One of the hazards of street photography in London is a bright red object constantly trundling down the street, photobombing your shots when you least expect it. I mean, of course, The London Bus.
Obviously, there’s more than one of them, but they all look very much alike and any double-decker will suggest “London tourist photo” rather than “street photo” unless you somehow manage to avoid it.
I’ve been thinking: how can we use the London bus to our advantage, bearing in mind that it’s bright red colour cries out for attention — a fact that tends to make it the subject of the photo even when it’s in the background.
One answer is to hide most of it behind some railings, as I’ve done in my featured image (above). In this case it works very well because of the corresponding colour of the bottle between the man’s legs and the same colour in his shoes. There’s even a tiny speck of the identical red in the distant telephone kiosk which serves to fine-tune the balance of the image.
OK, so that’s one solution: hide the bus. Another solution might be to find a subject so compelling that it can hold its own against the onslaught of the bus’s redness. Maybe I could find a subject that seems to be deliberately drained of colour to ensure it doesn’t conflict with the surrounding objects — a statue, for example.
London has even more statues than buses, most of them traditional — such as generals on horseback from the Victorian era — but also an increasing number of contemporary works, some brilliant, some awful beyond words.
I rather like Allan Sly’s 1990 statue of a window cleaner, gazing up at the windows of Capital House near Edgware Road tube station. It has a wry sense of humour, depicting a typical Cockney cleaner of the “old school,” equipped with a tiny, old-fashioned ladder, facing the huge task of cleaning the windows of a modern office block.
Such a sculpture should make a fine photo, especially with a couple of passers-by and a traditional London bus in the background. Alas, the combination doesn’t work at all well in either colour or black-and-white, as you can see. For a start, you can’t really tell that this man is looking up at a building, nor that he’s a window cleaner. The bus does nothing except remind us of the smell of diesel fumes, despite its “CleanerAir” logo.
“Good luck with that,” a passing photographer commented as I was taking the shot. (There was a photo trade show in a hotel around the corner. I was going there myself). We chatted briefly about the impossibility of getting a decent photo of the sculpture, which probably needs to be taken with a large mirror placed behind it — putting it somewhat beyond the bounds of candid street photography.
In the end I decided to wait for the buses to go past. The statue looks a lot better in close-up, with the taller buildings in the background.
The Logical Solution
Having found the solution to the problem of The London Bus — leave it out of the photo — I’ve been wondering how this can be best accomplished. The answer is pretty obvious. Get on the bus and take your photos from there.
Several photographers have completed projects based on the vantage point of riding a London bus, Przemek Wajerowicz and George Georgiou to name but two. I enjoy viewing their photos which are truly street photography in its most exacting form, although in both cases I fear that the element of composition has disappeared entirely, leaving us with what my late friend Peter Turner (of Creative Camera magazine) would have called “snaps” — as opposed to photographs.
I don’t think you need to abandon composition in order to snatch a shot of the micro dramas which happen every day on London streets, even when travelling on a bus. On my way back from picking up some prints at The Print Space, in Shoreditch, the bus I was on stopped in front of a café where a blonde woman dressed in black seemed to be keeping out a sharp eye for one of her friends. Watching her, a real-life “madonna and child” were sitting on a leather sofa inside the café — sorry: “bar, café, lounge” (this is Shoreditch, after all!)
The composition works because it’s a study in red and black. The black door with the number 6 on it balances the woman on the right. Reflected in the glass of the window you can just make out the shape of a London bus. Its London Transport logo is fairly obvious — and if you look above it you can just make out my two hands holding a camera. Fortunately, you’d never notice them without my description.
I like to be “the invisible photographer,” on this occasion taking pictures from a bus in order to make it, too, invisible.