Sharing That Warm, Cozy, Fuzzy Feeling

If the photo is warm, cozy and fuzzy there has to be a bear involved somewhere. In Bangkok a couple of years ago there was a craze for the teddy bear and it certainly made a change from all those elephants. Every shop had an assortment of bears — and so did one or two cafés and restaurants.

My featured image (above) shows what can be achieved by the judicious use of a bear. There’s nothing like a large teddy for making the lone diner feel less lonely — and therefore more likely to sit down and order something from the menu, perhaps honey on toast.

Sure, there are some disadvantages. Accommodating large bears tends to eat up the available space for customers, but at least there’s no danger of the customers themselves being eaten. The very existence of the teddy bear is symbolic of the fact that human beings have brought large chunks of nature under control. We haven’t quite mastered all the microbes, but bears — though fierce — are a pushover.

There can be little doubt that we all enjoy what I’ve called a “warm, cozy, fuzzy feeling” whenever we get the chance. I know it’s probably frowned upon in artistic and intellectual circles, where the artist or thinker is supposed to focus on topics that demonstrate greater social responsibility. But I would argue: it’s part of life, isn’t it? Why leave it out in street photography?

A Surfeit of Cuteness
Because everyone occasionally chases the warm, the cozy and the fuzzy, there’s been an epidemic of cuteness, emanating largely from Japan but then spreading throughout the entire civilised world: cute dogs, cute cats, cute children, cute everything. I’ve even seen cute crowd control barriers with rabbit ears (Japanese of course).

In real life, bears are not always cute, as such, but they can certainly look cuddly as long as they don’t stand on their hind legs and bare their teeth in an ugly snarl. Apply the epithet “teddy” — acquired when Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt spared a small bear while on a mission to shoot its parents — and you have cuddly in spades; warmth, coziness and fuzziness “par excellence.” And with a bit of artistic license in the design, you can have cuteness too.

A Question of Taste
The question for the street photographer is this: how can you incorporate “warm-cozy-fuzzy” — the so-called “feelgood factor” — into your pictures without falling into sentimentality and triviality? Can you do it without resorting to cuteness, without showing poodles, persian cats or (especially) teddy bears? Is such a task impossible?

The triggers for “warm-cozy-fuzzy” are things like: enclosed spaces, familiar domestic items, human smiles, anything signifying warmth, conviviality, and togetherness. These triggers can go a long way in compensation for the absence of a bear, although they probably don’t go far enough.

In the image below, I’ve included most of the above-mentioned triggers: five people enjoying a cozy meal on Koh Kret (a river island in northern Bangkok). I took it after eating at the same restaurant, where customers can dangle their legs over the water while downing a few beers (beers! not bears).

That’s the trouble: it was I who was feeling “warm-cozy-fuzzy” but the image doesn’t really communicate the same message. The enamel cups look hard and uninviting, the pots are empty and no one’s smiling. The image simply doesn’t meet the spec.

Does the next one get any closer (below)? As you can see, it’s of a child asleep, cradled in mother’s arms, riding on a bus. Yet even this doesn’t seem to meet the criteria I’ve set. It doesn’t give you the absolute certainly of complete safety which is vitally necessary for the “warm-cozy-fuzzy” vibe. The baby’s head seems to be perilously close to the metal edge of the seat, despite the parent’s protective arm.

We really need more ingredients. Besides domesticity and enclosed spaces, we need to add some happy words — like “happy,” for example — together with some gesture of affection and a display of patience. Here they all are, in the photo below. The light was fading, but it’s the best I can do until I do better.

The Charm of Unexpected Encounters

One of my ambitions is take a candid photo of two other street photographers accidentally bumping into each other. I don’t suppose it will ever happen. If they’re any good, invisible street photographers are hard to spot, let alone capture “en masse” in a photo of your own.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other unexpected encounters to record on the street. Some of them, like my featured image (above), are not really encounters at all — they just look like they are because of the optical illusion that flattens three dimensions into two.

Celebrate the Launch
You can take these “ersatz” encounters at busy places like rail stations and bus stops where people are trying to move in opposite directions, getting on and getting off. In my photo it looks as though the man and the woman are enjoying an intimate moment. Her lips seem to be parted in desire or supplication; he, the quiet, silent type, looks down impassively, unmoved by her emotional pleading.

In fact, the two people don’t know each other at all — and are not communicating anything meaningful. The woman with the silver bag is probably talking to the lady in peach. I recall taking the picture and the whole incident (if you could call it an incident) happened in a blur of activity. It was just two people getting accidentally close, as we all do in similar situations.

I hope the image doesn’t disappoint when you discover it’s about nothing at all. The message is: it seems to be about something, but isn’t. There’s no meeting, no “launch,” nothing to celebrate. It’s just humdrum daily life, made tolerable by the sunlight, by a phone call to a friend (the woman in the doorway), or simply by reading the small print on the side of the bus (the lady in mauve).

