Street Life…And there’s a thousand cards to play (Card No.1)
When I first went to college back in the nineties, learning other aspects of photography was a real eye opener for me. It inspired me; it persuaded me, convinced me if you like. It spelled out yo me that there were other subject matter in photography than landscapes, sunsets, aircraft and studio models. It was very easy to get stuck in a rut and sit with your feet up in a self-made comfort zone. A comfort zone that was exactly that, a comfort; nothing stretched, nothing too excessive, just things I liked that were ….. easy to capture. Looking back it wasnt very exciting and I could have tried a little harder if I’m honest. But, having said that I was young, easily distracted and thought I knew it all; just like an other single male with an ego larger than a Canon zoom lens. But how did I know about the comfort zone? I cannot answer that, maybe it was down to a lot of reading..the theory of photography end to end and back to front.
What I did next was inspired by a thirty minute session with a prospective new camera. You have to bear in mind that this is years before the advent of digital photography and slide and print film were the weapon of choice. I had shown interest in a new SLR at Bradford Camera Exchange and the very nice fellow there, Managing Director Mr John Greenwood. (Bradford Camera Exchange doesn’t have its own website but there is a very good write-up here ) was willing to loan me the model I wanted to test for an hour to run a film through it. This was done on the condition that the results were processed at the laboratory to the rear of the shop. The Lab is now called Pro-Am Imaging and in my opinion is one of the best imaging labs around (Pro-Am Imaging can be found here). I will post a separate article on Pro-Am at a later date.
I was very pleased with the results; what I had done was inadvertently open up a new door in my photography crusade to try something new. Knowing that I had to have the camera back in the shop within the hour it really limited the possibility for the kind of shots that I would have normally been comfortable shooting. I walked out of the shop feeling really strange because I hadn’t paid for the camera and felt I was entrusted with a box of metal that was worth more than my monthly wages. It wasnt planned, the camera was thrust in my hand, a 24 exposure film inserted and I was sent on my way. The shots were very random, something I had never done before. My late Grandfather, the man who inspired me, my mentor, had always taught me to preserve images for the right light, the best composition and the perfect weather. Thirty six images from a roll of Agfa CT-18 were meant to last all week when we were on holiday in the Lake District. What I had here was a licence to capture 24 images on to a negative film and to shoot what the hell I liked. City Centre Bradford on a Saturday was quite busy and there was plenty to see. So off I went, you name it I tried it. I don’t have the actual images to hand but my memory serves me well here. They were a mixture of buildings, different angles, a couple of close-ups and something I had never dare shoot before….People ! I’m not sure when I look back, where I got the nerve from to do this but its irrelevant now. The effect it had, was to build my confidence when it came to interacting and capturing images of people in the street going about their daily business.
I found a new lease of life. People became an amazing subject. Everyone was different, everybody had race, creed, colour, moods, feelings, expressions and no two were the same. This set up my crusade and it felt like the icing was prepared for the giant cake that was my limited but current photographic experience. So, I dabbled in this kind of “reportage” photography. I went straight back to the training ground, Bradford city centre. Why wouldn’t I? I knew it well, I knew the people and I felt comfortable. I also knew where to run if anything should go horribly wrong. As for my comfort zone, I was out of it still, way out in fact but there was no way I was trying another city. Not yet anyway, that would come after more experience.
I set off on my first expedition with camera and 50mm lens which was just standard. In later years I was to find out that this combination of camera and glass was actually perfect for the job I was trying to do and had been used by the french salon photographers during the war years. I can recall that Saturday really well, John at the camera shop had sold me some rolls of Ilford Black and White film stating that this would be my best medium for what I wanted to achieve. I believed him, why wouldn’t I…the results from the original camera test were great. So I began wandering the streets of Bradford City Centre. It wasn’t as easy as I thought, but not everything is, is it? I know had a thousand cards to play, and this was just my first.
When I consider the way photography is today, you know what I mean … endless shots available as a result of memory cards that are one hundred times larger than the worlds’ first personal computers; Shutters so fast you can capture every expression without worrying you have missed it; Lenses so long you don’t have to be stood so close to the subject that you can taste their breath; It makes me wonder how I achieved any results let alone quality photographic prints that were printed and displayed to exhibition standard. After working very hard to develop a technique for this type of photography I thought I had cracked it. I was working full-time so nine to five during the working week was a big no-no. Weekends were my time to shine, I worked every other Saturday morning in an office near the city centre thus giving me an excuse to have a walk in to town after work with camera in tow. I had started to take my camera everywhere, park, work, pub, football match, you name it…even on nights out. Reading the books it seemed that’s what the photojournalists did; so I did too. And guess what, it worked as well. I started to see life, life through a lens.
A number of weeks later, possibly four or five. It became apparent from the results that I wasn’t quite achieving the quality that the big boys were. I addressed this problem with the only person I knew that would have the answer. A salesman is probably the wrong person to ask, especially when the salesman’s expertise is to sell the very same product you are actually asking advice about. I was sunk from the start. My wages for that month subsequently saw a massive chunk of crisp English pounds disappear in to the till of Bradford Camera Exchange in a direct swap for a shiny zoom lens. In the words of John Greenwood this was going to take me to the next level when it came to my new style of photography. He wasnt wrong you know? John knew what I needed, I paid for it, he supplied it and I went out to try get the results that I had wished for. It did work, I wasnt disappointed with the results. I was able to get in closer, tighter and be less obtrusive when taking photographs of subjects that were lost in their own little worlds, totally unaware that I was even on the same planet.
