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. 

Prague

Towards the end of October, I was lucky enough to have a few days visiting Prague and a vast chunk of my time was spent watching the good burghers of the old medieval town going about their daily business. Fair to say it was fairly well packed with tourists too.

Below are a few shots from this beautiful and largely untouched old city.

 

Cafe Stop. Prague, October 2016.

Luckily turned back at just the right moment to catch this. Love the colours and the fact that she wondered whether I was really taking their picture. Of course I was. How could I not?

 

Crossing. Prague, October 2016.

Waited some time for this. I was really taken by the huge toy vegetables (I think) on this construction site and wanted a picture with the tiny real people captured below. Timing with the tram was less straightforward.

 

Drink Club. Prague, October 2016

Just across the Charles Bridge, these locals sat and watched the tourists buzz by. First rule of drink club...

 

Contemplation. Prague, October 2016.

A snatched opportunity at twilight in Wenceslas Square, saw him but thought I'd missed the opportunity. Love that classic look. And set against the backdrop of the jewellers...

 

Getting down to work. Prague, October 2016.

One of those chance situations when you know it pays to always carry your camera. Really wouldn't fancy that commute.

 

 

Grandmother's Footsteps. Prague, October 2016.

These two seemed to be following their grandmother very carefully and almost discretely - just like the children's playground game.

Step Away from that Camera 1

And take better photos…

 

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that you can improve your photography without even picking up your camera. So, this is my first of three ruminations on just that theme. 

 

I’m not sure how good I am at looking for things - the folks at home will tell you I can’t even find the mustard jar when it’s at eye level in the fridge. But there’s looking and seeing; you see.

 

The other day, a colleague of mine commented that she couldn't understand how I saw the things I was taking photos of. She had been looking at some of my street photography and could see the point of the photograph but knew she would have missed it in real life. Surely I must look at the world in a different way. 

 

I paused.

 

I think I do. Now. But that wasn't always the case.

 

Broad Court Silhouette - London, England. November 2016

I have been taking photos “seriously” for three years or so, and I am definitely more attuned to what may make a half decent image as well as what to ignore. I do see things differently now and I am all the better for it. At least, it gives me a greater enjoyment and has completely transformed mundane shopping trips, train journeys and strolls with the hound. So what tips have I got to unleash this new found potential in your eyes?

 

Firstly, look at photographs. Lots of them. In books. On websites. In newspapers, magazines and social media. Pore over the photographs made by the giants of photography legend. Then carefully consider the ones you like; the ones that make you pause; the ones that shock or elicit emotion - what is it about them? 

 

As a teenager I played the trumpet and joined a band. SLAB! (You can find us here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBFrXBlW1SU) Naturally, I wanted to be the best I could. I used to think I would be a better trumpeter if I never listened to others. I didn't want to be influenced by what I heard. Now that attitude seems laughable. No Miles Davis; no Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard. I’d do it all myself. Probably why I never made it! Every generation stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before - building on ideas and perspectives to create its own. So go and look at the greats. Find what you love and envelope yourself in it. Wallow.

 

And don’t stop at photographs. Think of other art forms. Painting has given so many of its traditions to photography for obvious reasons; and in the paintings of early twentieth century artists such as Degas and Hopper, you can see photography giving something back. Look at what you like - what can your photography learn from it?

 

And what about music? We all have favourite songs, albums, artists and pieces. Heck, we can even listen to them while we take photos. I wonder what impact playing the Ramones or Beethoven may have on a street or landscape photography shoot. But how about attempting a jazz influenced photograph? All of that improvisation around a structure… think on. 

 

Looking at how others saw the image through their viewfinder will help you learn to see things differently. But you do need to work at it. There is no easy solution, even if looking at all of these photographs is a pleasurable experience; it’s work too. It will transform how you think until such a time as you begin to do it instinctively. 

 

Thoughts of Food - Cambridge, England; August 2016

Any image is made up of various components - to a greater or lesser extent.