The non-incident beside the bus is one grade below an encounter, which itself is one grade below a meeting. Encounters are informal, but meetings always have an element of formality however casual they may appear. They require people to acknowledge each other in some way, which is why formal politeness — however insincere — is such an essential part of social interaction.

Corner Incident
Frankly, other people can be a nuisance. I hate the way some people, especially in London, refuse to alter their path when they’re clearly on a trajectory for collision with you. I think: why should I jump into the gutter to avoid them? Can’t there be a little give and take on the street?

I take many of my photos in Thailand, where people are wonderfully adept at avoiding collisions on a busy street. They seem to be able to anticipate each other’s moves, the slightest move on your part being interpreted as an intention to go left or right — to be countered politely with a move on their part in the opposite direction. If westerners find it easy to walk along a busy sidewalk in Bangkok it’s because no one wants to be held responsible for the social “faux pas” of a collision.

Knowing this behavioural trait, I eagerly awaited the outcome of an inevitable collision when I saw two people approaching each other on a blind corner in Phuket. They were both walking very briskly. I had a clear view of the lady with the parasol heading in my direction, while a man in a red and black jacket was striding towards the same corner. A yellow barrier made avoidance difficult — and for the man there was clearly a danger from the sharp spokes of the lady’s umbrella.

I wanted to shout: “Watch out!” but it didn’t seem appropriate. So I took a picture instead. For once, circumstances conspired to telegraph the “decisive moment” a few seconds before it occurred. I was amazed at how adroitly the two strangers were able to take evasive action. Westerners would have collided. Instead, the old lady lifted up her umbrella in an instant and the man ducked and swerved out of her way. No feathers were ruffled.

Street photography is not just about appearances. It’s about behaviour, too. Sometimes, strangers are obliged to interact, even though they may have no wish to do so. When this happens you can capture their encounters, meetings, confrontations, and evasions in photos which reveal how people get along with each other in close proximity.

The charm of unexpected encounters adds wordless poetry to street photography.

When the Camera Is Near the Ground

When it comes to vantage-points, there’s the bird’s-eye view, normal eye-level, chest height, knee height and subterranean. For the last of these categories you need to be emerging from somewhere underground, like a tube station or a pedestrian subway.

Maybe subterranean is a bit extreme. It can yield good results, but I usually wait until I’ve nearly reached the top of the stairs before taking a shot. I usually get a reasonably good image because I’ve had time to think about it on the way up.

The Featured Image
I’d like to dedicate my featured image (above) to a Chinese gentleman who was talking on his mobile phone in our local park. Without his unintended help this picture would not exist.

There are two paths in our local park which run more or less parallel, one being a couple of metres lower than the other. I was walking along the lower path when the man with the phone starting shouting in Cantonese at the top of his voice. I hastened my step in an attempt to get out of earshot — and as I did so I found myself drawing alongside a woman pushing a pram.

It’s possible “the busy young mum” of my photo was herself trying to escape the bellowing voice behind us. She was moving rapidly and would have disappeared had I not been walking at the same speed.

Our paths began to converge and as soon as I could get a clear shot I grabbed the picture you see. It looks like it was taken from “ankle height,” but that’s the effect of the low elevation of my position. It’s made a huge difference to the quality of the image.

The Analysis
What can I say about it? I think it speaks for itself: a young woman in charge of a baby, hurrying across town, talking on the phone, shopping tied to the handle of the pram — but can she really be a “young mum,” or, with such a trim figure, is she perhaps the “au pair”? It doesn’t matter.

What matters is the low angle which places her head and shoulders against the sky. What matters is the way the early summer sun “makes” rather than breaks the image. The woman’s naturally pale skin looks perfectly congruous in this situation, as she walks towards the light. The white gables of the house on the right and the white penthouse on the left provide blocks of whiteness on either side to keep her company.

I think the image has an iconic quality that would be missing if I’d taken it at eye level while standing alongside the subject. Was I thinking of William Egglestone and his famous photo of the child’s tricycle? Not when I took the shot. The viewpoint may be the same, but I’ve included dynamic action which is deliberately absent in Egglestone’s picture. Yet somehow the iconic quality remains. I think it must have something to do with the angle!

The Inside Illusion
I was approaching the top of a flight of stairs when I took the image you see below. You could almost classify this one as “subterranean,” but I think it’s from around “knee height,” slightly above the viewpoint of the featured image at the top.

Again, the angle makes the image — because the girls’ heads and shoulders are seen against the beautiful curved roof of the building behind them. But there’s another factor at work here, too: an optical illusion.

The low angle combined with foreshortening of the image (courtesy of the 40mm lens) have given the impression that this is an interior shot. It’s not. The building is forty yards away and there’s a huge open space and clear sky in between.

Because it’s an exterior shot, taken on a bright day, the subjects are brightly illuminated in a way that would be impossible indoors. Adding to the illusion, the iron railings to the left and right are suggestive of an open doorway, possibly part of the same building. In fact, they’re across the street and completely separate from the enclosed area you can see.

