Sometimes the Devil Is in the Detail

If you’re like me, there are occasions when you look through the shots you’ve taken and you come across one which prompts the question: “Why on Earth did I take it?”

The composition is poor, there are yawning gaps in the corners, and there seems to have been no point to taking the subject whatsoever. Then you look closer and realise: it’s the detail. In some shots, the devil really is in the detail — and somehow you have to extract it and show it to its best advantage by cropping.

An example is my featured image (above). I was crossing the road in Phuket Town and saw a group of people standing behind a huge Harley Davidson. Make no mistake: this was one mean hog. Unfortunately, the onlookers appeared to be on the point of leaving — the owner was taking a letter to the mailbox and starting to move out of shot — so I had to take the photo quickly.

The result was very disappointing. One onlooker had extremely bad sunburn but couldn’t be excluded without removing most of the background: the highly customised “Biker’s Bar.” The bike was also at an awkward angle, leaving lots of bare road surface that spoiled the shot. Then I saw the detail: a stack of skulls not only on the windshield but also on the gas tank. I hadn’t noticed those on the tank when I took the shot.

Yes, the bike is truly insane: tempting fate with human skulls on a full tank of gasline, right between the rider’s legs. If God had a sense of irony — and who’s to say He doesn’t? — He might be inclined to terminate the journey before the rider reaches his destination.

But of course, for this rider it’s a case of “Destination Unknown.” Luckily, he’s still in the picture — and by removing his head, and those of two of the bike’s admirers (the owner’s friends, customers?) — I’m able to make sense of the photo. Just one onlooker remains more or less intact, her skirt blending nicely with the bike’s design. The owner’s arms are slightly splayed, almost as if he’s grasping some imaginery Harley handlebars. The diagonals balance, the corners are filled — and the picture makes sense. Because of the detail.

Waiting for Customers
I have little doubt that it’s more profitable to run a lively Biker’s Bar than to sell heavy drilling equipment from a small retail store. In my second photo to illustrate the role of detail (below) I offer an image of two men in adjoining stores, waiting for business.

Now, let me see…your partner has gone out to buy sugar, milk, eggs and a new roll of kitchen paper. You unpack them and say: “Honey, where’s the 12-inch diameter drill bit I asked you to pick up?”

I’m always fascinated by these shops on the fringes of Bangkok’s Chinatown, mainly because I’ve never seen anything like them in the UK, Europe or the USA. They’re right there, on the street, in places where you’d normally expect to find a newsagent or a liquor store. I wonder if they have regular customers — because I can’t imagine anyone buying a massive drill bit on impulse.

In this photo I’ve given equal space to the human and the metallic subjects, on the understanding that it’s the detail in the twisty bits which “makes” the image. Their vertical shapes are echoed in those of the columns and folded grills. The two guys are the very personification of patience, quite unlike the restlessly spiralling drills and the clusters of coloured hooks.

On previous visits to the area I’d photographed similar scenes, such as men sorting through stacks of metal girders and pipes, but they always looked like dull corporate illustrations (“here’s our man in the girder department”) rather than proper street photos. This one is different. It has tension and contrast — and the whole composition revolves around the position of the man’s hand.

Like I say: sometimes the devil really is in the detail.

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