street photography

London Light - Feb 2018

My blog thus far has tended to be philosophical ramblings about photography; musings on settings and gear; or the occasional “how to.” That probably begins to explain why blogging tends to happen fortnightly - fitting around the day job and collecting my thoughts gets in the way.

 

I have decided that perhaps the blog space is the place to try posting photos that I have been taking recently with a view to seeing how they look published, out there in the world, for all to see. Be prepared for more photos and and more posts - though just as many words.

 

Last Saturday I was in London with the camera, though not specially to take photos - this was a family outing. The trusty Fuji x100f is never far from my hands. The light was fantastic, even if the clear blue skies meant the air was shockingly cold, making holding a camera a challenge at times. I can’t do gloves. Gloves seem to introduce some kind of layer between camera and brain - as well as between hand and camera. I just can’t seem to function properly as a photographer in them.     

 

Here is a mix of colour and black and white images from the day - all shot around South Kensington and Brompton Road.

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. 

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.

 

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. 

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.

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.

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.

 

Starting out - why now?

When I do things I do them with a passion. Pretty much an obsession. And this is where photography is with me right now. A camera has never been far from my hand over the past three years and it has taught me to see things very differently; definitely to appreciate things more. I even notice what's around me these days.

 

In April, I took a photograph of a man, wrapped warmly against the cold spring morning, standing on the south bank of the River Thames, looking across the water towards St Paul's Cathedral. I went on to take many other photos that morning, wandering the streets of the city as they began to fill, before heading home for lunch. A great way to spend a Sunday. I was already pleased with this one, along with half a dozen others that day.

In time, I posted a black and white version of the picture on a couple of social media sites and it seemed to get a good reaction, claiming photo of the day awards with a few  Instagram  sites. Then I submitted it to  One Million Photographers  - no real expectation of anything but hey... And it got Editor's Choice (thanks editor). That was a big boost. But nobody would know how to find more of my stuff - I needed a website. And if I needed a website, people told me, I needed a blog. So here it is.  I've always enjoyed words - heck, I almost had a children's book published once (almost) - but is anyone actually going to want to read the ramblings of an obsessive camera pointer who is sharpening his skills?     We shall see. 

In time, I posted a black and white version of the picture on a couple of social media sites and it seemed to get a good reaction, claiming photo of the day awards with a few Instagram sites. Then I submitted it to One Million Photographers - no real expectation of anything but hey... And it got Editor's Choice (thanks editor). That was a big boost. But nobody would know how to find more of my stuff - I needed a website. And if I needed a website, people told me, I needed a blog. So here it is.

I've always enjoyed words - heck, I almost had a children's book published once (almost) - but is anyone actually going to want to read the ramblings of an obsessive camera pointer who is sharpening his skills?

 

We shall see.