If the picture has any quality, it exists because of the illusion I’ve described. You could look at it for a minute or two without realising its secret. But, of course, the secret is given away — ultimately — by the windswept hair of the girl in the leather jacket. Of course, it has to be outside! I’ve put a clue in the title by calling the photo “Windswept.”

Keep Looking Up
I greatly prefer the shots I get by looking up at the subject from below to those I get from looking down. That’s not to say looking down doesn’t give you an interesting perspective — it does — but it’s much less flattering to the subject.

For every shot I take looking down I’ll take ten looking up. I think I’ll keep it that way. If pessimists look down and optimists look up I guess this makes me an optimist. And you really need to be an optimist as a street photographer.

Off to One Side — Making Unusual Compositions

As I continue to write these blog posts — and I have a small stockpile of articles as well as those already on the site — I’m beginning to realise the blog is mainly about composition.

After all, composition is surely the key element in street photography. It ranks above content, whereas in photojournalism the opposite is true. It also ranks above technical perfection because a brilliant, technically imperfect street photo can still be utterly compelling. Ultimately, composition is key because the subject itself is not “composed” (i.e. arranged) by the photographer, but discovered and torn from the muddled, ever-changing reality of the street.

Given that composition is so important, it’s incumbent on the street photographer to explore every possibility. The death of street photography will occur when everyone goes for the easy option and says: “Do this, it works.”

Placing a single subject in the middle of the image is a ploy that “works,” but it’s scarcely pushing any boundaries or exploring new ideas. I don’t think we’ve yet exhausted the encyclopedia of possibilities in street photo composition — and I’m determined to create some new entries.

For example, take the idea of “off to one side,” in which a vital element of the composition is on the extreme left or the extreme right of the rectangle. Is such an idea acceptable? Could it “work”?

To answer this I’m submitting a couple of pictures in which the most interesting content is off to one side, in the hope that someone will see the value of this unconventional approach.

The Green Truck
I took my featured image (above) in Hong Kong, while walking down a long, narrow and extremely commercial street that was clogged with delivery vehicles. For once, I decided to “work the scene” because men were going back and forth between the truck and the store behind me. Eventually, I guessed, they’d make a decent composition.

In fact, they didn’t. What I was trying to get was a picture with some great “layers” (which I’ll discuss at some length in a two-part feature), arguably the most elaborate and rewarding style of composition in street photography. With layers you have successive planes of interest in the composition, with good focus maintained from the foreground to the background.

In my image (I’ve called it “Green Truck”) there are certainly planes of interest, but nothing lively in the foreground. At first I thought this was disappointing, but now I no longer mind. The image is all about the little girl on the right who is studying the scene with interest. She looks as concerned as I was, hoping it will all work out for the best.

Of course, it’s all very well to have a charming cameo on one side of the picture, but it has to be counterbalanced in some way, otherwise the composition simply won’t work as a satisfying image. My picture is counterbalanced by the five men over to the left, all huddled in a group around a meat stall. Unconventionally, the centre of the photo is occupied by the side of a truck. Sorry about that!

No, I’m only joking. I really think the composition is successful — despite being initially filed in my “You Must Be Kidding” folder. It works because the green truck has an antique charm, being painted in British racing green and looks as if it may have served for many years when Hong Kong was prospering under British rule. It works because one side-flap on the truck is down, adding more counterbalancing weight to the left of the picture. Linking it all together is the young man who is leaning nochalantly up against the back of the truck, checking his mobile phone.

Holding the Centre Ground
When I suggest that you can place active elements at the sides of the image I’m not suggesting you leave the centre to its own devices. It has to be strong. As the poet W.B. Yeats wrote: ” Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…” It’s a fundamental principal that — in a conceptual sense — there must be a controlling “centre” to keep everything in order.

The centrality of control, however, is entirely conceptual. For example, our brain controls our body but it’s not in the centre of it, it’s up at the top. Wars are fought at the frontline where battles take place, but organisation is done behind the scenes, back at headquarters.

Bear those thoughts in mind when you look at my next image (below). I’ve called it “Reaching for Chopsticks” because the woman on the left has a plate of food in front of her and is about to grab a pair of chopsticks in order to eat it. The other customers are already enjoying their meal, so it’s this lady who, by virtue of her outstretched arm, become a focal point of interest…off to one side.

There’s something clinical and canteen-like about this restaurant in Bangkok. Most of the diners are alone, and all facing towards us. Much of the place is covered in white tiles and the tables and chairs are all made of stainless steel like the kitchen equipment. Tables are clearly numbered and each one is equipped with separate metal holders for chopsticks. Indeed, the restaurant seems to have been designed entirely with the convenience of the owner in mind. There’s no doubt about who’s in charge.

I can get away with placing the customer at the side of the image because the centre is being held by the woman with the tasteful, old-fashioned blouse. She’s pointing in a commanding manner, in contrast with the woman beside her — clearly an employee — who checks dutifully if everything is “tickety-boo” (as people said in World War One).

