The brief for Assignment Two calls for images of people in a meaningful activity. I have chosen to explore ‘People Eating in a Public Place’ as an activity, which perhaps stretches the brief to some extent, but I chose it because:
· I was interested in exploring the ‘street’ genre, building on the experiences from ‘People Unaware’.
· This is a common phenomenon in the 21st century, and one practised by most ages/races/genders/’social-classes’; but the research discussed earlier in this blog suggests that it has not been too well covered in contemporary photography.
· In connection with the latter point, often when it is shown by photographers it is presented in a negative light – Martin Parr’s New Brighton series and Makiej Dakowicz’s Cardiff photos being two good examples. It is an activity that can certainly have its negative connotations, of course, but I thought it would be interesting to at least try and present it in a less negative manner – the ‘democratic’ aspect of the phenomenon, for example.
These thoughts have helped supply both purpose and direction for the assignment, and I also decided that I wanted to produce images of a sound technical quality, in line with the theme of positivity – no grainy ‘snaps’.
I began exploring this theme during some of the shooting sessions for the Projects in ‘People Unaware’, and have then had two further dedicated 2-hour sessions in Manchester, compiling a wide range of images from which to choose. I have probably taken around 100 photographs in total, but then narrowed these down to a long-list of around 20, from which 12 have been selected for submission; the selection being based on the criteria implied above – demonstrating the activity, of course; variety of circumstances and ‘telling moments’; illustrating a diversity of people; avoiding the negative; retaining a ‘reasonable’ technical quality. All images selected were taken with the D80, some with an 18-200mm zoom lens, and some with an 85mm F1.8 prime lens. (I have found the latter particularly useful for street images. It is a ‘discrete’ lens and a fast one, enabling, for example, an F2.8 aperture with sharp subject focus and shallow DOF that takes you ‘close in’ but keeps a respectful distance when shooting.)
Overall, I am pleased with the outcome and feel that this submission demonstrates that I have made significant progress through Section 2 of the course. Whilst I didn’t have great worries in principle about doing ‘street’ work, I was decidedly unclear about how best to go about it. This assignment, in my view, shows real progress, with a set of images that work successfully together and have something to say. Not surprisingly, perhaps, whilst these pictures certainly are about people eating, they are chiefly about people; the eating, to an extent, becoming the context for behaviour and activity that is observed, behaviour which might be individual or involve interaction with others. The following notes are partly descriptive of the images, but I have decided to use that approach to bring out the particular aspects that I find significant, and which contribute to the overall ‘narrative’/structure of the series. I see this set working as a series, though several images stand up in their own right as well. I have submitted prints to my tutor as well as the JPEGS (though all images were originally shot in RAW and processed in Lightroom and, in some cases, Photoshop CS5 – primarily for printing).
A mid-aged/older man, shot in profile from his right side, is seated, staring across the frame from left to right and out into a public space, where a few indistinct images of other people, and a pigeon, can be seen. With lengthy grey hair and thick sideburns, and wearing a brown suede jacket, he is apparently in the process of eating a sandwich, the remaining portion of which is partially enclosed in a brown paper bag (in which it was presumably bought). His expression seems somewhat sullen and serious but, beyond that, we can’t tell much about it, except that he appears to be staring intently.
I have started with this, as an example of archetypal behaviour when eating alone like this – watching, observing, taking in the activity around – but also because there is a kind of anonymity about this picture, absolutely nothing being given away about this man as he eats his lunch alone. He could be anyone, and the final reason for choosing this as an opener is that his stare is taking the viewer on to the rest of the series. If, for example, it was hung with the rest of the series, in sequence, he would be looking out towards all the other images.
This scene, on the other hand, suggests the observed rather than the observer. A young couple sit quite close together, on the edge of a wooden bench. He stares ahead, not looking at her. He seems to be speaking. She sits, legs crossed, body turned a little towards him, head turned further his way, and eyes fixed on him as he speaks. She is eating something from a blue bag held in her left hand. Their conversation seems intense and, her stare suggests, serious – though they sit in a barren, even quite hostile urban environment, with dull grey walls, dirty louvered ventilation covers, and 2 pairs of ‘portholes’ that seem to look down on them from above and behind, as we look on from the front. Parked at a ‘discrete’ distance on the left of frame is a street-cleaner’s trolley, with brushes, tools etc, which seems almost to be waiting for them to finish so that it can come in and clean up.
In this picture, I feel one wants to keep one’s distance, to not intrude on their private conversation. It is as though they have deliberately chosen this public but anonymous place to conduct their discussion – though she snacks on, however serious the situation might be. This notion of privacy and anonymity in a public place comes across in several of these pictures. People choose to come and have their lunch in front of hundreds of others, yet they retain their individual or group privacy, as will be seen later.
