If you’re a street photographer it’s almost impossible to resist taking full advantage of posters and graffiti: readymade artworks that provide a colouful and sometimes meaningful backdrop to your pictures.
Do we overuse them? Probably. But I think street photography would lose a vital element if everyone decided to ignore the posters, scrawls and daubings which either enhance or spoil the urban environment, depending on your point of view.
The Big Con
Using posters and graffiti in street photos has its pros and cons, and I’d like to start with the cons. The big con (in two senses of the word) is when the photographer simply steals the artwork and adds very little value to it. The end result is then little more than a reproduction of the poster or graffito, with maybe the inclusion of a random passer-by to give the photo a touch of credibility.
Frankly, that kind of street photo is no longer good enough. If the subject is the poster or graffito rather than people in the street you’re not creating anything new. The original artist should get all the credit, along with the brilliant technicians who designed and built your camera.
The featured image (above) is a shot I took recently of a woman walking past a theatre bookings office in London. As you can imagine, I was attracted by the vivid colours of the posters and so I hung around for a few minutes to see if I could get a valid shot. I was looking for something more than just a snapshot of the posters, although I think I could be forgiven for selecting the location: a lovely corner building with fabulous architecture, covered in posters that are reflected in the wet paving.
One or two people walked past, but I selected this cheerful pedestrian whose blonde hair stands out against the black window frame and whose scarf matches the deep red of the posters. It’s a decisive moment owing to her exact positioning and the fact that her arm is precisely vertical. I was lucky that her trailing foot is right next to the word “Stomp,” and that the “School of Rock” poster is so lively.
Looking at the posters in the photo I realise now that they’re mostly very masculine images. The word “Boys” appears prominently inside the shop and there are several hyperactive males depicted in the posters. The pedestrian seems aware of having entered a male domain and she keeps her eyes looking firmly towards the ground.
In the image below, taken in Hong Kong, a man walks past a wall covered in repetitions of the same delightfully sleazy Uptown Rockers poster, indicating that we may actually be in a bad part of town. Fortunately, the man looks pretty cool with his reversed sunglasses reflecting his yellow backpack. Is he heading uptown or downtown? We’ll never know.
You may have noticed one interesting element in the Hong Kong image: the date. It’s very specific, March 11, 2016. In fact you could be sure that these posters would soon be replaced by others, not long after the stated date. Wall space is valuable in a city like Hong Kong, especially if it’s free.
I notice how quickly posters change in the city, sometimes through being defaced or else by having others pasted on top of them. This is not so true of my first image where the changing elements are the pedestrian and the rain. But in the second image we’re more conscious of the temporary nature of the posters. They’re here today and gone tomorrow — yet preserved forever by photography.
Everything Is Changing
When we take pictures in the street it’s a good idea to consider the different speeds at which the various parts of the environment are changing. People, animals, birds and traffic are obviously changing their position quickly because we have to raise our shutter speed to freeze their movement. Objects such as parked cars come and go after an hour or two, while the same news-stands and hamburger stalls open and close every day.
Posters like those in the Hong Kong photo are around for a week or two, while those in the London photo can be with us for as long as the show remains open. Yet please remember that everything in the environment — even the oh-so-solid buildings — are only temporary. In a century or two, most of them will be transformed out of all recognition. Your street photo will then have a different appeal for the viewer: it will be a record of life and the city as they existed at a certain time long ago.
I’m suggesting that we may not fully appreciate the street photos we take today because we don’t yet have the perspective of time to see them afresh. The photos taken by Berenice Abbott in the streets of New York in the 1930s would have looked very different to her contemporaries than they do to us today. We see a particular time. They saw only a particular place.
It’s really only in posters that we can capture a feeling of nostalgia without having to wait for the decades to pass. Their short life-span is just what we need to signify the passing of time, which is, after all, part of the very essence of photography because photography defies time.
So here’s my parting shot. I call it “What’s On.” The EXIF tells me I took it on May 23, 2012, which surprises me because it seems like yesterday. The couple are checking out the entertainment events in London, the man looking towards “The Vocal Orchestra,” his partner checking out “Havana Rumba!” Clearly, opposites attract, a fact confirmed by his black “Tough Mudder” tee-shirt with its various pledges in contrast to her plain, silent white vest.
The photo suggests romantic summer evenings in a big city where there is more than enough to do. A person looking at this image in fifty years time might be reminded of actual events they attended during May/June that year. “Did we see The Girl with the Iron Claws? Or was it The Boy with Tape on His Face?”
Already, I can look at this picture and appreciate how everything has changed in the interim. It delivers the bittersweet feeling of ephemerality, the sense of “…Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu…” It suggests that there, in London “…in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” (Keats).