Is It Still Candid If Just One Person Sees You?

At its best, street photography is one hundred percent candid. When the subject is completely unaware of the camera, you place viewers in the privileged position of being able to scrutinise life on the street entirely objectively — without receiving accusatory stares from someone unknown to them.

Often, however, the subject of the image is more than one person: it’s a couple, or a group of people who’ve caught the eye of the street photographer. Unless all the people in the group are totally absorbed in their activity it’s more than likely that one of them will spot the camera and look quizzically at it. Sometimes this can ruin the image; on other occasions it can “make” it.

The Acceptables
I have a stack of images of both sorts: rejects and acceptables. My featured image (above) I count as one of the acceptables. I still feel a bit guilty about taking it because I probably ruined the guy’s shot. Or maybe he got an heroic portrait of the woman gazing and smiling into the distance. Let’s hope so. I like the image because the woman is central to it — and clearly enjoying being the centre of attention. By contrast, the man on the right seems to be totally unaffected by her charms, and, in a non-committal way, is checking out the menu immediately behind her.

The image works because it’s clearly been taken without permission being sought and granted. It has an air of spontaneity — and the woman’s smile is enough to brighten anyone’s day. It also works because it contains a complete scenario. Instead of being an impromptu shot of a friend or relative outside a tourist venue it’s an incident, a unique moment in which various elements come together to form the whole picture. Even the Honda scooter leans obligingly towards the young woman — and as if in response she leans back slightly, setting up a subtle dynamic within the frame.

Does the image have any faults? Yes. But I’ve only ever seen a dozen or so street photographs that could be described as “faultless” in all respects. In fact, those that seem to be perfect — in composition and photographic quality — can sometimes appear too staid, lacking the vitality we’ve come to expect in street photography.

And Again
Here’s another shot (immediately above) when the subject notices the camera. Thank heavens she did! Everyone else is shown in back view, so without the subject looking towards me the picture would have no focal point. As it is, the image springs to life, making it more interesting than a mere “study in blue and green.”

Not So Good
I can make no excuses for the following image. OK, it’s a decisive moment, and the girl who’s feeding the fish is unaware that I’m taking a picture of her. However, this time I’ve been spotted by another person in the image, not the central figure but the young man on the left. He looks straight at the camera and doesn’t seem entirely pleased about it.

Whether or not you think this image works depends entirely on the story you make up to understand what’s going on.

For example, you could interpret the young man’s gaze as showing a measure of guilt. In some parts of Thailand, feeding the fish is illegal — and people are prosecuted for it — whereas in other parts it’s an accepted part of tradition. Some people even feed wild catfish which they later catch for food.

I don’t think there’s any legal problem here, neither do I think the young man is worried about it. I also doubt if he’s a catfish farmer. Perhaps he’s thinking I’m taking a cheap shot of his attractive girlfriend, in which case he’s partially right, but I wouldn’t have done so if she’d simply been standing there. No, I think he’s on a date, and somewhat embarrassed to be seen taking part in the “girly” activity of fish-feeding in order to please his friend.

Do you see what a difference the story makes to the way we see the image? If the stare is accusatory rather than guilty or embarrassed, it becomes the main message of the image — completely unrelated to the activities taking place. But if, as the viewer, you can set your mind at ease and tell yourself that his stare is part of the picture’s internal narrative, all is well. You can then see the picture as a balanced composition.

So Many Interpretations
It’s good when a photograph enables various interpretations, each one dependent on the reaction of the viewer. We make up stories to explain the situation depicted in much the same way as, in our minds, we complete the actions of subjects when they are caught mid-movement. By adding our own idea of movement — or by adding an imagined narrative — we bring the image to life and make it memorable.

One More
The final image (below) I took more recently. The light had faded on the streets of London’s West End, so I walked across the river to the South Bank which is more open to the evening light.

There, I spotted these two people sitting in a composition that could not have been better had I tried to organise it. However, I had to double back to take the shot because other passers-by were getting in the way. On my second run the young man noticed me although his friend remained oblivious. Afterwards, I said “hi” and explained why I took the shot, but I didn’t take another.

The large scarlet portfolio indicates that the two subjects are creative people, taking samples of their work with them. The young guy’s knowing look suggests he’s probably aware of serious street photography and he has the presence of mind to remain cool about it. I’m reluctant to remove the only blemish: the distant figures which get entangled in the woman’s hair. Apart from that, it’s a shot I like.