Composition.

Shapes.

Colours - contrasting, complementary and similar.

Juxtapositions.

Patterns and Rhythms.

Words.

And more...

 

Look at the photographs you like with these things in mind and they will find their way into your sub-conscious. 

These qualities - composition, light etc - can all be a little mechanical and that's why what you bring to the photo is what makes it your own interpretation. That’s the beginning of developing your own signature, your style. That Cartier-Bresson photo you're reminded of; the sweet lick of that Chet Baker trumpet solo that tugs at you as you frame the shot; those Tom Waits lyrics that curl the corners of your mouth; even the smell of coffee from the bar next door and the last wisps of fog resonate differently in each of us, ensuring that you and I produce quite different interpretations of the same scene.

 

On the street, you will also develop an ability to anticipate what's coming. Rather than simply keeping a finger on the shutter and shooting continuously, wait until the right moment. That's not to say I never shoot a burst. Shoot within a tight timeframe which contains several possible best scenarios or (as Henri Cartier-Bresson defined them) "decisive moments.” My day job surrounds me with people and that definitely helps here. Watch people; how they act and react. Learn to predict what is coming next. 

 

Sometimes it’s a place not a person that you need to watch. A place just waiting for the right person. A blue wall waiting for a yellow umbrella; a zebra crossing waiting for a striped dress; a sign waiting for the punchline to appear. It's a question of waiting....Finding the place and just waiting.

 

Sometimes, on a photo walk, everything just works. It feels as if the camera gods are showering me with shots. Other times, nothing. I do know that the more I am in the right mindset, and bear these in mind, the more generous the camera gods appear to be. You make your own luck just as much with a camera as in any other area of life. However, the more you have these in mind the more the camera gods seem to smile on you. The better you are prepared mentally before looking through the viewfinder, the more successful you will be each time you pick up your camera to shoot.

 

And, you never know when that ideal shot is waiting - I’ve hovered around for ages for a shot that I was expecting and never quite got, only to walk around the next corner into something even better. Be prepared.

 

3 Faces - scene from a bus. Cambridge, England; August 2016

Foreign Affair

Tom Waits sang "...traveling abroad in the continental style,
It's my belief one must attempt to be discreet,
And subsequently bear in mind your transient position
Allows you a perspective that's unique."

As far as I know, street photography is not something Tom has dabbled in - I'm fairly sure he'd be amazing with his unforgiving eye for detail - though these words could well describe the foreign street photographer's view of a new place. A perspective that's unique. I'm just back from a few days away in Prague - capital of the Czech Republic. For me, it was a first time visit and I have to confess to not only knowing very little about the city but also to not really having done my homework. Tish tish.

Taking the Strain - Prague October 2016.

A new place is always exciting - for me, with my street photographer hat on (very fetching), it seems to bring fresh impetus and an opportunity to marvel at the everyday things that the locals don't even notice. In Prague it was cobbles and trams, street signs and narrow lanes (especially in the wet), and the beauty of being in a city at night (happens all too rarely for this country based boy).

This time I found that it took me a goodly while to get my eye in - something I hadn't expected. The centre (we were staying in the centuries old New Town - not the Old Town) is remarkably untouched by war and unscathed by business. It's small too, making it easy to visit the key sites in a few days break. All lovely. I don't know whether it was the lack of concrete, steel and reflective glass or the abundance of cobbles, stone and age blackened statues that somehow switched off my street photography goggles. Perhaps it just takes time to adjust to a new place. 

My first piece of real street shooting was the photo above - Taking the Strain. I suppose it shows that wherever you go some things remain the same - the sanctity of the worker's playtime, tea break or sneaky gasper - while others take the strain.

Minor Diversions: No. 1

Okay so it's good to get out and shoot other things with the camera - it's all good practice (apparently). I'm sure it is.

