GIRL WATCHING IN CABOT SQUARE

A recent rainstorm in Canary Wharf yielded a lovely rainbow, but also stranded me on the lower level of Cabot Square shopping mall. It’s a strange, sanitised place. A far cry from my usual routes. But also a bit of a fashion parade, lots of high heels and little black numbers which is fine by me. I set up the camera on a table, manually focused on the near mannequins head, and set the shutter speed to 15th/sec and waited. Fun while it lasted. Almost a pity the rain had to stop.

20140327-091250.jpg

20140327-091306.jpg

20140327-091336.jpg

20140327-091351.jpg

20140327-091404.jpg

STREET, SURVEILLANCE PARANOIA, MAIER

Looking at archives of Vivian Maier’s work evokes many sensations. Awe, respect, admiration. sympathy, empathy, sadness at an unrecognised, unequalled talent. it also elicits, in me at least, a sort of irrational annoyance at just how easy it is for us to get our images out there. Immediately. I’m not sure why this gets me. Maybe it’s just when I read biographies of people like Vivian Maier. Although she was insanely guarded about her own work, for some reason which I assume nobody will ever quite understand.

I also wonder how she would have faired, as a younger photographer, in today’s climate. And by climate I mean one of surveillance paranoia. One looks at many of Maier’s images of the streets of Chicago and must wonder if they are as much documents of an age of photographic innocence as much as brilliant examples of street photography. I notice that the introvert street photographer is becoming an anachronism. Bresson was famously a shy and very introverted man. And Maier was clearly not an aggressive, invasive photographer like Capote and Ben Shahn and their ilk. A tall, very white, rather haughty looking and apparently middle-class woman carting a very expensive and very large camera around the poorer areas which she actively sought out one must wonder, how did she get away with it? Some women, I’ve noticed over the years, simply do get away with it. There are three approaches to street: aggressive, in your face, shoot first and ask questions later, pure stealth, and, the most intriguing kind, possessing that rare and intangible personal quality which elicits absolutely zero response of indignation, fear and suspicion in a subject. And while it’s true that today’s climate of – often quite silly and unfounded – paranoia, does make street almost impossible amongst certain, mostly developed cultures, I still think that Maier may have had exactly this unique gift. This, clearly, is not to detract from her work. I adore Maier’s work. We all do, don’t we? I mean, look at it! But it does raise questions, which I’ve tried to answer, albeit briefly, in this blog.

Meanwhile, I’ll stick to my own style. I don’t have that gift. I’m tall, big and look like an undercover cop. I have absolutely no front at all. So I’m stuck with stealth, with all the guilt and ethical confusion which that sometimes brings. Sometimes I wonder why the hell I do it. Then I look at Maier’s work. And I remember.

20140309-083630.jpg

20140309-083654.jpg

20140309-083710.jpg

20140309-083750.jpg

20140309-083821.jpg

20140309-083840.jpg

20140309-083927.jpg

20140309-084013.jpg

20140309-084056.jpg

20140309-084133.jpg

20140309-084152.jpg

20140309-084316.jpg

THE STREET GIVETH AND THE STREET TAKETH AWAY

Sitting in my local wetherspoon and we are interrupted by a paramedic team who walk straight up to one of the larger regulars and start enquiring after his general health. I guess he wasn’t feeling so hot so called them on his mobile. They cart him off in a wheelchair and that’s pretty much that. The conversation soon settles back into its normal schedule of health, football, news and the occasional splash of sexual innuendo. Whether this fellow will be seen again is anybodies guess. I look at some of these fellows and wonder how they have survived as long as they have. If its not onset diabetes it’s blank, abject boredom, or both. Here’s one fellow, lounging elegantly on his stool who could easily be some ambassador or consul in the lounge bar of an empty Cuban hotel. Another stares, half dejectedly, half suspiciously, into space. Out in the street, on the trains, in cafes, at bus stops, the weird, kind of silent madness is everywhere. It’s a muted, sort of simmering chaos. And I want to collect it. As if photographic appropriation would give it all some sense. Some elegance, maybe even grace.

One fellow, on a train, hangs off a pole and stares straight out into the dark night. He seems to be studying something. But he can only be seeing railway sidings, and the slowly moving perspective of a cityscape; chimneys, ariels, cranes, office blocks, high rises, all cut out of dull tin and travelling slowly under a bruised, purple sky, threatening heavy rain.

Sometimes it’s lighthearted and exciting. One experiences that sort of surrealist kick of anticipation, as vocalised so neatly and accurately by Andre Breton’s metaphor of “The Blind Swimmer”. Other times, it’s heavy, and slow, and turgid, and even a little sinister.

