Three street photography tips – a moment of history

Moment out of time - a thread of history - Bring out the historical context of street photography

• Moment out of time – a thread of history •
There’s so much history on the streets. Yet, we walk past it apparently oblivious. Bring out the historical context of street photography to add interest to your shots.
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• Moment out of time – a thread of history • By Netkonnexion on Flickr External link - opens new tab/page

Sometimes you just have to shoot.

It is what street photography is about. Getting out on the street, watching the street scene and capturing the moment. Sometimes it doesn’t happen the way you want. I went to Abingdon, UK, to collect some photography equipment. As the town centre is steeped in history I thought I’d capture some street scenes while there.

Three tips for capturing the moment – consider the historical context of street photography

While in Abingdon, I had several important insights…
1. It is not just about the moment: In the historic town centre of Abingdon on a very hot weekday lunchtime not much happens. It occurred to me that there is an important principle about street photography… everything is part of the environment. If you cut out your human subjects in Photoshop you would lose the essence of the street scene. An important component of the scene is in the environment itself. Think of the historical context of street photography when you consider your scene.

Don’t lose sight of the environment. A shot is interesting because of the people… and it’s interesting because of where they are. There is an inextricable link between a street moment and the street itself. Abingdon town centre has some wonderful historic buildings. The character of the history brings out the moments as effectively as the hustle and bustle in the down-town area of a big city. When Englishmen venture out in the mid-day sun, there is not much to smile about – but it makes for a scene in a historical context. View image above large.

2. An important part of the moment: Capturing expressions is essential. It speaks character and mood. It is a general point about street scenes and something to seek out in your pictures. However, not all street photographers are forgiving about all expressions.

I know of one street photographer that will tell you…

Make sure people aren’t smiling. Otherwise you end up with a snapshot
Martin Parr – Documentary Photographer

Hmmm! Maybe Martin Parr is right. But not always. Years ago in France I saw two elderly guys playing dominoes in an old town square. They were having a whale of a time – they did not stop laughing the whole time I was there. They laughed more when I photographed their mirth.

For me it was a defining moment. My shot, taken on an old Pentax (back in the days of film), became my first really successful street scene. It spurred me on. I was young, and I can’t even find that picture now. Actually the moment was so vivid in my mind I remember its detail many years later. The lesson? Capture the moment in all its glory, not just the moment you think is right. Martin Parr would have missed a great moment in a street game. I was the lucky one! I got a great set of expressions in the wonderful, historical context of street photography. That old French square came alive with that laughter.

3. The environment and historical context of street photography Street photography is about the people you meet, but never let a moment of interest slip away. Here is a picture of an old stone gateway into the market square in Abingdon…

Hidden Human History Revealed - the historical context of street photography

• Hidden Human History Revealed •
The damage on the columns of the gate reveal the historical context of street photography.
• Click image to view large •
Stone arch by Neven Guy.

The essence of street photography is about the character of the people you see. But here is a unique moment in human history that is so much a part of the street scene. Look at the deep gouges and scratches in the sides of the gate columns. Those marks have been made over centuries of use. Carts, trucks and all sorts of other objects and implements have banged off those stone columns and left an historical imprint.

I felt privileged to walk around those columns feeling the stonework and letting the history wash over me. As I did so I could see in my minds eye the busy street scene of a market square bustling with peasants and farmers of three or four hundred years ago.

Street photography is not just about pictures, its about you too

The moment you get out and into the street you are revealing yourself and discovering your boundaries. I did not engage with the people of Abingdon as I had hoped. But I did engage with their history. The historical context of street photography helped me gain some important insights into the history of the town. I also had some interesting thoughts about street photography. A powerful day of learning! It has made me want to go back and witness a busy Saturday market there. Those pockmarked columns would be a great backdrop to a busy street scene.

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By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
By Damon Guy see his profile on Google+.

7 responses to “Three street photography tips – a moment of history

  1. very helpful, hopefully the photos that I take will be great.

  2. Hey Damon. Portugal is fantastic! Overused word but in this case it’s true. I’d be happy to do something. What did you have in mind? Wanting to write more but too busy being lazy hahaha. Yes I think that’s exactly what Parr is saying, but like most things (such as Capa’s “if it’s not good enough your’re not close enough” quote) people seem to take it as a kind of literal “gospel” truth without thinking of any nuance or broader meaning the original person may have had in mind. Let me know what you have in mind and I will get right to it! thanks Damon
    paul

  3. Excellent! some thought provoking and important insights. I always worried about that quote from Parr: isn’t joy and happiness an emotion worth recording?I think so, if not you never get to witness all human emotions. One extra thought about SP is the danger or received “wisdom” from those we are told are the “masters”. Have to like the Buddha says, examine all that we hear and come to our own conclusions! Just as you have here!