The Auckland Fujifilm street photography workshop challenge
“Success is what happens when 10,000 hours of preparation meet with one moment of opportunity.” – Anonymous
It does not matter what the light is like, when you are out on the street photographing, for there is something always going on. You just have to see it. Photography is, after all, about light; about seeing the light, walking in the light, and looking at what happens when others move in it.
The great French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson , always saw the act of making pictures as being somewhat akin to a dance, and those who photographed with him talk about the way in which he would be forever on the move, looking for that moment when the ordinary said something extraordinary, somehow encapsulated a universal truth.
We returned last month to Auckland for the second of the Fujifilm Street photography workshops, to meet a new crew, each of whom brought his/her own vision of life and way of an envisaging life. After a lecture on the different types of documentary/street photography, and a lesson on how to use the X-series cameras, each was able to choose a camera they wanted to explore more, and given two hours to go out in the CBD and make photographs, one of which had the potential to win them a brand-new Fujifilm X-F1.
As usual, for the judging, I called in the heavy consultants, and we worked over the images, looking for the winner, and identifying the top six images. The winning image is first, the others in no particular order.
The winning image
Sometimes we can see better by not looking directly at our subject, rather by looking at it in a mirror or studying its reflection. While many of us attempt to reduce an image to its simplest forms to make a statement clear, there is something to be said for heading in the opposite direction, of learning to master very complex visual design in our photographs.
Ostensibly this is a simple shot of a reflection in a shop window, where the street on the right (which cannot be seen) is reflected in the glass and therefore makes us able to see it without facing it directly. The reflection blends and mingles with the contents of the shop window while at the same time giving us a clear view of the other side of the street. This is a complex image, and one which requires some time and study. But it also contains touches of genius. Notice how our eyes are immediately drawn to the small figure in a suit walking on the opposite side of the street, as he drags his suitcase. What helps to make immediately visible is the shadow of the streetlamp which points directly at him, without quite touching him. Having identified the centre of interest, our eyes then begin to roam around the picture, and we suddenly become aware of the repetitions in the photograph, especially the suit in the shop window (centre right), and the merest trace of the suit appearing behind the white wall but directly framing the walker. There are also other touches of repetition, for example the red sock (centre bottom), the red door, and a rectangle near the top of the wall, all of which work together to form a line which helps draw our eye towards the mobile businessman. The more we look at this photograph, the more integrated it becomes, as motif and pattern repeat to make this an integrated whole. It takes time to really understand this photograph, and this makes it all the more satisfying.
Wherever we walk in the central city, we are always being watched; by other people, by those furtive surveillance cameras and, by the mannequins who stand in the shop windows, immobile and watching us as we go past. It is possible to create some wonderful juxtapositions between the giant figures on billboards and posters and the people who walk past them.
In this photograph a man is walking past the shop window and turns to look at a poster in a shop window. Being close to the camera, has figure is blurred, in direct contrast to the sharpness of the characters in the window. The woman at whom he is looking is clearly a model, there to display the clothes she is wearing. This photograph has a clever use of saturation/desaturation, and our eyes are drawn to her red shirt. While he is looking at her, the angle of her eyes suggests she is not the slightest bit interested in him, which in itself provides a story. Notice the secondary motif of the clothing on hangers in the background, and the way in which the stripes they form are repeated on the balconies above. This photograph contains both still and moving, and is a wonderful observation of a very simple moment.
At every workshop I have been asked the question: do you want these to be straight photographs or can we play with them? My answer is and always will be: go nuts, and do whatever you need to do in order to reflect what you saw and felt at the time. There is a wonderful sense of timelessness and serenity in this photograph of a shop window with reflections from the street on the opposite side. By rendering the photograph in black-and-white we (the readers) are obliged to see the photograph in symbolic terms, as a metaphor, and, in a sense, as an interior landscape (the basis of Surrealism). The dreamy quality of the image suggests something eternal and offers us a variety of meanings. The mannequin in the window at once behind it and at once part of it, is looking over her left shoulder, perhaps watching the woman passing by or with her attention drawn to the doorway at the far end of the street, on either side of which two people standing, symbolic guards. Observe how her clothing, neck and body are woven into the structure of the building, and how the rich shadows in the bottom left of the photograph makers seem to float in some sort of parallel dimension. This is a photograph which is rich, suggestive and open to a wealth of interpretations.
There is always movement on the Street, and human locomotion is a study in itself. A woman in a red dress wearing high heels and obviously in a hurry is running down the street, perhaps late for an appointment or trying to make it in time to catch a bus. As she steps into a patch of sunlit pavement, her legs and feet create a complimentary shadow which integrates with the shadows from the buildings. By eliminating her head, and therefore making an impossible to identify her, the photographer has obliged us to see her in metaphorical terms. She thus becomes Everywoman. Notice the structural interplay between shadow and light, and the clever way in which the photographer has ensured that her dress remains sharp while everything else is blurred. Masterly.
Sometimes it is necessary to use something discordant in a photograph to lift it from being a simple exercise in visualisation and design. A small element at odds with the rest of the picture or placed in a position which is quite unsettling can add energy to photograph and lift it. On first glance this photograph appears a simple exercise in design and form and texture… until you see the sandalled leg projecting from the top of the frame. By converting the photograph to black-and-white the layers of meaning which colour might otherwise bring are removed, and we are asked to study the texture, lines and contrast of the image. The striped legging and simple sandal creates a wonderful contrast and its position is both challenging and fascinating. What would be an exercise in design now asks us questions. To whom does the leg belong? Why is it where it is? What is the owner of the leg doing and why are they there? Now we have something to reflect upon and think about. Are they just resting there or are they contemplating jumping? Somehow this picture is disturbing. Notice how the more formal framing/cropping plays against the small but unsettling element provided by the leg.
Hard light can be as satisfying as soft light, provided we take into account its compositional and visual importance. The photographer has used the portrait format to draw our attention to the graphic qualities of the stairs which occupy over 50% of the frame. The harsh light subdues the texture of the concrete but gives greater strength to the shadows in the photograph, which become subjects in themselves. Notice the strong shadow behind the person sitting on the stairs, the shadow trying to stay ahead of the small child, and the shadows in the very top edge of the frame, which suggest somebody in the background. Observe how the shadows all line up and progress obliquely from the left of the right-hand side of the frame, echoing the angle of the legs of the person stepping out of the frame (upper left). Notice too how the shadows point from top right to lower left and form an implied X shape. While this is a very simple photograph, an observation, yet it has a sense of place and time which lift it from the banal and mundane.
Footnote: sometime in the next 24 hours I will be posting the notice about the next workshop, to be held in Hamilton in May, on my Facebook page. You do not need to use Facebook to access it, and you can find it here. For a small fee you can have an enjoyable day learning about street photography, trying out your choice of ex-cameras, being a well-fed and watered, and taking your results away on a high-quality SD card.
See you there?