Published and not damned

Photographically, things have built to something of a head in the last weeks of 2017 for me. Having finished an exhibition which proved to be more successful than I could ever imagine, I find myself featured in the December 2017 edition (195) of Digital Photographer - available across the planet, they tell me. And online at www.dphotographer.co.uk

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For some one who only ever saw their photography on a screen until a few weeks ago, it’s a bit of a head spin. Now I see my images aligned professionally with text and formatting ... and everything. And they look all right! Actually, to coin the old joke about the chap who was run over by a steam train - I’m chuffed to bits. 

So, if you’re near a newsagent and not snowed under five feet of white stuff then wend your merry way down to the High Street and check out my eight page feature. 

Unfinished Symphonies

I never thought knowing when to stop would be so difficult.

I know that for many photographers the actual decisive moment of pressing the shutter is the moment they live for. They carry their fresh new image, hermetically sealed and protected, back to their darkroom, Lightroom or whatever their chosen editing suite is and enjoy the moment of revelation when the image they have brought home with them will be revealed for all to see. They believe that time spent on processing is time that could be better spent pounding the street, seeking out new vistas for that elusive sunrise or framing up new poses for their latest model.

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Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy that. But (whisper it) I also enjoy processing my images. Most of my images are grabbed in 1/500 of a second but I can often spend far longer adjusting exposure, contrast, clarity, dodging and burning in the warmth and comfort of my own home. And I can drink coffee while I do!

Then there’s the moment when processing is complete and I can convert the image into a JPEG ready for posting online - frozen forever in its finished state like some prehistoric creature beneath the ice of the Arctic never to change again.

For the first time since I’ve been taking photography seriously I recently had a dozen large black and white images printed (thank you The Printspace - top job). There was a bit of preparation that needed doing to ensure that they reached the printers in the way that was best for them but these were basically the finished JPEG’s that I had tweaked, honed and so proudly posted online to a good reception.

However, one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the feeling that I had finished. There was to be no more tweaking, no more considering, no more trying different presets - this was what they were going to look like. Forever!

Two days later they arrived, securely wrapped and shielded in their cardboard armour. Unwrapping them eagerly, I was blown away. Not only did they actually look finished, they looked great - somehow, exactly how I had envisioned them (well dur....). How could I have created such large and professional looking prints? Yet, deep inside, there was that niggle that no matter how much I wanted to, there was no longer anything I could do to interfere for better or for worse. It was not unlike raising children to adulthood and sending them off into the world to make their own way. The images are out there now.

Not only that, they are installed in their own exhibition space - don’t even start me on what it was like leaving them wrapped and in the hands of the curator!

But, still, I must learn from this; learn to finish more and free them to be bold and confident just as they are.

Always Rattling Something...

"They're not comfy or cosy. You're always rattling something."

 

This is how my photographs were described to me recently. I’m still not quite sure how to take it but at least it means I’m developing something of a recognisable photographic style. Every photographer, indeed every artist, seeks to develop their own style over time, whilst also acknowledging the debt we each owe to those who inspire, and have inspired, us.

Standards.

 

As a sixteen year old with a trumpet in my hand I was keen to hone my own sound and thought the best way was to try to avoid any influences. So turning my back on the Miles Davises, Freddie Hubbards, and Lee Morgans, I tried to reinvent jazz as we know it. That's why you never heard of me.

 

I suppose that when I think about my musical taste (if taste is the right word - maybe voracious appetite would be a better description) I realise that it is more quirky than mainstream and this probably represents my world view. It would seem that my street photography is also a reflection of that. My personality/interests/quirks are showing through. And I suppose that's a good thing even if it's not for everyone's taste. At least it means my own style is developing. Whether a style ever fully develops and we, as artists, reach an end point is debatable - and probably for another day.

 

I know some people are shocked by what I do and feel that I am invading privacies; quietly disapproving of candid street photography. Others look but can't imagine getting so close or being so brazen. But maybe this is just me out there rattling something. I certainly don't do it to cause offence. I just like to capture the mundane and shine a spotlight on it, the way I see it.

 

And with this blog, I now get to write about it.

