Keeping the City at a Distance

Like most street photographers I place people centre-stage. In musical terms, I give people the vocal role while the city provides the instrumental accompaniment.

I tend to keep the two components — subject and environment — in balance, without either of them dominating too greatly. Sometimes, however, I’m so struck by the beauty of one or the other that I depart from the score and make up the tune as I go along.

Tin Pan Alley
The musical metaphor fits my featured image (above) very neatly. It’s looking directly down London’s Denmark Street, otherwise known as “Tin Pan Alley” because this is where you can buy most types of instrument — from guitars to synthesizers — for playing popular music and jazz.

If you look carefully at the photo you can read the words “banjos,” “mandolins,” “acoustic guitars,” “sheet music,” “saxophone showroom,” “synths,” “keyboards,” “organs,” and “digital pianos.”

The shop in the foreground also says: “lapsteels” which had me searching Google to find out what they are. “Showing results for lap steels” came back the message, with an illustration of a guitar with a glass or metal bar instead of a fretboard. Ah! Thank you, Google. I’ll remind everyone that’s your colourful London headquarters in the background of the shot.

In this photo I was “keeping the city at a distance.” I was not expecting to get one of those cute combinations of tangled arms and legs, or any expressive faces or telling incidents. This time I was just struck by the beauty of London on a day in early Spring, when the sun comes out and people walk around in short sleeves, even though they’re still palid from the winter.

Positioned on the other side of Charing Cross Road, I waited for a big, shiny bus to stop at the lights and anchor the image firmly at the centre. The picture wouldn’t work if the stationary vehicle was a taxi or a small car. I needed colour and size at the centre as well as at the edges.

I also had to wait for the right assortment of people to cross the road. In the shot there’s a girl using crutches who has her leg in very colourful plaster. I was rather hoping she’d be more prominent in the image, but perhaps it’s for the best that she’s concealed by the woman at her side. If one of the pedestrians had become too prominent the balance of the image might have been upset.

As it is, I’m quite pleased with the result. Leaning on some street furniture I was able to get maximum sharpness — and the 1/1000th second speed of the shutter has frozen the movement of the pedestrians. As a result, there is charm is in the detail as well as in the whole. You can clearly see the orange cage of a lift, with a man in an orange uniform going up (or down). And a passenger in the bus is smiling broadly. It was that kind of day.

Hong Kong Break
There are two smiling girls near the centre of this next picture (below), taken in Hong Kong, but everyone else looks tired. Most of the workers are on a break, too exhausted to do anything except stare listlessly into the distance before starting their afternoon shift.

The gaze of the two figures at the front is of great help to the composition. Their positions lead the eye into the picture. Again, here I’m keeping the city at arm’s length, not getting too close to anyone in particular, so it doesn’t matter that we can’t see their faces.

There are two exceptions: the man sitting down at the bottom right and the tall man on the left. Of the two, the latter — in yellow boots and smoking a cigarette — is the more important. He stops the eye from wandering off down the steps on the left. In this he’s helped by the photographic artwork which forms two different images depending on your viewpoint. You can just make out the lettering: “Cochrane Street 1959” in each of the versions.

Like my Tin Pan Alley shot, there’s a wide variation in light and shade which I’ve chosen not to correct too heavily in Photoshop. Both images are tending towards over-exposed bright areas and underexposed shadows. For the sake of the detail I’ve deliberately erred on the side of the shadows, here allowing the sunny area to wash out some of the 1959 photograph, without destroying it completely.

Does it work as a composition? Yes, I think it almost does. It would be perfect if the man in the yellow boots were slightly closer to the camera, but there was no guarantee he’d retain his pose if I’d waited. As it is, he’s clearly moving towards the perfect position — and that’s sufficient for me. As Wayne Gretzky once said: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

A Distant View of the River
After the intensity of Hong Kong it’s good to return to the serenity of Bangkok. I say that with a sense or irony because much of Bangkok is no less frenetic than Hong Kong. Only in certain places, like here (below) beside the Chao Praya, does the pace of life dwindle to a standstill. Once more, the focus is on the distance, looking towards the far bank of the river where the Chinese pagoda of the Chee Chin Khor temple seems like an ancient feature of the cityscape. (More irony: it dates from the year 2001).

Of the three images I’m showing here I like this one the best. I was lucky that the reflection of light from the river was enough to illuminate the underside of the structure on the right. The variation in the tiles helps to rescue the blankness of the foreground. I particularly wanted to get in the backlit canopy with the smiling couple on it. They seem to face the camera, despite being shown from the back — which again is somewhat ironic.

I didn’t intend this to be an ironic picture, and it’s not. I just stumbled across a quiet scene, way off the tourist trail, in a place where the fish don’t seem to be biting. Or maybe they are. Bright light has driven up my shutter speed to 1/6400th of a second. The man on the right is reaching forward. He’s frozen mid-air in a decisive moment.

Maybe this is street photography after all.

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