Finding Still Life Compositions on the Street

I’ve written previously about the absence of people and the traces they leave behind. It was in a blog post called “Can Your Street Photo Be Devoid of People?” a question to which my answer was a cautious “yes.”

This time I want to look more closely at making a still life composition from the jumble of objects in the street. Apart from any other consideration, it’s a useful exercise which can prove to be helpful in regular street photography: when people are the main subject.

I was intrigued by the sight of a wrought-iron fence being gradually enveloped by the roots of the giant fig-tree (featured image, above). Oddly enough, the fence looked as though it had been painted quite recently, by which I mean in the last ten years or so. Perhaps someone else had found it charming and decided to take care of the tree’s friend (or lunch) by painting over the rust. You can see a dab of white paint on the tree itself: a clue as to its recent attention.

The other trace of human intervention is the existence of the colourful ribbon, placed there as a sign of special respect for this individual tree. Nature itself has added the leaves, while, all around, life goes on at a furious pace in the middle of Bangkok.

I spotted the composition from across the street. The top of the white post is the central target, but there’s enough interest in the frame, especially in the diagonals and arrows of the fence and the colours of the ribbon, to draw the eye to other parts of the frame. Contrast comes from the twisting lines of the roots up against the straight lines of the fence that nonetheless curls in the approved western style at the bottom of the image.

I much prefer this image to others I’ve taken of similar subjects, especially of the famous “Buddha in the Tree” in Ayutthaya. Wonderful though it is, the latter lacks the contrast of colour and form, and the deep shade makes it hard to create a great picture without a lot of post-processing.

Finding the Improbable
Walking through a Chinese temple, by the side of the Chao Praya in Bangkok, I was looking for an original composition: something which made an unexpected item the main subject, rather than an obvious vase, chalice or sculpture.

The bottle of standard cooking oil, used for fuelling the burners, was ideal. In the context of the holy sculptures it seemed completely out of place, at least on an intellectual or devotional level. Yet it fits into the composition perfectly, its golden colour blending with the gold of the sculpted figures in the background. I like the “everyday” connotation it brings to the image, which I’ve called “Holy Cooking Oil.”

When the Composition is Ready-Made
If I come across a composition that requires no skill or imagination to capture, I usually think twice before taking a photo. This one (below) I couldn’t resist.

On what looks like a free-standing sarcophagus in the middle of urban wasteland is a graffiti-like poster of a young man with a computer keyboard who appears to be trapped inside. He glares at us defiantly, his head emerging from a flat-panel display.

In my defence I can claim to have had the sense to notice its potential, take it from a good angle — directly from the front, centrally positioned, with straight verticals. I guess I can claim it as an “objet trouvé,” much like the “found objects” picked up by Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters in the early twentieth century. It may even please those, like the members of the widespread Stuckist group, who are opposed to “anti-art” (like found objects) but are in favour of “anti-anti-art.” You know it makes sense.

Keeping It Symmetrical
In the image above I’ve contrasted the symmetry of the object with the assymetrical background. The splashes of blue and red help to tie it all together. The same is true of the next picture (below), where the gold-coloured lamp post gleams in the evening light against the tower blocks of Hong Kong. This time, the out-of-focus lights help to balance the image, while the hint of an arrow at bottom left pulls against the weight of the large building on the right.

When I took the shot I was confident it would work. The light on the lamp post illuminates the tiny stickers, including the one of the rising phoenix. Although you can’t actually see any people, they’re everywhere in the image — behind the walls, cooking, eating, talking, preparing for sleep, only to rise again in the morning like the phoenix from the fire.

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