For many photographers “street photography” conjures up thoughts of candid imagery of strangers but it isn’t what springs to my mind. For me, making images on the street is more about the interesting juxtaposition of elements in the scene, contrasts between the old and new perhaps or patterns created by light and shade. So much so that I tend not to use the term “street” preferring to label my images as “urban”. It’s not that I don’t use people in my photographs from the streets but they are generally contextual elements rather than the main subject.
Where I am more in tune with “street” is in the use of black and white imagery for the vast majority of my street/urban photography. Typically, but not exclusively, black and white film. The choice of film stock can have a strong impact on the final image and one of my current favourites is Kodak XX although I’ve used many others with Ilford HP5+ my most-used film stock over the last few years. I also like Kodak Tri-X when I can get it at a decent price.
My cameras of choice for my urban wanders are typically smaller and quieter; I’m thinking of the Fuji X100T or X-Pro1 for digital work or the Nikon L35 AF or the half-frame Olympus Pen EE3 for 35mm film photography. That said I regularly use my Horizon S3 Pro which is to discrete as chalk is to cheese! Recently I found myself in Llangollen with a less-than-inconspicuous Bronica SQ-A in my hand and was surprised that it didn’t attract that much attention. I guess that as a tourist destination it was less out of place perhaps.
I rarely have a preconceived plan when I take my urban walks preferring to react to what I see. There are some locations I’m more familiar with of course and I can often tailor my walk to suit the conditions when visiting one of these. As I mentioned above I’m generally looking for contrasts. These can be architectural as in an old church against a modern glass and chrome office building. Whilst the interplay of light and shade is a perennial favourite the use of solitary figures walking into patches of light has become a bit of a cliché, but that’s no reason not to include them in your own portfolio.
I would argue that the most important tool for the street/urban photographer however is an open mind. Keep the gear simple and your mind unfettered of preconceived notions. An experienced photographer sees opportunities in even the most banal of locations and this comes from a combination of experience and keeping an open mind that is receptive to the visual stimuli that are all around us.
I photographed these disused, near-derelict houses in Cross Street a few weeks ago for my 365 Challenge and at the time decided to return when I got a chance with a medium format camera and a couple of rolls of black and white film. This short series of images puts Cross Street in context and finally focuses in on the small vignette that so attracted my attention on that first visit.
Looking at these again this morning before posting them to my blog I am thinking about printing them but also about producing a zine with a series of short urban vignettes such as this drawn from my local area. Before I do either of these though I need to reprocess them to produce a visually consistent set of images. I believe this will help tell a more coherent story.
Which, I guess, tells us a little about how we consume images these days. Increasingly, images are viewed individually as little bite-sized portions on social media. The photo-essay (and I’m not suggesting this post constitutes a photo-essay) is less often seen in an environment where individual images are the predominant form in which photography is viewed. That said, I actually took these with the intention of creating a short series that hopefully told a story but I then post-processed them as individual images over the course of an evening and morning. This was partly because I wanted to see how they had turned out and also partly because I wanted to post one to Flickr as that day’s image for my 365 Challenge. In other words, they were produced individually to feed social media in as timely a manner as possible. As such, the “final” series doesn’t fully reflect my aims when starting out so I shall consider this set as a marker along the way. A more visually coherent set is the next step, followed by a set of prints (I will print more than this selection and play with the sequencing on the table) and finally their inclusion in a zine as the “final” form.
So, having used this blog post to choose the final images and view them as a set, I will now transfer the RAW files onto the computer and re-process the final selection using a consistent and hopefully coherent treatment. I might even try a sepia feel to them too but that’s getting ahead of myself.
TECHNICAL NOTE: All of these were made with a Bronica SQ-A medium format film camera and I used two rolls of film, one my old faithful Ilford HP5+ which I rated at 250 ISO and processed in Perceptol and the other a new-to-me roll of Kodak TMax 100 which I developed in Rodinal (1+50). I “scanned” the negatives with a Fuji X-H1 and post-processing was done using the JPEGs on an iPad with the Snapseed app.
