This is the third in this new series called These Three Photographs, where I share three photographs on a similar theme and talk about what they mean to me.
This time around, street strangers.
As a brief background, I hardly ever take any photographs of people outside of my immediate family.
I love the IDEA of “street photography””, as in photographs of people in the streets, but actually embarking on it I find intimidating and more than a little scary.
This first photograph is probably an expression of my own reluctance to photograph people in any way that they might realise I’m doing so, rather than anything sinister.
Looking at it now, as with most photographs, I tend to reduce it down to two things – first the feelings I had taking it (nervous, wary) and second the physical elements, in this case the contrast of the lovely curves of the right side of the woman in comparison with hard straight edge of the fence on the opposite side.
In a way then, this picture is an expression of why the female form is so appealing, which to those who know me is no shocking secret.
This image was taken five years, a time when I did occasionally crop photographs – these days it’s one of my golden rules to not crop.
At the time again I was quite nervous and my heart was racing (almost the polar opposite of the feelings I seek and find in photography nowadays), though I do love the end result.
The look of the women reminds me of my earliest memories of Top Of The Pops and bands like Spandau Ballet and The Human League (you need only watch the first 10 seconds of this classic to see the exquisitely early 80s look I’m talking about).
My positioning opposite a cafe calls Hells Kitchen was intentional, and the attitude in the expression of the women suggests that’s where they’d like me to go.
Ironically, aesthetically the photograph (taken with a Minox 35 and AfgaPhoto APX100) is actually quite similar to the moody, inky black and whites I’ve been taking with my Ricoh digital compacts in the last couple of months.
This image makes me feel happy, nostalgic and about 17. Again these were complete strangers but the scene suggested a slightly awkward geeky boy gently trying to impress the quintessential girl next door with her pale English skin, lithe wrists, vintage 50s-ish patterned dress and quirky glasses.
I remember being like him, always taken with the perfectly imperfect girls far more than the obviously beautiful ones that where well aware of there charms and who everyone cooed around. And how, by simply listening to girls and taking an interest, I befriended a good many, far more than if I’d have tried a more macho and showy approach like most boys.
It makes me wonder what happened with this couple, where they are now, and if he was ever able to develop the relationship in the way he hoped, or if he resigned himself to them dwelling happy ever after in the “friend zone”.
I realise just from how much I’ve been able to write/ramble in this post, that photographing strangers in the street can lead to some interesting (for me at least!) and thought and emotion provoking images.
It’s still something that terrifies me, and, as I said, the opposite of what I want from photography today (to escape from people!) so I can’t see myself returning to the streets any time soon. Well, maybe to photograph the leaves in the gutter or a few weathered doors and half derelict buildings…
How often do you photograph strangers, and how do you feel about it? Please let us know in the comments below.
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11 thoughts on “These Three Photographs – Street Strangers”
As you know I like doing it, but I’m scared as hell when I do!
Is it worth persevering (to strengthen character) or is it simply the wrong way? Question’s still out.
As you say it collides with the fact that photography should be a soothing hobby. Or not?
These are the questions Frank!
When I got more involved with a few street photography groups a while back (circa 2014) I was surprised to hear how a significant number of people came from sports backgrounds. They has played fast, competitive, adrenaline fuelled sports, and some had ended up needing to reduce or stop entirely their involvement due to injury, age etc.
They were finding that the hunt and the chase of street photography (candid portraits especially) gave them a similar buzz, even though it didn’t have the same physical intensity.
Not having ever really been that phased by sports one way or another (except cross country running which I loved from a very early age, just to be able to run through the woods for an hour!), I don’t seek/need this from photography, or anything else.
To me, as much discussed, photography is an escape, a catharsis, a recharging of my batteries, plus a reconnection with the outside, fresh air, nature.
So street photography for me, doesn’t fit. Even if I want it to.
I have to say also it’s incredibly difficult to be a great street photographer too. 99% (or even 99.9%) of the “street” photography I saw then and now is very cliched and mainly involves a random stranger walking past some kind of vaguely interesting background. To be good, you have to be exceptionally brave, committed, prolific and maybe sometimes a bit lucky.
Very well said!
Thought a bit more about your reply… For me, photography is a quiet channel where I can calm down, get into ‘the zone’ and do my thing. Street Photography is kind of opposite to this and I rarely can combine both. But when it works I feel both thrilled, excited, fearful and deeply satisfied to have made a (potentially) nice photo.
I think both are part of the thing for me. sometimes the pendulum swings more in one direction, sometimes in the other.
By no means do I want to call me a good street photographer but it’s true, a snap of some guy walking in a street, possibly ‘artistically blurry’ without it telling a story does not count.
Frank, I very much agree with “For me, photography is a quiet channel where I can calm down, get into ‘the zone’ and do my thing”. I could do this in a street/urban environment (especially quiet/abandoned streets!), but not if I was specifically going for portraits I think, only if I was looking more at street landscapes, or up close textures and details.
This reminds me that often when I’m really focused, “in the zone”, or whatever you want to call it, I feel very peaceful and often realise I’ve been holding my breath. Especially for shots the might be at a low shutter speed. I couldn’t reach this kind of calm if I was anxious about people not liking the fact they’re in the picture.
