Talking to Strangers

Thanks to umanbn (Mark Hodgson) – whose drawings blog I follow – for highlighting the Humans of New York project, which is fascinating. Brandon Stanton is a photographer who explains the project in his “About” page;

“Humans of New York began as a photography project in 2010. The initial goal was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants.”

In essence, he takes someone’s portrait in the street and gets them to tell their story, a little bit about themselves, and transcribes it below their picture. I see some of those guys are really keen to talk. They must feel a need to tell their story. It’s probably a good deal.

What began in NY has now extended beyond the US; I’ve been reading a few pieces from within Europe. People from all over, happily talking to a stranger with a camera.

I don’t know if he’s approached any Londoners. It’s been a while since I thought about myself being a Londoner but casting my thoughts back, I’m not sure many would easily reveal their personal history to a complete stranger. We hardly dare make eye contact. London is a busy, crowded place and you have to create a kind of privacy within.

It reminded me of a time in my youth when I had to use the public bus to get to work. Normally, you’d look for two empty seats together so you sat alone; if there wasn’t any, you might prefer to stand in the aisle rather than take a seat beside a stranger. But sometimes you’d take a chance, especially if the journey was long.

So I sat down besides this guy, a very vocal, slightly drunk, probably, middle-aged Irishman, and he immediately began telling me his life story. When he felt he’d exhausted that subject, he went on to tell me my own life expectations – even though he didn’t know me from Adam! He invented all kinds of bollocks, all of it implausible. I mean, I ought to be famous by now, as rich as Croesus, and a great political statesman to boot. It was excruciating at the time – but funny afterwards.

I’ve just remembered, our BBC have done a similar thing with The Listening Project, a series of short interlude pieces recorded for radio. I think they set up a recording booth in a chosen place and people go in, often in pairs, to talk about themselves.

The whole world wants an opportunity to talk, it seems. They ought to start a blog.

Humans of New York

The Listening Project (BBC)

image of two people on bench in Osaka, Japan, by Andrew Leu via

The Moon is still dark…

The moon is still dark and for a good reason. 1968. Bill Anders, the rookie astronaut of the three onboard Apollo 8, orbiting our moon, his principle duty was to photograph sites of scientific interest on the lunar surface. They had traversed the dark side of the moon, so-called not because it’s dark but unseen from an Earth’s perspective, a result of its mass relative to Earth’s, and the distance and forces between the two bodies: the moon is large enough to partner the Earth in a cosmic waltz around the Sun, face to face for eternity.

It was a disappointing voyage across the dark side, craters, ridges, plains – the usual stuff. And then it happened. As they approached the end, they saw out of their window the Earth rising out of the Moon’s horizon. A beautiful blue-green jewel gliding skywards in the black firmament. Can you imagine the emotion?

Anders camera was filled with monochrome film, and almost all frames exposed. He took a photo of the Earth emerging from the stark lunar landscape with the remaining frame, then asked for a roll of colour film. With this loaded, he took the image which easily surpassed all of those he’d taken of the moon, the real purpose of the mission, and gave the Earth not only the defining moment of the voyage but a profound sense of the glorious nature of Planet Home.

Had the Moon not been dark, had it been slightly brighter, more colourful and vibrant, the emotional response would have been much less, possibly unremarkable. But it was dark, and the Earth shone brilliantly. And the moon is dark still.

Written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge – Week #62 – “The Moon is still dark…”

Earthrise (1968)

There was some controversy about which of the three astronauts – Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and Jim Lovell – had taken the defining image. While it was Anders’ job to take specific pictures of scientific interest to a set programme, Borman adamantly remembers taking that particular photo himself. He had used the camera at another time to take an unscheduled “tourist” snap and the fallibility of memory under the force of emotion probably had him mixed up. Even Lovell jokingly got in on the act by joshing everyone how he took the photo. But it was more likely Anders, as mission control voice recordings suggest.

Grinding gears

I’m having difficulty finding good films on Youtube now so I’ve ended up watching episodes of Lewis, the Inspector Morse spin-off – though more of a sequel really. Anyway, I’ve just watched the episode, Wild Justice, where Inspector Lewis’s sidekick, Sergeant Hathaway, is shown to have a gear-grinding issue over misplaced apostrophes. You know the thing; “Freshly Picked Pea’s & Bean’s” etc. As Lewis remarks in a subsequent scene, once it’s pointed out, you start to notice them everywhere.

One of my gear-grinding, “misplaced apostrophe” issues is, I’m sorry to say, inclined sea horizons.

Now I realise sometimes a camera held at a jaunty angle is intended to produce an interesting effect, and I have used this technique myself, but you can tell when intention is the case and when it’s not, and when it’s not the case, and the image is posted by someone identifying himself, or herself, as a photographer, then you should be able to hear my gears grinding from the opposite side of the world. I apologise for the noise.

I then wondered what else I am afflicted with and it didn’t take long to find it is banal quotations or sayings. Now I’m on thin ice here as I may be guilty of doing this myself and being hypocritical. But you know the kind of thing, “The pen is mightier than the sword” (this seems frequently popular with writers for obvious reasons). Yes, unless you find yourself in hand-to-hand combat, then my tenner is on the swordsman every time. I get this automatic image, a scene not unlike the one in Crocodile Dundee, where a man whips out a biro and someone else shouts, “Look! He’s got a pen!” to which our Crocodile Dundee responds, “Nah, that’s not a pen….”.

(I’m sure you can imagine the rest of this imaginary movie scene.)

For “Grinding Gears”, I am indebted to the late Chris Hughes, a blogger I used to enjoy reading before his departure from the world. Sadly, the blog went with him though not, I’m guessing, by his will. We would all hope our words will survive, in perpetuity, though the web sometimes has other ideas.

