The Joy of Ladders

For the street photographer, ladders — or, rather, workers on ladders — are a tempting subject but they pose some tricky technical problems. Let me start by exploring why they’re so tempting.

Ladders are highly symbolic. Even though we use them for going down holes as well as climbing up buildings, they’re symbolic of ascent, ambition, and striving. To a practical person they’re an excellent means of reaching a blocked gutter, but to the fanciful mind they’re a stairway to heaven. For these people and everyone else they’re all about raising yourself about the heads of the crowd — to a place where they have to look up to you.

In Britain, I get the impression that there’s also a class connotation. The ladder is symbolic of the “working man.” Certainly I know many people who’d never consider climbing a ladder for that very reason. Gentlemen are already superior — the unspoken argument goes — so why on Earth would they need to go up a ladder?

I’m not of that view. Last summer I painted the front of my three-storey home, replacing the painter who, having accepted the job, took a second look and said: “I don’t fancy climbing up there.” Although I felt somewhat inconvenienced (several other firms failed to respond), I really enjoyed the task and I ended up saving enough money to purchase any one of the cameras on my list of  “The 10 Best Cameras for Street Photography — and Why.”

Matching Bags
I was already thinking about ladders when I took my featured image (above), as I’ll explain later. I spotted it from a distance and wondered if could get it into shot at a point when the two pairs of women passed each other in the street. I knew there would just be a pair of feet showing, but I guessed they would add some visual interest at the top of the picture.

As it turned out, there was a ton of visual interest in the foreground subjects. The pair on the right are walking so close together they overlap, one of them leaning slightly to the left which greatly helps the composition. And what can I say about the other two? They bear little resemblance to each other in their style of dress except for two items: boots and bags. The bags are identical, which makes their dissimilar dress even more remarkable.

Does the picture have a “meaning”? I’m a great believer in the idea that street photography should concentrate on form. My mantra is: “Concentrate on Form; Content and Meaning Will Follow.” In this case, as I mentioned, I was already thinking about ladders. Two minutes previously (see the EXIF) I’d taken the candid image below:

As revealed by the wording on the door, the big picture in the window is an enlargement of a photograph by Clive Boursnell, famed for “capturing Covent Garden in pictures for over 50 years.” How times have changed! His black and white film photo of a man on a ladder, with a copy of a newspaper sticking out of a jacket pocket, is one that shouts “working class.” It’s a lovely shot: very jaunty and evocative of the cheerful way in which Londoners go about their work. (You can see the whole of the image on Clive Boursnell’s website — it was heavily cropped for the window).

In my featured image (of the four women) I make a reference to the past by including the man on the ladder. This was intentional because I’d just taken the earlier picture which included Clive Boursnell’s man on a ladder and I was thinking — as I always do in Covent Garden — of the area’s remarkable past. Today it’s the haunt of tourists and street entertainers, but much of its architecture remains intact. All I needed was something to connect the past to the present — and there it was! A ladder. With a man on it.

Getting Too Close
Alas, when I got closer to the ladder, I found modernity had really taken over. There was nothing jaunty about this man (except for his shoes — which I’d already included in the previous shot). Maybe I should have asked him to cock one leg out at an angle, but he didn’t seem in the mood. The lamp itself, which looks like it was once powered by gas, had already been adapted to take several electric bulbs. Time marches on and now the man on a ladder was replacing them with energy-saving “compact fluorescent lamps” (CFLs).

Perhaps my square photo is, after all, a bit “retro” because the sight of a ladder is becoming less common. The council normally provides motorised “cherry-pickers,” annoying appliances that shout warning sounds whenever they move (which is frequently). It’s possible there’s a class structure in the council workforce and this guy is not a skilled cherry-picking operative.

You can see the technical difficulties for yourself, both in my square picture and in Clive Boursnell’s original (square) shot. Looking up from ground level seems to have put both of us at a disadvantage. I prefer the cut-down, window-display version of Boursnell’s black and white image which concentrates on the foot in mid-air. Likewise, my featured photo (at the top, with just the feet) is far better than my later close-up.

I’m happy with two out of three. OK, I had to nick the ladder for “Red Hood, Turquoise Coat,” but even so…getting these three photos wasn’t bad for two minutes’ work.

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