Photoessay: London mono solos

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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.

Today’s photoessay is an exploration of that. I wouldn’t call it a celebration, because I’m not sure it’s necessarily something to celebrate; however, it nicely continues my exploration of the abstraction of man… MT

This series was shot with a Pentax 645Z, the 55/2.8, 200/4 lenses, but mostly the 90/2.8 SR.

If you’d like to learn more about how to create great images in black and white, the latest Monochrome Masterclass workshop video might be of interest…

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  1. London is a great melting pot, a huge cultural centre, very accepting of outsiders. But you have to be proactive and make your own life there. My sister moved to supposedly friendly Manchester and hated it. “They think they are friendly, yes, they are, but friendly with one another. It is much harder to integrate there than in London”.

    The fact is that not everywhere suits everyone. London has its characteristics, and if you don’t like it then you should move and find a place which is better for you. Personally, as in incomer, I love it and would hate to live anywhere else.

  2. Tim Auger says:

    Nice moody pics. I lived in London for 28 years and didn’t find it particularly unfriendly – I learned quite soon that you get back what you put in. In cafes or bars or at market stalls I found out that a friendly word often evoked an unexpectedly friendly response. There are many lonely people, I guess, but that’s because like New York and other global cities it attracts incomers from all over the country and all over the world. It takes a bit of time to find your feet – Paris is superficially much more attractive, but doesn’t get much more friendly with time, according even to some of my French friends. London can look like a dump to start with, but it gets quite comfy after a bit. That was my experience anyway.

  3. Tokioo……

  4. I enjoyed the series; London is just so large and impersonal it’s almost natural to be alone. If you want to hide somewhere, go to a big city. If you try to hide in the country, everyone will know all your business very rapidly.

    I’ve never lived there. 20+ years ago I used to teach at courses which started at 8.00 am. Looking at the grey, haggard faces on the tube at 7.00 made me happy that I didn’t have to live there. I was in London for a day recently, and got talking to the taxi driver about how crowded it was. He reckoned that about half the people on the street were tourists, not people who lived there.

    When we think of London, we tend to think of central London, the London of the tourists. I gather that in the outer reaches there are “villages” which do have a sense of community; I’ve not experienced this.

  5. Ming, nice set. My initial reaction, though, was that they don’t really illustrate the theme of being (or feeling) “alone” in “densely packed streets”, because there’s only one person in most of them. They actually make London look like a place with very few crowds! A photo of a person in his/her own world despite a crowd swirling around would be more apt, no?

    The ice cream vendor really needs to reconsider his location. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t hoping to be alone!

    These days, with ubiquitous portable electronic devices, nearly everyone, everywhere can pretend not to be aware of anyone else if that’s what they’re after.

    I love the last one – of the woman walking past the barrel.

  6. Very much agree with your observation on connecting with strangers in packed places. It’s very much how I feel in SG. More space seems to allow people to let their guard down.

    • Maybe it’s because they feel the need for the human element more without others around?

      • Maybe that or they don’t feel so on edge to defend their space?

        • You’re probably right. The less space you have, the more rigorously you try to keep it to yourself.

          • Vancouver is the same as London in certain respects. People behave in an insular, self-absorbed, lackadaisical way here. They have their little cliques, and if you’re part of it, great, if you’re not, then you better enjoy being alone.

            I’m not sure it’s a space issue, per se, so much as the sociocultural difference between urban and rural societies. Most city dwellers generally tend to be better educated and derive more continual “stimuli” from their surroundings, not requiring them to be so social.

            Folks who live in the country generally subscribe to the more traditional values that were born out of our simpler, agrarian history. Bottom line: they were more social.

            Of course, that’s all theory. I have absolutely zero empirical data to back up my hypothesis. 😉

  7. A wonderful set, Ming. I don’t find these depressing at all; they’re humane, warm, and wise. I’ll take such observations over architecture shots every day!

  8. Hi Ming

    I like the photos, particularly the one of the young man in a suit looking out pas the fountain. He looks lost in thought and the open composition allows you to imagine who / what he might be looking for.

    I recognise your description of feeling alone. I lived in London for 8 years and still work there. It is not friendly at all, but being ignored, like all qualities or properties is neither good or bad. It just is and that will suit some, not others.

    The flip side to the loneness is acceptance. I have never been anywhere else where crazy clothes or haircuts are just accepted – often don’t even get a second look. For some, everyone not knowing you, your business or your history can be appealing. You can feel alone and accepted all at the same time. London is far less judgmental than many smaller, but friendlier places.

    • Acceptance and being ignored aren’t quite the same thing, but yes, if you don’t want to have to explain yourself, I agree: in London, it’s all been seen before.

