As a new departure for The Blue Nib, we are running a series of photo essays over the coming weeks and months. The first is by Tom Langlands.
If you are a photographer and you are interested in contributing to the series, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
It wasn’t until I got a Saturday job in a camera shop at the age of sixteen that I truly discovered photography. It was rather like being a child in a sweet shop and without doubt it was my first appreciation of the phrase ‘toys for the boys’ (although that should definitely include girls now too).
As a member of staff I was allowed to borrow second-hand cameras and of course I got first hand experience of all the new equipment that arrived. I have no idea how many different cameras I experimented with but over the course of that first year it was well into double figures. That was almost fifty years ago and without doubt that was where I learned the basics of photography and all of the technical skills that I have carried with me through life.
A few years later I went to Art College to study architecture but I still worked during holiday periods in photography shops. Looking back I now realise that my interest in photography combined with learning about buildings and cities and how we interact with such environments was the foundation for my later fascination with street photography. The intervening years however were to take me in a different direction.
I teamed up with some fellow architects and together we established our own architectural practice. That brought its own pressures, which combined with family life pushed photography into the background – although never too far away. Brief opportunities of escapism saw me retreat into the peaceful landscapes of Scotland’s hills and glens accompanied by a camera and a fishing rod. There is something calming about standing in a river or loch and becoming attuned to the nature that surrounds you. More often than not the fishing rod was laid down as I photographed a deer or an otter. Soon the fishing rod was left at home and I developed a passion for wildlife photography and a greater understanding of the natural world and the importance of conservation. It was around this time that the world of digital photography opened up and I began to acquire a reputation as a wildlife and nature photographer. I started selling images through stock libraries and soon discovered that editors like people who not only supply photographs but can also write. I had always done well at creative writing at school and so I began producing articles for magazines.
As an architect I still photographed buildings, streets and towns but I began to understand how all these different skills could be brought together in street photography in a quite unique way. The great American documentary photographer Elliott Erwitt once said, “All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.” One thing I had learned was how to observe. I had spent many hours studying animals in their natural environment. I understood behaviour and learned how to deduce what may happen next in given situations. As animals, humans are no different – something that Desmond Morris understood rather well when he wrote The Human Zoo back in 1969. I was comfortable in cities and knew how to look for places on streets where interesting things may happen. Light and shade, texture and pattern, colour and detail were all part of my job and so the progression to street photography felt comfortable and natural. But there had to be more to it than that. There needed to be a story – a narrative that draws the viewer into the shot and holds them. For me street photography is visual prose. It’s the difference between recording a moment and creating a mystery. It has as much to do with what the image doesn’t show as what it does. As the Belgian surrealist René Magritte noted, “Each thing we see hides something else we want to see.” I wanted to create images that evoked feelings and in which the viewer would not only see the obvious but would be drawn to interpret and to imagine. I wanted viewers to look into my images and not at them.
A lot of my street photography is monochromatic. I shoot all of my photographs in colour but usually I know at the time of taking, which will work better in colour and which in monochrome. There are occasions when colour is interesting and necessary but different colours draw the eye to different parts of the image and shift the viewer’s focus. By removing colour the image becomes more coherent and the overall story takes centre stage. Knowing that certain images will convert to monochrome enables me to shoot in lighting conditions that I would avoid for other types of photography.
Colour requires good lighting while shades of grey can work well with lower lighting levels – i.e. on dull days. Similarly, bright sunlight creates harsh lighting. With colour work I often avoid days like that but with street photography strong shadows and stark contrast can be used to advantage.
When I walk city streets I look for fleeting moments in places where I know interactions will occur such as in markets or railway stations. I spend a lot of time looking at backgrounds and often it’s the background that I find first and I have to wait for the people to arrive – rather like waiting for actors to populate an empty stage. Sometimes the moment is so fleeting that I have to grab the opportunity in a split-second while other images take a lot of thought, planning and preparation. I try to explore different themes in my work such as love, humour or the grittier issues such as homelessness. If my photography raises awareness of the plight of others and in so doing makes people think, then I have achieved something. By photographing other people I attempt to demonstrate that there are common issues out there that affect us all.
Occasionally I am asked if I seek permission from my subjects before I photograph them. The answer is that sometimes I do but not very often. The reason is simple, the moment you ask permission the story you were trying to capture changes and the mystery you wanted to create is lost forever. My aim is to capture moments that partly tell a story but leave the viewer to finish it – and that includes me. Some of the images that I have taken act as inspiration for my own short stories and poetry and even after many years I still contemplate the people or situations that I captured and imagine their on-going stories. Did the homeless person get a house? Did they survive the last bitter winter? Are they still living on the streets somewhere?
All the images here may be fleeting moments in time but they are also fragments of lives lived.
Words and Images
by Tom Langlands