So that was it, I was fully loaded. I went home on the bus (yes, the bus..this was long before I could drive) with camera bag over my shoulder and a bright yellow bag in my right hand containing one shiny new zoom lens. I always remember coming home from the city on the bus, it was only a fifteen minute journey but ever since I was old enough to go on my own or with my mates it was always a great time to reflect on your Saturday’s purchases. Over the years it changed from Subbuteo football teams, to Airfix kits, from football shirts to fishing tackle; it all depended on the hobby at the time and whoever was your best mate. Whatever or whoever, the bus ride was chance to look in your bag and review your spending. What a great feeling that was on that day. I just couldn’t wait to attach the lens and start shooting.
I now had the bug; another string to add to the bow if you will. But this one, I wanted to take to the max. I didn’t want to stop, the bug had bitten and I was on fire. The new lens kicked life in to the camera that I never knew was possible. I got out shooting people and their surroundings when ever I could. All my other interests were dropped like a stone from the roof of a tenement block. I had no passion for anything but my photography and street photography was now my obsession.
This type of photography could only be advanced by learning. Not just from gaining experience by going out and shooting, but academically. I needed to go to night-school or college. I had loaned a number of books from the library but back then it was very difficult to know who or what to look for. You have to remember that the kind of resources we have now, like the internet etc were not readily available in those days. The only way to gain this knowledge was to get out and hunt for it. A number of years before I had joined the BPS (Bradford Photographic Society) and mixed amongst people with the same interests. This was a great way to gather information, learn new tricks and also make new friends too. I recall looking at a series of images that were shown on the first night I attended and thinking that I was way out of my depth. I wasnt, I just didn’t know it yet. I’m not entirely sure why, but the street photography took a sideline for quite a few years whilst I concentrated on my career.
Brian Robson was my lecturer at South Devon College in Torquay. In 1998 my relocation to Torbay, whilst not out of choice; was probably a good move as photography goes, but that’s where I would draw the line. Brian has an M.A. in Documentary Photography and supported me through a three-year learning curve. A learning curve that taught me not only to take, develop and print photographs but showed me the biggest asset I have acquired to date: To learn to see. Obviously I’m not talking about a medical problem here, what he taught me was a key element of becoming what I wanted to be; a photographer. I was taught how to pre-empt an image, how to pre-visualise an event that could be captured on film. How to read a situation with an image in mind. Lessons in how to improve images by changing small values within their core. It was just what I needed and along with this came tutorials, assignments, assessments and practical exercises. It was fantastic. But the most important thing, it showed me how to develop something that I had never heard of before… “A Style” (The combination of distinctive features of literary or artistic expression, execution, or performance characterizing a particular person, group, school, or era. A quality of imagination and individuality expressed in one’s actions and tastes: A customary manner of presenting printed material, including usage, punctuation, spelling, typography, and arrangement. )
Having a style is a personal attribute. Something that will only be picked up on by a viewer of your work and invariably after looking at many examples and establishing a theme. The viewer should in effect, be able to view several pieces of photography and be able to separate your work from anyone elses just by viewing the image alone. So in three years of photography education I learned to see, to use the camera as a tool and as a means to an end and I learned how to gain the confidence to shoot anything I wanted. And that’s what I wanted to do, so I did. I went back to where it all began back in the eighties, I went up north to Bradford. A town with a history, not just personally but a city with historic connections, a city with bite. A city where culture was abound, where history could be seen no matter where you were stood. A city where I could be familiar with my surroundings, one where I felt safe and confident and therefore enabling me to concentrate on the matter in hand…. My Photography. Which in the end was to be all too important.
The picture above “Two for a Pound” offers quite a story. It was one of the first images I took on my long excursion to West Yorkshire, but I always considered it to be one of my favourites. As I approached the location both Asian gentlemen were happily chatting away and under no circumstances aware of my presence. The second I was spotted the atmosphere changed from friendly chit-chat to a stunned silence. All I had done was lift my camera to grab the shot; a shot which looked great especially with the juxtaposed sign in the background. What had happened was, Gent A (as we cannot provide a name for him) on the left of the image had taken complete objection to having a camera pointed at him. This was in total contrast to Gent B who was quite happy to pose and even offer a wry smile despite his colleagues knee-jerk reaction to my intentions.
There are a number of points I am trying to convey here. Firstly, don’t be misguided by the fact that anyone would react the same way with a huge lens thrust in front of them by a guy dressed like one of the paparazzi, because the camera was “small” and I was dressed like Joe Normal (Whatever normal was back then). So please don’t blame his reaction on my gear and I. Secondly, I really wanted show the contrast between the two friends; as alike as they were, same race, same city, maybe even same family…they both had different opinions on what my objectives were or maybe just the thought of having a picture taken. Thirdly, I wanted to show “Bradford” … not just how it was when I took the image, but how I remembered it. The medium used, Monochrome Film offered a fantastic reproduction portraying a sense of age. Making the images look dated, even back to the 70’s. If it wasnt for the shop in the very background the image would be very limited when it came to offering information to give the viewer any ideas of period. Finally, I wanted to use a little humour by setting the two Asian gents against the back drop of the shop sign. A little tongue in cheek but that was all part of scene.
Bradford was a great experience and it dropped me in at the deep end when it came to street photography. Card No.1 ( as I called it ) was always going to be the ice-breaker when it came to “Getting in there” but god it was worth it. I will be back with another part of this, but don’t expect a thousand, that’s just my expression. Thanks for reading, that is providing you got this far. Oh, and please do comment, it’s always good to get feedback.