  9. I think you did a very good job in expressing your theme (“People just seem to be not so approachable and lost in their own worlds…”) photographically. I’m not particularly fond of B&W photos. Generally the ones that I do like are usually portraits or street photos such as these. In your photos the ones that struck me the most as emphasizing the theme were the photos where the subjects had their backs to the camera (except for the first photo). When I went back and looked at them again I almost felt like the others didn’t belong. I think your last photo (lady walking past a barrel) is fantastic. To me it’s what photography is all about: light and composition.

  10. Great set! Noticed most are taken in sunlight – are you sure you were in London? If it’s a rare sunny day there most of the inhabitants are stretched out in the parks I suspect – no wonder you felt lonely!

  11. Exquisite pictures. Depressing, absolutely not. Moody perhaps. But good moody. Which is why I think the BW works nicely here. Great light as well, Ming. You must have a real photographic gift if you can manage to capture light in London! 🙂 BTW, as a Londoner myself, I often hear people describing it as being a distant and detached city. Personally, I don’t get it; I think we’re a very chatty people. Depends of course on where you go and who you speak to. Central London can get very touristy. Beyond that, London is also a very diverse city. There are lots of different Londons: Brixton, Brick Lane, Southall, Camden Town, Edgware Road, Soho, East End, Cheslea, Richmond, Stamford Hill, Wood Green, and many more — each with their our distinct character and deserving of their own photographic attention. Apologies if I’m sounding like a rep from the London Tourist Board! 🙂

    • Thank you. The lack of halfway decent (the strongly directional sort I usually prefer) light mean that B&W was the only choice to retain any sort of mood at all…

  12. Ming –

    I’m surprised that you feel that way about London. In general (of course), my view is that people in big cities tend to have a protective sphere around them. I think it does make a lot of sense… imagine how many arguments or fights there would be if people were “too open”…! However, when I visited with my brother’s family two years ago, I found London to be incredibly family friendly and relatively hospitable, in spite of its huge population. In other words, London is relatively “kind”, compared to other large cities, if that makes any sense…

    That being said, I find Tokyo one hundred fold more “lonely” than London. It purely comes down to culture. It may take me a good solid year of interaction with a Japanese citizen to become “an acquaintance”, much less a friend. In Europe or England, I’d say you might just have to go to a good pub to socialize. However, I heard that part of London life is gradually disappearing, due to commercialization.

    In any case, if you have kids or will have kids in the future, I’d say give London another chance… you may be surprised.
    People tend to reflect their environment. If you make a break from the status quo, you’ll find a “more open” reflection.
    People are people…

    That being said.. Are you ok? I say in your twitter feed something about brain surgery…? WTF? I hope you are ok.
    Hopefully, I misread something. You’re too young!

    • Ah, I think it must be a cultural thing – I find the opposite with Tokyo. 🙂

      Brain surgery: I’m fine (well, as fine as one can be having chosen to be a professional photographer!) – it’s an assignment for one of my medical clients. We’ve been contracted to do a series of patient education videos on specialist/ advanced surgical procedures; live craniotomy for cancer excision is the first one.

  13. The last few times I’ve visited London, I found Londoners to be wonderfully talkative. It wasn’t like that a few years ago. A friend living there now is telling me the same. What I find depressing about the images is the black and white treatment. Imaging them in color, they would appear very lively, with the exception of the girl on the steps. I’m in love with color photography, so I’m biased I guess.

  14. London is not a lonely place in my understanding as a Londoner. There is so much going on but in an organised way that requires that you get involved and take part somehow. You are right in that random conversations are not really a part of daily life except during times of national celebration – over the summer of the 2012 Olympics people all of a sudden started talking to one another on the tube!

    I’m of course used to it as a way of life and rather like that you can find your own space in the crowd as well as choose what to get involved in when you want to. Your photos rather sum up the former and I don’t see them as depressing.

    • I honestly got the feeling it was very different for caucasians/asians though; too easy to be automatically lumped in to the ‘crude, loud, mainland Chinese’ group and ignored.

      • Did you visit Chinatown?😉 Every Chinese stereotype is there! Loud, abrasive, pungent, vibrant with a slight undertone of outsiders not quite welcome. Hmm..
        I’m really surprised though by how you felt.. I’m married to a Malay woman, and we lived together for 20 years in North London, commuting to Central London daily, and apart from 2 racially motivated attacks (thankfully verbal, not physical) she never felt like an “outsider” or was treated any differently. London is as much of a racial melting pot as any great city, and I just never saw what you describe.
        I agree about “distancing”, a coping mechanism that applies, again, the bigger the metropolis the more it seems to apply, just to cope with the sometimes claustrophobic crowding. But as a later poster above pointed out, so many districts, so much variation, far to easy to generalise. I found KL much more impersonal, until I had lived here a few years.
        Anyway, the pictures do show your impressions well. Very good, but not exactly an advert for London as a happy city. 😉

        • I avoid Chinatown for that very reason, and I’m Chinese…go figure.

