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.

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