Finding a Face in the Crowd

The street photographer can take distant shots of people in the rush hour and the result is nearly always the same: cut-out, cardboard figures in an urban landscape.

It’s so easy to see a crowd of people as being composed of anonymous, faceless individuals — scarcely individuals at all, just components of a seething mass of humanity.

Then suddenly you spot someone who doesn’t quite go with the flow. Maybe this person is trying to move in the opposite direction. Maybe her expression is out of tune with the rest. Perhaps she is laughing, or crying, or merely turning her face towards you — and you notice how beautiful she is, how she contrasts with the sullenness of the rush hour commuters.

The person who stands out in the crowd can be a man or a woman, but seldom a child. For the “face in the crowd” shot you need the subject to be reasonably tall.

Yet while height is one factor, it’s not the only one. The subject’s face, seen in the context of an otherwise anonymous crowd, must have “something about it,” something memorable and therefore worth committing to the long-term memory of photography.

Finding a face in a crowd is not a theme I’ve developed to any great extent — on the whole I tend to avoid preconceptions — so I don’t have a stack of photos to illustrate the concept adequately. However, my featured image (above) shows you the gist of what I mean.

Taken in a busy market place, the picture is a detail from a crowd photo. I’ve cropped it because otherwise the lady in the white hat is too far over to the left — and the purple parasol becomes the main subject. Cropped further, centralising the “face in the crowd,” results in too great a loss in resolution. (I took the shot with my old Fuji S5Pro).

For all its faults, I’m reluctant to reject the image because it captures something that moves me, a quality that would be lost in a posed portrait.

I think it’s because of the crowd.

The subject seems to be so very much at home among a crowd of people, even when they pass her in the opposite direction. She is thinking seriously about something, but she is not “lost in thought.” She glances to one side — and it’s this glance which, for me, makes the picture.

In the next photo (below) we can see the faces of other people besides that of the main subject. The man looks towards us, but doesn’t quite make eye contact. Again, people are passing him — this time in both directions — but he stands steadfast without any outward sign of frustration. He seems to have caught the eye of the blonde woman on the right, but others jostle their way past him, looking for goods in the winter market.

I’ve called this photo “Face in the Crowd,” although not without a touch of irony. Most of the colours tone together reasonably well, except for one. The vivid pink of the Muppet-like toy at the back jumps out at us, drawing our eyes to its one eye.

Unlike the lady in the first photo, the man in the grey overcoat is not glancing, as such. He seems to be more like a character from a movie: Jason Bourne perhaps, pausing impassively while calculating the odds of survival.

The Cinematic Style
When the subject is a “face in the crowd” the photo immediately makes you think of the movies. That’s because you’re using a cinematic technique: the long shot before moving in for a close-up.

In films, the star is instantly recognisable, so it’s easy to pick out him or her from the rest of the crowd, especially when helped by framing, tracking or zooming. In street photography, where a single still image is usually the entire work, when you borrow the cinematic style it allows you similar freedom of composition.

Foreground figures can be out of focus; people at the edge of the frame can be chopped in half. The onlooker will see the still image as being filmic: with the extras moving in and out of frame while the camera dwells on the starring actor.

This is true of the image below, which I took at around the same time as the featured image at the top of the post. The girl with the pink parasol looks round and sees my camera. She doesn’t have time to react self-consciously, unlike the woman on the left, who may have seen the camera and is deliberately looking to one side while primping her hair. The whole composition could be a frame from a movie.

On the Waterloo Steps
Where better to find a face in the crowd than on the steps of London’s Waterloo Station during rush hour? I often find myself here, having crossed the river to chase better light at the end of the day.

I wonder how many people who pass through Waterloo Station’s main entrance appreciate that it’s a memorial to the dead of the First World War? The steps are spanned by Victory Arch and flanked either side by gigantic lamps supported by obelisks.

In this place I’m always reminded of “The Face on the Waterloo Steps” at the beginning of John Cowper Powys’s novel “Wolf Solent.” Powys’s anti-hero — on his way to the West Country of his childhood to take up a new job — sees a vagrant wearing a look of “inert despair.” The man’s face haunts Wolf for the rest of the narrative. It’s an echo of the war. Thus begins a search for identity and meaning in one of the twentieth century’s great literary works.

Alas, I’m already haunted by other images, so I have no wish to photograph my own version of inert despair. I prefer this image (below) of a man with a bicycle, struggling with determination against the flow of the crowd.

Unlike Powys’s anti-hero he seems to exude heroism, with his camo jacket, tight grip, and deliberate movements. He is surrounded by much younger people who, like Wolf himself, are still undefined by their limited life-experience, but this man with his own transport clearly knows who he is — and where he’s going. He’s more than a face in the crowd. He’s a complete figure.

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