Any road up, Sunday saw me and the hound high-tailing it to the nearest beach at West Wittering for the last rays of the day.

I'm definitely not used to the slow pace demands of tripods and filters, let alone wiping gack off the lens, but I think "having to" every so often is good for me. Or my soul.

These shots are the first in what will be an occasional series of, well, minor diversions.

Hope you like them.

Autumn Light - West Wittering, West Sussex 16 Oct 2016

Black Sands - West Wittering, West Sussex 16 Oct 2016

Walking the beach - sunset West Wittering, West Sussex 16 Oct 2016

After Sun - West Wittering, West Sussex 16 Oct 2016

Sailing By - West Wittering, West Sussex 16 Oct 2016

Alone - West Wittering, West Sussex 16 Oct 2016

Night Beach and Harbour Lights - West Wittering, West Sussex 16 Oct 2016

Go dig!

Now, I love a gadget as much as the next set of itchy pockets in the queue.

And camera geeks love the latest gadget much like any other geeks, if not more so. One of the attractions of photography has to be the kit. How it feels as your hands mould themselves to that increasingly familiar shape… It’s not just the new objects of desire either. There’s a love for the old lenses and discarded Brownies and Leicas that could tell so many tales of their own; items that pop up in the pages of photography magazines, on eBay and in charity shops and junk stores.

Today, cameras are increasingly capable of capturing the finest details in the poorest light; the most detailed of images from space, or deep inside you, or one hundred feet above you - or your neighbours' garden should you so wish - “Oi can we have our ball back?"

I used to post photos and would get back a comment about the horizon being wonky - a valid  point in the fine art world of landscape photography but a clinically precise street shot can actually detract from the artistry and emotion of the shot. Surely?

Photography is an Art as well as a Science. It’s important to remember that when we salivate over the next must have piece of kit. Each one of us, by dint of our human nature, has an ability to see things in a unique way. There's no clever piece of kit, no fancy upgrade, to help with that. But it is something we can develop.

We simply need to work hard, take our time, challenging ourselves to see things differently and learn from looking at the work of others. Websites and photobooks are all rich places to turn to.  There are rules of composition, for sure, but they’re rules which are more like guidelines and we all know that some of the best photos we have taken have smashed those rules to bits. I'm not sure this can be specifically taught. Unless we can teach ourselves. It’s more like something we have to find deep within ourselves.

Go dig! 

Shooting Superman

I've thought long and hard about photographing others less fortunate than myself when I'm out on the streets with my camera; more specifically, those sleeping rough. I remember watching a frail old lady leaning into a wheelie bin in Oxford some years ago, looking for a bite to eat, and my camera twitching in my hands. Here was the wealth of the university town with the offspring of the elite and their discarded champagne bottles from the night before. And here too, someone who had no worldly possessions who had spent the night in a doorway only yards from them. 

It was a perfect juxtaposition. I didn't take the photo.

It didn't seem right.

Why?

Maybe it was because she was clearly someone who had fallen on hard times. I could only guess at the circumstances and the details of her story. Here was someone who had fallen so far that she had sunk to doing very basic things in public - sleeping, finding food... Was it right for me to photograph that and then presumably publish it if I deemed it a good enough capture? An enticing composition with a good tonal range.

Or maybe it was because I was very aware that the piece of kit in my hand could have paid for a night or three in a hotel for this unfortunate person. And there are many more valuable cameras available that would pay for many more nights than the one I was wielding. 

I'm glad I didn't take the photograph - though her image stays with me. However, I have undergone something of a rethink. Greater photographers than I will ever be have captured now famous images of Victorian or third world street children, of beggars and drifters in every corner of the globe. Time lends them a completely different aspect. Their faces stare back at us from the past with a very livid look in their eyes that paintings could never mimic. Perhaps we lookand pride  ourselves that society has moved on from these shoeless ghosts. It hasn't. They will, perhaps, always be with us.

