The man with the yellow shoes. Paris, France. 2009

Over the years I’ve given a lot of thought to how I feel about taking photos of strangers.

When I first started taking photos I was very attracted to the type of photography practiced by people like Cartier Bresson. I used to love the whole capturing the moment thing. Photos of people were to be stalked in the streets with stealth as though they were frightened creatures. “The moment” is a skittish thing and if it senses you are sneaking up on it, it will bolt, or so I thought.

As I got a little older I came across the writings of Hunter S Thompson. Hunter was a practitioner of what has become known as “Gonzo” journalism. Hunter didn’t just report about his subjects, he engaged with them to such an extent that he included himself into the story. Truth be known, Hunter was always the story.

It has long been known in physics that the act of observation, effects the observed.

So now that I’m older, I’ve discarded, for the main part, the idea that taking photos of people unawares is somehow more pure and therefore better. One of the by-products of taking photos of people from a distance so they don’t notice you, is that telephoto lenses tend to be used and by their very nature, such lenses, due to their reduced depth of field, isolate subjects from their context by blurring the background.

I’m starting to see people photography as a sort of visual historical record of my interactions with people. I say historical record because I try to include information in my photos that will speak to people in the distant future and tell them about this age I live in. My photos will be like an archaeological dig that can be read by those attuned to such things.

This photo was one of the first photos I took after I landed at the airport in Paris.

Yellow shoes make people happy

Much to my jet lagged wife’s horror; I went up to the man in the photo above and asked him in my broken French if I could take his photo. I explained that I liked the way how his shoes and the way how he was dressed complimented the colours of the shuttle train we were in. I told him that he looked great and I took about five photos of him. I then showed the man with the yellow shoes the images in the LCD viewer on the back of the camera and shook his hand to thank him.

Over the years I’ve come to realise that people like to be noticed and appreciate being sincerely complimented on how they look.

As I was taking the photos my subject started to beam, and that’s what I like capturing nowadays. By the standards of photographers like Bresson, my photos are no longer pure. Many of my photos are now “gonzo”. I’ve interfered with the subject and that interaction has become a part of what has been recorded in the photo. The photo is no longer pure in the old sense, but it has become something new.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I couldn’t use the Photoshop CS I loaded onto our laptop so I bought a copy of Photoshop Elements in Lille (northern France) the other day. My experience with my courrupted version of CS is almost like being around an bright, lively, intelligent, dear old friend that has been struck down with an illness and amidst my sorrows, I have to deal with his drooling dimwit relative that only gibbers in French. So I hope that my images look OK because I’m not used to using a laptop and such a dumbed down program.

10 thoughts on “The man with the yellow shoes. Paris, France. 2009”

  1. Your method of photographing people was complimented several times yesterday on my blog!! No kidding, several comments from new readers said they liked the method! I think you have created a few more uncomfortable cousins and spouses!

    The yellow pops right out of this photo and is precisely the detail siren song that calls. Am thinking of going into Boston today to doff my cap at the funeral procession of Senator Kennedy as it passes by South Station, the train hub in downtown Boston and the beginning of a Greenway in the center of the boulevard named after this mother.

    Say what you will about the Kennedys, they know how to send someone off to the heavens.

    I’ll bring my camera but. I’m feeling like this is a non photography moment despite thousands of people. Ever feel that way?

    Also, when you have a minute, could you refresh us on why you are in Europe for three months?? I think it has something to do with Engogirl’s job.

  2. Pat

    “I think you have created a few more uncomfortable cousins and spouses!”

    They’ll get over it.

    Every time I hear about Ted Kennedy I can’t help but think of poor Mary Jo Kopechne and how Ted got out of hot water because of his connections. I think about how Mary Jo would’ve struggled to live in her last panicked moments. So with that in mind, I have to admit that I won’t be shedding tear for Ted.

    If I was in Boston, I would take photos of the people in the crowds. I’ve had in the back of my mind for years, the idea of photographing the audiences that go to events.

    Just imagine what shots you’d get at a wrestling match!

    Ted’s funeral is just another event, and as such I think it would be interesting to turn away from the funeral and look at the people and how they are reacting. Having said all that about Ted, there are times when I wouldn’t take photos because it wouldn’t be appropriate.

    The reason why we’re in Europe for 3 months is because Engogirl has long service leave, that one gets after 10 years with the same company. In Australia, we get 4 weeks paid annual leave a year. Long service leave is an extra 8 weeks paid leave tacked onto the normal annual leave.

  3. I know what you mean about Ted Kennedy. It is not that I have forgotten that but in last 17 years or so, he seemed to be on a mission to try and change his act and make the most of his charisma rather than destroying others and himself in the process. Also I, too, am from a Boston Irish Catholic political (and I’m afraid infamously so) family, so I have some familiarity with personalities out of control.

  4. “Over the years I’ve come to realise that people like to be noticed and appreciate being sincerely complimented on how they look.”

    I think this touches on something very human and often neglected. We’re imbued with so much anonymity that we forget what a simple gesture both given and received can really do.

    And just as painters can adapt to different styles, your photos can be the same. You can assess each situation and decide if you’re going for candid, or, as is the case with the yellow against the grey and black, decide that sometimes an image is too good to pass up because it can’t be spontaneous.

    I’m enjoying the itinerary…

  5. I think I’m not quite there yet with people photography, but then again you might have noticed there are not many photos of people on my blog. I’ll be taking one step at a time :)

    I’d say it is about the way you observe and see things, and as you say, on how you define the purpose of your photographic venture. Catching the moment was often related to discovering some hidden truth or law behind apperances (or simply confirming your preconceptions) but your gonzo portraits might be more than documentary – to me they have this lets call it humanistic feel, a sincere appreciation of the subject, not the moment. And for this you most often have cross the line. Anyway, most great portraits have been “tampered” with in some way or the other.

    This all reminds me of one of the fundamental methodological questions in social science research. Yes, observation can influence behaviour but we have now managed to go past this, claiming that what is important is to acknowledge the interaction, not hide from it.

  6. I don’t look in here for a few days and you’ve gone wild with the posts!
    I’ll have to pay more close attention.

    I ask people if I can take their photo sometimes. It’s not a philosophical struggle: I just want to take their photo; and if I don’t ask, I wont’ get an okay shot.

  7. Ross

    Well make sure you come back again soon because they’ll be comming thik and fast.

    As for asking people for their permission to take their photo, I don’t always do it, and many is the time I just take it without asking. It depends on what sort of photo I want to take and if I want to engage with the person. I guess it boils down to whether to portray the character of the person or just show what they look like.

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