I was in London this month for a conference and as luck would have it the venue was to be the brutalist paradise of the Barbican centre. For some at the conference, the beauty, geometry and texture of brutailsm was a new experience. Personally this is an architectural style which has never failed to inspire. In my minds eye I see a vision of the future which embodies hope. A coming together of form and function designed to make you take notice whilst at the same time creating an environment you can live with and in.
The conference involved long days in hot lecture halls but as the evening light lingered with promises of summer I had plenty of time to capture my two favourite subjects, people and architecture.In fact if you ever get the chance to shoot the Barbican I recommend going when the sun is low in the sky and the buildings cast majestic shadows across the squares and walkways. Some may think concrete can be nothing but boring and flat but I would challenge anyone to find a single surface of the Barbican which is anything but a feast for the eyes.
The Barbican centre itself is brimming with culture and I certainly need to book another trip where I have time to enjoy the galleries, cinema and cafes. The energy from the people who come for the performances and shows is palpable and spills out across the fountains and into the buildings themselves. Light and sound bounces back at you so you are surrounded by the electricity of the place and the people.
I stopped and talked to Tony, a professional musician who was sitting below a grand crest of the City of London. Tony was waiting for friends and had tickets for a Tchaikovsky violin concerto. We talked of London and his career in music. The following day he was playing piano at a retirement home near to where my grandad lives and where my family are from. I find the happy coincides which come from talking to strangers are always memories to cherish. All in all my trip to London and the Barbican was a very successful one indeed.
This is my city. There are many others like it but this one is mine. Or at least that is how I am starting to see Nottingham. For in seeing a city the way I see Nottingham now I feel like I am part of it and that it is mine to be a part of. My relationship with the city has been a relatively short one but like many love affairs it already feels like I couldn’t be without it.
I still know very little about the city in truth. Most of my my time has been spent on the south and east sides of Nottingham but what I have found has already given me a more than I could have expected. For me a city is as much about it’s grand architecture as it is it’s beautiful mistakes. In a city colour and form come together in ways which inspire and enchant but are simply passed by and ignored by most.
I have met many interesting people and found many interesting places in Nottingham but the jewel in the crown is Nottingham Contemporary. Just seeing the building brings a smile to my face and sometimes I feel I am drawn to it like a compass to magnetic north. Despite our short acquaintance this is now one my of favourite places to be in the world. I have found joy, sadness, humility, contemplation and plethora of other emotions within the white gallery walls and I come away feeling renewed. My photography has benefited greatly from having such a fantastic cultural resource so easily accessible.
The gallery isn’t my only draw to the city. The near by lace market district is a gift to any street photographer. Its fantastic architecture and laid back atmosphere makes for a great place to shoot and relax. Each corner and side street holds a different cafe, record or book shop which are a welcome distraction. Photography comes to the slow and deliberate, the contemplative, those who live and feel in the now. The lace market helps me find that place in my mind.
The Odeon cinema in Loughborough has drawn me like a moth to a flame since our arrival in the town last year. I find the art deco façade of the building to be inspiring and I have photographed it on many occasions. The lines and contours of the building look to me as if a graphic designer has taken a pen and drawn across the sky. I love the way the Odeon sign works with the building. The lines of the sign like the façade are very clean but in a very different way, modern and shinning. Where the sign meets the building the paint has flacked away as if it is sympathetic to the older façade. The overall result is extremely pleasing.
It’s not clear as to whether the building you see today was how it was when it was built. The cinema was originally opened as the Empire in 1914 and was designed by Archibald Hurley Robinson. It seems that the building was refurbished in 1936 and perhaps the façade was updated (1). I would image that the architecture would have been even more splendid when it first opened it’s doors.
Recent news in the town is that we are to have a new multiplex cinema. The cinema including it’s new bars and restaurants will be built on the site of the old hospital at Baxter Gate. The construction has began but there is little above the ground at this stage. The hoarding around the site includes an artists impression of what the finished building will look like. I can’t say that it fills me with the same level of inspiration as the Odeon. I wouldn’t expect the new cinema to be built in a similar art deco style but I would have preferred it if they had designed something more inspiring than brown brick and shop fronts.