The big circular fan is so prominent it brings our attention back to the centre where the two figures with their backs towards us are framed by the outline of the distant kitchen.

Yes, I’m aware the image is unconventional, but I know it works as a composition. In fact, I’m every bit as confident as the lady with the raised finger.

Is Anything Off-Limits for the Street Photographer?

A few years back, an enterprising student posted a blog that went viral on the Internet: “Shit My Photography Professor Says”. It had such gems in it as: “Don’t take pictures in graveyards. What are you even doing there?” and “Ugh. Just by looking around, I think none of you should procreate.”

Part of the joy of reading the blog was in trying to figure out the professor. He sometimes seemed inspired, at other times crazy. I didn’t always agree with him (I profoundly disagree with his idea that the photographer has to “hurt” the viewer) but I was certainly struck by his list of off-limit subjects.

“Didn’t I say no bums? This is someone who does not seem to share your white supremacist views.” And my No.1 favourite: “Don’t you dare go to Chinatown. Leave the f*****g Chinese alone.”

Did the professor have a point? Or was he being unnecessarily censorious if we bear in mind that students are just beginning to explore the world? It seems absurd to shut them off from half of it. Yes! Half of it!

No Fire Hydrants
Although the professor said: “You can photograph EVERYTHING,” he was quick to add: “Seriously, you can take photos of anything your little heart desires…except: homeless people, fire hydrants, old people, Chinese people, children, African Americans, street performers, Italians — and absolutely no nudity.”

I think I understand why the professor sees the world in these terms. He doesn’t think that art should be easy — and he’s right, up to a point. In the American context, a lot of the subjects in his off-limits list are sitting ducks. The Chinese trade mostly within Chinatown, street performers anchor themselves to one place for the day, and fire hydrants and gravestones are not going anywhere fast.

Most of these subjects are photogenic; all are easy to find; and few of them care if you snap them. But will they take you closer to becoming a photographic artist? Not in the professor’s view.

A privileged white student points an expensive camera at a sleeping black vagrant and the professor feels nothing but contempt for the student. But maybe the student’s intentions are honourable? Maybe he or she wants to show the plight of the homeless — a subject that’s often addressed by younger photographers.

I’m more open-minded than the professor. I would never talk down to students. I don’t have a political agenda. I don’t feel guilty about being white or owning a house. I once shared a rental with ten friendly Jamaicans and I love to take pictures in Bangkok’s Chinatown because it contains life, movement, colour, people of all ages — including old people and the occasional Indian.

Perhaps one reason why the professor warned his students away from certain subjects is that he wanted them to avoid clichés. Homeless people, Chinese traders, old people — too many photos of these subjects lack the spark of originality. They’ve almost become a commodity, like those uninspired stock photos that are used for illustrating newspaper articles. “Can you give me twenty old people, half a dozen homeless and couple of Chinese, please?” (This is not the professor speaking. It’s me trying to make a point.)

No Elderly People
My featured photo (at the top) is of an elderly person walking past Selfridges in London. I didn’t take it because he was old, but because he was stylish. In fact, I don’t think of old people as being “off limits.” You can’t, when you’re my age. If I listened to the professor I’d never be able to take a selfie!

So is any subject legitimately off-limits?

Yes. If, by taking a photograph, you collude with someone who’s doing evil — that’s off-limits. Why? Because you’re placing the viewer in the same position. You’re making the viewer collude in the evil.

So, professor, I guess you feel you belong to a society that oppresses homeless people and you don’t want to collude in their oppression. You have every right to take this view, but it’s not one to foist on other people. Within western societies there are many cultures and sub-cultures — in fact, so many that I think you can legitimately stand apart from “society” as a whole and view it dispassionately through a camera.

With the one exception I’ve stated, surely every subject is fair game?

Walk Around or Stand and Wait?

What’s the best policy for taking street photos? Should you walk around, actively looking for pictures, or is it better to stand in a promising location and wait for the right subjects to show up?

Personally, I like to walk — or at least I combine walking with occasional spells of waiting. Other photographers are more static. In a busy city like London they’re prepared to wait and let the world pass by. It always does, eventually.

When I walk, I sometimes come across other street photographers lurking in the shadows. We might nod to each other or even have a brief chat, but then I’m off again and the other one remains behind. It would appear I’m in the minority when it comes to choosing between Walk and Don’t Walk.

The Urge to Walk
First of all let me say I’m not a great fan of the French word “flaneur.” It’s become synonymous with “street photographer,” which is absurd if most of us don’t do very much walking. It means “stroller” but also “idler,” “saunterer” and “lounger.” I wish the French would make up their minds! I guess a Texan would talk about “moseying,” which is a whole lot more menacing, if every bit as relaxed.

It’s the relaxed connotation that offends me most when people mention “flaneur.” I’m not in an idle state of mind when I take street photos — quite the opposite. My head is buzzing with all the possibilities. “What if that woman pauses in front of the fountain?” “Will that guy put the dog down and look in my direction?” “Is my shutter speed fast enough for those skateboarders?”