It was through one of his posts that I was introduced to the expression, “Grinding Gears”, borrowed from the TV cartoon series, Family Guy. Thanks, Chris.

The Photographer

We were in the car talking about photography the other day and the things we’d got up to back then. I said I bought a bulk film loader after someone suggested it was an economic way to buy film. I’d spend an afternoon making 12-frame rolls of film as I thought this was the most economic size to use and develop in a short time. I had the use of the small bedroom in my grandmother’s flat which I made into a dark room with a sheet of hardboard over the window and a sheet over the door to stop light ingress through the cracks. I bought a cheap Czechoslovakian enlarger which would have looked more at home in a photographic museum. When I qualified for credit, I traded in my old starter’s camera got myself a desirable Pentax and four telephoto lenses, carting them around in a large shoulder bag. I wasn’t much good, had no lessons and couldn’t be much bothered to read the John Hedgecoe manual I had – as we all had – but I had fun. It was an expensive hobby and I found its cost inhibiting.

Ironically, I discovered I was a far better photographer in the digital age, with a simpler, compact camera, and nothing else. I hadn’t taken a single photo for twenty years. I couldn’t afford to at first and then I just lost interest. I bought a camera for my wife for her handbag and the first time I saw her use it I thought, that looks like fun. So, I acquired a pocket camera, a good, little Canon Ixus, and the first day I took it with me on a walk, I made over 70 images. And they weren’t all that bad, I thought. It was as if my time had come, as far as photography went. A lot of it was the liberation from costs, once the camera was yours.I wasn’t worrying about whether I was wasting stuff, I was free to make mistakes and I found I learnt faster.

Two things happened which changed it. One was my camera, which I learned to love, was showing signs of wear, yet I could find no decent replacement. Eventually I took the step of getting a DSLR, believing it would solve everything, but it was like carrying around a brick; I found it impossible to love. I felt the gadgetry had let me down.

Secondly, by utter chance, I got into art. I hadn’t done art since schooldays – young schooldays! Though I was always pretty good at drawing, art wasn’t encouraged. Besides, the big school art teacher didn’t inspire me at all with his lessons, so I concentrated on sciences instead. Then, thirty years later, I’m larking around on this social media forum whereby you submit a drawing based on a weekly prompt, and each week I’m putting more and more enthusiasm into it, until I start thinking, maybe I should take some art lessons! 

So I enrolled on evening classes and the moment I started to learn painting and drawing, the whole of the digital photography shtick seemed facile and less personal. Art was worthwhile, skilful and progressive, and individual, while photography was what the world and his wife, and probably their dog, was doing, and doing it with a lot of help from the likes of Mr. Canon and Mr. Photoshop. And fluke and simple repetition. Point, snap, point, snap. Here’s a button on a clever app and, voila!, instantly finished work. What was intent and what was accident? Where was the talent in one one-hundredth of a second click amongst a hundred similar clicks? For me, it no longer made sense. My time with it was done.

Yet I still like looking at photographs. As examples of a recording medium. I can’t say whether I see it as art; I think the question, what is art? still hasn’t been answered. I suppose photography can be a medium used for art but photography is not art per se. I’m pretty sure it was never meant to be. It’s a useful technology for recording images.

I say this as on the same day we discussed our photography days, we ended up in “The Shed”, a detached tea and coffee bar which is part of The Ragged Cot pub near Minchinhampton Common. Inside, its walls are hung with old, and possibly random, B&W photos mounted in frames. They look historical. The shape of the building itself I thought, would make a fine studio-den, and I was thinking, how nice to decorate one with a bunch of your favourite found photos?

Stan Vickers

I can’t tell you much about Stan Vickers, unfortunately. He was a photographer active in the 1950s. He was a member of Maidenhead Camera Club so the inference is he was a talented amateur. The club’s website says he died early in life, in 1961. It also says his widow got in touch with them in 2007, so we might guess him being mid to late 20s, or early 30s, during his creative time in the club, assuming his wife was of a similar age.

A remarkable thing about his photography is his preference for using glass plates. This would have involved a degree of unnecessary inconvenience, the technology long superseded by film and smaller, lighter cameras. It was retro even then but looking back from our digital age, it seems preposterously quaint. Yet because this was the way he chose to do it, he gets the thumbs up from me. Today even more so, where else can you go with the medium in terms of artistic endeavour?

I came across Stan Vickers’ pictures through googling a last-minute subject to paint for a watercolour class. It is the one made in 1956, in Lechlade, not far from where I am now.

The image shows a group of boys fishing below the Halfpenny Bridge in Lechlade. Ignoring what they’re wearing, the image is a timeless one. To my eye, it’s equally attractive as nostalgia and a sense of permanence. Even though I grew up in suburban London, I can imagine the younger me with my mates in the picture, trying our hand at fishing, or simply hanging about by the river’s edge. Its composition is classic and decisive (I can easily forgive the slightly close crop above the toll building’s roof).

Carefree days at Lechlade on Thames, 1956

The Maidenhead Camera Club’s site administrators are to be commended for including a gallery of Stan’s photos. They are exemplary even without considering the technology used. I can’t know what their ordinary members make of the images now, or whether any take time to browse through them. They should.

The Halfpenny Bridge, so named for the road toll levied in past times (it’s free now) and probably collected in the squarish building abutting it. Lechlade marks the point on the Thames which is navigable and the connecting point of the long defunct Thames & Severn Canal, lately being slowly restored in unconnected sections.

Stan Vickers @ Maidenhead Camera Club