As I suspected, half a candid photo — when only one person is looking at you — can be better than a posed shot in which both are gazing into the lens.

The Case of the Missing Author

Street photography would be so much easier if we could simply imagine a perfect scene and have it appear magically in front of the camera. I’m jealous of the novelist who is unconstrained by reality, allowing pure imagination to make invented characters perform to order. I’ve a good mind to borrow a couple of them.

Let’s pretend that Hercule Poirot and his friend and narrator Captain Hastings have retired from solving mysteries and have taken up photography. What would they want to photograph on the streets of London?

Poirot: “Ah, Hastings, mon ami, let us create the perfect photograph today. I want us to find a subject that will set my little grey cells working. It must be mysterious! Where, oh where, can we find such a mystery in London?”

Hastings: “Well, personally I think we should pay homage to our beloved creator. Now don’t look aghast, Poirot old chap. I don’t mean the good Lord above, I mean Agatha Christie. There’s a splendid memorial to her in front of where the Photographers Gallery used to be.”

Poirot: “What an excellent idea, Hastings. A memorial, yes. We could pretend to be photographing it while in actual fact waiting for something a little more interesting to come along, perhaps?”

Hastings: “Such as?”

Poirot: “Whatever you like. You really should have learned how to do this from our dear creator.”

Hastings: “Alright. What would I most desire? I don’t suppose, Poirot, that a beautiful woman would be out of the question?”

Poirot: “Not at all. You may have anyone you like. It’s purely fiction, after all.”

Hastings (giving his imagination free rein): “As it’s winter, I think a tall Russian model wearing tight leggings would be acceptable. And for you?”

Poirot: “Someone a little bit shorter. Maybe an elegant brunette holding a red rose. But that’s not enough, Hastings, there has to be a mystery. Perhaps they could both be carrying a body in a bag.”

Hastings: “Outrageous, Poirot! But yes, I see what you mean. It’s midday in Covent Garden, but here are two women, beautifully dressed as if for a special occasion — and accompanied by…a third person, a man holding two red roses, one for himself and one for my tall Russian model who needs both hands free to carry the body.”

Poirot: “Now we are making progress, Hastings. The third man must also be impeccably dressed in something spectacular and colourful.”

Hastings: “A red jacket?”

Poirot: “Be precise, Hastings. You can’t just say ‘red.’ It has to be scarlet, or crimson, or cherry, or wine, or ruby, or something like that.”

Hastings: “Candy?”

Poirot: “Indeed, Hastings, that colour must be specified as #D21502 if my memory serves me correctly.”

Hastings: “Let me recap, Poirot. Our perfect photograph would include the memorial to our beloved creator Agatha, together with a mysterious and somewhat theatrical scenario…”

Poirot (interrupting): “There’s nothing wrong with a little theatre, Hastings. We’re just round the corner from where The Mousetrap has been played for the last sixty-seven years.”

three women, outside theatre with The Mousetrap plaque

Hastings: “Don’t remind me, Poirot. She didn’t put the two of us in The Mousetrap! I’m beginning to have my doubts about this picture. Shall we see what we’ve got so far?”

Poirot: “But this is terrible, Hastings. It’s not what we wanted at all. Look, there’s another figure on the left — you can just see his arm. We’ll have to get rid of him.”

Hastings: “And the memorial. It’s awfully ugly, isn’t it? Whatever were they thinking?”

Poirot: “Lamentable, I agree, Hastings. And if you examine it closely you can just see the outline of that dreadfully amateur Miss Marple — looking for all the world like Vivian Maier on a bad day — both of them our chief competitors. We have no choice but to crop the whole memorial from our perfect image.”

the featured shot, cropped

Hastings (in dismay): “But if we erase our own creator we’ll be lost.”

Poirot (raising his finger): “No, mon ami, we shall not be lost. We shall be free.”

NOTE: It was so nearly the perfect shot: I was waiting for someone interesting to pass the Agatha Christie memorial at the corner of Cranbourn Street and St Martin’s Lane when this group of people crossed in front of me. They were mysterious for sure! Alas, the book-shaped monument is so ponderous I tried to crop it from the image (as above), thereby removing the one element that gave it an extra twist.

Elephants Part II, At the Erawan Shrine

In Part I of this short series I paid a visit to the Erawan Museum in Samat Prakan, a few miles south of Bangkok. This time we’re in the very heart of the city, at the Erawan Shrine. It’s important not to confuse the two. They couldn’t be more different!