I wonder what the fate of the existing Odeon will be? Whilst the university increases the number of people in the town during term time I can’t imagine that there will be enough demand for two cinemas. It would be a shame if the Odeon were to be abandoned and it fell into disrepair. The cinema in my old neighbourhood of Kings Heath was left in this way and it wasn’t long before it was struck by arsonists. That would be a sad ending indeed for a building which has inspired me the way the Odeon has.
When reading about photography, being of the moment or capturing the moment is a recurring theme. By it’s very nature photography allows you to stop time and hold it in your hand but capturing the moment hints at more than just taking a picture. When we say “You captured the moment really well there!” we are normally implying that the image conveys an emotion or an idea which is evident in it’s viewing. So what makes an image of the moment and how can we capture it and hold it within two dimensions? I’m afraid like many things there is no magic formula but I have been investigating the practical things you can do which help to define and convey an idea in a photograph.
In a recent post I spoke about how I have started to understand what it means for an image to say something about me. Since writing that post I have been reading Dan Winters Road to Seeing. The subtitle of Dan’s book is Voices That Matter and in his book he writes about the importance of having a voice in the photographs you take. Dan explains that photography is a form of visual communication and if you are conscious of this fact you can use it as you would a spoken or written language.
With a spoken or written language, culture has a part to play in how it is understood and with a visual language there is no difference. Essentially visual culture is built on a set of conventions which hold meaning to those who are a part of that culture. These conventions are part of our everyday lives and are used by advertising companies, designers, artists and many other to convey a visual message. These ideas of visual culture are so prevalent that most of the time we don’t even notice they are there or that they are shaping the way we think or feel about something.
So if we go back to the idea of capturing the moment being about conveying an emotion or idea we can start to see why thinking about a photograph as a medium of visual communication is a useful thing to do. When you also combine this with the idea of a visual culture we can try and understand how how these conventions play a part in that communication.
This is all easily said but like many things it is not necessarily straightforward to do. Most of us are well practiced in speaking or writing to communicate and we can see how someone is feeling by picking up on visual cues but communicating a complex idea in a photograph can be a daunting task. The world of portrait photography has a good example of this. Quite often you will hear people say that a portrait captures the soul of the individual who is in the picture. Photographing a smile is easy but how on earth do you photograph somebodies soul!?
What happens if we dissect the idea of capturing somebodies soul in a photograph? For the sake of my own sanity and yours, I’m going to define the soul as the facets which make a person who they are. This could include whether they are a serious person, a happy person, a friendly person, a creative person, a workaholic etc. If we go back to our idea of a photograph as a form of visual communication which is based on a visual culture we can use cultural conventions to communicate the facets of a person along with their smile.
You can of course take a picture of your creative, animal loving friend holding a paintbrush and hugging a cat but you might find that you have neither captured their soul or the moment. There is also a good chance that it won’t feel like it is your voice which is speaking through the photograph you have created. Sometimes cliches are useful in photography but one of the most beautiful and engaging aspects of the medium is that there are numerous techniques which help you to convey an idea in a subtle way. Many of these techniques rely very little on the subject itself. For example; the way in which you use expose can radically change the way the final image makes you feel. Again this relies on our visual culture to communicate the idea the same way a paintbrush conveys creativity.
I have found that in order to capture the moment I need stop looking at the dials on my camera and start looking around me. I try to make a connection with the place or person I am photographing and convey the way I feel in my composition. I have also found that trying too hard to make this connection can be just as bad as not trying at all. Personally I find the photographs which give me the most satisfaction are created when I have the time to walk around a place with my camera at my side or still in bag. This helps me to soak up the atmosphere and find my voice. I have now started to see images out of the corner of my eye, sometimes almost as I am about to walk away.