I don’t mind if the French stroll and saunter their way towards their goal, I’m running full tilt at mine. Yes, I’m prepared to let life unfold gracefully in front of the lens, but I certainly won’t wait forever. I want to look, see the picture, take the shot, move on — that’s my philosophy.

The Better Strategy
For me, walking is the better strategy. It’s all about keeping in a positive frame of mind. By changing the scene, by varying the tempo, I convince myself that I’m getting closer to obtaining a great, candid shot which will make the entire day worthwhile. If I stand and wait for twenty minutes, I become gloomy and restless. I feel as though I can hear time passing, which is literally true when Big Ben chimes the quarter-hour (OK, it’s currently switched off for renovation, but you get the idea).

I think the street photographer’s mind needs to be fed with a constant flow of new possibilities. Ours is a creative process, but it’s one that involves selection rather than invention. The more possibilities you give to your creative mind, the more adept it becomes at handling them.

Or Maybe Not
By walking you can change the scene, the background, the light, the atmosphere and even the feeling of your photography from one shot to the next. If you’re looking for a coherent set of images, it may not be the right strategy for your work, even though it works for me.

Some street photographers like to “work the scene” by lingering to take a whole bunch of pictures from different angles, moving in for close-ups and generally covering the incident (or non-incident) as if they were journalists reporting a story.

If you’ve found a dynamic subject that offers the potential for multiple shots, by all means linger and work the scene. If people are playing or dancing in the street, you’ll get better shots if you study their movements and take more than one photo.

One one occasion in Thailand (see my featured shot, above) I paused in front of a store where men were unloading lots of goods. I liked the dynamism of the scene and took a few shots — which eventually earned me a long, hostile stare from the female supervisor. I’m glad I stayed to work the scene: her glare makes the picture.

On a similar theme, there’s the image you see below. Did I pause for that one? No, it was a “one-off.” I was just walking past.

The Beauty of the Transient Shot
I favour a cinematic style of shooting in which I, the cameraman, as well as they, the subjects, are in constant motion. When I shoot in this way I feel as though I’m in tune with the rhythm of the city, even though I’m still an outsider — an observer rather than a full participant.

The result of working in this way is to get images which suggest that life goes on beyond the frame, beyond what the image is showing us. In this way I can give a sense of something greater than the fragment of reality which I set before the onlooker. I’m hoping that the viewer of the image will continue the action imaginatively, or think about what lies outside the edges of the picture.

Here’s a dusty, urban scene (below) on which to finish. A group of people have alighted from a bus and they set off on foot towards their destination, two of them shielding their eyes against the sun. In a moment or two the bus will pull away, revealing the scene behind it; the people will have gone. Only the scooter and helmet will remain, waiting for their owner to put them into motion.

There will be nothing left for me to photograph. I must continue my walk.

Finding Still Life Compositions on the Street

I’ve written previously about the absence of people and the traces they leave behind. It was in a blog post called “Can Your Street Photo Be Devoid of People?” a question to which my answer was a cautious “yes.”

This time I want to look more closely at making a still life composition from the jumble of objects in the street. Apart from any other consideration, it’s a useful exercise which can prove to be helpful in regular street photography: when people are the main subject.

I was intrigued by the sight of a wrought-iron fence being gradually enveloped by the roots of the giant fig-tree (featured image, above). Oddly enough, the fence looked as though it had been painted quite recently, by which I mean in the last ten years or so. Perhaps someone else had found it charming and decided to take care of the tree’s friend (or lunch) by painting over the rust. You can see a dab of white paint on the tree itself: a clue as to its recent attention.

The other trace of human intervention is the existence of the colourful ribbon, placed there as a sign of special respect for this individual tree. Nature itself has added the leaves, while, all around, life goes on at a furious pace in the middle of Bangkok.

I spotted the composition from across the street. The top of the white post is the central target, but there’s enough interest in the frame, especially in the diagonals and arrows of the fence and the colours of the ribbon, to draw the eye to other parts of the frame. Contrast comes from the twisting lines of the roots up against the straight lines of the fence that nonetheless curls in the approved western style at the bottom of the image.

I much prefer this image to others I’ve taken of similar subjects, especially of the famous “Buddha in the Tree” in Ayutthaya. Wonderful though it is, the latter lacks the contrast of colour and form, and the deep shade makes it hard to create a great picture without a lot of post-processing.

Finding the Improbable
Walking through a Chinese temple, by the side of the Chao Praya in Bangkok, I was looking for an original composition: something which made an unexpected item the main subject, rather than an obvious vase, chalice or sculpture.

The bottle of standard cooking oil, used for fuelling the burners, was ideal. In the context of the holy sculptures it seemed completely out of place, at least on an intellectual or devotional level. Yet it fits into the composition perfectly, its golden colour blending with the gold of the sculpted figures in the background. I like the “everyday” connotation it brings to the image, which I’ve called “Holy Cooking Oil.”