Surely, to walk by and not photograph is to deny their existence. We may not like the fact that we live in a society that allows people to live this way but surely that doesn't mean they should be ignored or photoshopped out of history - if there's even an image to edit in the first place. 

When I passed a man sleeping rough, off Charing Cross Road in London in August, he was dressed as Superman. His belongings were beside him and he clearly chose to wear the superhero outfit to draw attention to himself. I hope it brought him a few extra donations. Knowing he was dressing for his audience somehow legitimised my taking his picture. And I clicked as I passed by.

His image is a reminder to me of those less fortunate. Perhaps it will speak out over time as similar images have done for the past one hundred years.  

Kissing for Posterity

A couple of years ago when I was really just starting out in street photography I took a late night picture of a couple kissing on Hungerford Bridge, London against the backdrop of the Royal Festival Hall. Possibly a good-night kiss. Maybe the promise of something more. We are left to make our own stories. They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. They didn’t know I was there. I suspect they didn’t know anyone was there, though the bridge was bustling. 

I still like the picture. I like the light. Of course, what is missing is any sense of historic occasion.

Night Then...

Night Then...

Last week we learned of the death of Greta Friedman. Despite her name being almost unknown, Greta's image has become one of the defining photographs of the Second World War for she was the woman in white being kissed by a sailor in Times Square as the end of the war in Japan was announced. Eisenstaedt's photo became one of the half dozen or so pictures that will always be associated with the conflict - Capa's Omaha Beach shots; Joe Rosenthal’s GI's hoisting the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima; St Paul's cathedral standing proud amidst the smoke and flame of the Blitz in December 1940... 

I had always believed that the white uniform was that of a nurse who would soon be free to pursue her normal peacetime calling rather than tending the wounded of the war. However, it turns out Greta was a dental nurse on her break when she came across the sailor in Time Square. The sailor, called Mendoza, had apparently been kissing random women in Times Square as he celebrated the end of hostilities. Try doing that these days.

The presence of a great photographer to capture the moment the sailor met the woman in a white dress sealed both Mendosa and Friedman in time for posterity. 

Fifteen years on from 9/11 many of the major photography players have been using their Instagram feeds to bring us images of the day. The images bring us the immediacy and horror in a way that only a photograph can - a moment captured and frozen, pored over and analysed at will by whoever wants to see it. 

Part of the power in these images is the technical beauty of the photograph, shot by a master photographer; a beauty which is in sharp contrast to the horror of the unfolding disaster. It's that juxtaposition that creates such impact. Of course, the impact is heightened when it is somewhere that we associate with high tech, comfortable, first world living - like New York. Would the impact be the same with an image of smoke and debris in Aleppo, or anywhere else without a Starbucks, MacDonalds or Nike outlet, I wonder.

It strikes me that it is the very ordinariness of the people in the images that brings the whole story to life. Alex Webb's shot of the woman and her baby on their rooftop against the backdrop of the burning towers and Eisenstaedt's image of Friedman in Mendosa's embrace both bring the disaster down to a personal level involving people with whom we can readily empathise. It is this capacity to hint at our own individual narratives that makes street photography so compelling.

Great Friedman was 92 when she passed away. Beyond that moment, 71 years ago, the world knows little of her life.

 

Sunflowers - a diversion

A lovely evening with old friends (old friends who brought sunflowers) and a Bank Holiday weekend complete with a grey, overcast Sunday morning all compounded to make me dig out the tripod and make the most of the soft natural light.

It's not my usual way - it's slow and requires thought, careful thought. Not to mention a big change in settings and lens. But, they tell me, it's good to slow down and think more carefully about what you are shooting. And you can drink coffee while you do it - a million miles from street photography.

Sunflower - Detail 1

Sunflower - Detail 2

Teaching me to see.

