can so easily become the most important part of the image. I think this is true of my picture of the woman taking a shot of the beast with her mobile phone, but it’s not true of the featured image. There are six people in the photo, none of whom is irrelevant. They are the real subject of the image. The shop is merely their environment: in wildlife terms, their natural habitat.

So you can see where this argument is headed. It’s essential for the street photographer to get off the sidewalk and go to where people are most at home — except when they’re actually at home. And where is that? At the mall.

People spend such of lot of time at the mall they cannot be said to be visiting or shopping. They’re living there, all bar sleeping over. You can have breakfast, lunch, tea, cocktails and dinner in the mall, go to the movies, and generally hang out with your friends for hours on end. Afterwards you scuttle home — and that’s when the majority of street photographers will take your image, in black and white, when you’re tired and under stress.

Wouldn’t you prefer me to take your picture in daytime at the mall?

Fleeting Images

The most admired photographs tend to be those that are carefully composed, nicely lit and technically perfect. However, I want to put in a plea for the “fleeting image” — the photo taken rapidly “on the fly” just as the subject (or the photographer) is moving out of range.

Sometimes a subject comes out of nowhere: a skateboarder hurtling down the street, crouching low with arms outstretched. You may not hear him until it’s too late. He’s already gone past, leaving you to wonder if the shot would have captured a moment of athletic beauty — or just another scruffy youth in a hood, against a jumbled background of traffic and pedestrians.

If you pause to think twice about it, pondering whether the shot is worthwhile or not, then obviously you’ll miss it. You have to tell yourself in advance: if even half an opportunity comes along, grab it! It costs nothing to take the shot, except perhaps a loss of confidence if you consistently fail.

What’s the Message?
I don’t think a street photo needs to have “a message,” as such, but it does need to reward the onlooker for taking the trouble to view it. In the case of the “fleeting image,” the sense of ephemerality embodied in the choice of subject should be enough.

Fleeting images lack detail and tend to be very simple — perhaps too simple for the jaded viewer who sees ten thousand photos a week. Take my featured image (above), for example. It’s just a girl on a bike. What’s the big deal?

That’s the point. There is no big deal. In London you can see people on bicycles all day long, pedalling through the streets or slotting themselves neatly between gridlocked cars and buses. As a motorist I find them tiresome — difficult to see in a rear-view mirror and a constant danger to themselves and others.

When I’m out of the car and on the street, walking around with a camera, I can appreciate the fleeting beauty of a cyclist: appearing and disappearing like a brightly-coloured mayfly on the river bank. This girl, in particular, was wearing four bright colours, making her “high-viz” without resorting to an ugly orange vest. I commend her dress sense. It seems to have given her the confidence to ride at dizzying speeds through Covent Garden.

My fast shutter speed has frozen the action, apart from some blurred spokes in the wheels — and no, I’ve no idea why they’re blurred at the top and not at the bottom. Perhaps someone at MIT can advise.

In this image I like the contrast between the cyclist’s ultra-clean presentation and the worn exterior of the Lyceum Theatre. A lone pedestrian reads the words “soul-stirring celebration” and “gorgeous…(gasp-inducing spectacle?).” Everything black is in the right place, and for once I’m not too worried about the bare paving on either side of the subject. At least it’s textured.

The Passing Glance
My largely cinematic style of street photography makes the majority of my shots “fleeting images” of one sort or another. Sometimes the effect is more pronounced, at other times both my chosen subject and I are static and the result is far from being transitory.

To get the full effect of a fleeting image, either you or the subject needs to be on the move. Here’s an example (below) where the subject — a woman in a black tee-shirt — is walking quickly past a stall, carrying some food in a bag. Has the man behind her smelled the food? Or has he noticed the woman herself? His look is little more than a “half glance” out of the corner of his eye. It’s all over in a split second and you’d never notice it without the help of the camera.

The Moving Photographer
Travelling through the streets of Bangkok by bus and taxi I rarely get an opportunity to take a well composed street photo. The movement of the vehicle tends to overload the senses, snatching away each composition as quickly as it forms.

You need to reduce your speed and cruise along at a snail’s pace — no, that’s too slow — at a pace not much faster than that of a normal pedestrian.