And the theme continues in this third picture. A woman with long, bright orange hair, dressed in black, with a red bag looped around her left arm, sits alone on a low stone wall, eating a sandwich, and is viewed front-on from a distance behind the tops of the water plumes from a public fountain. Holding the partially eaten sandwich in her left hand, she is gazing away to her right – perhaps into space, or at something specific, we cannot tell. Her brow is furrowed, as though she might be troubled in her thoughts, and she seems distracted from her solitary lunch. By what, we cannot tell, but there certainly seems to be something on her mind.
In some ways, she is like another version of the starer that we saw in the first image, and we don’t really have any more evidence of what is on her mind, even though she faces us. It is as though she has chosen this public place to mull over something, to reflect on some issue, whilst lunching alone. (I do recognise that she might have just remembered that she left the grill switched on at breakfast time, of course!!)
Temporarily maintaining a theme of brightly coloured hair, this shows a young couple sitting cross-legged on the top of a short flight of concrete steps, facing each other, though not making eye contact, as they eat a sandwich lunch together. We cannot see her face at all, hidden as it is behind her shoulder-length pink-dyed hair, but we see his face in profile, as he sits, hunched forward a little over his sandwich. He seems to be smiling. Like the couple in the second image, they have chosen a very public place for an intimate lunch but, in marked contrast, they have also chosen to create an intimate space for themselves by squatting close together, face-to-face, lunch on the ground between them. I particularly like the expression on the young man’s face. He seems pleased with himself. We have no idea why – being with the girl, something he/she has said, maybe his lunch, perhaps even that he has noticed he is being photographed – but it feels to be a smile of satisfaction.
Another couple, but a different mood – two males, similarly dressed, similar glasses, similar hairstyles, quite alike (though one older than the other) sit side by side as the younger is eating sushi. He holds a plastic pack in his left hand and tentatively places a piece into his mouth with his right, looking down as he does so, and not responding to the gaze of the older man on the left. The latter looks on, smiling, and perhaps commenting, a look suggesting camaraderie, jocular interest in what his companion is doing, maybe even a mocking remark. The shot is taken fairly close in, just head and torso. A couple walk behind them, and there is a reflection of buildings opposite, with an ornate balustrade, but these two aren’t taking notice of their surroundings, bound up momentarily in one’s experience of sampling sushi. We could speculate on the relationship – father/son; brothers; mates; colleagues; partners – but there is a sense of fun and light-heartedness about the picture, a casualness about the way they have parked themselves on a bench to have this experience together. Whatever the relationship, there is more maturity about this interaction than the one in the previous image.
A younger couple again, but this time they are on the move, crossing the street. The young man on the left of frame seems to be in charge. He stares intently, with furrowed brow and dipped head – compare the woman in the third image – but he is not reflecting or ruminating, he knows what he is looking at because he points, very directly with the forefinger of his left hand, the direction in which he wants them to go. His companion, a young woman, casually dressed like him, hair swept back in a pony-tail, signs of significant make-up on cheeks and eyes, does not appear to be taking much notice of him. She stares off frame to the left, directly in front of her, her eyes either fixed on something totally different or staring into space. Interestingly (and importantly, in the context of this series!) she is eating. In her right hand is an almost full pack of cookie biscuits, and in her left, is what remains of the one she has been eating.
It is lunchtime; they are young and on their way somewhere; but it remains interesting and surprising that she seems to be in the process of eating a large packet of biscuits whilst walking through the streets; interesting also, that it apparently leaves her oblivious of her companion. Compare her intent right-to-left stare with that of the older man in the first image. She could almost be looking back at him.
Staying with the idea of movement and activity, this is another picture of a young woman eating on the move. One of the striking things in this image is the way she is dressed. It could almost be a picture from a fashion shoot – smart and expensive-looking blue, white and gold coat with ‘blue peter’ buttons; fancy ‘daisy’ watch; the strap of a leather bag over her shoulder; sleek hair; i-pod in her left hand & ‘phones’ in her ears Yet she is eating, sandwich container in her left hand & partly-eaten sandwich in her right, and one can question whether this activity quite seems to fit with the ‘cool’ appearance. Once again, she stares (the looks and gazes seem important in these images) but she is not looking outward, not watching the traffic as she crosses the tram track; what she looks at is her half-eaten sandwich. This picture has many attractive elements – composed with triangles effective use of shallow depth of field for example – but it isn’t a fashion shot; it’s a quickly-taken photo of a young woman in Manchester eating her lunch. I referred earlier to the democratic nature of ‘eating in a public place’ and this image seems to contribute to that notion.
A third image of eating on the move, this shows a young, casually-dressed male, crossing the street towards us. His outfit is interesting in itself – purple knitted ‘hoody’; red rucksack; natty black/navy cap – but he is also grabbing his lunch as he goes, apparently chewing the last bite of one half-sandwich whilst the second is held up in his right hand, ready to go (or he could almost be offering it to the viewer). In contrast with the previous image, his gaze is directed towards the viewer. He knows he is being observed and he might be challenging/questioning why we are taking an interest in him.
