We were blessed with beautiful weather last weekend and although I had not completed writing up “Fitting the Frame” it was a golden opportunity to visit Winchester which has a bric-a-brac and a farmers’ market on the first Sunday of the month. This would be a good location to work on “A Sequence of Composition”.
I captured plenty of sequences and will work on editing those photos and writing up the exercise in the early part of next week. Good markets bustle with people and Winchester is no exception so I inevitably took plenty of people photos over the course of the morning. As I began to sort through the raw images I began to think about how best to crop and edit the people pictures that might not fit not the current exercise but were images that I would like for myself.
This started me thinking more deeply about street photography and street portraits in particular and whether there were patterns in the way experienced and skilful street photographers presented their work.
I have researched the internet for striking street portraits that will help me answer this question. The internet is a powerful research tool but a lot of time can be wasted sorting the wheat from the chaff so I tried to quickly home in on a small number of photographers. Firstly, I selected an iconic name from the history of street photography – Henri Cartier Bresson, one modern American, professional photographer, Clay Enos, whose “Spontaneously-made portraits of random passersby” appealed to me www.clayenos.com/streetstudio and a Greek photographer, Markos George Hionos whose images caught my eye but who appears to be neither a professional nor well known www.facebook.com/MarkosGeorgeHionosPhotography.
(Important amendment, posted 23rd October 2013. I owe an apology to Markos George Hionos. I have done him a disservice and should have said that he was not previously known to me. Mr. Hionos has kindly written to me and provided me with links to his work. He is indeed a professional photographer born in Greece but now working as a freelance photographer and living in London, his work has been published in several magazines and he has written two books. His website can be found at www.mindstormphotos.com. and his blog at markosgeorgehionos.wordpress.com)
I also spent some time looking at Lee Jeffries’ work. His powerful images of street people in London and Los Angeles are strong enough to be disturbing which I presume is exactly the effect he is aiming for and whilst I am very taken by his work I will save them as input for another day. www.paranoias.org/2011/07/lee-jeffries-photography/.
My method was to look through images from the above photographers and screen shot those that fitted into a theme of street portraits and that had an instant visual impact on me. I pulled these together into simple collections and printed them for my sketchbook. I have obviously not looked at all the work of these three men and am therefore not going to comment on their wider work but by printing out all the images that I had selected and looking at them together there was a clear pattern.
In the photos I had selected by Henri Cartier Bresson he had the subject or subjects in the context of their setting whilst both Enos and Hionos tightly framed their subjects. The second obvious observation is that Cartier Bresson and Hionos’ images were all black and white whilst Enos used both mediums. My review of current street photography suggests that a high proportion is monochrome. I am unsure whether this is because the subject works better this way or whether it has become a trend and photographers are associating street subjects with black and white. For Lee Jeffries’ work Black and white is the obvious choice, it focusses all the attention on the subjects’ complexions, underlines the dirt and the wear and tear most of them have suffered. His are dark subjects and perfect for monochrome. In contrast Clay Enos uses both colour and black and white, his work is generally much lighter but I like the fact that he is choosing which works best based on the subject.
I selected a small number of the street portraits that I had taken last Sunday and followed a process of preparing a copy with a fairly wide framing and then trying tighter crops that were closer to Enos and Hionos’ work.
I took a series of photos of this market trader. Fig. 1 is the first photo taken after he noticed me and I liked the way he is responding to the camera. He obviously knows I am there but he is not posing in any way. I like the movement in his hand as he raises his cigarette. A satisfactory image but there is a lot of dead space around the subject.
I have cropped much more closely in fig.2 but have kept enough of his wonderful plaited beard and the glimpse of his tattoo. This is a much more effective crop dispute losing so much of the beard and his hand. I could have potentially cropped even tighter to focus on his face but I think the subject believes his beard is an important statement about himself and it had to be in the photo.
I converted the same image to black and white in fig.3. For me, this changes the feel of the image quite significantly. Both Fig.1 and Fig. 2 are bright, cheerful images, I find this a little more moody, nearly sinister, in black and white. The colour images work better for me in this instance.
The second image I have chosen, fig.4 , is of an older man who first attracted my attention because his tee shirt appeared quite out of keeping with both his age and the rest of his clothing. This crop was the photo I first saw, with the mannequin’s head holding the left and my main subject holding the right.
In fig. 5 I have cropped to a portrait and the way he is looking straight at the camera has become the dominant feature of the image. I left his hands and the tee shirt in and I like the way they relate to each other. On balance the landscape with the market around him is a more interesting photograph. I tested black and white on this image but it did not add anything.
By this stage I was beginning to develop a theme for my sequence of composition exercise and was positioning myself behind market traders and their stalls and focusing in on their customers. I have picked fig. 6 out as a street portrait because the trader’s back, the shop window and her colourful scarf create a strong frame for women’s face and she has become the dominant subject.
In Fig.7 I have cropped in more tightly on the women. She does not fill the frame so is still a long way from either Enos or Hionos and I have left in the back of the trader which explains the photograph. It is a shame that someone walked behind her as it would have been a more striking photograph if the shops had been the only background. There is a lesson here and I should review the captured image more often as there probably was the opportunity to take another shot once the passerby had gone. Black and white added nothing.
In this close up of part of a street band I caught one of the musicians obviously enjoying his colleague’s performance. This is tight on the two subjects but because of the depth of field the focus is all on the expression of the man at the back. Cropping down to the one man would be pointless as the subject of his pleasure would have gone. In fig.8 I have converted the image to black and white to see whether this would impart a more “street feel”. I prefer the colour version but either seem to work.
Fig. 9 was the first photograph that I edited after uploading the raw files. I felt that this was a strong composition with the trumpeter’s white shirt helping to make him stand out from the dull and out of focus background. In a perfect world the doorway would have been empty but I do not believe that the two figures detract too much. Another example where, if I had reviewed the image on location, I would have had a second chance.
This is the photograph that started me thinking about how other photographers frame their street portraits. Should I stay with this composition which seemed strong or frame much tighter?
The tight crop in fig. 10 works better. The diagonal of the trumpet and the direction his eyes are looking become the two most dominant features. I much prefer this image.
Based on reviewing internet images street portraits are more often then not tightly framed. The subject is often the whole subject and the photograph is mostly printed in black and white.
On the other hand Henri Cartier Bresson focuses all our attention onto an individual or a group but leaves them in context, even when the background is fairly plain. I picked out 10 of his images. The selection was solely on the basis of the image being primarily about an individual, i.e. a portrait and that it instantly appealed to me. In 8 out the 10 the subject is placed left or right of centre (rule of thirds) and the rest of the image provides context. Sometimes the context is another person observing the subject. The other two images possibly fail my own criteria anyway. One is is of a group of three probably attempting to find their way from a map and the other is of a group in a park.
Returning to the small selection above, my favourites are the trumpet player (fig. 10) where a tight frame has helped the composition and the older man with the mannequin (fig. 4) where showing him in context creates the most interesting image. Black and white added nothing to any of the images I tested. For me, tight or wide is dependant on what makes the most visual impact, or what makes the more interesting composition. I feel that there is a risk of following a modern trend without asking what makes the best composition and I would like to avoid this trap.