 

This week it somehow found itself in the top 75 street photography blogs in the world. For that, I am very grateful and have a nice new rosette to show for it emblazoned on the site, like a calf length tattoo - but one which I won't be hiding in my sock at interviews. A huge thank you for putting me there. If you'd like to see the list including the other 74 then you can find it here:

http://blog.feedspot.com/street_photography_blogs/

 

Please do click through and take a look at some of the amazing thoughts and images my street photographer colleagues have posted.

 

Looking Back at the Footsteps of Progress

The advantages and disadvantages of any age are always fiercely debated. Being a bit of a techie guy, I do like my gadgets and keeping up with whichever direction my interests are heading. Safe to say,  I am probably something of an early adopter.

 

I certainly don’t sit down and bemoan the passing of the days of film. I did shoot film but only until I realised that my Praktica camera was going to cost me way too much if I was to become as engrossed with it as I generally do with my interests. As a student, it was not an option and I stepped away from the camera - frittering my hard earned foldables on a healthy music habit instead. 

 

However, I also don’t think the future is golden and am also something of a nostalgist (bear with me). There’s a part of me that is keen to shoot film again but I never did the whole darkroom thing and that seems a step too far (for now at least).

 

Digital does at least allow easy, catalogued access to just about every photo I have ever shot - yes, including scanned ones that I shot with my Kodak Instamatic when I was six. Whilst finding those is kind of endearing, if not enlightening, some of the more recent digital outings when I finally picked up a camera again three or four years ago should really have just been deleted and are only taking up virtual space.

 

What does surprise me is that some of the shots that I never even gave a thought to - missed the moment, chose the wrong settings, completely mis-focused - suddenly have an appeal now that my eye knows more. Didn’t Saul Letter shoot shots like that - out of focus through a window? Isn’t the background actually more interesting than the foreground? Wouldn’t that work in black and white? I will revisit them some day.

 

It takes time to develop a style and I can’t suppose for a moment that I am there yet. However, I can look back and see the footsteps through the woods on the way to where I am today. Some make me want to wince. Others surprise me. I am glad I kept them all.

 

Tomorrow I plan to visit Oxford with a friend and his camera. I will shoot street and he will find amazing patterns and abstract geometry in the every day. Both of us seeking out different little nuggets of truth and beauty from our surroundings.

 

This prompted me to look back at an earlier visit to Oxford. As I suspected, most shots don’t bear looking at. But I was surprised to find one or two black and whites that suddenly pulled me back three years to when I first began to realise that candid street photography was "a thing” - actually a genre in its own right. Something I wanted to be part of.

 

These photos, which at the time I believe I would probably have shared on Blipfoto, excited me. And today, I can detect that same thrill when I look at them. I had dismissed them as early attempts. I see I shot them at F8 and can still hear one of my friends saying "F8 and Be There.” However, there is a satisfying depth of field and even a certain flukey compositional something going on. Whatever - it was enough to pull me back for another go on the streets … and I keep coming back.

 

I wonder what tomorrow’s Oxford will bring?

War and Street - what can Robert Capa teach us?

Flicking through my Twitter feed, surrounded by toast, marmalade and coffee, and very much in a Sunday vibe, I came across a Magnum post inviting me to enjoy some of their archive. This is all part of the esteemed photo agency’s seventieth anniversary shindigs. It doesn’t take long to lose yourself in the various photo-articles: Dennis Stock’s beautiful jazz images; the genius that was Sergio Larrain and his published work from Valparaiso; anything of Elliott Erwitt’s.

 The photographer's eye writes the story.   Guildford July 2017

The photographer's eye writes the story. 
Guildford July 2017

The article that particularly resonated this morning was about Robert Capa and his famous images from the first wave of the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach in June 1944. You can read it here: www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/conflict/robert-capa-d-day-omaha-beach/

The story is well known. Hero photographer wades ashore with the US marines, scared out of his wits and shooting a series of iconic images with shaky hands as the bullets from German machine-gun posts ripped the bodies and water around him. After some time on the sand helping to save lives and pull men from the water to the waiting ships, he too joins them and heads back to England. Once there, his precious prints are largely destroyed by the impatience and excitement of a young technician charged with developing the first pictures from the invasion for a story-hungry press. One can only imagine how he met have felt, risking everything to only see a precious few end up in print.

