Off the Street and Into the Park

When I wander off the street and into the park I find the act of taking street photos goes up by a couple of levels of difficulty. People are relaxing and watchful. They notice you more easily and don’t like their downtime interrupted. What’s more: everything’s green.

Nothing looks good against a green background, except tiny patches of intense red and a different shade of green. I guess black’s OK, too, but people rarely dress in black when they go to the park. They put on their “glad rags” and — in my locality at least — go fully armed with the pram, the kids, and the balloons.

The Park Event
If everyday shooting in the park is difficult you have to wait for an event, such as a fair, or “fun run,” before you can feel free enough to take candid snaps. However, the trouble with organised events is the way in which they present you with ready-made subjects that may not be to your liking.

Here in Colchester we have food fairs, “town and country fairs,” medieval fairs (“fayres”), music fairs, Scottish marching band competitions, fireworks displays and 21-gun salutes to celebrate H.M. the Queen’s birthday. Honestly, there are so many events in the park I sometimes wonder how the grass stays as green as it does.

I made a flying visit to the Town and Country Fair, just before closing time when they let you in for free. It’s by far the best time to get decent pictures. The sun is low in the sky, the participants are letting down their hair, and the donkeys are having a well deserved sh*t (featured image, above).

I was surprised to get a nice series of pictures, particularly since I’ve often paid full price on previous occasions and spent the entire afternoon getting nothing. Yes, there was a cute shot of a dog looking out from under a tent — and another of a horse, which I’ll append to the foot of this blog post. But those were exceptions. Organised events, especially when they’re in full swing, don’t seem to yield the kind of subject I like to take.

The Park Non-Event
I really like to photograph people when they’re doing lots of different things, not when they’re spectators of organised sports and entertainments. Left to their own devices, people reveal more about themselves than when a staged event dictates their reactions.

Here (below), for example, is a picture of a typical Sunday afternoon in Castle Park, Colchester. People are sitting, eating, and chatting. Some have gathered together in groups, debating the issues of the day. They’ve brought bicycles, folding chairs, footstools, table cloths — everything for “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (Luncheon on the Grass), if not quite in the style of Edouard Manet.

Sunday in the Park

You see what I mean about the small patch of red? The woman making a phone call was fortunately wearing bright red shorts which form a natural focal point at the centre of the picture. Seen against the subtle greenery of Spring (it was early May) the red is particularly striking. Later in the year the green will become more intense and far less photogenic.

The Same Strategies Apply
When you’re taking pictures in the park you can use the same strategies you normally use on the street. You can “work the scene” when you find something that demands it — such as some people engaged in breakdancing or playing “boules.” Or you can try to remain invisible and get candid pictures, like the one above.

As a backdrop, Colchester’s Castle Park offers amazing props for the off-road street photographer. It has the remains of a Roman villa, a medieval castle built on the ruins of a Roman temple, a wall (Roman, of course), and an extraordinary collection of rare trees — including an oak that looks like a poplar.

Inevitably, any pictures you take in a park — particularly one as beautiful as Castle Park — will be “picturesque.” You can’t keep avoiding the trees, walls, and winding pathways which tend to make the image look more suitable for a calendar than for a portfolio of street photography. Yet the park is a public place, full of pedestrians, and it’s undeniably photogenic.

Winter in the Park
Every year the shops stock up with sledges and shovels, but snow falls about once every two or three years. When it does, everyone goes mad with excitement (especially the shopkeepers). The park really comes to life after a snowfall.

As you could see from the previous image, Castle Park has a very steep hill (as does the whole town), making it ideal for messing around on sledges. By ambulance, the local hospital is only a few minutes away, so there’s no need to slow down before you hit the Roman wall at the bottom of the hill.

It's his turn with the sledge

And Back to Summer
Looking at my final shot you’ll probably think I’ve wandered as far away from the city streets as it’s possible to go. But in fact we’re still in Castle Park, surrounded by thousands of buildings, streets, shops, schools, colleges and a university.

Horses and donkeys are always kind enough to look directly at me, while diverting the glances of spectators away from the camera. That works in my favour. I think this shot captures the moment: both horse and minder are putting their best foot forward. I like the word “style” on the right hand edge of the picture.

Man leading horse

My own style of taking pictures in the park seems to revert to classical compositions, quite unlike those I usually take on the street. They sometimes strike me as quaintly old-fashioned, but I don’t really care.

It’s good to have a change. Even a street photographer needs the occasional day off. Our occupation is not always a walk in the park.

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