The Erawan Shrine, located alongside the Skytrain track between Siam and Chit Lom, is a popular destination for people who wish to pray for health, wealth and happiness. It had curious beginnings.

The Two Hotels
Construction of a hotel on the site in 1956 was delayed by a series of accidents, so the authorities took the advice of an astrologer and ordered the construction of a shrine. They wanted it to exorcise the presence of bad spirits, the area having been used, many years previously, to display and shame criminals in public.

The decision proved to be very wise, because, from then on, construction progressed without incident. However, the Erawan Hotel was later pulled down and rebuilt as the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel in 1987. This time the shrine was expanded to make more room for the increasing number of devotees and it’s now one of the busiest places in Bangkok.

People washing themselves

A Great Place for Street Photography
Wherever crowds gather, there you’ll find a great place for street photography. The Erawan Shrine is particularly good because people are concentrating on their religious devotions. I’m always discreet and respectful on these occasions — and now and then I’m rewarded by a shot that pleases me.

There are several ways of approaching the subject: by entering the shrine and mingling with the devotees (great for close-ups — see featured photo at the top); by lingering just outside the railings in the neutral territory of the street (photo immediately above); or by going up to the walkway that connects the various malls (image below). I’ve tried all these strategies and found the second one works best for my style of photo. It allows me to include a group of people and to see what they’re doing and how they’re interacting.

View from above

Tragic Events
Alas, the recent history of the Erawan Shrine has shown that the bad spirits are fighting back, despite all the supplications. In 2006 a man with a hammer destroyed the sacred statue of Brahma. The incident took place in the early hours of the morning and was witnessed by two street cleaners who promptly beat the man to death.

Again in 2015 the shrine was struck by tragedy when a terrorist detonated a bomb next to the railings (those you see in the bottom left of the photo above). Three kilograms of TNT killed 20 people and injured 125 others. Suspects were eventually arrested but the court case, at the time of writing, is still in progress several years after the incident.

View from outside the railings

Life Continues
I took some pictures in 2016, not long after the site had been restored. There was still a sombre mood, but it was already getting back to normal (above).

People lighting incense sticks

Today, the life of the Erawan Shrine continues much as before, with people attending for private reasons: praying for family, friends and self. They light incense sticks (above and below), cleanse themselves with holy water, and make offerings at the shrine.

A haze of smoke from the incense

Tourists visit the Erawan Shrine from all over the world and it continues to be one of Bangkok’s most popular destinations. Moreover, it’s attended by people of different religions. Even atheists can acknowledge its beauty, or admire the demonstrations of traditional dancing which often take place there.

The many faces of the devotees are a gift to the street photographer, as are the dappled sunlight and incense smoke which add to the atmosphere of the venue (below).

People with serious expressions

A Decade of Images
I’ve taken pictures at the Erawan Shrine on many occasions over the past decade. Those at the top of the article and the one below were made in 2011, four years before the bomb.

I wonder, has awareness of the event changed my photographs? I don’t really think so, but it does make me see the earlier pictures in a different way.

There’s no escaping the fact that life is sometimes cut brutally short, whether through ignorance or evil intent. Yet it always regenerates and over time that in itself becomes a cause for reflective celebration.

woman placing candle

Elephants Part I: At the Erawan Museum

I had been going to Bangkok for twenty years, often passing the Erawan Museum on my way to the Ancient City (now officially rebranded as Ancient Siam). If I was travelling with others they’d say: “Oh, come on, shall we take a quick look round?” to which I’d reply: “I’d rather press on. I have a project to complete.”

Why did I never want to stop at the museum? I suppose it’s partly the word “museum” which put me off. I guessed (wrongly) that it would be fusty and dilapidated. Also, I prefer taking shots of people on the street, rather than venturing inside tourist sites.

Yet there’s another reason, too: the feeling you can’t help getting when you drive past a gigantic three-headed elephant. The structure is so extraordinary it’s hard not to believe you’ve already seen all there is to see.

Close-up of elephant head

An Apology
How wrong was I? Completely wrong — and I apologise to the three-headed elephant. When you’re admitted to the grounds of the Erawan Museum you immediately appreciate its surreal beauty, framed by the magnificent gardens in which it stands.

