Keep Looking, You’re Shooting for History

A street photograph consists of two major components: people and an urban setting. If you like, you can call these components “subject” and “context” and you can think about them separately or together.

Sometimes the human subject looms large; in other shots the surrounding context is so dominant it becomes, in a sense, the true subject of the image despite the presence of one or two small figures.

Both subject and context need the photographer’s full attention. It’s all too easy to concentrate on one at the expense of the other. In my own work I usually try to create a balance between the two, rarely taking distant shots of the city but not often getting in so close as to exclude the city altogether.

The Third Component
Arguably, there’s a third component in the street photo, the significance of which easily escapes us in the heat of the moment. Did I just say “moment”? Well, there’s the clue: the component so easily forgotten is time itself.

Every street photo is taken at a precise moment in time. Twenty-four minutes past four on the twenty-first of August 2013. Nineteen minutes past four on the twenty-fourth of March 2012. Those are the times at which I took the featured image (above) and the building under reconstruction (below).

So why am I showing pictures from five or six years ago?

I want to make the point that our street photographs are not only to be shared among our contemporaries, they’ll be viewed by people in the future — perhaps for different reasons. One reason may simply be our descendents’ curiosity about the past. When you freeze a moment in time you can return to that moment at a later date and find an insight into the way people lived, worked, dressed, moved, traded and dwelt. If only we had such images from a thousand — two thousand, fifty thousand — years ago, wouldn’t that be great?

The Hardware Store
Apostrophes were the only things they didn’t stock. My featured image (above) is what was once Jacks hardware store in Colchester. By the time it closed it had long since been left behind by B&Q, Homebase, and the growing businesses of online commerce. Note how proudly the shop displayed the date of its origin: 1946. You can just imagine how briskly they traded in the years after the Second World War. First there was post-war reconstruction, then the boom of the ‘Fifties. It probably continued to prosper through the Beatle years, the Thatcher years, then, somewhere around the turn of the century it went into decline, followed by closure a few months before my shot was taken.

The girl in the photo clearly does not belong to any of the eras I’ve mentioned. To her, 1946 is “great grandpa” territory, and I doubt if she remembers much about the turmoil of the twentieth century. There’s something slightly retro about her style of dress (the shoes and the short leather jacket) but the large shoulder bag and the coloured hair were very “now” in 2013 and the whole outfit would still look good today.

Layers of Time
My photo has within it several “layers of time” which I’ve tried to disentangle in the above explanation. As always, the human figure is the most up-to-date element in the shot, but in her appearance even she carries references to the past, as we all do.

Because I’ve shown the building during its relatively brief period of emptiness (vendors of second-hand goods moved in fairly swiftly) the image can be located in time fairly easily, as least by local residents. Others can look at the EXIF file for the precise time and date.

For once, I think I’ve brought together subject, context and layers of time into a single image without any one of them being dominant. A casual glance may dismiss it as yet another photo of someone walking past an old shop, but you can scrutinise it and unravel the story without my telling it. The narrative is there, in figure, setting and time.

The Stockwell Arms
In the picture below, the figures are smaller, the building larger, so you can surmise that this is more about the context than the figures themselves. You’d be right.

I believe the figures may in some way be related to the building, although I don’t know them personally. Standing in Colchester’s West Stockwell Street, The Stockwell Arms was once an inn, where, many years ago, the first novelist in the English language, Daniel Defoe (author of “Robinson Crusoe,” “Moll Flanders,” etc.) stayed for a while. It’s close to where I live now, so I kept an eye on it during its much-needed reconstruction by the late Robert Morgan (a major player in the computer outsourcing industry).

Again, because the building was undergoing reconstruction, the image can be located with reasonable precision in the flow of time. True, it looked like this for a few months because the whole project took two or three years — but what’s that in the history of such an old building?

I like the incongruous way in which the name “Jewson” is displayed over and over again on the modern plasterboard, now adorning the medieval structure. There’s a personal connection here in that my father served as a captain in World War One with Captain (later Colonel) Jewson, a member of the family which founded the building supplies business. Maybe the timespan is not so great after all. Leap backwards a few more generations and you can imagine Daniel Defoe standing outside the building, wondering what to write next.

Time Waits for No One
When I took these shots I was aware of their historical references. However, I could not have predicted the changes that have already taken place in the four or five years which have already elapsed.

For example, the venue, now called The Stockwell, reopened as a high class restaurant, seemed to prosper for a while, then closed. Sadly, the strain had taken its toll on the owner. His widow transferred her successful quilting supplies business to it, running it for a year or two as a meeting place and tea-room, but recently put it up for sale. We await developments.

You see, history starts being woven again from the very moment we press the shutter button in our vain attempt to stop time in its tracks. As street photographers we have to be aware that we are part of the flux of time and try to find ways of using this awareness to make our images more meaningful.

When you recognise the ephemerality of things, you tend to find certain subjects (and their contexts) more intriguing, more visually interesting — more emotive.

So keep looking, and remember: you’re shooting for history.

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