As well as capturing a moment and a gaze, the image has worked well ‘technically’, isolating the subject from the background (as in the previous) but linking him through the purple colour in the posters and retaining some interest around him e.g. the blue direction signs and the girl on the left (who is also carrying a Tesco bag).
There is a very definite dimension of sociability around eating in public space, and the next two images explore that further. This one sees a group of three, ‘fashionably-dressed’ young people, sitting together on a concrete wall, having apparently reached the dessert stage of their meal because two of them look to be either eating or about to eat, with spoons, from plastic cartons. The three sit side-by-side, but are clearly interacting strongly together, unaware (certainly in this instant) of what is happening around them. Attention is centred on the young woman on the right, with her long golden hair, beige mackintosh, flowery dress, and brown shoes, all of which make for a marked contrast with the dark dress and hair colour of her companions. But the main reason she attracts our attention is that the other two are both looking directly at her as she licks her spoon, enjoying the first taste of her dessert, by the look of it. The young woman next to her turns her head and leans slightly in her direction – perhaps teasing, perhaps out of curiosity or interest – whilst their male companion, in contrast, leans back slightly, but he is definitely attentive to her spoon licking. There is a light-hearted, friendly, polite and even genteel interaction between them. They have met here, in a public place, for their lunch, just as they might have met in a restaurant or bar – though less expensively. A sign of the times, perhaps?
There are obvious similarities between this and the previous picture – three young people, purposefully met for an ‘al fresco’ lunch – but there are also (more?) interesting differences. The dress and hairstyles are ‘new age hippy’ not ‘fashion conscious city’, and they bring rucksacks, not stylish bags. They sit cross-legged, facing each other, rather than side by side; and there is almost a sense of ‘picnic’ about the way they have laid themselves out on the wooden bench (even down to a few tufts of grass bursting incongruously out of the bench itself). They even have what appears to be a clipboard on the bench beside them – though there is no clue to its purpose. The gender balance is reversed in this group, but once again, the attention of two is directed on one, the man on the left, who appears to be speaking – relating something, perhaps – and from their gazes and body language it certainly engages the interest of the other two. They are, as in the previous group, fully involved with their own interaction & conversation, not regarding (or, apparently, being regarded by) those around them. In fact, much more so than the previous group, they have enclosed their relationship and separated it from the viewer. Nonetheless, this is a similarly sociable and good-humoured scene.
This image deliberately opens up a view of a broader area of the public space in which the previous activities have been observed. On the right is a statue of Queen Victoria, as she sits, crowned and layered in bird-droppings, looking out of the frame and away from the activity going on behind her. People are sitting on the steps of the statue; in particular, two young women are tucking into their lunch in the foreground facing us. One is using a knife and fork to eat a meal from a polystyrene container balance on her knees. A man with long dark hair sits behind them to our left, and also seems to be eating. And beyond him, we can just see the head of a woman in a chequered headscarf, who is also tucking into something. Behind that the fountains play, watched by various individuals, but ignored by others as they wander by ... and so on, behind that, to the normal comings and goings of the city. It is a scene that takes place virtually every (fine!) day in virtually every city around the world. But I also wanted to make the point, by including the statue of Victoria, that it is a relatively modern phenomenon. The image also re-emphasises the public (and ‘democratic’) nature of this form of eating, whilst at the same time illustrating how individuals and small groups will ‘carve out’ their piece of space in which to perform the activity.
Which brings us to the final image – my illustration of the consummate public-space eater. Wrapped up in a coat and scarf, perched on a concrete wall, he has come fully-prepared. The sandwich lunch has been brought from home in a Tupperware container, and what remains to be eaten is secured from the pigeons under the lid, as he eats his first piece. Tissues tucked neatly at the ready in his rucksack, he has brought his own entertainment, an Agatha Christie novel. He doesn’t gaze into space, or watch the comings and goings. He isn’t socialising with friends or taking the opportunity for a serious chat with anyone. He is fully absorbed in his book, in his private piece of public space, within the very public place that we saw in the previous image. He is out and about, observed and on show, but prepared to be private.
As commented in the introduction, although these pictures show people eating, they mainly show people’s behaviour, their interactions, their looks and glances, their similarities and their differences. I suspect that the outcome might well have been similar even if the activity had been different! I have chosen to show this activity in a relatively positive light – there might have been litter; some of the people chosen might have looked less ‘attractive’; there could have been drunkenness and less sociable behaviour. All of those things happen in public space and have often been photographed. I have chosen a different approach, which I feel also has a contribution to make in illustrating the modern city life.