Only when you enter the precinct of the museum can see properly the delightful colour and detail of the elephant’s “plinth,” a pink, circular building adorned with elaborate architectural decoration. You think: only a crazy guy could have sponsored a building like this.

In the garden, with pink building in background

The Sponsor
The Erawan Museum was the brainchild of Lek Viriyaphant, a wealthy Thai businessman who was also responsible for the magnificent park, Ancient Siam, which I’ve just mentioned. There, on a 790-acre site in the shape of Siam (Thailand), he inspired the reproduction of over a hundred temples and palaces from the many historical periods of the country’s history.

The Setting
At just under 12 acres the Erawan Museum itself occupies far less space than Ancient Siam, but it makes a more monumental impression, close-up, than anything in the larger park.

The surrounding gardens are truly delightful, with many stones and sculptures set within an abundance of tropical plants. The tree ferns are particularly effective, as are the taller trees which provide much-needed shade for visitors. That said, I was surprised that not many people had chosen to wander around the garden on the day we visited. I guess there is so much to see inside the building.

I can imagine the planners sitting round a table and saying: “OK, that’s the main building done, but what sculptures should we put in the garden?” After the moment’s thought, the reply would have been: “Well, how about more elephants?”

Two small elephant sculptures

Three Heads Are Better Than One
So what’s the deal with all these elephants? We all know that there are plently of elephants in Thailand, but “Airawata” (Erawan, in Thai) is the holy elephant of Hindu mythology. He emerged from the Garuda’s egg while Brahma read the holy verses. Fully grown he was ridden by Indra, the god of thunder and war. He’s also supposed to be white.

The Thai people have embraced the myth and made it their own by elaborating on the original. Whereas the Hindu version has four tusks and seven trunks, the Thais give Erawan three entire heads — and that’s the special, cut-down version! In written descriptions Erawan has no fewer than thirty-three heads (!) but to sculpt them on a monumental scale would be a bit impractical, so Erawan is usually shown with just three. He’s still an impressive animal.

Monumental Dimensions
The main structure of the Erawan Museum is so enormous that it’s impossible to photograph in its entirety without distortion. One day I’ll make a second trip with an ultra-wide lens and see if I can find a suitable viewpoint. Until then, check out Dominique Dalbiez’s distorted but very well taken photo in the museum’s Wikipedia entry!

The three-headed elephant itself is made of bronze and weighs around 250 tons. Its dimensions are 29 metres (95 ft) high by 39 metres (128 ft) long. The “plinth” — the circular pink building — is 15 metres (49 ft) high. It is surrounded by a flowing stream, into which visitors may cast lotus blossoms, accompanied by a prayer.

Young woman, about to launch a lotus blossom

To carry out this ceremony you first need to purchase a lotus blossom, then kneel and say a quick prayer before setting it adrift on the flowing water.

It can be quite emotional to watch it move slowly around the circular building, but don’t look too closely. There’s a guy round the back fishing out the blossoms and putting them back on sale to the next customer (sorry, supplicant).

Frankly, I feel this is a cheat, but I guess recycling is good for the environment. The great thing is: wandering around the building gives you a chance to examine the extraordinary carvings which grace the exterior, such as the bodhisattva straddling a mythical beast (below).

pink carvings

The Interior
Venturing inside you’ll find floors, accessed by wide, curving staircases in the form of dragons. The first floor represents the Underworld, the second floor is Earth, and the top floor — which as you can imagine is very special and somewhat harder to reach — is Heaven. The whole conception is a representation of the Universe: one that is recognised by several religions, but notably by Hindu mythology.

Now here’s the most extraordinary fact about the Erawan Museum. The top floor, Heaven, is located right inside the animal itself. There are no visual cues to suggest you’re actually in the head of the elephant, except perhaps in the play of light behind the holy figures where a blue oval suggests an elephantine shape.

My quickly taken, candid shot (below) shows just a glimpse of “Heaven.” If you want to see more of this extraordinary place, I can recommend a personal visit. The museum is located in Samut Prakan, a few miles to the south of Bangkok.

temple inside head of elephant

Where Are All the Happy Faces?

If you exclude photos of people “smiling for the camera” in non-candid shots there are relatively few images of happy faces in street photography.

Wondering if this thought is really true I checked several street photo hashtags on Instagram and the results confirmed it. Everyone is very serious on #urbanstreetphotography and a lot of the subjects are downright miserable on #streetscenesmag. I scrolled down to view hundreds of photos on #ourstreets before coming to the first happy face – and that one belonged to a dog.

