The more street photography I do — as well as thinking and writing about it — the more I become convinced that it’s an exercise in finding contrasts.
Even when the content is minimal, when the image is largely abstract, there’s visual contrast in shapes and tones. Among styles that are more, shall we say “literary” — where people and places are represented realistically — there’s contrast within the content.
This blog post is about one example of contrast: when you find an individual who is having a quiet moment amid the noise and activity of the city.
Why It Works
I like this subject because it plays on the pre-existing tension that always exists between subject and setting in street photography. Although the modern urban environment caters to the needs of the individual by providing food and shelter, its primary master is commerce. There’s no free lunch. Sometimes you have to fight for lunch — and you’re lucky if it doesn’t poison you (as it did me earlier this week in a London café).
With all the hassle of living or working in an urban setting, even the most active individual needs a break. I try not to intrude on anyone’s relaxing moment, but I can’t resist taking a picture, unobserved, if I think the subject and setting have the necessary contrast.
My featured image (above) demonstrates what I have in mind. There are few places on Earth more frenetic than the busiest parts of Bangkok. Here, a street seller takes time out to sit down, close his eyes, rub his feet, and enter a private world of meditation. All around him, people come and go, children play, and life goes on at its natural pace.
I took the picture because the subject seemed blissfully isolated in a world of his own, yet he’s clearly an integral part of the city when he’s at work.
I often like to give the impression that more is happening outside the frame than what we see within it. Here, a man in a patterned shirt stands up and looks at something off-camera, reinforcing the idea of activity continuing beyond the frame. No one looks at the man in blue. He no longer counts as a potential subject of interest for the others because he’s doing nothing. He’s no longer part of the city.
Perhaps I can best express it like this. People opt out. My photos reinstate them. That’s really all there is to it.
They’ll Step Over You
Some years ago when I moved to New York, the American director of the company I worked for (a man from the mid-West) warned me that NYC could be a really tough gig. He said: “If you lie down in the middle of the sidewalk they’ll just step over you. They won’t walk around you or stop to find out what’s wrong.”
I think he was just trying to tell me to get with the pace and stay on my feet. New Yorkers are among the warmest people once you get to know them. Their hard exterior is just another defence mechanism against the perils of big city life.
Even a small town in England can become oppressive. The girl in my image (above) has opted out temporarily and chosen to park herself on the kerbside, inches from the traffic. I’d never seen anyone do this before, so I took the picture and managed to include the legs of passing pedestrians. Again, the world moves on, but the individual — in sharp contrast — opts out for reasons that are entirely personal and unknown to the onlooker.
There’s Always Something Odd
Most of us find a park or a café where we can get away from traffic and pedestrians and enjoy a quiet moment. There’s usually something odd — or at least, something out of the ordinary — about those who take their breaks by the roadside.
However, at first glance, there’s nothing at all odd about the gentleman (below), sitting by what appears to be a quiet roadside, about to light his pipe on a hot summer’s day. But even in a street photo, appearances can be deceptive.
As the photographer who lives nearby, I know this road is always very busy. At the moment I took the picture there just happened to be a brief break in the traffic. You, the onlooker, were not aware of this until now — but no matter! If you scrutinise the picture carefully you will see its oddity. The man appears to be casting his eyes down, but in fact he’s looking up at the oncoming traffic. And he’s wearing two pairs of glasses.
You see: he hasn’t opted out at all. He’s probably on his way to — or, at this time of day, returning from — a cricket match. Or maybe he’s simply enjoying a holiday, or an early retirement. Like every street photo, this one abounds with unknowns — but its misleading content gives it a dimension it would otherwise lack.
It just goes to show: you mustn’t accept every subject at face value. Street photos are fleeting images of people about whom we know nothing, except what their appearance, actions and expression can tell us.
If you want to know the whole story — how they came to be in this position at this point in time — you’d need a lifetime’s acquaintance with them. Yet, even then…even then…