Well, that’s the way it goes.

The street giveth and the street taketh away.

20140305-143922.jpg

20140305-143935.jpg

20140305-144000.jpg

20140305-144017.jpg

20140305-144031.jpg

20140305-144045.jpg

20140305-144101.jpg

20140305-144118.jpg

20140305-144130.jpg

20140305-144145.jpg

STREET. Benign predation or malign invasion.

I have noticed an increasing number of posts on the subject of the ethical issues underlying street photography. As I write this, as I sup on a glass of cider in a local bar, I am looking out of the large windows and watching people leaning into wind and rain. Some are laughing and howling with a cheery, mock fear at the sudden squalls, while others look more resigned, angry, even, as though looking for someone to blame. Everyone responds slightly differently, but the phenomenon of a sudden storm rattling down the high street remains exactly the same. Our responses don’t change anything.

I love a storm. At least something is happening. And I love street photography. Executed well you can make an otherwise “ordinary” world appear to be a place full of intrigue, drama, surrealism, character, even grace. It is a habit to which I am entirely addicted. If I forget my camera and I’m half way to work, or even at work, I’ll go back home and get it. It’s something I have to do. The ethics, like a hangover, can wait. And the hangover comes when I’m looking through my images. I look at these people and start to think; “Why? Why did I take that image. I don’t know this person. I would probably have little or anything to say to them or share with them. What sort of twisted ego trip am I indulging in here? All this so I can massage my ego and post a few blogs and bang on about Leicas and fast lenses?”

This is my ethical problem, if you can even call it that. The “Why” of the whole thing. With regards to the invasion of privacy thing. I don get it. I really don’t. Imagery is everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. And the means of appropriating these images is, of course, absolutely everywhere. Street photography is predation, but it is a relatively benign predation, given the drivers behind it. Street photography is not malign. If it is then it ceases to be street photography, at least the way I understand it. Street does not have a social, political or moral agenda. Street is pure document, but document arranged in such a way as to bring character, romance, drama and all the other things already stated to an otherwise, apparently mechanical, clockwork world where nothing ever happens!

And witnessing a world where nothing takes place is like witnessing chaos. Our minds seek cause and effect, we seek order and meaning. All art, music, painting, literature, sculpture, photography and specifically street photography, is either a statement on that chaos or an attempt to bring some order to it. Photography can be an attempt, through the simple act of photographing, to invest a meaningless, chaotic and empty world with some level of order, balance and comprehension, spurious and affected as that photographic interpretation may be.

One thing is for certain. Most if not all of my subjects wouldnt be that interested in my intellectual meanderings through the meanings and ethics of street photography. So why bother them with it. It’d be ridiculous. So yes, it is stealthy and uninvited and predatory. But unethical? No. No it’s not. It’s simple benign observation and like I say, when it ceases to be benign observation with some degree of empathy, then it ceases to be street photography, as far as I, personally, understand the term.

The fellow below is mad as a snake. I know. I’ve spoken with him – sort of. So why the photograph? It was the light, the rain, the coat, the small, inner stirring of the heart at the random, chaotic way in which the cards are dealt, the way the cookie crumbles, the lives and bodies into which we are born and live out our days.

The storm has passed now. It’s still raining but the sky is brightening up and the odd shaft of sunlight bounces off the wet pavement, filling the bar with a sudden, blinding glow. A few of the regulars look up. One of them smiles. Then they all get back to the papers, breakfast, beers and whiskeys. Their lives. Our lives.

20140303-111121.jpg

FROM STREET TO STUDIO

Occasionally, when I feel the time is appropriate, I may invite one of my subjects to come to my studio and have a large format portrait taken on a 110 year old full plate camera. This, naturally, is a different game altogether. For a start, the “contract” has changed entirely. No more stealth or shooting from the tummy but an agreed, fully conscious exchange. But is it? Most of the subjects shot on this camera are delighted to peer down the lens of such an antique contraption, probably for the first and last time in their lives. I know for a fact that Alberto, the pastry chef, was head over heels and regularly visited the National Portrait Gallery where his image was displayed in The National Portrait awards.

Dinesh, however, is another matter. It would be ungracious to go too deeply into the obvious instability of his mental health, but suffice to say that he sleeps in the back of a truck and tramps incessantly around the industrial estate where my studio is located, with an energetic, yet sort of resigned urgency which is both touching and, frankly, appalling.

I approached him with an offer of a six pack of cider and twenty quid.

