Can You Smell the Street in a Street Photograph?

In an interview with vice.com, Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden said: “To me, street photography is where you can smell the street, feel the dirt. Maybe that’s a bit of an unfair definition, but that’s what I feel.”

I think he may have spoken about this before, as there is a similar comment on photoquotes.com (and on many photo blogs), to the effect: “If you can smell the street by looking at the photo, it’s a street photograph.”

Photographs enter our consciousness via the eye. Can we really smell them, too?

I know what Gilden means. There’s a connection between the senses, such that if the appeal to one sense is strong enough it will overlap to one or more of the other senses.

What actually happens is this: the visual cue triggers our “involuntary memory” which contains experiences laid down by all the five senses, including the sense of smell. No conscious effort is involved.

The classic example is where Charles Swann dips a madeleine cake into a cup of tea at the beginning of “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust. In this case, it’s not the smell of the cake or the tea — although that would have been part of it — but rather the sense of taste which suddenly enables Swann to recall a vast tract of memory.

“And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea…”

I’ve spent many months shooting in the Far East, where, to the Western nose, the cities have a mixture of unfamiliar aromas. There are strange fruits, herbs and spices which blend together and mingle with the smells of decaying vegetables and scraps of meat discarded by street vendors. If you’ve not been to the Far East you may have encountered these aromas in the Chinatowns of London, New York or San Francisco. If not there, then you will have only your imagination left to fill the gap — and it will struggle to conjure up the smell in the absence of actual memory.

Does my featured image (above) have the “smell of the street”? It’s a hot day in Bangkok’s Chinatown. There’s the masculine smell of sweat from the bodies of hard-working men, one of whom has a strong visual cue of a tattooed catfish on his back.

If sweat and fish were not enough, there’s a durian stall in the foreground.

Durian? It’s the world’s smelliest fruit. Airlines strictly forbid passengers from carrying it onboard, neither can you take it on a train in Singapore. Food writer Richard Sterling describes its smell as “turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock,” adding: “it can be smelled from yards away.”

I doubt if Bruce Gilden means anything quite as specific as my example. By “smell the street” he probably means what happens when you view a photo taken by someone who “gets down and dirty” right there on the sidewalk, along with everyone else who’s breathing in the diesel fumes of the traffic and choking on the accumulated dust and grime of the last fifty years.

“Smell the street” is Bruce Gilden’s metaphor for getting in close to the subject, close enough to see and feel the anguish or joy of the man and woman in the street, close enough to share a moment in their lives.

In other words, we shouldn’t take “smell” too literally. Here (below), for example, is a picture I took of a man frying vegetable chips in the street. It’s a pleasing composition and definitely an aromatic street photo. But the man’s back is turned to us, so we have no idea whether he was happy or sad, absorbed in his task or performing it by rote. It doesn’t really have the “smell of the street” in the Gilden sense.

 

For all its ordinariness and lack of cooking smells, my shot of Haiphong Road in Hong Kong (below) is closer to Gilden’s idea. Workers are returning home past the closed market. They display various emotions: determination (man with the cap), satisfaction (man with the shopping), happiness (man with a phone under his chin), anxiety (purple shirt), and possibly even remorse (man in green, in the centre of the image).

I took the shot in Haiphong Road for two reasons: the light was good and I liked the row of coloured graphics: “chicken,” “lemonade,” “lobster,” etc., which have a strong period feel. The orange litter bin and all the coloured shirts made it possible to compose the image successfully in colour.

Colour provides more visual cues than black and white, so it should communicate the smell (or shall we say the “presence” or closeness) of the street more effectively than black and white. Yet in fact the opposite may be true. Sidewalks, paving stones and road surfaces are usually neutral in colour. The monochrome image reduces everything else — including people — to the same hue, painting passers-by with the grey colours of the street.

Undeterred, I shall persevere with photography in full colour, even if it tones down the “smell of the street,” obliging me to work harder to achieve the same effect. Besides sight and smell, I still have the other three senses to trigger the viewer’s involuntary memory. Sound, taste and touch can all be present in a street photograph, provoking virtual or imagined sensations that augment our experience of the visual image.

One day I’ll get all five senses into a single picture. But not today.

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