I wish I had the perfect shot with which to illustrate this concept, but I’m still waiting for the right opportunity. Let me explain what I have in mind.
I imagine a scene in which the camera viewpoint is slightly higher than usual, looking down on the subject from a height of around eight or nine feet. The subject itself — well, that could be anything: two people in conversation, four men in dinner jackets, someone wearing outrageous dress. It doesn’t matter too much, because even if the subject is really striking I intend the eye to be drawn to the background.
In this shot the background would be the real subject of the image. I want it to be the entire world!
Failing that, I hope to find a street that’s teeming with people and traffic, its figures foreshortened by the lens, but still in sharp focus so you can see them clearly.
Oh yes, and there’s another thing. I’d prefer to have a street that twists and turns, “curling up like smoke” beyond the foreground subjects. Wouldn’t that be great? It would be like an endless trail of people, trudging their way through an Eisenstein film. The background of my image would become a stand-in for the whole of humanity — the perfect contrast to the individuals seen in close-up near the camera.
Concept Versus Reality
I like this approach of applying conceptual art to street photography, but the two art forms don’t easily mix. Conceptual art requires you to organise the subject with meticulous care, precisely following the blueprint of your concept. Street photography, on the other hand, waits for the world to present a combination of forms for capture in the way you see fit. But you can’t start telling reality to be different from what it is.
My featured image (above) takes me some way towards fulfilling my concept, although it falls short in several respects. Yes, I have two people in conversation, one of whom is hitching her backpack to a more comfortable position. Yes, Wellington Street snakes in at an angle to London’s Waterloo Bridge which is clogged with people and traffic. And yes, everything’s in sharp focus in the original photo (heaven only knows what WordPress does to it when delivering it to screen sizes).
So the picture gets three yesses, but for me it still doesn’t quite capture the full strength of my concept. Although there’s a sense of life buzzing all around the two subjects, the image doesn’t distill the essence of individual life versus collective living. There are too many distractions: the tall surveillance camera, the workers and road signs, The Lion King banner.
Fortunately, I have a solution. I just stop looking at the image as an illustration of a concept and start enjoying it as a street photo with plenty of context. That’s makes me feel a whole lot better.
Having taken the above photo I walked around London’s West End finding several more subjects — but my concept was already beginning to nag away at me. I even gave it a name: “the trailing street.” I wondered whether to go to one end of Oxford Street, but finding elevation there would be a problem.
Four hours later with the rush hour beginning, I found the following scene outside Embarkment tube station. Villiers Street doesn’t “curl like smoke” but it does bend sharply into the foreground and has the advantage of a gentle incline. At this time of day it was packed with people.
“Was Life Created?” The lady with the religious pamplets seems to be qualifying her remarks to the lady in azure blue. Everyone else is hurriedly getting on with the more immediate tasks of commuting or shopping.
I think this image comes closer to my concept, but I’ll keep the idea in mind for future work. Meanwhile I can enjoy the Villiers Street photo as an example of simple, colour-dependent street photography. I like the way the Jehovah’s Witness placard contains several shade of blue — and how this is repeated in the clashing coats of the two women. The light was fading at this point and I changed my camera setting to ISO 1600 before turning around to take the shot.
Academic critics of photography still complain bitterly that our medium lacks intentionality, unlike painting where every brushstoke can be placed with precision. I hope these images can help to prove otherwise. It’s possible to look for photos in the street that correspond to existing ideas for meaningful compositions.
Sometimes you find them and sometimes you don’t. That’s the joy of street photography!