The Charm of Time-Worn Advertising

Photography wrenches a moment from time and preserves it for later, perhaps forever. The concept of time is inherent to all photography. In street photography, especially, with its many “decisive moments,” time is ever-present, yet always, in a sense, absent.

I’m sorry if this sounds contradictory, but I think most people will recognise what I’m saying. You can’t take a photograph without making a deliberate or implied reference to time. Although you can take a moment out of time, you can’t remove entirely the concept of time from the image.

Because there’s an implied sense of time in a photograph it’s often rewarding to play deliberately with the idea: not just by freezing motion but also by including objects which demonstrate the passing of time. Thomas Hardy did this repeatedly in his novels, often to great effect.

Hardy’s Time-Worn Objects
For example, in “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” Hardy describes a book which is greatly feared by Tess’s mother (who nonetheless consults it frequently): “‘The Compleat Fortune-Teller’ was an old thick volume, which lay on a table at her elbow, so worn by pocketing that the margins had reached the edge of the type.”

Again, in the same novel, he describes the “broad tarnished moon” as having a “face resembling the outworn gold-leaf halo of some worm-eaten Tuscan saint.”

And at a key point in the narrative: “he drew from his pocket a small book, between the leaves of which was folded a letter, worn and soiled, as from much re-reading.”

All these objects, worn down by constant usage, evoke the passing of time in Hardy’s work. Can we achieve the same effect in street photography? I’m sure we can.

Why Advertising?
Old, soiled adverts speak to us directly about the passing of time. I think it’s because we are so accustomed to seeing new, fresh adverts for the latest products that it comes as a shock to see something being advertised with an old, worn poster or photograph.

At the top of this article is a shot I took in Kuala Lumpur of old tattoo work, the individual photographs deeply bleached by the sun. If you’re looking for the latest designs in tattoo art, this is probably not the place to go.

Talking of “places to go,” how about a visit to the Floating Market, Safari World, Tiger Temple or the Crocodile Farm? (See shot, above). They’re not far from central Bangkok and Lagacy Service can take you there in no time at all. I’m not sure if Lagacy Service is actually the guy on the motorbike, but it seems likely. I guess he unrolls the poster when he’s available.

Discarded Posters
To show the passing of time you don’t even need to find posters that are old: new ones give the same effect when they’re in the process of being discarded.

In one Bangkok street I came across an entire wall of posters which were being peeled and replaced. Some of the discarded ones looked pretty good. I felt like nicking them, but decided to take a photo instead. Obligingly, a man with an armful of new tattoos walked past. He won’t find those as easy to replace as a poster!

Looking at the three images in this article I think they make a well-matched trio.

In addition to the poster-art there’s a human figure in each one who adds something to the image. Yes, I know it’s all too easy to add a “gratuitous” or obligatory figure, but in these pictures the human characters do, at least, play an important role.

The first two shots (with old photographs in them) are accompanied by figures who are waiting and for whom time hangs heavily. However, both time and the included figure move more rapidly in the third image. The tattooed man doesn’t wait. He hurries quickly past but leaves his own frozen image behind in my photo.

Time? In street photography you can’t escape it.