          I’m still fairly certain people unconsciously change their approach/ reactions depending on who they’re dealing with; this is only natural anyway.

          The good thing is it was never meant to be an advertisement for London, just my interpretation of it. If I’d felt it was a happy city, I’d still be there – I lived and worked there for five years, but it made me so depressed I had to get out.

  15. As usual, a very nicely presented series of images 🙂 Unlike a few of the other commenters I don’t find these depressing at all. Loneliness is definitely felt but there’s also a sense of introspection and calmness, despite the undoubtedly bustling city around each person photographed.

    • Thank you – finding solo people wasn’t actually that easy; there was almost always somebody else in the distant frame, and many times I thought I had a shot only to wait for the background to clear, but have my subject move on instead! 🙂

  16. Wonderfully depressing,that’s what these are. I’m surprised how you managed to capture these without any crowds. It does feel like a lonely place like that sometimes. Your photos have captured the essence I think.

  17. In 1996 I traveled alone in London for 2 weeks. I connected with a couple of other travelers but no locals. I’ve never really thought about it until now, but it was a bit lonely. Still, I’d love to go back again . . . it’s such a lovely place. Not chomping at the bit to go anywhere though as I live on the Sonoma Coast and I’m blissfully happy here : ) I enjoy the moodiness of your black and white images. I tend to shoot in color so this gets me thinking I need to get outside my comfort zone.

  18. Perfect capture of the london i knew. When single i found it purgatory and now married to the most beautiful girl in derbyshire, london is full of wonders – my favorite city.

    • 😉 Lucky man!

      • I am!

        Perhaps a future teaching point is “opening the doors of perception” – showing my age now! My point – much of what we see comes from your inner state, and just as an actor rehearses technique, you have to understand and prepare your mind to see. Of course you also have to have a vision of what you are seeking to achieve, and the technique to capture it when you find it. But the state comes first. In my case, I will claim to be no photographer, but since meeting and marrying Sheila, and it’s been over 20 years since, the world has become a place of discovery and wonder and I look back on my teens and early adulthood as the wasted years.

        I have never been on a workshop, but it has to be as much about mindset as it is technique, and the technology is a distraction – how about a single-lens workshop, or dare I say it, an iphone workshop (with the phone in airplane mode of course!).

  19. Sorry, I’m unsubscribing now. It’s all been too austere lately, no beauty or joy. Bye.

  20. A very fine essay if a little unsettling. I lived in London for 8 years and since then have lived in Hong Kong 4 years. Without strong friendships they are indeed lonely places, not in spite of the crowds but because of them. No one could cope with small town familiarity on a vast city scale.

    I’ve found the antidote is a proactive social life, and some sort of community engagement to feel connected. Also, it’s necessary to get out of the city and experience countryside and small communities, even if only on short breaks.

  21. The are really nice! I absolutely love black and white 🙂

  22. Wonderful series Ming! Really like the photos.

    • Thanks Eric – apparently some find them depressing 🙂

      • It’s interesting that people find them depressing. If you had prefaced the images with an essay on the beauty of finding peace in a stressful, crowded urban environment, I’ll bet reader reactions would have been exactly the opposite.

        • You’re probably right – perhaps too much preconditioning of expectation in the copy…but then again, it seems that a lot of people also find them calming. Each to his own!

        • I agree with Jim – I used to live in London and your introduction reminded me of my similar feelings on the city, so I as I viewed the photos I already had this in mind. An interesting series though, and the way you use B&W to get around the frequently dull London light makes me think – I’ve never been a big fan of monochrome photos or bothered to try them myself, maybe I should reconsider!

          • The more I think about it, the more I think there’s no such thing as bad light – just bad light for a given subject.

            • Hmmmm…. I’ll have to think about that, it makes sense in principle….. but I’m not sure I have the knowledge / skill yet to work in reverse from looking at the light to looking for the subject that suits that light. Working on it, though, with help from your videos and others, so something to aim for!

              • The problem is it’s really difficult to describe what light works for what subject – there’s also of course the whole idea to consider…

            • Carlos El Sabio says:

              These are great. One of my favorites of your essays. You captured perfectly the mood and feeling that you laid out in the beginning. This seems to me like a puzzle piece that is required to fill out the complete picture of abstraction of man. The choice of black and white also seems to me the only choice. The range of comments is quite interesting. I suspect that a number of people are reading their own feelings into the mood of the series and if they re-read their comments may find themselves looking into a mirror. That is what great photography should do. It should elicit some introspection and an emotional reaction. Your work is far from clinical and cold. Look at the reactions.

              “The more I think about it, the more I think there’s no such thing as bad light – just bad light for a given subject.” This reminds me of something that I have told my children more than once when they comment that something is an ugly color. I have explained that the same color in a different context could be beautiful.


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