 

Capa famously said that if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. No can argue that he didn’t get close. It was a landmine in Vietnam that took his life some ten years on from D-Day. The Magnum website article said: "Capa’s photography is all about being there, close. His art lay in risking where to be and when, in how he built and conducted the relationships that enabled him to be there, and in how he shaped and presented the narrative of events he witnessed.”

 

Now, I can’t claim to take anything like the risks that Robert Capa (or indeed any war correspondent or photographer) routinely took. But there is a good deal of the street photographer in that quote. 

 

Working with a focal length of about 35mm, your camera has to get close. As Bruce Golden said: "If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it's a street photograph.” You have to be close to smell it. And that is risky. Okay, you’re unlikely to take a bullet and less likely to step on a landmine - but you may well upset one or two as you go about your business. I’m sure we can all think of times when we  have been confronted, challenged, rumbled and maybe even abused. I know I can. Equally, I can think of the shots that were perfect in my head but I put the camera away at the last moment because, well, I bottled it.

 

Yet, I keep going back. There is something in that risk. In that proximity. Something which sees me calculating where to be and when, making relationships in my mind’s eye. Something in the story that pulls me back, attempting to "shape and present the narrative of events."

 

You can find the Classic Magnum page here:www.magnumphotos.com/theme/classic-magnum/

Inertia

Sometimes waiting is better than the thing you’re waiting for. Sometimes waiting delivers exactly what you need - this is certainly true in street photography when you have a perfect setting and you simply have to wait for the right scene to play out before your eyes. You don’t always know what it will be - but you know when you see it.

 

 The Wait. Soho, London. May 2017.

The Wait. Soho, London. May 2017.

But when you find yourself waiting because you are putting something off until you feel you have everything in place (and just right) can often mean you’re stuck. And that’s where I’ve been with my blog for some months.

 

Sure - I’ve made notes and I’ve had loads of ideas. But I’ve been stuck. 

 

It’s not that I haven’t been taking photos. I have. Loads. In fact I have the best part of 1,500 shots to assimilate from days in London, Budapest and Goodwood races - some of which I’m really pleased with. My problem is that I committed to this website and I’ve let it down. I like writing. I really do. But maybe I should stop striving for perfection and accept that sometimes 7/10 will do. Or even 6...

 

So here’s my first blog for sometime, more about the problems of blogging than about street photography, but surely there is a message for all of us. And that is not to sit and wait for the right situation, the right gear, the right weather - just get out and do it. Take those shots. As Elliot Erwitt said: “Nothing happens when you sit at home. "

 

Mind you - he also said “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.” 

 

'Til next time….

Photos United

This is not the place to get political and that certainly isn’t my intention. But politics is about how we live our lives, and it is inevitable that the changes of the past year (Brexit, Trump and who-knows-what-next) will impact in even the most unimportant areas of those lives. Like a photography website.

So while I’m busy not jumping on a soap-box and getting all political, I do want to share an observation which, I am quite sure, is not unique to me.

 All in this together - humanity; London Underground, England. February 2017.

All in this together - humanity; London Underground, England. February 2017.

Somehow, we have very quickly found ourselves in a time that seems riven with division, seeking reasons to be apart. The powers that be are busy drawing up virtual drawbridges and building actual walls. And yet, through the magic of the internet, ordinary people can communicate at any time of day or night, distance no object. Language barriers are instantly dissolved by online translation. Even more than that, the immediacy of a photograph transcends language. Perhaps it is even a universal language photography.

I can view images taken this morning, from the other side of the world, from the deepest oceans, even from outer space and all in the comfort of my own home. I can communicate directly with the photographers (the artists) themselves. And the same with those who view my images.

Social media enables photographers to develop a regular following. These followers provide criticism and support; feedback which enables photographers to develop and hone their skills, should they choose to listen. While an open shop window or never=closing museum such as this could be overwhelming it can also support, affirm and challenge in the best possible ways.

