People & Place : Part 2
People Unaware : Projects and Exercises
The ‘street’ camera was born around 1890 when the first multi-shot, hand-held cameras were produced with short enough exposure times to capture moving object. Paul Martin was an amateur who pioneered candid street photography when he began using a camera disguised as a parcel. “His photographs were derided at the time for being ‘inartistic’ but he persevered ……and went on to become one of the first London press photographers” (M. Seaborne, in London Street Photography 1860-2010 ). There are three evocative images taken by him in the book (pp 2—22) and you can see the clear image of his subject in each against the slightly motion-blurred background. This was a big change from subjects having to stand there for minutes whilst the exposure was made.
There’s another point worth noting which hadn’t really occurred to me before and that is the contrast between black and white photography of the time and paintings. Clarke (1997), in commenting on the city in photography in New York and Walker Evans’s photographs , writes:-
The black-and-white images suggest an unrelenting greyness quite at odds with some of the more dynamic images produced by New York painters in the same period. Collectively they create an image of urban loneliness and separation (p. 86)
From there to now with all the many strategies to capture people unwarily going about their day to day lives – shooting from the hip; telescopic lenses; pretending to be looking elsewhere; sitting there for a while (even sometimes with camera on tripod) until people get so used to you that they then don’t realise that you’re actually taking a photograph of them etc. The slightly different aspect is when people actually know you’re going to be taking a photograph of them but then ‘forget’ when they become involved in an activity. To my mind this is the best kind of shot – you have their permission to take a photograph but can capture them when they’re less stiff through knowing the camera lens is peering at them.
The exercises in Part 2 are all designed to provide practice in many of the different strategies for photographing people who are mostly ‘unaware’. The emphasis is to be on being unobtrusive, spotting potential pictures in advance and shooting quickly. My challenge will be to do this without drawing attention to myself by seeming flustered. It would, of course, be much easier if I just put the camera on auto settings – in fact the exercise guidelines actually mention that automated settings but I just didn’t absorb that – probably because I’ve now got so focused on setting everything myself.
I carried out the exercise over several different days and locations and so what follows is a summary of my experience
Project – A comfortable situation : Developing confidence
I took a series of photographs in Brittany, through morning to early evening, on the first day I arrived (56 in all). I did feel rather conspicuous standing there with a larger DSLR (Canon 500D). As can be seen from the information above I was tending to use a fairly long focal length to enable me to get closer to the subjects, whilst standing a fair distance away. The first two were taken at an open-air Brocante fair where there was quite a throng of people. I felt I was ‘snatching’ shots and decided that the next day I would use my smaller G12 with the hope that this would increase my confidence level.
Project – The moment : Capturing the moment
It’s been interesting to read Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2004) where she describes how photographers are now challenging the traditional stereotype of ‘the decisive moment’ by preconceiving focus and also creating narrative content, ‘through the composition of props, gestures and the style of the work of art’. If you’re aiming to create, ‘a picture of great visual charge or intrigue’ though, rather than wait for it to come along for you, there is a risk that the created image will look staged/artificial – at least when you’re a photography student. Having said that though, it now transpires that the famous photograph of the soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima was actually re-staged after the event. P&P Handbook refers to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Man jumping over Puddle’ often being used as the prime example. Actually I’ve lately read that Cartier-Bresson asked the man to jump over the puddle several times before he got the right decisive moment! I’m now starting to think of Hannah Starkey and how she waits for the right person to come along.
The challenge for me has also been recognizing it when it happens naturally. I thought I had a perfect opportunity when we were having a tree cut down in our garden not so long ago. I took 44 shots during the process – being careful though to keep sufficient distance so as not to create a possible accident with the lethal saw. The bathroom window was opposite the scene of the action and so I leaned out to take the shots.
In the first two shots I was endeavouring to capture the moment when the blade sliced into the tree, using a longer focal length (85mm) to get in closer at a distance of 5.6m. The last one shows the moment when the tree surgeon was moving in closer to another branch – 35mm focal length here to gain a wider perspective to show how potentially dangerous the whole manoeuvre is.