When the Composition is Ready-Made
If I come across a composition that requires no skill or imagination to capture, I usually think twice before taking a photo. This one (below) I couldn’t resist.

On what looks like a free-standing sarcophagus in the middle of urban wasteland is a graffiti-like poster of a young man with a computer keyboard who appears to be trapped inside. He glares at us defiantly, his head emerging from a flat-panel display.

In my defence I can claim to have had the sense to notice its potential, take it from a good angle — directly from the front, centrally positioned, with straight verticals. I guess I can claim it as an “objet trouvé,” much like the “found objects” picked up by Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters in the early twentieth century. It may even please those, like the members of the widespread Stuckist group, who are opposed to “anti-art” (like found objects) but are in favour of “anti-anti-art.” You know it makes sense.

Keeping It Symmetrical
In the image above I’ve contrasted the symmetry of the object with the assymetrical background. The splashes of blue and red help to tie it all together. The same is true of the next picture (below), where the gold-coloured lamp post gleams in the evening light against the tower blocks of Hong Kong. This time, the out-of-focus lights help to balance the image, while the hint of an arrow at bottom left pulls against the weight of the large building on the right.

When I took the shot I was confident it would work. The light on the lamp post illuminates the tiny stickers, including the one of the rising phoenix. Although you can’t actually see any people, they’re everywhere in the image — behind the walls, cooking, eating, talking, preparing for sleep, only to rise again in the morning like the phoenix from the fire.

What Makes a Great Street Photograph?

It’s the question interviewers love to ask — and it’s the one that street photographers have come to expect. Their answers are usually non-committal. “It depends…” they’ll say, “…on things like style and approach, on what you’re trying to do.”

I’d like to find an answer that’s more definitive and which could be applied to most street photographs, regardless of styles and objectives. Surely there has to be some specific quality within the photo to prompt the informed onlooker to say: “That’s a great shot.”

Here’s my suggestion. A great street photograph must have an indefinable quality which cannot be expressed clearly in words. I think this is the key component and it need be the only component. The photo could lack all the other qualities we normally admire — pleasing composition, great light, an intrinsically interesting subject — if it has “that certain indefinable something.”

So that’s my definitive answer: something indefinable! Really, it’s not good enough. I shall have to explain what I mean.

Totting Up
My featured image (above) is a scene from a street market in Bangkok. From a technical viewpoint it’s not one of my best photos. For example, I can’t do anything about the blown highlights or the extremes of light and shade which were already there in the scene on an intensely sunny day. But it’s one of my personal favourites. There’s something about it I find utterly compelling.

The main elements that make up the image are the central figure who stands slightly apart from the others, a young woman holding a child, a stall-holder who tots up their purchases (I’ve called this picture “Totting Up”), and another man in the background who looks towards the camera.

The main figures are surrounded on each side by copious amounts of food and cold drinks, the sight of which is satisfying when we view a street scene taken in brilliant sun. Those durians look delicious, don’t they?

Yet it’s not the props or the environment which makes the picture what it is. Its indefinable quality lies partly in the pose of the main figure and partly in the fact that each person looks in a specific direction, except for the main figure who seems to gaze in two directions at once.

When I examine the pose of the central figure I awaken a residual memory of a figure from Italian art. Who can it be? I can’t find a perfect match, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s the figure of the goddess Flora in Sandro Botticelli’s 1478 masterpiece “Primavera.”

Could anything be less likely? Flora is the one who stands next to Venus, on the opposite side of the painting to the Three Graces, distributing flowers — the largesse of Nature. Her arms are in a similar position to those of the girl in my photo, although her hands are not actually touching. There’s also an abundance of fruit in Botticelli’s painting, which may have triggered my memory of it.

The Ambiguous Gaze
The two female figures in my photo seem to be looking at something off to the right of the frame while the stall-holder and the baby are looking down. However, there’s ambiguity in the gaze of the main figure who also seems to gaze directly at the onlooker, backed up by the man in the background.

I like the girl’s ambiguous gaze. It reminds me of the way I tend to look at every scene I photograph.

Ambiguity is a key quality of street photography, as it is in literature. I’m tempted to say it’s a quality that contributes to a photo’s overall distinction, but I can imagine an image which moves us in an indefinable way without being ambiguous.

I’m not saying that my photo lacks all other qualities. I’ve filled the frame, achieved good focus, blurred the background. There’s good distribution of colour and plenty in the image to please the eye. It’s a complex image — and again I’m tempted to say that “complexity” is another quality which makes a great street photo, were it not for the fact that simplicity can do the same.

Frequently in these articles I talk about “contrast” being a main constituent of street photography — in the sense that the image may contrast one idea with another: such as a baby sitting on a Roman wall. A sense of time and the passing of time is nearly always a factor which contributes to a photo’s greatness, especially in an art-form such as street photography where ephemerality is almost unavoidable.

Does the featured image have contrast? It does for me — because I remember the glory of Botticelli’s painting and am struck by how the ordinariness of my little market scene contrasts with the flowing beauty of the Florentine work. The contrast gives my photo an added poignancy. Can this be the indefinable quality I mentioned?