On one occasion I was riding in a “tuk-tuk” (windowless three-wheel taxi) when the driver made a perilous U-turn to avoid queuing in traffic. Before he gathered speed again I took this shot (below) of two women staring blankly into space. The late evening light was poor, but I’d had the forethought to switch to ISO 800 and succeeded in getting a sharp image.

Is it a “fleeting image”? Yes, as far as I’m concerned, because I know the circumstances under which it was taken. It couldn’t have been more fleeting! But I admit it looks almost posed, as if I’d asked the two women to light cigarettes at the same time, and to cross their legs in the same direction.

Yet there’s something odd about the image which lifts it out of the ordinary. The woman on the left — the one with a floral tattoo on her shoulder — has a beer mat stuck to the underside of her bare thigh. I can only guess that it was there on the wooden seat when she sat down a few moments previously. A second or two ago she probably crossed one leg over another and the sensation of the clinging coaster had not yet registered in her brain.

Neither of the two women looks fully awake. They seem hot and tired at the end of the day. There’s no movement, or indeed anything at all dynamic in the photo whatsoever. Yet I still claim it as a “fleeting image.” Had I been standing in front of them, pointing a camera in their direction, I would have awakened their interest. They would have reacted — and their response would have ruined the effect.

If you ask me to describe “the effect,” I’m forced to search for the right words. I can’t find them, except to say: for once I was moving more quickly than the subject and I feel as if I’ve stolen this snapshot in a hit-and-run fashion, before the subject has become aware of it. Just like the beer mat.

They’re Dancing in the Streets

On blistering hot days, American city kids like to cool off by opening up the fire hydrants and dancing in and out of the water jets. Songwriter William “Mickey” Stevenson saw them doing this one summer in Detroit. It gave him the idea for the song: “Dancing In The Street.”

The song (written in conjunction with Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter) became a classic right from the start when Martha and the Vandellas recorded it in 1964. Since then, many more have covered it: notably the Mamas & the Papas, Van Halen, The Everly Brothers, Grateful Dead, Black Oak Arkansas, The Kinks, and, in an improbable double-act, David Bowie and Mick Jagger. It’s been a hit nearly every time.

So what’s makes the song so popular? Is it the words, the music or the subject? I think it’s all three, but the subject should take most of the credit.

Think about it: what could be more cool? The song was inspired by underprivileged city kids doing something harmless and joyful but nonetheless rebellious and illegal, literally keeping cool as well as being cool. Now, on hearing the song, the posh kids in the suburbs — playing in their parents’ swimming pools — want to do the same. They want to dance in the street.

Great Subject, Whenever
Whenever it happens, dancing in the street is a great subject for the street photographer. Normally a place of trade, passage, or quiet reflection, the street comes alive when people start dancing in it. For this to occur, some degree of organisation is necessary, as only rarely do people dance spontaneously in places where no one else is even thinking about it.

Dancing and photo ops come thick and fast at street parties, carnivals, and public holidays like Thailand’s Song Kran, or “water throwing” festival. Because water splashing seems to provoke people into dancing, maybe city planners should provide fountains designed specifically for this purpose. The ones we get (at places like Somerset House in London) seem to be purely decorative.

Organised Dancing
A photograph of organised dancing can never be a fully fledged street photo, no matter where you take it. For that, you need to find a spontaneous outbreak of dancing, which certainly happens now and again, although I’ve not yet found anyone who’s chosen to dance in front of an uncluttered background.

However, there’s one big advantage of an organised event: people expect you to take photographs, so you can bring out your biggest and best lens, such as a heavy zoom. On these occasions, zooms can be ideal, even essential. And unlike attending an indoor performance in a theatre, you can walk around the subject and find the best composition.

My featured image (above) is a shot I took when a salsa dancing club held a session in our local park. I was expecting to get at least a dozen good shots, but the subject proved to be more difficult than I anticipated, despite the advantages I’ve mentioned.

Why? Because many of the dancers were beginners, the background was cluttered, and the light was too strong. However, two of the dancers were terrific — and seemed to retain the spontaneity which is so easily lost when performers are trying to impress an audience. I hope my picture caught some of their grace and informality.

In Costume, Too
A performance by some costumed dancers at another local event (below) was more formal — but the setting made up for it by being overwhelmingly urban. Does this bring it closer to being a street photo, in spite of the fancy dress? I don’t think it does, but the town’s name, writ large, leaves no doubt about the location.