I’m not sure how to account for this phenomenon, because there are quite a lot of happy faces in my own pictures. As I walk around London or Bangkok I see plenty of people having fun, sharing a joke, or ribbing each other about something. Even people walking alone, chatting on their phones, will occasionally stop and chuckle (although I admit I more often hear them shouting expletives down the phone, cursing whoever is on the other end of it).

If there are plenty of happy people on the street but very few in street photographs I can only come to one conclusion: photographers have an agenda which is biased towards misery. Even when they’re not depicting the disadvantaged, the homeless, or those in need of something a bit more substantial than getting their picture taken, photographers are showing emotionless people who seem to be downtrodden by the weight of city life.

Come On, Cheer Up!
My own pictures have an unusually high proportion of happy faces in them. I’m drawn to any display of emotion because it helps to make a good shot. Fortunately, in London and Bangkok there are more positive, happy emotions on public streets than negative, hostile emotions – even during political demonstrations. (Alas, that has not been the case in yellow-shirted Paris this year).

For example, take the featured image at the top of the page. In this shot there are at least five demonstrably happy people and one other who seems to be quietly smiling to himself. Yes, a couple of them have seen the camera, but their smiles are not forced in any way. They were clearly in a good mood at the time, perhaps because they were heading towards the ferry for a pleasant trip on the river.

joyful expressions

In the photo immediately above, the three girls in the foreground certainly haven’t noticed the camera, but they’re smiling and laughing at something they’re seen in the distance. In this instance, the crowd of people are walking towards a street festival, so, once again, everyone’s anticipating a good time.

You could say that I’m drawn to those occasions when people are likely to be in a cheerful mood — and you wouldn’t be wrong.

So Why Is Street Photography So Often Sombre?
I think the absence of joyful emotions in street photography could be because of conscious or unconscious awareness of photojournalistic images – and a desire by street photographers to emulate their high seriousness. I’ve often referred to street photography as “photojournalism lite,” and I suspect this holds true for a large proportion of it.

I hasten to add that there are many great images in the sombre style, together with many “deadpan” images that are neither happy nor sad. But that’s the whole point! Street photography needs to be all-embracing if it’s to reflect an accurate picture of life in today’s cities.

So the point I’m trying to make is this: life in modern cities is much more enjoyable than street photography (in general) would suggest. Even in the crowded streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown, where it’s tough to sell and hard work to shop, people can still pause in the streets and double up with laughter, like the lady in my photograph below. Really, the streets are not all doom and gloom.

woman, doubled up with laughter

Painting the Barrier

The new, wedge-shaped security barriers around Leicester Square have been given a makeover by London-based artist Charlotte Posner. Her brilliantly quirky and colourful work is said to be “highly collectable” but I doubt if anyone will be walking away with these particular examples anytime soon. The barriers are designed to protect us from truck bombs driven into the square at speed.

Taking street photos in London back in the summer I got a few shots of people walking through the barrier, including the featured image (above) which links up with my previous post called “Holding Hands.” I guess these two come into the “slightly ostentatious” category: showing off their coupleness to all who notice.

Charlotte Posner, painting

Charlotte Posner
Together with assistants, the artist herself was still at work when I visited (above), signing her creations. Her art is witty and very London: featuring a cosmopolitan collection of characters, sometimes bedecked or even fused with iconic London landmarks. They all have a cheerful, touristy feel, alongside images of burgers, strawberries and pizza — inspired by the summer but certain to lift the spirits in winter as well.

Having exhibited around the world, in Japan, Lahore, Hong Kong, New York and Singapore, Charlotte Posner has also attracted attention here at home. She has been featured on the BBC Culture Show and has shown her work at the Battersea Affordable Art Fair. Her art is undoubtedly commercial: more decorative and less political than, say, Banksy’s graffiti — and likely to appeal to a wide audience.

Taking the Photos
The barriers themselves, being low, are tricky to photograph because they trap the viewer’s attention and tend to conflict with the faces and expressions of the passers-by. As a result, I found myself taking pictures of legs (fortunately, one of my favourite motifs), all the while hoping that a shapely leg would soon enter the frame. It did (below).

London leg

Here, at one of the busiest places in London, you can expect to find thousands of tourists flocking to the shops and cinemas at this time of year. Even while the artist was still putting the finishing touches to her work, quite a few teenagers were climbing all over it for selfies (below).