Of course, in my last blog, I didn’t mention the main reason that many people take photographs. The creative outlet. I firmly believe that our capacity to express ourselves artistically is a major element of what separates us from beasts. I have always felt this drive - be it through music, writing or photography - and have dabbled in several areas while I have sought to find my voice, my style or the best way to express myself. It is a basic need and one which often restores equilibrium at the end of a busy day; for those of us who don’t work in the creative industries at least.

 

I can trace my interest in photographs, if not cameras, back to my childhood and my parents giving me a Polaroid camera when I can’t have been more than about seven. However, once my dad had read the instructions and discovered that the prints were coated in poisonous chemicals, it was taken from me in order to keep my younger siblings safe. That camera was swapped for what I believe was a Kodak Instamatic 133 with a cuboid four flash attachment. Obviously it didn’t bring the instant gratification that a Polaroid would have brought to an impatient seven year old. But it didn’t kill my brothers and sisters either.

 

Christmas with an Instamatic, siblings and someone's friend... (c.1972)

Christmas with an Instamatic, siblings and someone's friend... (c.1972)

Time passed and I swapped the Kodak’s cartridge film and its funny purple flashcube for my first SLR. By now I was a student and could afford (!) a Praktica - don’t ask me what model or what happened to it. It was responsible for some suitably mean, moody and magnificent shots of south east London in the mid 1980’s - not to mention the flat-tops and misguided mullets of some of my friends.

 

There then followed a photographic drought - with the exception of the odd holiday and small child snaps - until two developments swept me up. One was technological with the advent of digital cameras and a chance freebie on a teaching course which provided me with a very primitive digital camera and a laptop. It wasn’t inspiring. But the technology was moving and soon I was able to have a camera that was small enough to fit in a jacket or a cycle jersey when I was out and about. Before too long even on my phone. Like many people, the best camera being the one I had with me, the mobile phone camera has become a way into (or back into) photography.

 

The second development came when I was introduced to a Fuji bridge camera and taken out into the Hampshire countryside for a day with a friend. The pictures I took that cold January day were amazing - or so I thought. Blurred streams, frozen waterfalls, close-ups of leaf skeletons … Actually, the quality didn’t matter. Here was something which hooked me. It was expressive but it also required a degree of technical know-how that I could spend time learning.

While the bridge camera has been superseded, my friend hasn’t and now many of my photographs are taken on stolen, precious days out with him and another friend - two photographers who know far more than me and have taught me much in the last few years. We descend upon our chosen venue - very often London - and shoot whatever grabs us, punctuated by espressos, pies and pints. Much of the time we are apart, only a matter of fifty to one hundred yards, but when we come back together we are always stunned by the huge differences when we compare shots on our viewfinders.

We all see things differently.

Once, a photograph was a photograph was a photograph. At least that's how it seemed to me. I've come to realise that any photograph reveals as much about the photographer as it does the subject. The three of us express ourselves in quite distinct ways and each has his own style. See for yourselves here: www.flickr.com/photos/auribins and www.flickr.com/photos/andythekeys.

Not only do I now understand that I see things differently to the photographer either side of me (just as they do) but also that I see things differently to how I used to before I was so camera-centric. A camera is never far away but even when it’s not in my hand I am constantly framing, composing and looking for images. It has made life much richer and brought the dullest activities to life. There is always a photograph out there if you learn how to find it. As a far better photographer than me (Dorothea Lange) once said: "The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." 

 

World Photography Day

August 19th was World Photography Day - it even has its own website (http://worldphotoday.com/) - in recognition that on this date in 1839 the French government bought the patent for the Daguerreotype. While various other methods of capturing what we could see had existed, the Daguerrotype was the first truly practical method for taking what we call photographs. Mind you, how practical was a process that initially required the sitter to be held still in a frame to prevent movement? The first cameras required the shutter to be open for so long that a blurred image was a certainty unless the sitter was fixed in place. Take a look at the first images of nineteenth century city streets and you will see that the streets were much quieter back then. Actually they are deserted. This is because the shutter would be open for so long - minutes - in order to capture the picture, that people would have moved through the image and gone.