As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care if the dancing is organised (as above) or disorganised (as below), if someone’s dancing in the street I’ll take their picture.

“Callin’ out around the world,
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer’s here and the time is right
For dancin’ in the street.”

(They were still doing it in February, in London’s Leicester Square, below).

The Joy of Ladders

For the street photographer, ladders — or, rather, workers on ladders — are a tempting subject but they pose some tricky technical problems. Let me start by exploring why they’re so tempting.

Ladders are highly symbolic. Even though we use them for going down holes as well as climbing up buildings, they’re symbolic of ascent, ambition, and striving. To a practical person they’re an excellent means of reaching a blocked gutter, but to the fanciful mind they’re a stairway to heaven. For these people and everyone else they’re all about raising yourself about the heads of the crowd — to a place where they have to look up to you.

In Britain, I get the impression that there’s also a class connotation. The ladder is symbolic of the “working man.” Certainly I know many people who’d never consider climbing a ladder for that very reason. Gentlemen are already superior — the unspoken argument goes — so why on Earth would they need to go up a ladder?

I’m not of that view. Last summer I painted the front of my three-storey home, replacing the painter who, having accepted the job, took a second look and said: “I don’t fancy climbing up there.” Although I felt somewhat inconvenienced (several other firms failed to respond), I really enjoyed the task and I ended up saving enough money to purchase any one of the cameras on my list of  “The 10 Best Cameras for Street Photography — and Why.”

Matching Bags
I was already thinking about ladders when I took my featured image (above), as I’ll explain later. I spotted it from a distance and wondered if could get it into shot at a point when the two pairs of women passed each other in the street. I knew there would just be a pair of feet showing, but I guessed they would add some visual interest at the top of the picture.

As it turned out, there was a ton of visual interest in the foreground subjects. The pair on the right are walking so close together they overlap, one of them leaning slightly to the left which greatly helps the composition. And what can I say about the other two? They bear little resemblance to each other in their style of dress except for two items: boots and bags. The bags are identical, which makes their dissimilar dress even more remarkable.

Does the picture have a “meaning”? I’m a great believer in the idea that street photography should concentrate on form. My mantra is: “Concentrate on Form; Content and Meaning Will Follow.” In this case, as I mentioned, I was already thinking about ladders. Two minutes previously (see the EXIF) I’d taken the candid image below:

As revealed by the wording on the door, the big picture in the window is an enlargement of a photograph by Clive Boursnell, famed for “capturing Covent Garden in pictures for over 50 years.” How times have changed! His black and white film photo of a man on a ladder, with a copy of a newspaper sticking out of a jacket pocket, is one that shouts “working class.” It’s a lovely shot: very jaunty and evocative of the cheerful way in which Londoners go about their work. (You can see the whole of the image on Clive Boursnell’s website — it was heavily cropped for the window).

In my featured image (of the four women) I make a reference to the past by including the man on the ladder. This was intentional because I’d just taken the earlier picture which included Clive Boursnell’s man on a ladder and I was thinking — as I always do in Covent Garden — of the area’s remarkable past. Today it’s the haunt of tourists and street entertainers, but much of its architecture remains intact. All I needed was something to connect the past to the present — and there it was! A ladder. With a man on it.

Getting Too Close
Alas, when I got closer to the ladder, I found modernity had really taken over. There was nothing jaunty about this man (except for his shoes — which I’d already included in the previous shot). Maybe I should have asked him to cock one leg out at an angle, but he didn’t seem in the mood. The lamp itself, which looks like it was once powered by gas, had already been adapted to take several electric bulbs. Time marches on and now the man on a ladder was replacing them with energy-saving “compact fluorescent lamps” (CFLs).

Perhaps my square photo is, after all, a bit “retro” because the sight of a ladder is becoming less common. The council normally provides motorised “cherry-pickers,” annoying appliances that shout warning sounds whenever they move (which is frequently). It’s possible there’s a class structure in the council workforce and this guy is not a skilled cherry-picking operative.

You can see the technical difficulties for yourself, both in my square picture and in Clive Boursnell’s original (square) shot. Looking up from ground level seems to have put both of us at a disadvantage. I prefer the cut-down, window-display version of Boursnell’s black and white image which concentrates on the foot in mid-air. Likewise, my featured photo (at the top, with just the feet) is far better than my later close-up.