When I was studying a few years back a couple of concepts really caught my imagination. One was psychogeography which I wrote about HERE. The other was the “edgelands” which is the subject of todays post. The two are for me interconnected as my own exploration of the edgelands concept in the past, and indeed more recently, has been conducted in the manner of the flaneur we discussed briefly in that earlier post.
For the purposes of my studies back then, the discussion about these edgelands was linked primarily to the book EDGELANDS: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts published in 2011. I have just reread the book prior to writing this post and found it as engaging as the first time I read it over five years ago.
So, to a definition. Farley and Roberts acknowledge that the term “edgelands” is not theirs. It seems that geographer Marion Shoard got there first. She wrote about England’s edgelands and gave them their name. The edgelands too are perhaps not really meant to be seen, no one creates edgelands to attract people to the space. As Farley and Roberts note they are more likely to be seen as a blur from a car window than experienced for their own sake.
For me, when we talk about the edgelands, we are thinking about those places where one urban space meets another or where town meets country. Typically they are untidy, neglected areas where neither town nor country have the ascendancy. And they shift too. Periodically, new development will sweep away the neglected periphery replacing it with something shiny and new. Yet there will always be edges, they don’t get rubbed out but are simply relocated.
If you know those places where overspill housing estates break into scrubland, wasteland; if you know these underdeveloped, unwatched territories, you know that they have ‘edge’.
Farley & Roberts
Take my home town of Elland. The edges of the town clearly show the effect of the decline in industry, particularly the textiles and allied trades, that has caused Elland to become run down over the decades since textiles ceased to be King in this part of the country. Surprisingly, behind some of these crumbling and dilapidated walls business does go on, albeit in far less skilled trades and far less grand surroundings. But there’s no escaping that the periphery of town is in many ways no-man’s land. Unloved and neglected but still very much there. From time to time a piece of land is repurposed, perhaps a few new houses, but that simply relocates the edge; there is never a neat transition twixt the town and country.
The edgelands then represent a complex landscape, a debatable zone to quote Farley & Roberts. As the economic and social situation changes so too can the fate of these edges. High demand for new housing and the opportunity for a good profit for example can make that derelict plot on the edge of town more attractive to house builders than when the original factory that had been slowly decaying was demolished years before, the land left to its own devices and slowly being reclaimed by nature.
Revisit an edgelands site you haven’t seen for six months, and likely as not there will be a Victorian factory knocked down, a business park newly built, a section of waste ground cleared and landscaped, a pre-war warehouse abandoned and open to the elements. Such are the constantly shifting sands of edgelands that any writing about these landscapes is a snapshot.
Farley and Roberts
Photography too can only reveal a snapshot of the edges. A moment in time which few will remember and fewer still care for. As photographers it feels almost incumbent upon us to capture, to celebrate and to remember these fleeting edges.
But there’s the rub.
As photographers we tend to try to make our images as appealing as possible on the whole, especially those of us with a leaning towards the pictorial. Let’s face it unless the images are part of a documentary-style story who wants to see the crummy face of town? However, whilst I am at heart a pictorial photographer I have nevertheless always been drawn to the less-glamourous face of the towns and places I live and work in. I’ve even been known to seek out the grimier side of town when on holiday or visiting somewhere new. It seems I have a natural tendency to gravitate towards the edge.
As I perambulated around the edges of Elland a few weeks back I was musing on how run-down the town is and not for the first time started to wonder how I’d photograph it to attract visitors, say for a tourist information website. But, how much more interesting to document it as it really is. The plain, unvarnished truth rather than the glossy, beautified fiction of a tourist guide. In truth, I have lots of both types of these images already, particularly the less picturesque but these days I’m drawn to the edges even more. The pandemic is of course partly responsible for a change in behaviour as movement was restricted. I have probably walked more of the edgelands of Elland in the last eighteen months than in the previous eighteen years.
One thing that I’ve noticed more recently is that even the cobbled lanes running along the backs of terraced houses seem to constitute an edge. The periphery of a back yard where it abuts the unadopted lane, no one willing to “own” upkeep of either and so the edges creep like tendrils into the town. As an urban photographer there is a seemingly never ending supply of subjects for my lens. That I tend to photograph the edges using a more pictorial rather than documentary style is perhaps how I put my own stamp on edgelands images.