 

Louis Daguerre’s 1838 image Boulevard du Temple - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Daguerre#/media/File:Boulevard_du_Temple_by_Daguerre.jpg - is the world’s first candid street shot but the Parisian street scene it shows is free of people. Of course, Paris wasn’t emptied for the picture. The people who would have filled the street didn’t register in the picture because they did not remain in the image long enough. The only two people who did were a man and a shoe shine boy. These two anonymous characters are the first two people to have been captured permanently in a photograph.

 

Today, an unprecedented number of photographs will be taken. Walk about in any town or city and it won't take long before you come across hordes of people firing off selfies to upload, share, distort, tag and pout in. Cameras are everywhere. It’s estimated that more photographs will be taken this year than in the whole history of photography.

Three relatives (unknown) - seemingly up to no good...

Three relatives (unknown) - seemingly up to no good...

 

So why do we want take so many pictures? Surely, part of it must be a human instinctive desire to see ourselves as others see us. Witness the inexorable rise of the selfie. Only now can most people capture a likeness of themselves. In the past, owning a mirror, let alone being able to afford to commission a portrait artist to do you in oil, would have been far beyond the reach of most people’s pockets.

A glance around a gallery or a stroll around your local stately home quickly reveals that the great paintings of the past show the squire (and his family) and the vast estates that he owned. In other words, this was graphic art to show off. As people began to venture further afield so did the subjects of the paintings - fine art holiday snaps if you will. A way of saying “look how much money we have - we can afford to go to these incredible places - not to mention have them captured on canvas.” 

The invention of the camera was initially something that only the super-rich could afford. However, the march of technology and the possibility of cheap cameras from the likes of Kodak meant that the twentieth century saw the democratisation of the public's images. Suddenly our parents and grandparents could all go to Torremolinos and come back and show off their holiday snaps. Of course, this is a simplistic view of photography but it is probably true of a lot of the photographs that have appeared in family albums and online media pages over the years.

An image also has huge power to impact. Countless photographs through time have brought news of war, famine, disaster, and fired home an important message for change. Think Capa’s D-Day photos, the brave soul before the tanks on Tiananmen Square, the current images of Syrian refugees - these are images that should and have made a difference. Photographers have taken us to places few of us would ever have imagined - outer space, the deepest oceans and inside the body of man and beast.

Personally, I have always been fascinated by how people used to live their lives. Photographs of the world before I came along to clutter it up captivate me. The clothes, the cars, the familiar places seen through a time filter so often look amazing (or just laughable - did they really wear that?). And I think that this hints at another reason to take photographs; the ability to capture a moment for posterity, for you, personally, to look back on and remember. It’s hard not to like those Facebook reminders which pop up to show you (and only you) what you were doing on this day six years ago.

Looking at the work of great photographers of the past, as well as appreciating the light, contrast, composition, lines and those oh so decisive moments, there is a certain something else which is brought to bear on the quality of these images. And that is the passage of time.

A classically composed shot is improved by the rose tinted goggles that help us to see the past. Take, for example, Eisenstaedt’s image (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V-J_Day_in_Times_Square) of the sailor spontaneously celebrating Victory on VJ Day 1945 by embracing and kissing a white dressed girl/woman in Times Square is without doubt a classic shot. It is beautifully composed with leading lines which lead the eyes into the couple framed in the middle, the juxtaposition of our white and black clad heroine and hero, not to mention the historic moment being celebrated. Surely the image also gains from the fact that it is now seventy years old and everything just looks so good. So classy.

How will the photographs we take today be viewed in seventy years time? What amazing technologies will have advanced photography by then?

Next time I’d like to share my thoughts about why I take photographs and what led me to picking up a camera with real intent after years of just footling around. If you’d like to share your thoughts about this blog or why you take pictures please drop me a line.