I’m happy with two out of three. OK, I had to nick the ladder for “Red Hood, Turquoise Coat,” but even so…getting these three photos wasn’t bad for two minutes’ work.

Can You Hear a Street Photo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can You Smell the Street in a Street Photograph?

In an interview with vice.com, Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden said: “To me, street photography is where you can smell the street, feel the dirt. Maybe that’s a bit of an unfair definition, but that’s what I feel.”

I think he may have spoken about this before, as there is a similar comment on photoquotes.com (and on many photo blogs), to the effect: “If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph.”

Photographs enter our consciousness via the eye. Can we really smell them, too?

I know what Gilden means. There’s a connection between the senses, such that if the appeal to one sense is strong enough it will overlap to one or more of the other senses.

What actually happens is this: the visual cue triggers our “involuntary memory” which contains experiences laid down by all the five senses, including the sense of smell. No conscious effort is involved.

The classic example is where Charles Swann dips a madeleine cake into a cup of tea at the beginning of “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust. In this case, it’s not the smell of the cake or the tea — although that would have been part of it — but rather the sense of taste which suddenly enables Swann to recall a vast tract of memory.

“And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea…”

I’ve spent many months shooting in the Far East, where, to the Western nose, the cities have a mixture of unfamiliar aromas. There are strange fruits, herbs and spices which blend together and mingle with the smells of decaying vegetables and scraps of meat discarded by street vendors. If you’ve not been to the Far East you may have encountered these aromas in the Chinatowns of London, New York or San Francisco. If not there, then you will have only your imagination left to fill the gap — and it will struggle to conjure up the smell in the absence of actual memory.

Does my featured image (above) have the “smell of the street”? It’s a hot day in Bangkok’s Chinatown. There’s the masculine smell of sweat from the bodies of hard-working men, one of whom has a strong visual cue of a tattooed catfish on his back.

If sweat and fish were not enough, there’s a durian stall in the foreground.

Durian? It’s the world’s smelliest fruit. Airlines strictly forbid passengers from carrying it onboard, neither can you take it on a train in Singapore. Food writer Richard Sterling describes its smell as “turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock,” adding: “it can be smelled from yards away.”

I doubt if Bruce Gilden means anything quite as specific as my example. By “smell the street” he probably means what happens when you view a photo taken by someone who “gets down and dirty” right there on the sidewalk, along with everyone else who’s breathing in the diesel fumes of the traffic and choking on the accumulated dust and grime of the last fifty years.

“Smell the street” is Bruce Gilden’s metaphor for getting in close to the subject, close enough to see and feel the anguish or joy of the man and woman in the street, close enough to share a moment in their lives.

In other words, we shouldn’t take “smell” too literally. Here (below), for example, is a picture I took of a man frying vegetable chips in the street. It’s a pleasing composition and definitely an aromatic street photo. But the man’s back is turned to us, so we have no idea whether he was happy or sad, absorbed in his task or performing it by rote. It doesn’t really have the “smell of the street” in the Gilden sense.

 

For all its ordinariness and lack of cooking smells, my shot of Haiphong Road in Hong Kong (below) is closer to Gilden’s idea. Workers are returning home past the closed market. They display various emotions: determination (man with the cap), satisfaction (man with the shopping), happiness (man with a phone under his chin), anxiety (purple shirt), and possibly even remorse (man in green, in the centre of the image).

I took the shot in Haiphong Road for two reasons: the light was good and I liked the row of coloured graphics: “chicken,” “lemonade,” “lobster,” etc., which have a strong period feel. The orange litter bin and all the coloured shirts made it possible to compose the image successfully in colour.

Colour provides more visual cues than black and white, so it should communicate the smell (or shall we say the “presence” or closeness) of the street more effectively than black and white. Yet in fact the opposite may be true. Sidewalks, paving stones and road surfaces are usually neutral in colour. The monochrome image reduces everything else — including people — to the same hue, painting passers-by with the grey colours of the street.

Undeterred, I shall persevere with photography in full colour, even if it tones down the “smell of the street,” obliging me to work harder to achieve the same effect. Besides sight and smell, I still have the other three senses to trigger the viewer’s involuntary memory. Sound, taste and touch can all be present in a street photograph, provoking virtual or imagined sensations that augment our experience of the visual image.

One day I’ll get all five senses into a single picture. But not today.