Project – Medium telephoto : Standing back
With these next examples I was using longer focal length again (my zoom lens is 15-85mm at 1:6 crop ratio)
85mm @ 37.1m. Problem here was the variation in light. If I had been closer and used a shorter focal distance as well I could have focused more directly on the two ladies (but with just enough background for context) and adjusted exposure accordingly. As it was, I wanted to get the best of both worlds but achieved neither very satisfactorily. I could crop of course but then that affects quality. As you can see the longer focal length also compresses the scene and it makes shoppers look closer together than they actually were.
76mm @ 36.5m. I chose landscape format to get the context but got a lot of empty sky! It’s much more like a ‘snapshot’ – and with not a lot of interest.
An elderly lady contentedly reading her magazine in a small, enclosed garden just away from the busy shopping street. 78mm @ 36.6m. I needed to be much closer, and wider focal length I think because she was interesting in herself. Again I could crop but this would affect quality. I actually did move nearer but kept the same focal length 78mm @ 12.3m.
Actually, I really can’t see much difference here despite the differences in distance. I was very conscious of not wanting to disturb her quiet time and almost felt guilty.
Project – Wide-angle : Close and involved
Doing this exercises really showed me the difference between expanding the view and then moving right in on it.
With no. 1 I used my zoom lens at f/8 20mm and stood back (21.7m away). The man and dog look quite tiny. I think this focal length and distance could be utilized well for an image where I might want to show lone man against landscape. Not long afterwards I met up with this lovely lady who I sometimes have a chat with about dogs and their world. I took a chance, explained what I was doing and asked if I could experiment doing a close-up. At 19mm f/5.6 I had to step so close to get her into the frame that I felt as if I really was invading her space, in fact right in her face (0.4, 0.5, 0.5 and 0.6 m). As you can see the full face views distort her face due to the wide angle but I thought the profile ones were quite interesting and show of her quirky hairdo – certainly the first time I’ve taken that kind of shot and I think she was brave to let me come in so close.
Project – Standard focal length
People enjoying their evening in a public space. I used my Canon G12 here – it’s quite small and unobtrusive. Top left is at a focal length of 25mm the rest are 30.5mm. These are jpegs straight from the camera with no post processing. I think that standard focal length is good for getting impressions of situations and can set the tone.
Project – Public events, public spaces
Here are images from an organised event – an Eco Fair in Derbyshire. I used a variety of focal lengths here from up to 7.8m distance.
One aspect which was a good reminder for me was the usefulness of a long focal length in close-ups of people and the interesting aspect given by a wide-angle lens in close-up. Both of those techniques, to me, require subjects who are ‘aware’, otherwise you’re pushing your camera right into their faces. I know some photographers (often press and paparazzi) feel quite happy doing that, taking the view that they’re in a public place, or these people are always in the news/seeking fame and attention, so they have the right. What is the line between ‘picturing eventfulnes’ as Angier terms it (ch 5, 2007) and voyeurism and surveillance? – concealing myself so that my gaze cannot be reciprocated or placing myself in plain sight yet behaving in such a way that I am not seen?
I think my own attitude is ambivalent as well. When I’m out and about, particularly in London, I’ll quite happily take photographs of strangers. However, when I’m in my local area I’m much more hesitant even though they may be strangers anyway. Is this to do with propinquity/ them and us? Someone who lives within a certain radius of me automatically becomes less of a stranger, therefore I should ask their permission or at least let them know so they can refuse? Or is it that there’s more of a chance they’ll see me again sometime and remember I was that person who stood there and took a photograph of them. This is something I need to think more about.
28th August 2012
Angier, R (2007), Train Your Gaze, AVA Publishing, SA.
Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Cotton, C (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London
Museum of London (2011) London Street Photography 1860-2010, Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport