Uncomfortable Cafés

London is full of uncomfortable cafés. That’s a pity because if there’s one thing I enjoy more than walking around taking street photos it’s sitting in a café looking through my morning’s work.

Sometimes I like to take revenge by photographing the cafés themselves, just to remind myself why I always go the nearest Caffé Nero with its assortment of sofas and easy chairs. I wonder, are comfortable seats so expensive as to be beyond the budgets of independent coffee houses?

Take my featured image (above), for example. If you’re out on a date with your girlfriend would you really consider taking the middle table? “This one will be fine, darling. Let’s have lunch here.”

Shabby Chic
Or how about the one below? I think this is taking “shabby chic” a bit too far. “Bloomin’ shabby cheek, if you ask me, mister.”

Comfort cafe

As you can see, my personal likes and dislikes do tend to influence my street photography. They direct my attention. I look at the scene for incidents, activities, combinations of forms and colours, interesting people — and so on — but what catches my eye is often something that triggers thoughts of approval or disapproval. In this sense my photography has the characteristic of being a kind of diary, not entirely unlike Sei Shonagon’s “Pillow Book” with its occasional lists of “Annoying Things,” “Very Tiresome Things” and “Pretty Things.”

There’s nothing wrong with finding a personal connection with the scene you’re taking. Any motivation is better than none. Perhaps a person in the street reminds you of someone you once knew. Or you see a name on a building that resonates in your mind because of some personal link to it. Or the subject of your photo can simply be “the sort of thing” you find fascinating, puzzling, attractive, beautiful, surprising, revealing — the adjectives could continue indefinitely. What they indicate is your reaction to the subject and its setting, your underlying motivation for taking the shot.

However, this initial impetus — the provocation which attracts your attention and draws you into the shot — is only a tiny part of the process of taking a street photo. You still have to figure out how to take the photo, how to make the subject and its surrounding context fit the frame in a way that will be most pleasing to you when you check your pictures back home.

A Clear Example
I hope you can grasp this difficult concept. Let me give you an example.

Man with ferret

London is full of people walking their dogs on a lead. However, it’s a bit unusual to see a man with a ferret on a lead. Who is he? Why does he have a ferret in the West End? I had to take a shot, but he was sitting on a window-ledge by himself and would see me if I approached.

Circling round the block I approached him from another angle, by which time he’d fallen into conversation with a passer-by. Now here’s the point. My shot makes the passer-by the centre of the image because his profile stands out sharply against the stone building. A bollard and some tourists balance the image on the right. The keeper of the ferret is tucked away on the left, and the ferret itself…well, that’s been relegated to a very minor role at the bottom of the image.

This is exactly how it should be. Ferrets are only a very small part of London’s cornucopia of photographic subjects. They can’t have a starring role, but they can provide the initial impetus for taking a picture. I’m just glad this one didn’t meet that lady with the rabbits I once photographed in Bangkok.

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