Two girls crouching on top of barrier, for a friend's photo

You can’t blame them. It’s just concrete, steel, paint and inspiration. It’ll withstand the assault of sneakered feet clambering on top of it, at least for a while. I guess I should return to see how it’s bearing up.

If you’d like to see more of Charlotte Posner’s work, her website is here.

Is Street Photography Harder or Easier Than It Was 50 Years Ago?

I’m sure most street photographers would love to step back in time to a past era and take some shots, always on two conditions: a) they could use their current equipment, and b) they could return to the present day with the results.

Given the forward-only movement of time, that scenario is not going to happen, unless someone stages a re-enactment specially for the purpose. We can only consider the differences between subject matter (then and now) and equipment (then and now).

So let’s go back a mere fifty years, still well within human memory for millions of people.

Subject Matter
In the UK, Europe and the U.S.A. everyone dressed more neatly, often wearing jackets or long overcoats, ties and hats, usually in subdued colours. Automobiles had more interesting shapes, not being subjected to the same design rules dictated by the need for low fuel consumption. Nobody was using a mobile phone.

Just these three factors, quite apart from any others, make the street photography of 1969 entirely different to what we see in 2019.

Today, everything is more colourful and theatrical — and not only in Chinatown (see featured image above). People everywhere like to dress outrageously, proclaiming various messages via tee-shirts or accessories (even when they wear black, like the lady below). What’s more there’s no longer a single prevailing fashion: with people now preferring to dress in order to identify with their chosen group.

Tee-shirt says You're The First

What goes for dress, also goes for other visible forms such as posters, adverts, graffiti, and even shop window displays. As a result, the visual scene from the sidewalk has become more chaotic and more in need of being bullied into shape by how-and-where we point the camera.

Equipment
Although some people are still using 35mm film cameras and black and white film, just as Henri Cartier-Bresson did years ago, the preference now is to originate the images in colour, using a digital camera. In itself, this change may not seem enough to revolutionise street photography, but that’s not the point. It’s the new facilities both on the camera and within the workflow which dramatically change the final image.

For example, take composition. “Back in the day,” Cartier-Bresson refused to crop any of his images, preferring to maximise the use of the 35mm rectangle with its 3:2 ratio. In fact, when making enlargements he even filed down the negative carrier in order to show the edges of the frame. War photographer Don McCullin commented: “I think I speak for every photographer and especially Magnum photographers, when I say that Henri really introduced the concept of perfect composition into our thinking.”

Today it’s much easier to improve composition by cropping the image. I think it’s fair to say that Photoshop has liberated us from the given rectangle, enabling any format we choose. Even so, many photographers (myself included) like to retain the 35mm shape whenever possible because of its inherent “Golden Rectangle” aesthetic.

Ironically, Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” went out of fashion, right around the time when the burst rate of digital cameras made it hard to miss.

If you shoot off a dozen frames in the space of a second or two you’re much more likely to get the perfect shot than if you wait for the right moment.

Personally, I still prefer to wait for the moment with anticipation and record it with a single shot. I think it sharpens my ability to see the moving scene in front of me. Here’s an example. If the camera had been in burst mode I would probably have selected a frame matching the one below.

woman walks past a poster featuring a gigantic hand holding a lipstick as if it were a gun

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
With digital photography we can try out more ideas, more quickly, and make improvements to our technique more readily. Yet there are drawbacks, too. Such a large number of people are taking photos, using excellent equipment, it’s hard to make any impact because everything’s been seen before.

Or has it?

If you develop an appealing personal style, you’re on the right track. When street photography with your favourite camera becomes akin to handwriting with your favourite pen, that’s when you’re beginning to speak directly to the onlooker. The same process will be valid fifty years from now, just as it was fifty, or even seventy-five years ago.

Street Photography in a Country Town, Part Three

I promised to show cheerful pictures from my Ipswich folder and here they are. If you’re read parts One and Two you will have seen some cheerful pictures already, but they’ve been interspersed with lurid images as well, together with references to dark episodes in the town’s history.

Let’s do this cheerful thing by taking a quick walk around the town.

Emerging from the station and still blinking in the bright sunlight I cross the road and take my first shot. It’s a group of three people enjoying a drink together (featured image, above).

I immediately doubt if I’ll get a better shot all day. There’s a big green tree in the centre of the picture; the man in profile is shown against a plain background; the other man turns to pick up his drink and the woman smiles. There are no jarring colours: just mainly greys and blues. Sure, you can take a happy picture in grey and blue!