In the studio he sat in front of the antique camera with a weary disinterest. He gazes into the lens because I asked him to. The result, I find, is a little unnerving. If portraiture is supposed to be about identity then this is not much of a portrait. This fellow gives nothing away. He displays none of that mental instability which I happen to be privy to, and has been interpreted as an artist, a teacher,
a tradesman, all sorts of things, even a professor. But perhaps it is part of the remit of photographic portraiture that we should, on occasion, ponder the background and provenance of the subject. Portraiture, and large format portraiture in particular gives us the opportunity to scan someone’s features in far more detail, and for far longer than would otherwise be possible. And in the absence of obvious markers of identity such as the pastry chef’s uniform and rolling pin, more inscrutable markers and expressions can elicit a more thoughtful, possibly even intellectual response. The Pastry Chef is something of a crowd pleaser, which is why, I suppose, it made it into the NPG. I like it. But I am more drawn to the portrait of Dinesh. Pastry Chef is an entertainment, Dinesh is a meditation. A meditation on what, exactly, I’m not quite sure. But I can look at this very historical looking document for a very long time until the gaze and the rather bullish way in which it was coaxed out of the subject (but particularly the gaze), unnerve and unsettle me, until I feel so uncomfortable that I have to put the large print back into its sleeve.

20140226-181929.jpg

20140226-182002.jpg

For more example of my large format photography, please visit my other post at Jasonikon’s Large Format photography project “local” . Thank you

STREET GOES TO BUDAPEST

Street photography becomes more or less difficult depending on many factors. You, your technique, your appearance, your gender (ladies, generally, get away with far more than the men), and local culture, which can, of course, totally contradict my point about gender. Street is all about opportunism and snap, but intelligent, experienced decisions about what you can and can’t get away with. To this day, I have something of a moral problem with taking people’s pictures when they are unaware of it. Sure, I make the point about empathy, but how far can this really take you? I certainly have empathy for the daily struggle of straightforward existence, but maybe it’s closer to the fact that I just like hanging around in downtown, more or less decrepit bars and saloons. Or at least reading about them in 20th century American literature. I must have read Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend at least ten times.

But as I say, it all changes as you travel from culture to culture, and suddenly you don’t feel so guilty or intimidated anymore. Some cultures just get it, even welcome it.

A recent trip to Budapest was one such encounter. I’ve always had a yearning to visit this place. Not entirely sure why. Billed, like Prague, as the Bohemian capital of Eastern Europe, it seemed to deliver, whereas Prague, through no real fault of its own (hell, it needed the money), has deteriorated, in my opinion, into something of a holding bay for idiot stag parties and literally armies of apparently barely conscious tourists. Well. I preferred Budapest. Let’s leave it at that.

Why I enjoyed Budapest was, of course, the general attitude to photography. No one really seemed to care. Well, not that much. It’s just a friendly place to be. My schedule soon organised itself into a very early morning visit to the local cellar bar, inhabited by no more than half a dozen regulars, sometimes just one, watching TV, or chatting amongst themselves, or just leaning against the bar observing the other regulars, stroking a long white beard. I’d then walk through a long, grafitti smothered tunnel under the railway tracks to the poorest part of the town where vodka was so cheap they virtually gave it away. In these areas I was more conservative with my photography as abject poverty is too close to the bone for my tastes. (I have never quite established at which point human interest driven voyeurism crosses over from benign and empathetic to malign and meaningless, even predatory. I just go with my gut on that one.)

In the afternoon I might sober up with a visit to the local spa, wading around in the fluoride packed waters, Leica in hand, shooting the chilled out gentlemen playing speed chess, and not giving a damn about my intrusion.

One evening I got so tired, I just sat on the floor outside a railway station and just shot randomly with my medium format Flexaret TLR. One of my favourite shots, rough as it may be, is of this fellow smiling gleefully straight into camera, probably because he appreciated the vintage look and overall prettiness of this particular machine. It’s a picture which always makes me smile as its a testament, for me, to the more harmless, more innocent and, perhaps, socially binding nature of street photography. We live in a world of increasing suspicion of and aggression towards having our image captured by strangers. In the absence of any real, clear reasons for this paranoia, like living in a violent police state, for example, I feel it’s all a bit silly and self indulgent. As a street photographer I don’t give a damn who takes my picture. I have no sensible, political reason to object. So it was pleasant to wander the streets, if just for a few days, of a town, where the attitude towards street photography seems to approach my own. To be honest, I didn’t want to come back. And not only because the vodka was twenty pence a shot.

20140224-102034.jpg

20140224-102050.jpg

20140224-102105.jpg

20140224-102121.jpg

20140224-102207.jpg

20140224-102231.jpg

20140224-102527.jpg