Smartening Up
I hesitate to add any more photos to this post because I can’t use up two favourite images in one article. I don’t have as many as I’d like! But here’s one, “Smartening Up,” that almost makes the grade.

Again, it’s not technically great, but it has an indefinable something. The girl with the sandwich shows a touch of anxiety, perhaps caused by the strange behavior of her colleagues. The three figures form a nice pyramid, but that’s a fairly obvious quality of the composition. Less obvious are the circles.

There’s a pink, circular fan; a purple, circular bowl; a blue circular mirror; and a white, circular cover to the car’s fuel tank. Everyone and everything – the auburn-haired women, the stool and the car — has a circle. But the black-haired girl has none. Maybe that’s why she’s anxious.

Of course, such a suggestion is absurd, but the photo makes a point of addressing the absurd, so we’re tempted to go further and invent bizarre ideas to explain it.

Indefinable? Beyond words?
I’m not sure if anything is indefinable and completely beyond the power of language. Analysis gives us greater insight — and I think it can do so without destroying the magic of the image.

I don’t claim any of my photos to be “great” in the face of all the intense competition from other, better known photographers, but I sometimes have an indefinable feeling which tells me I’m probably going in the right direction.

Dealing With Shop Decor

For the candid photographer, shop decor is a ready-made backdrop –too good to ignore yet often out of bounds because stores prohibit photography on their premises. I can see their point of view. The interests and privacy of their customers must come first.

However, I don’t like to admit defeat. Some photographers — Michael Huniewicz springs to mind — go to North Korea and come back with hundreds of forbidden images, so I think I can grab a few shop interiors in other countries without being reprimanded.

Malls in Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong are reasonably tolerant of photographers, providing no one gets unduly disturbed. Here, pragmatism has triumphed out of necessity, because among the best customers are tourists with expensive cameras around their necks.

The Indoor High Street
The design of the modern mall works in favour of the street photographer because the whole area is essentially a network of indoor streets. The only difference lies in the shops themselves. They blend seamlessly into the public areas with scarcely any barriers between the “street” and the interior of the shop. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re in the shop or outside it.

When there’s a physical barrier, it’s often a huge, plate glass partition separating shop from street, allowing potential customers to see the goods close-up without committing themselves to a visit. As a result, store design has become increasingly theatrical, with shops competing for attention by staging ever more eye-catching displays which many passers-by snap with their mobile phones.

As you can see from the photo below, the passer-by does not have to enter the shop to get a picture. The heads of the beasts seem to stand guard over the privacy of the customers. If photographers were to venture inside they’d find most of the animals looking in the wrong direction.

Golden Age
We live in a Golden Age of shop decor and it’s hard to imagine what will come along next. Can it get any more inventive, any more surreal? Store designers have the whole history of art from which to borrow, including everything since Dada and the Futurists. Maybe the future of art itself belongs to these creators of new shopping environments. Once they’ve exhausted the history of art they’ll have to become truly original — as I think they already are in the Far East.

For example, I can’t think of any art historical precedent for this cluster of golden legs advertising the presence of a shoe shop. It seems to have attracted the attention of the two passers-by, one of whom could use a new pair of trainers.

Moving Inside
I took my shots of the large beasts and the cluster of legs from the public space between stores. But if you want to get a better shot — and who wouldn’t? — you need to move in a bit closer. You need to be inside the store, or at least within its entrance.

My featured photo (at the top of the page) shows you the kind of image I prefer. For a start, it’s better lit than the others. The store lights were not the most intense I’ve seen, but the translucent background added wonderfully to the overall effect.

I was actually inside the store, but only just. I’d waited a minute or so for the right moment then stepped forward when the customers were in good positions. The main figure, in particular, was approaching the camera but still looking from side to side at the clothes. She seems to be the “New Arrival” referred to by the sign. Her black and white Yves St Laurent tee-shirt is nothing like the colourful clothes in the store. Surely they can’t both be in fashion?

The danger in using shop decor as a backdrop for street photography is that it can so easily become the most important part of the image. I think this is true of my picture of the woman taking a shot of the beast with her mobile phone, but it’s not true of the featured image. There are six people in the photo, none of whom is irrelevant. They are the real subject of the image. The shop is merely their environment: in wildlife terms, their natural habitat.

So you can see where this argument is headed. It’s essential for the street photographer to get off the sidewalk and go to where people are most at home — except when they’re actually at home. And where is that? At the mall.

People spend such of lot of time at the mall they cannot be said to be visiting or shopping. They’re living there, all bar sleeping over. You can have breakfast, lunch, tea, cocktails and dinner in the mall, go to the movies, and generally hang out with your friends for hours on end. Afterwards you scuttle home — and that’s when the majority of street photographers will take your image, in black and white, when you’re tired and under stress.

Wouldn’t you prefer me to take your picture in daytime at the mall?

When the Subject Date-Stamps the Image

I love it when a subject date-stamps one of my street photos — when it mentions the day of the week, or the name of the month, or tells us the year in which the shot was taken.

