If the proper subject of street photography is people, then it stands to reason we should photograph them from all angles. This means from above and below, as well as from left and right, back and front, when they’re standing up, lying down, or squatting on all fours.
Sometimes I succeed in getting a picture that incorporates a lot of angles all at the same time. For example, the featured image (above) shows four women sitting down, enjoying a dessert in the late afternoon. One of them is facing us, another is sitting sideways to the camera, the other two have their backs towards us — but one is looking to the left, giving us a glimpse of her profile.
Is it a satisfying composition? In many respects it is. I like the way the two people on the left overlap each other, whereas the others remain separate. Is it possible that the first pair are related while the others are just friends? I was also fortunate in taking the image at the moment the woman on the right turned her head. It directs the eye back to the main subject — the pair on the left (the major key), away from the pair on the right (the minor key).
You may not agree about the composition. Our eyes have become accustomed to seeing fashion and advertising photographs in which the subjects have been perfectly arranged. The onlooker — like the photographer — needs to be able see the subject from all angles. Here, in the picture of the four women, there’s a dividing line (the bench) above which everything is perfectly ordered, but below which the composition is non-existent.
Personally, I like the contrast between the upper and lower levels of the image. The discarded bag of food, the awkwardly placed pot plant, the diagonal lines of the bench supports and the A-sign on the left — they’re all trying to “mess up” the picture. Whether they succeed or not is entirely up to the onlooker. Frankly, I don’t mind, and neither do the subjects. We’re all above that kind of thing, aren’t we?
It’s fun to get right up above people and look down, but what we see normally is the tops of their heads. To solve this problem we need to contrive a situation in which the subjects — or at least one or two of the subjects — have to look up.
One day, I’ll try to take this image properly. I’m sure others have done it successfully but I’d like finish the job.
When packed boats pass under the bridges on the River Thames the tourists usually look up. One or two people may wave, which can ruin the shot, but if they can’t see your face they’ll remain in natural positions. Only one person is waving in my photo — and fortunately she’s out-of-frame, so the only thing that’s visible is the shadow waving.
As you can see, I’ve turned the image on its side in order to give the shadows greater prominence. They’re the most interesting feature in an otherwise nondescript collection of people, viewed from too far away to reveal anything much about their individual characters. Yet even from this angle — and using an unsuitable lens (the 40mm I normally use for street photography) — we can still see fragments of personality in the passengers.
Personality is revealed in still photos by pose, gesture, expression, dress and possessions. Some of the passengers are bored, others are paying active attention to what they’re seeing. One guy wears a hood on a warm summer’s day. Only in the shadows does personality completely disappear, turning all of the figures into hunchbacks, except for the single shadow that takes a photo.
On the Level
In photographing “people from all angles” the two main factors are the angle of the camera (high/low, etc.) and the angle of the subject (facing, sideways, and so on). Most good street photography is conducted on the street itself, at the same level as the subjects. After all, we’re all in this together (as politicians love to tell us in a crisis of their own making).
The shot below is less about angles and more about “direction of travel.” Three people have just rounded a corner and are heading towards us, fully alert to the new scene. A man smoking a cigar struts rapidly from right to left, soon to encounter the group.
Who’ll get to the bar first? Alas, the green tiled building which was clearly once a public house (a “London pub”) is now a clothes shop. The people on the bench have nothing to drink, so they carry on working. They’ve decided on their own direction of travel and it involves remaining where they are.
Nothing in the city stays in position for very long. I took the above shot at London’s Seven Dials intersection, where seven roads meet at a roundabout. In fact, each of the corner buildings at all seven of the apexes was once a pub where you could get a drink.
The whole Seven Dials area was known as one of the most notorious slums in London during the nineteenth century, being part of the so-called “rookery” of St Giles, a popular haunt of criminals and prostitutes. It figures frequently in literature: in Neil Gaiman’s short story “A Study in Emerald,” in Agatha Christie’s novel “The Seven Dials Mystery,” and, most famously, in Charles Dickens’ collection “Sketches by Boz.”
“The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time…at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time…”
Do I detect a hint of Dickensian London in my photo? Or have all the actors left, along with most of the stage? You could read Dickens’ sketch to find out. It’s street photography in prose.