When the Composition Isn’t Obvious in Street Photography

There’s a school of thought which says the best compositions are the tried and tested ones, but another which insists on the need to be creative and avoid the obvious. Who’s right? And why?

No art form can advance if all the people who practice it merely adhere to a set of rules, however sensible these rules may appear to be. After all, fashion changes. Nature evolves. Dinosaurs become “so last year.”

I’m conservative by nature and I strongly disapprove when someone builds an ugly extension to a house I once occupied, or when the government imposes new regulations affecting tax or business. But in matters of art I assume the role of agitator, provocateur, and would-be revolutionary.

Invention v. Tradition
Art requires both stability and instability: the steady hand of tradition and the killer instinct of revolution. Most artists combine characteristics from both categories. Their creative talents compel them to be inventive, but taste, tradition, and a desire to communicate in a language people understand — all act as restraints, keeping them firmly grounded.

I’m guessing that many street photographers find themselves caught in this dilemma when they have to make basic decisions about where and when to point the camera, how to frame the composition, and what camera settings to use.

When you’re faced with thousands of different options you need to have an overriding purpose to govern your actions. Honing this purpose (yes, you can hone a purpose!) consists of balancing the stable and unstable elements in your work. You need to cling to certain things — such as your guiding moral sense, or a desire to represent objects faithfully, or even something simple like retaining at least one true vertical in the image — while still leaving room to experiment and play.

Composition, For Example
I think this process can best be demonstrated in composition, which is clearly one of the most fundamental aspects of street photography.

Being guided by easy rules of thumb like the “rule of thirds” is not sufficient in matters of composition. You need a much larger repertoire of compositions that you know will work. For me, composition is a key element in my photography, so if I had only one overriding option — such as compose in thirds — I’d soon get very bored with the results.

Here are a few options among the dozens you can use. You can divide the image into two halves, separated by a natural dividing line, providing there is a vital relationship between each side of the image. Alternatively, you can base the composition on a pyramid shape, anchored by deep shade at the bottom and tapering to a point higher up the frame. Or you can make one object the central focus of the image, with all the other figures and objects seeming to dance around it.

I chose the last of these three options when I took the featured image (above). My overriding purpose (honed beforehand) was to keep the composition stable while moving in close to achieve some kind of intimacy with the subject. In other words, I was reasonably certain about the effect of the stable composition, less so regarding the “dance” of the others elements around it.

In the Centre
The central object is the voluminous bra and panty set hanging from a plastic chain on the stall. The bra says “I love you, I love you” over and over again, while the other item says “Shine like a star, shine like a star.”

The young women take no interest in the large brassiere, being more concerned with feeling the quality of various inserts that will make breasts look big enough to fill it. It’s as though the large bra has been deliberately displayed as the standard size, to which all women must adjust themselves artificially — regardless of their enviable figures.

By moving in close I was able to capture several elements that express the feeling and message of the content. One woman scratches the back of her head in a gesture of indecision, the other two feel the sponginess of the inserts. Are they serious? Or is this the female equivalent of “kicking the tyres,” as when men prowl around the forecourt of a car dealership?

Frankly, I have no idea — and I didn’t really like to ask. In fact, I don’t think they were aware that I was taking pictures. I would have told them they could save their money by not believing the message on the box: “Become attractive lady with perfect breast.” To my mind, any lady with “perfect leg” is, by definition, attractive.

Avoiding the Obvious
Here’s another, perhaps less exciting subject, to which I’ve applied the same principle. I’ve placed the purple backpack in the centre of the frame, partly because it’s such a striking colour but also because it’s being gripped firmly by a young man’s hand. Behind him are a stack of posters: Chairman Mao posters on the left, and kung fu movie posters on the right.

hand clasping bag in front of posters

Because it’s a stall selling antiques and memorabilia, everything on it is old, or, being in Hong Kong, old-ish. Only the man’s hand is young and alive. Even his bag has seen better days!

My method, as before, was first to find the content for a photograph, then to chose a composition, and finally to figure out the best way — and the best moment — to get the shot. As always in street photography, timing was crucial. It was important to get a clear image of Chairman Mao on one side and Bruce Lee in “The Way of the Dragon” on the other. The impression I wanted to give was of a young man holding on to the present in the midst of the past, brought to a standstill by the undesirability of all the objects offered for sale.

In neither of the examples I’ve given were the compositions obvious on first looking at the scene in front of me. When faced with a market stall a photographer naturally sees the stallholder as a potential target, perhaps in conversation with a customer. You have to look more closely to see what’s less obvious, to find the details that allow you to tell a different story.

By moving in close, by shifting your attention up, down or to the side, and by ignoring the siren call of the obvious — you can uncover stories where you least expect them. That’s the joy of street photography. When it works.

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