As countries and politicians seem to be shoring up defences and building walls - both virtual and real - it is heartwarming to receive comments of appreciation and support for images taken in London, Surrey, or wherever ... and then viewed on screens in far flung places. 

Comments from the most exotic of places from people with the most exotic of names. Sometimes I can't tell whether the name is male or female. Or even whether it's a first name or surname. Sometimes I can't even tell the language of the name or begin to make sense of the character's on the screen. Yet, I know I’m sharing a common language with a fellow photographer which is helping to further understanding - not just of their photographs and hone but of the similarities and differences we share across this divided globe.

The power of a photograph is in its immediacy - no thousand words to read. It’s heartening that these photographs are now going further by bringing people together for whom photography is the only common language. That's got to be a good thing. The more bridges the better.

Shoot first. Ask Questions Later. or Better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.

I think the question that I am asked most often is whether I ask permission to photograph people on the street. And if not, how do I get away with it - by which I assume there is surprise that I haven’t been thumped or beaten around the head by my rolled up street map. Or worse.

I don't ask. Fundamentally, I guess the difference is that while the people I shoot would like the world to see them as they would want the world to see them ... I don't. I want the world to see them as they really are. Or as they sometimes are - when they are off guard. This isn't out of some inherent cruelty. It's more a question of truth. After all, isn't that what Art concerns itself with?

The other element in this is that I am not a typical portrait photographer. I wouldn’t know where to begin with posing someone or giving direction. So I have to take what I see. 

Finally, I would much prefer to shoot someone caught in what Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment." Not some clever, long held pose. 

So, I rarely ask permission. There have been rare exceptions. A few months ago, I happened across a Harley-Davidson biker run for charity with all riders dressed as Santa Claus and collections made for local primary schools - something of an interesting shift away from cultural expectations and therefore rich with opportunity. I prowled among the riders with my camera at my hip, finger on the back-button, ready to shoot. And I shot a few. Then I made eye contact; a fatal error. Eye contact with a tall, tattooed, bearded and leather clad ring-leader in his worn waistcoat adorned with his name. Basher.

The omens weren’t good.

So I asked. And he smiled. Posed. And I clicked. It should have been mean, moody and confrontational. Had I had the sense to direct him, I could maybe have got something halfway to what I wanted. And what I wanted was definitely Basher going about his business as, well, a basher. Instead I got the smiling, bearded, Santa imitator - no amount of gritty post-processing would deliver the shot I wanted; the shot I could have got if I’d kept my mouth shut and my eyes down.

 

Most recently, on a street photography jaunt around London, I noticed two young office workers enjoying early refreshment along the south bank of the River Thames. Nothing unusual about that except that it was extremely cold (being January), they were already gulping down Laurent Perrier champagne, and had clearly been out all night since finishing work the day before. “Make us Facebook famous,” they laughed; I had already shot them from the hip, capturing the wide open champagned arms and flailing cigarette. Would they have chosen beer stained shirts, sleepless eyes and hangover hair for their portrait shoot? I doubt it. Yet somehow, the shot was closer to the truth - for that day at least.

Surely that is the essence of street photography. 

Step Away from that Camera 3: Imitate. Innovate. Invent.

In the first of this series of three blogs about how to take better photographs by stepping back from your camera, I wrote about the importance of looking at photos and learning from them. To some extent, I believe you do learn a lot just by looking at other's images, without even taking the time to really study them. I think you do intuitively develop a sense of what works.

Inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper. 

In my day job as a Headteacher, and previously as a teacher, of junior schoolchildren, I encourage children to develop their writing by reading books they enjoy. 

The children will take a favourite story - The Three Little Pigs say - and then write their own version. Simply retell the story.

Then they focus on one element of the story to change - what if they weren’t pigs but clowns? what if it was set in the city or in space?

Finally, they get to write a new story with the framework of the original idea - a group being victimised and evicted by a bully.

Applied to photography, look at a picture you really feel inspired by, one that you wish you’d taken. Study it.

What makes it work? Composition. Lighting. Setting. Story.

Then try and copy these themes in a shot of your own.

Change something.

And finally consider the theme, the story. Take your own shot inspired by the original.