The art of street photography and the concept of time are irrevocably intertwined. In all photography, time is embedded in the still image: a passing moment fixed forever in the representation of the subject. If you want to know exactly when that moment occurred you can look up the EXIF file and find out the time and date of origination, unless processing has stripped away the details and consigned them to the unrecorded past.

Yet I find it surprising that so few street photographs carry any visual information to indicate time of day, day of month, or even a reference to the current year. I guess it’s because everyone now has a mobile phone and wristwatch so there’s no longer a practical need for clocks in public spaces.

I’m not suggesting that every street photo needs to refer directly to the date. That would be absurd. But it’s good, occasionally, to remind ourselves that our images are located precisely in the flow of time, even when many of them may look deceptively timeless — at least for now.

I say “for now” because although street photos don’t look dated for the first year or two after they are taken, they do assume their place in time once a decade or two have passed. Fashions, car designs, buildings and street furniture change quite rapidly, making our photos a record of the past in less time than we care to imagine.

Landscape photographers can play with the concept of time more easily: balancing the ephemerality of changing seasons against the relative permanence of geological features such as rivers and mountains. Only when something really dramatic occurs — as it did recently with the complete collapse of Malta’s famous Azure Window — can we locate a photo of such a feature in the flow of time. Pre-2017 the Azure Window existed. Post-2017 it did not.

So if time is inextricably bound up with the photo, regardless of the subject, why is it good when the subject declares the time overtly? Why do I sometimes like to see “2017,” “Tuesday,” or “March” — or other such specific, time-related reference — within the image?

I’m not sure if I can answer that question. It just feels right.

What Day Is It?
The best way I can explain my feeling about this topic is to look at a specific example. My featured image (above) shows a girl wearing a tee-shirt that says: “Sunday, Funday.” The photo is one of my personal favourites, although I think some viewers will find it rather ordinary. I took it on a Sunday when not much was happening. The streets of Bangkok were quiet and everyone seemed a bit hung over from the night before.

Thai people are very aware of the days of the week. My partner and her friends always exchange “virtual flowers” in specific colours to mark Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc., on Line (the oriental equivalent of WhatsApp). In case you’re interested, the “lucky colours” are red for Sunday; yellow for Monday; pink for Tuesday; green for Wednesday (day); grey for Wednesday (night); orange for Thursday; light blue for Friday; and purple for Saturday.

My photo has a prevailing atmosphere of “ennui,” evoked by the anxious gesture of the girl on the left and the downright miserable expression of the man who is entering the frame from the right. Only the figure in lucky Sunday red seems cheerful. The central figure, the girl with the “Sunday, Funday” tee-shirt, is neither sad nor happy but just stares dreamily into the distance. She hopes for the best although her day could go one way or the other.

I’ve checked the EXIF and I can confirm I took the photo on a Sunday. In fact, I remember it well. The photo captures my own mood at that moment as well as the collective mood of the subjects. Up to that point my day hadn’t been very successful and could have gone downhill even further. But getting this shot turned everything around. Maybe those lucky colours really do work!

What Year Is It?
Time seems to pass slowly for young people but all too quickly for older people. This is mostly because we fall into regular habits as we get older and the days become less memorable as a result.

My next photo (below) shows an elderly man standing in front of a poster of four young children and looking at something which has attracted his curiosity beyond the frame. Whatever can it be?

I guess the clue is in the bubbles. A child was blowing some huge bubbles from inside a pram — it was definitely worth stopping to look. Meanwhile, my camera snaps the moment before the bubbles burst (at eight minutes to two in the afternoon). The EXIF doesn’t tell me the exact second but at least the image gives a big clue as to the year. “Opening 2017” places the photo in either 2016 or early 2017. The man’s light jacket tells us it’s summertime: hence 2016.

The photo of the man and the bubbles is not nearly as good as “Sunday, Funday” but it still has internal tensions which raise it above the ordinary. The overt mention of time — the statement of a proposed opening date the following year — is a factor that plays well when the theme is old age versus youth. But there is also the dignified expression of the man with the bag, which contrasts sharply with the cheeky attitudes of the children in the poster.

There is something disturbing about the Primark poster kids. I think some of them have been photographed separately then photoshopped together. Moreover, the girl with the long hair seems to have a huge left hand. It’s bigger than the boy’s hand in front. Can that be right? When I look at the poster I feel as bemused as the old gentlemen himself.

Time passes quickly for people, posters, shops and bubbles; slowly — but no less inexorably — for stones and mountains. With the progression of time, disorder in the universe increases. Stones and mountains eventually crumble; we’ve seen it with the Azure Window. As Professor Stephen Hawking says in “A Brief History of Time”: “The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.”

Photographers swim against the flow of time, bringing order by representing people and places in ordered compositions. Surely it’s worthwhile to give this activity a seal of approval, now and again, by allowing the subject to place a date-stamp somewhere in the image? It can’t do any harm.