So now I can see my voice I am hoping to try and nurture it by the way I approach my photography and the way I edit and review my work. Like many of my posts it has helped me to write this down in black and white. I wonder how I would convey this in a photography!?
Everyone has a their own likes and dislikes and I would imagine that most photographers find certain photographic genres that they enjoy more than others. There are a few genres which stand out for me however since starting to take my photography more seriously again street photography has become one of my favourite past times. There are many reasons why street photography has captured my imagination and I hope to explore this a little further in this post and talk about the genre as a whole.
I love cities and could happily sit for hours drinking coffee and watching the world go by. I enjoy looking around at the people, architecture and general goings on of the city. Something that has fascinated me is the way in which our environment shapes our behaviour. I have carried out a small study on the subject deliberately omitting the people, more interested in the thoughts and feelings my images would evoke when they were out of context. I really enjoyed putting the project together and I intend to return to it at some point.
Typically however street photography is characterised by its focus on the people that live and work in our cities and towns, putting them in the context of the environment which they reside. Since the dawn of photography we have been drawn to photographing the human condition. Some photographic genres attempt to place its human subjects in a staged environment however many images attributed to street photography are candid, capturing people going about their everyday lives. Even when the subjects are posing for the camera in street photography the images are trying to capture the street as much as the person in it. This can lead to interesting juxtapositions with the advertising and other imagery that is commonplace in modern towns and cities.
With the variety of people and viewpoints that one might encounter in any urban space the possibilities are endless and you never really know what you might find. The opportunities are also often fleeting with an image being made and lost in a moment. This can lead to street photography being exciting as well as frustrating. The good thing about street photography is that you can often take a break and then find some new inspiration around the very next corner. In fact when faced with some disappointing shots I have headed towards the nearest pub and struck up a conversation with a stranger over a pint only to get back out on the street with a new vigour (hopefully derived from the conversation rather than the alcohol).
Like most genres of photography we are standing on the shoulders of giants, many great photographers have made a name for themselves by creating stunning street photography. What is striking to me is the different approaches that have been taken. For example Henri Cartier Bresson would spend vast amounts of time in a location working a scene where the backdrop created a perfect geometric composition, waiting for a person to step in and complete the image. Others like Bruce Gilden took a different approach, striding through the crowds with camera and flash filling the frame with his subjects. Personally I find the images by both of these photographers absolutely mesmerizing and there are many other approaches to being a street photographer.
All of the different definitions and approaches to street photography can lead some to question whether or not it is a genre worth pursuing as it can appear diluted with some regarding it as a scatter gun approach to imagery. For me it is this flexibility which makes the genre so appealing. If I were to imagine the most eclectic place that I could, I would probably have a city street in my minds eye. Each street photographer conjures up their own view of the city making them sinister, sultry or a celebration of what it is to be human. Depending on your technique you can draw out the harsh colours, graphic and claustrophobic press of the metropolis or wash this away and draw on the loneliness, decay and corruption which exists in the spaces surrounded by people. If photography is about showing your view of the world then showing your personal view of the city is a worthwhile endeavour in my opinion.
One of the other reasons why I have been drawn to street photography is that when I picked up my camera again I promised myself that I would put myself out of my comfort zone. The act of photographing the stranger in a public space is at first nerve racking. If you are trying to shoot candidly then you always have a question about how somebody might react to your pointing a lens in their direction. This feeling took me a bit of getting used to and I still sometimes feel a little self concious today. What you don’t want to do is try to look like you are hiding. Be bold with your camera instead of making yourself look a bit creepy. If you catch somebody’s eye then smile and perhaps indicate that you would like to take their photo. Now that I am more confident I quite often ask people if I can take their picture although the act of asking can dramatically change someone’s reaction to the camera and I am always concious of how this might change my image.
There are plenty of resources on street photography in books and on the internet. Eric Kim’s website alone is a treasure trove of information. You will also find plenty of groups on Flickr to use for inspiration. So what are you waiting for!? Pick up your camera and head off into town.