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Playing with street photography

Starting this new year of photography with new ways of photographing the world around me by learning a new genre: street photography. After a webinar led by Tom Langlands for the RPS I did a photowalk in Plymouth city centre this weekend to try out some of his ideas. Tom suggested that any photo taken on a street could be classed as street photography and could be a valuable social and historical record. He also argued that the more effective street images have a narrative, a question or a theme, something that creates interest. They capture a moment in time.

I also read articles from other well-known street photographers, such as James Maher, who says:

Trying to define street photography is almost like trying to define what sweet or salty is. You can’t fully describe it, but you know it when you see it. Street photographers are observers, flâneurs by nature. It is a way of connecting with the world and bringing back the moments that stand out. It can be likened to a visual form of poetry – while beauty and form are important aspects of street photography, great street photographs often have something going on beneath the surface. There are hints, feelings, ideas, stories, or questions. These photos are meant to prompt the viewer. Whether street photography depicts reality or not can be disputed, but I would argue that it depicts the reality of the photographer.

and Elizabeth Gray, who says that:

A good street photo needs a clearly defined subject. All the rules (and I use that word loosely) of composition, such as rule of thirds, leading lines, use of negative space, symmetry, frames, etc. still hold. Try and tell a story with your images. Create photographs where the viewer pauses and asks questions.

She continues:

While I believe that street photographs do not need people, they do need the suggestion that someone was there. For example, shadows can be used to capture thought-provoking shots, even if you can’t see the humans casting them. I also like to photograph things left behind by people. These images leave the viewer wondering what the story is behind the discarded objects.

I was beginning to get a sense of the nature of this genre. I also did some research on the long history of street photography, the most famous being Henri Cartier Bresson whose work has inspired photographers for decades. One of my favourites is Elliot Erwitt who captured humorous images of dogs in the street. There are some famous female street photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus but one of the most intriguing was Vivienne Mayer. Her work was unknown during her lifetime, the negatives found in an auction by a collector who has subsequently promoted them. Vivienne captured the diversity of street life in Chicago in 1950s - 1960s, and included self-portraits too.

Armed with these new understandings I set off for Plymouth. My ongoing difficulty with street photography remained though - my concern about being intrusive, invading a person's privacy. But Tom, James and Elizabeth reassuringly suggest that the images do not have to include people. I can focus on buildings, patterns, texture and colour, looking for the play of light. Or I can use a slow shutter speed or ICM to blur faces. Or look for examples of where people have been. I decided just to use a small compact camera for discretion, aware that this might compromise the quality of the images.

The first impression walking through the city streets is the sense of change. There is a lot of work going on to upgrade the streets which has led to a dispute about replacing the trees. The number of empty shops was striking, given how busy it seemed. I thought of Vivienne Mayer and decided to start by situating myself into the place, by taking my reflection in the empty shop windows.

I sat for a long time watching the people passing by, wondering how to photograph them within the boundaries I had set myself. I talked to the lady sharing my bench. She was enjoying a pasty in the sun. It would have made a great image. But I was too scared to suggest it. She asked if I had ever had any problems with people upset by me taking photos in the street, so I showed her what I had taken and explained that I avoided faces, or disguised them by using reflections, such as this one:

or just took their feet:

I then spotted the fountain in the sunshine and thought about silhouettes to aid anonymity:

Moments captured, that potentially tell a story. The conversion to mono seems to add to the documentary feel: a sunny but cold winter's day in the city.

Tom had suggested markets as a good source for images. I headed for the pannier market and wandered around. Really tricky to take any images without people suddenly walking into my composition, so I looked for 'frames' of people at work:

This led me to looking for juxtapositions:

and funny contrasts:

I also looked for opportunities to capture things that had been left behind by people, as suggested by Elizabeth:

and the use of different angles to play around with perspective, with these birds on a boarded-up shop window:

The architecture of the modern shopping mall was a great source of inspiration, full of lines and light. Including the people added to the sense of scale and movement:

and this one struck me as it has a message about breast cancer behind the ghostly figure of a woman rushing past:

Walking past the bus stops, I noticed the light and shadows:

and was I starting to work out how to place people into the social space, discreetly and respectfully. It proved to be an interesting day, which has taught me a lot about street photography and myself as a photographer. I look forward to pursuing this new genre.

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