The first part of my street photography from London shows life at my favourite 28mm documentary perspective – one I find natural, long enough to be intimate without being too intrusive, but wide enough to take the context of one’s peripheral vision without overly drawing attention to the geometric distortion that happens with even wider lenses. Despite having flirtations with the longer perspective I also carry – in the past 85mm, and now down to 55 or even 40/43mm for medium format – I’ve seldom gone wider than 28mm, just because it’s so instinctive. Or perhaps it’s a product of having spent a year shooting little else, back in 2009.
Many years ago, I lived in London. I’m always told that it’s most people’s aspiration to go there, but to be honest, it’s a place to visit, not one to live – much the same way I see Tokyo. What’s always struck me about it is despite having somewhere around 12 million inhabitants and what often feels like the most densely packed streets and transport systems on earth, you almost always feel alone. In the five years I spent there, I can count the number of random conversations with strangers I’ve had on less than the fingers of one hand – which is to say, far less than any other city I’ve lived in. People just seem to be not so approachable and lost in their own worlds; much like Tokyo, it seems that the less space you have, the more fiercely protective of that space each individual becomes.
I honestly have no idea how many times I’ve posted images from KL. It might be 56 or 30 or 128. I don’t think it matters, anyway. I find quality of vision, and the ability to see, follows a bit of a camel hump: you need some time in a place in order to not be surprised and enraptured by every little thing that breaks your version of normality; a little objectivity and distance helps with quality. A bit more time, and you’re comfortable enough to explore, and have found things off the beaten path to the casual visitor; too much time and you’re jaded. The bigger the city, the longer this takes; but for a relatively small metropolis like the one I live in, that’s not very long at all.
Following on from the previous photoessay and numerous emails, I thought it’d be useful to repost this article I wrote previously on street photography techniques. Although it’s possible to describe most of them in some detail, full understanding requires both demonstration and practice – this is where the Street Photography video comes in, or alternatively joining one of my workshops. Together with the basic principles of balance, perspective, composition and what makes a good image – these techniques may be used singly or in combination to generate strong street images. In fact, they also apply to documentary and reportage work, too; the only difference between good street photography and photojournalism is that the latter has a consistent theme and subject.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t shoot that much street photography by either time or output; it just appears that way because a lot of the work I do can’t be published for some time (or at all) due to client embargoes; and by the time I can make it public, I’ve honestly just forgotten or realized that the shoot was so rushed that I didn’t get a chance to shoot any ‘making of’ b-roll. Hence the large quantity of street photography. By a similar token, I don’t believe in a conventional definition of street photography; I think of it as something on the documentary spectrum but towards the end where you don’t have a set objective or assignment, and just record what you see. In some ways, that makes it more difficult because you have to make or interpret your own story from a bunch of usually discordant pieces.
Today’s photoessay is the continuation of the curated collection of people I photographed in Havana – (part I is here) the tricky part was to try to avoid cliches (unsuccessful, I think) but at the same time get a decent representation of activity. I think many of my students did this better – my Asian reserve prevented me from sticking my head into doorways and windows of homes (though that’s different if I’m on assignment) – but beyond that, I prefer to photograph people in a natural state without them being conscious of my presence and changing their behaviour to suit; whatever it was they were doing that was interesting in the first place would almost certainly cease and change.
Today’s photoessay is the first part of my report from the streets of Cuba. I tried to go in with as few preconceptions as possible, to just observe and shoot; there’s a little bit of movement away from the anonymity I’d been pursuing in my previous images. Perhaps it’s because the city itself is not anonymous or uniform or soulless or a cookie-cutter copy of every other first world city; the individuals mattered again – even when they were in groups.
The continuation and completion of the previous photoessay.
It occurs to me I never addressed why these images were presented as monochrome rather than color – Australia has wonderfully intense blue skies (I suspect this has something to do with the ozone layer, or lack of it at those latitudes) which in turn produce extremely intense colours. Personally, and I suspect also for a lot of other people, monochrome images are associated with a sort of timeless quality; I don’t – and didn’t – want the impressions to be affected by my current color choices and preferences. It’s one of the reasons we associate certain color palettes with certain eras in history – think of the 1960s and 1970s, or late 1980s, for instance; unfortunately I suspect the current period is going to be defined by over filtering, low-fi and HDR. The least I can do is spare my subjects from that…
This photoessay is the first part of my monochrome work from the Melbourne workshop in March; some of my students may recognise the images. I’ve been criticised in the past for not getting ‘close enough’ for my images to qualify as street photography, so I’m not going to claim it as such even though there’s no strict definition of the genre to begin with. Rather, it continues a theme I’ve been exploring for the past couple of years: the exploration of people in their environment, and the idea of modern man in context as a species as opposed to an individual. Perhaps I should take up social anthropology in my spare time…
Whenever I travel, I find the people more interesting than the location: they give a place character, and say a lot about the local culture. It is therefore natural that we photograph people as part of a travel photography set, and seek to capture a little bit of everything: some culture, some uniqueness, some context – in essence, the spirit of the location. Things that stand out are behaviours that I find unfamiliar or inexplicable; but this must be balanced with normal people going about their lives to avoid a biased view of extremes and stereotypes. I found Taipei to be a quirky blend of China’s modern awkwardness at attempting to copy the west; Japan’s tech-obsession, and a little of that old dynastic elegance. Enjoy! MT