Moving On
Approaching the town centre I walk past the enormous Willis Building, the exterior of which is covered in 890 smoked glass panels. Effectively the building is black from the outside, just the way Foster Associates wanted it. Modern architects can be so perverse!

At least Norman Foster provided a nice big swimming pool inside for use by the staff at lunchtime. Oh no! It’s been covered up so the space can be used for more offices. Big corporations can be so perverse!

colourful woman, monochrome bird

Anyway, I spot a double-whammy coming up: a gigantic seagull eating the remains of an ice cream while a colourful woman approaches, trundling blue and purple suitcases and carrying red green and orange bags. I hold my breath, hoping that a) the seagull won’t fly away, and b) that my reflection in the glass will be obscured by the passing figure. Thanks to luck I tick both boxes.

Only later do I learn that the underlying net income for Willis Towers Watson went up by 21% (hurray! that’s cheerful). But, oh dear, they still decided to fire 200 people from the Ipswich office. Result: Greedy Seagull 2, Cheerful Colourful Woman 1.

Market Day
It’s Market Day and the sign (below) tells us where to go. If you’re viewing this blog on a smartphone, you probably can’t read the small-print. In between Ipswich and Market it says: Est. 1317. That’s not a misprint. The market has been here since the Middle Ages.

three women walk past market sign

Recently, the renovation of Cornhill has greatly inconvenienced market traders, forcing them into side streets while the work continues. But customers, including these three women with their collective red, white and blue headscarves (a show of patriotism?) soon find their way there.

I take a few market shots, but not too many because it’s a subject I’m trying to avoid. Why? Because other street photographers tend to gravitate to markets, resulting in a surfeit of images of people buying flowers and fresh vegetables. Photographers are not just attracted by the colours but also by the feeling that markets are within a comfort zone where picture-taking seems legit, unlike the open street.

happy shoppers

A Field Day
On the other side of the temporary Cornhill hoarding there are plenty of happy faces. I have a “field day” snapping people as they walk into the sunlight. I particularly like the shot (above), with five cheerful faces and only one quizzical expression.

Perhaps for economic reasons, many people in Ipswich favour vintage clothing. There’s certainly no shortage of stores selling it. Whether you need it for normal streetwear or for special occasions, you can find a decent vintage outfit at shops like Twist ‘n’ Shout (below), mostly from the Beatles era.

couple walking past vintage store

Closing Time
In late afternoon the shops start to close, including Coe’s Newsagents, which (in my shot below) seems to have shut out a couple of last-minute customers. Were they hoping to buy cigarettes? A cool-looking dude in sunglasses strolls past, drawing deeply on his own cigarette.

The customers weren’t disappointed, however, because the proprietor spotted them and reopened the store. That’s the joy of a country town. I can’t image such a thing happening in London.

On that cheerful note, we’ll say goodbye to Ipswich for a while.

corner shop

Jolly Good Boating Weather

There’s marine photography and there’s street photography. And never the twain shall meet?

Boats and ships have featured in art for at least 6,000 years, the earliest dating from around 4,000 BCE in rock carvings on the Aegean Islands. You can see why. Isolated in a seascape, a boat is the only object in view when you look beyond the shore.

Today, the shore is cluttered with all kinds of objects — piers, buoys, lighthouses, wind farms, oil rigs – and all kinds of boats and ships. The presence of a vessel is no longer remarkable, unless there is something particularly unusual about it.

Nonetheless, marine artists and photographers continue to create masterpieces of their chosen artform by keeping their focus on boats and ships, in all weathers. There’s drama aplenty on the high seas. It’s enough to make a street photographer envious!

Street Photography Fights Back
Yet I think it’s possible for the street photographer to make a challenge by observing boats on urban canals and rivers. You don’t even need to go down the port to find potential subjects.

My featured image (above) shows a boatload of cleaners whose job is to fish rubbish and weeds from the canals of Bangkok. When a rapidly moving passenger boat passes them they bob up and down in the water, doing their best to remain upright.

We’re close enough to see the actions of the figures and even one or two of their expressions. Such a picture, I contend, carries the spirit of street photography, despite featuring a boat.

I’m intrigued by the fact that the person at the front of the boat has a chair which is fastened securely to the deck. Yet apart from the skipper at the wheel he seems to be the only one without a pole and basket. It’s this kind of detail I love to find in a street photo, even when it’s not on the street.