Are you drawn to the edges? Do you lend a pictorial eye to these less-loved spaces? I’d love to know your thoughts on the subject!
A few years back I completed a diploma in photography. Much to my disappointment at the time virtually all of the course was theoretically based rather than practical and a grounding in art history and appreciation was taken for granted it seems. Without an art foundation course under my belt I struggled if I’m honest. Exploring personal motivation, history, art theory and influences amongst other topics I eventually fell out with my tutor as he wouldn’t (couldn’t?) accept “because I liked it” as a motivation for making an image. When I started inventing motivations to satisfy the academic requirements I knew this wasn’t something for me and so rather than complete the full degree I took my credits and the award of the diploma. However, there were two subjects that did pique my interest and that I have explored further since. These were psychogeography and the idea of exploring the periphery of our towns and living spaces which were given the label “edgelands”. In this post I want to consider psychogeography, hopefully I will return to the edgelands concept in a later post.
I wrote a full, hopefully academic, essay on psychogeography back in 2015 or thereabouts and much to my frustration have been unable to find it despite my best efforts. So, I will need to start afresh. And I might just ditch the academic rigour whilst I’m doing it. 😀
Psychogeography was founded in 1955 by Guy Debordas as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”. It is also a term much associated with photography these days, particularly in the academic environment. As far as I see it, there appear to be two main ways in which photographers approach this genre, although I doubt that there is one “true” way to approach the activity.
For the likes of Pedro Guimares in his project ‘Bluetown’, and Marco Barbieri’s project ‘Our Drinking Habits’, both have set out a code as the basis of their wandering. Guimares’s code determines the location he will stop at to take a photo, with each photo in the series linked by this code. Barbieri’s code is the choice of object (ie evidence of street drinking) before he then wanders to find that evidence.
The alternative approach is to decide on an area to wander to find what catches the photographer’s eye. A series is then bound by the link between place, photographer and choice of subjects chosen in that area. Debra Fabricius’s project ‘Urban Drift’ is a good example of this approach where she wanders along a pre-defined area and photographs what catches her eye. This creates a commentary on that place along with its relationship to the photographer.
Author Will Self in his book “Psychogeography” noted that the psychogeographic fraternity is typically middle-aged males “armed with notebooks and cameras”. Now, I probably resemble that remark, although perhaps a bit older than the typical! He also likened psychogeographers to “local historians with an attitude problem”. Make of that what you will!
The concept of the flaneur is a key one within psychogeography. The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) described the flaneur as a person who walks their environment in order to experience it. As I was writing that now-lost essay I realised that a lot of my approach to my hobby fits very neatly within psychogeographic principles.
Occasionally I will undertake what I call a “9 in 45” where I will decide on a starting point and then walk, often at random, for 45 minutes, stopping every five minutes, exactly, to make a photograph (within 60 seconds) of my current surroundings. Nine photographs therefore in forty five minutes. I believe that this too fits within the spirit of psychogeography as related to photography. Since the start of the pandemic the majority of my photography has been urban in nature, and almost exclusively the result of random wandering around Elland turning left and right as the whim takes me.
For me a wander with a camera is in a sense a form of therapy. Walking, exercising, looking and seeing, remembering and thinking are all potential attributes of this form of photography to my mind. It’s an opportunity to turn off the noise that constitutes twenty-first century living. A perambulation around the streets of my childhood or any of the towns and cities in which I’ve lived and work will throw up many memories and feelings. Walking along the local stretch of canal however is both familiar and alien. Familiar in that I’ve walked these towpaths countless times in the last few years yet alien as they stir no real memories for me – as yet. I still manage to “lose” myself however, pondering the history of the canal or losing myself in memories of different places and times. The longer I live here however, the more localised my memories are becoming and the canal is slowly but surely becoming less alien and evolving into the familiar.
For those of you wanting a diversion from pure photography I can highly recommend digging into this subject a little deeper. It is possible, if desired, to avoid the overly academic and to relate elements of psychogeography to the photography of many of us so there is something for everyone regardless of whether you like the theoretical, academic or simply the practical.
In particular an account of the flaneur may well strike a chord for some of you!
All three images taken on the day this post was written, within ten minutes as I walked from car park to dentist.