Street photography has become one of the most popular genres is the last few years, and inevitably this has meant the number of mediocre (or worse) examples of the genre almost entirely swarm the very few good ones. And then we get back to the Instagram/Facebook etc kind of argument – people see the general standard of street photography posted on these social sites, think “I can do that” and add to the mass of mediocrity.
And you get certain photographers famous for the street genre, and very good at the online social promotion stuff, who have gained great popularity and “fame”, without necessarily being particularly interesting photographers. It would be unfair to name names, but I’m sure you can think of one or two. Again that sets the bar (low).
I’m not for a moment saying I’ve ever taken even one good street photograph, it’s just such a saturated genre, and the street images that make me stop and say “wow” are few and far between.
I really enjoy looking at street photography, but the photos I tend to like most are those that were taken in the middle decades of the 20th century, or else those modern photos that most strongly evoke a vintage, retro-y mood. Street photography as an art form feels like a medium from a specific time, and very few people seem to be doing serious work to explore what street photography that is truly of the 21st century might look like.
And then there’s the way that people in Western cultures seem to be combining an unprecedented openness online about their lives, with massive new anxieties about their privacy. How does taking pictures of people on the street interact with that?
Have you seen Craig Whitehead’s work? He posts as sixstreetunder on instagram (https://www.instagram.com/sixstreetunder/). I love his interest in colour and form over pure B&W moodiness, and the way so many of his photos seem to offer their subjects a respectful distance.
Steven some very thought provoking comments, thank you.
What do you think it is about mid century street photography you like most? That it is of a time now lost?
A year or two ago I came across a photographer (I can’t recall his name now) and his street work was almost entirely taken roaming city streets after the clubs had turned out in the early hours of the morning. His pictures were kind of fascinating and depressing at the same time. Lust, violence, blood, vomit, and general strangeness, that it seems are a very gritty and real documentation of certain streets in certain towns and cities at those times. I think, though his work was bleak, he could be considered to be capturing a no holds barred exploration of one genre of street photography today, and was brave to do so.
Very interesting about that dichotomy between online openness and privacy. One reason I resisted Facebook so long when it first appeared (then joined for maybe 18 months, mostly to keep track of the dance scene I was involved with heavily at the time, and a particular relationship) then left it again around 2010 and haven’t looked back is exactly this. Many people seem desperate for attention on Facebook, and simultaneously unaware of the information Facebook is gathering and using to direct very targeted ads back at them. Without wanting to sound too Spooky Mulder about it, who knows what else they’re using their information and behaviour tracking for.
Offline I’m a very private person. Online I’m happy to have a blog, Flickr etc, but I still keep things pretty private. It’s a bizarre culture we’re in, driven by the cult of celebrity and reality TV.
Which is another reason I pursue photography. A way to escape all of the media and advertising and culture that surrounds and return to simple things like walking in the woods with a camera…
Thanks for the Craig Whitehead link, just had a look at his first couple of pages and I like what I see, like you say very clever use of colour. Will check out more.
Dan, yes, it’s the sense of ‘otherness’ that comes from looking at photos of people in another time and place living their lives. Your after-hours street photographer sound really interesting though. I can imagine that the photos were unpleasant but engaging.
For my own photography, I’m more interested in landscapes, traditional and urban. I do sometimes take pictures on the street, but don’t really do street photography. I’ll snap the odd stranger going by, but I’m more likely to get a kick out of taking pictures of strangers if they are aware of the camera and there’s a bit of interaction going.
Plus, my wife hates it if she’s with me when I take photos of people unawares. She’d hate having her photo taken like that, and it makes her really uncomfortable to be alongside me as I do it.
Steven, yes I can certainly share the appeal of photographs from a different time and place, that don’t necessarily need to be amazing technically, but capture the essence of life as it was then. I wonder how many of the photographs we make now will be looked back on in decades to come in a similar way, or we’ll all just been so hyper-saturated with imagery we’ll all be numb to any kind of photography…
I relate to what your wife feels, in that that’s I fear about what other people feel when I photograph them.
A part of me feels that out on the street any image is fair game, but another part of me feels we all have the right to go about our daily business without someone invading our privacy and photographing us. That open/private dichotomy again.
I really like street photography and it definitely gets easier the more you do it. I work in London, and most people there are pretty used to cameras, but I’ve also done it around the world in various cities and never had a problem. The worst that can happen is that some you will never see again gets the huff with you.
Like you say it’s not as relaxing as a nature walk, but I still love doing it. Black and white is a must for me as well, it helps remove distracting street furniture from your pictures so your eyes can focus on the subject.
Sam, I’m afraid I’m too sensitive to be regularly exposing myself to the risks of conflict, however little the chances of seeing the person every again. After this shot I took, the guy shouted “Oi, get a nice picture did you?” and started moving towards me. He didn’t look happy. I beat a hasty retreat, and though nothing happened and he was some distance away, it unsettled me enough to put me off it.
Looking at it now, I think it’s a pretty cool photograph!
Yes I know what you mean about b/w removing distractions, I love how in all types of photography it encourages us to get down to the basics, the raw essence and elements.