Two officials from the marine department on a jet ski

In the Spirit of Street Photography
Here’s another candid shot (above) which in even closer to the spirit of street photography. This time I’m quite near to the subject, being on a passenger boat that’s going in the opposite direction. We can see the expressions of both men very clearly. Those guys in the Marine Department really enjoy their work!

As always, the street photographer needs a little bit of luck: in this case provided by an attractive background of trailing flowers. The jet of water from the back of the vessel gives the image an exhuberant touch.

The two images I’ve shown so far make a curious juxtaposition. The heavily masked figures of the cleaners, cloaked in green, betray the fact that they’re definitely lower down the pecking order in canal maintenance, compared to those impeccably dressed men on the jetfoil.

That’s the great advantage of street photography: we get to examine images at our leisure, all the time extracting additional information as we compare and contrast one picture with another.

Muddy Waters
Back in the UK I rarely get access to canals, although the River Colne flows past my window, just a few feet away. Further downstream it opens up into a large estuary and mixes with the sea surrounding Mersea Island.

Alas, it’s hard to get close enough to anyone enjoying “Jolly Good Boating Weather,” and frankly the weather isn’t always jolly good.

Wind surfers (below) protect themselves with wetsuits while they ply the muddy waters off Mersea Island. Before they stand upright they look like a giant dragonfly struggling to take off.

wind surfers starting to sail

In this shot I’ve included just a hint of the horizon to contrast with the extreme angles of the wind surfers and their sails. Does the shot please me? Not like the others. It makes me feel I’m drifting out to sea, away from those comforting but unforgiving city streets.

Eating Ice Cream

People are by far and away the best subject for street photography and I prefer to photograph them when they’re engrossed in some kind of activity.

Why? Mainly because they’re less likely to be bothered by the camera, so I can get a truly candid shot — but also because they reveal a little bit more about themselves in the way they conduct their chosen activity.

I’m not saying you can’t get a great shot of people doing nothing. Perhaps someone is looking into thin air, lost in thought. Depending on other factors that could be a terrific photo. Yet, after a while, the do-nothing shot becomes tedious because it’s so static. Yes, they’re trapped in a moment of time, but it’s a long moment — and we’re trapped in there with them.

Which brings me to the subject of ice cream.

At Least They’re Doing Something
On a summer foray into the streets of London’s West End I encountered a lot of people eating ice cream. It had never occurred to me before that such activity could be a proper subject for street photography, but I now think it is.

I think the featured image (above) is intriguing because I’m not sure what’s going on. Is the man about to take a bite of the Mint Choc Waffle? Or is he inspecting it to see if there’s something unpleasant embedded in the top of it? Why can’t his partner bear to look? Or has something caught her attention off-frame?

Although the scene itself is utterly mystifing we know everything else about it. For example, it’s labelled with the location: Seven Dials, a short distance from Bloomsbury and the British Museum. We even know exactly what sort of ice cream it is: a Mint Choc Waffle — one of the vendor’s most popular waffles, being twice illustrated on the side of the van.

I’m always talking about the value of contrast within a street photo and the above shot is a rare example of informational contrast: a surfeit of information about the context of the action, but very little about the action itself.

The End of the Ice Cream
The two young women eating ice cream in the next shot are doing so in unison. That always makes for a good photo, especially when the subjects are clearly relishing the experience.

In the market. Two people sucking ice creams.

In this instance, we appear to have joined the activity just as it’s coming to an end. They’re both getting the last lick of enjoyment from it, emerging into the open area away from the market to embark on their next adventure.

It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll
Only one of the two gentlemen in the shot below is actually eating his ice cream. The other one is probably looking forward to sitting down to enjoy it at his leisure. Again, it’s given us a nice contrast between the two subjects, quite apart from the fact that one is wearing black-and-white and other’s in red.

Are they perhaps rock musicians, or stage managers? If so they probably thought I was from the paparazzi, but they didn’t break their stride.

Two men in stylish gear, holding ice creams

Above the shoulder of man with the red tee-shirt (depicting our evolution from ape to rock star) is Hew Locke’s wonderful sculpture of the moon goddess Selene on the facade of the Nadler Hotel. She represents sleep.

Sleep is the epitome of inactivity and not nearly as photogenic as rock ‘n roll — or eating ice cream, for that matter.