Have you ever tried working with a KMZ FT-2, in its (n)ever-ready case, in the rain with an umbrella in one hand and the camera in the other?
I have … and even attempted some “street” at the same time.
The thing though, is that this camera has such a wide field of view that even with people just a few feet away they are still very small in the frame! This couple were no more than six feet away when I pressed the shutter release.
As ever, the FT-2 excelled with the architecture and not for the first time I was a little frustrated that I only get 12 images when I take the camera out. I’m not yet ready to take out a changing bag and the rest of the kit that would enable me to change film on the go however! You really need to think with this limitation. Perhaps next time I will take the kit and change rolls in the hotel overnight and that way get a roll, or twelve frames, a day. One to ponder.
I did try the typical “street” approach of finding a spot and waiting for someone to walk into frame but could only devote two frames to the experiment. Again, even with people reasonably close they are still tiny in the frame. However, I did manage to combine my two “allocated” vertorama frames with people in the frame so made the best of it.
The ultimate street photography camera is a bit of a holy grail amongst enthusiasts. Each system has its own proponents, mine is a Fuji X100t, but despite what they may think no one system is the ultimate in my eyes. Each has its strengths and weaknesses and used correctly each can produce very satisfying results.
I use the Fuji X100t as my main “street camera” (in reality its my always-in-my-pocket-camera) and also when I want to shoot film a pocketable Ricoh 35ZF. Whilst I’d used my smartphone whilst out to take snaps I’d never seriously considered using it for “proper” photography. Until last week.
The results of this experiment were very pleasing and a selection of iPhone images have been used in this post. More will follow in a subsequent post. The beauty of using the phone is that, should I so desire, I can immediately open the image in Snapseed (other post processing software is available) and create the finished image right there and then. I can do this with my Fuji X100t too by wirelessly transferring it to my phone but compared to the direct iPhone capture this is a little cumbersome.
It’s been a while but the X100t and I took to the streets over the past couple of days after quite a long gap. With an open mind and a fully charged battery we pottered from Liverpool Lime Street down to the Albert Docks with many a detour along the way.
I’m back home now and have just had a little chimp at the back of the Fuji. I’d posted a handful of images Thursday evening to Flickr so knew I had some “keepers” but the acid test will come when I download the files to the computer and have a proper look.
Some of my iPad edits look promising and there are a couple which will warrant a blog post of their own. It wasn’t just the Fuji that I used however so expect a “Street – shot on iPhone” post too. I also explored the RC Cathedral and it’s crypt with a 360 camera before I left so that is to follow in due course I hope.
Most mornings I wander down to the local newsagent for the wife’s paper and sometimes venture as far as the local supermarket. Reading my recent posts it would be easy to think that I only go out with a film camera these days but that wouldn’t be accurate. My Fuji X100t still accompanies me everywhere.
This morning I took the Diana F+ in order to shoot the last six frames of Lomography 400 colour negative film that had been in the camera for months. It’s a camera I will be selling as soon as I’ve confirmed it’s working properly by developing the roll of film. With those six frames completed I pulled the Fuji out of my pocket and shot the equivalent of a roll of 35mm film with that.
The X100t is an old friend and a camera I’m completely at home with. When the X100f came out I didn’t even look at the specifications of this successor such was my total faith with the “t”. The X100v was released recently, with tilting screen and a new processor, but other than briefly looking at the press release I’ve not even considered it – within the X100 series I’ve found the iteration of this camera that suits me nicely. I did buy the original X100 but it’s idiosyncrasies were too much for me and I sold that camera before returning with the third iteration in the guise of the X100t.
So, three images here all captured whilst I walked to the supermarket this morning using the Fuji X100t digital camera that I carry with me everywhere even when primarily shooting one of my film cameras.
A week or so ago I was considering selling this little camera … but since then I’ve shot five 36 exposure rolls with the Ricoh and haven’t left home without it.
I’ve shot with it in the rain, on the bus and even in the sunshine (although not many sunny frames) and it hasn’t missed a beat. So, it will be staying – it’s sat on the table next to me already loaded with a roll of TMax – but I still need to decide on a camera or three to release back into the wild!