Stolen Portraits

In a 2014 article, Business Insider noted: “Back in 2008, we uploaded very few photos to the internet.” How times have changed!

I don’t know exactly how many digital photos will be taken this year, but I suspect it will be squillions. One cleverly calculated estimate for last year (from Eric Perret) — based on 5 billion mobile phones, 80 percent of them with cameras, each taking 10 pictures a day — was 14,600,000,000,000 (over 14 trillion).

Only a relatively small percentage of these trillions of images found their way on to the Internet. Nonetheless, looking back a little further to 2016 (seems like a long time ago!) Google reported that over 200 million people a month uploaded images to its Google Photos application, posting (among other stuff) 24 billion selfies.

More Portraits
Do we really need any more casually taken portraits? I guess not, but I still occasionally like to grab what I call a “stolen portrait” — a sneaky shot of someone when he, she, or non-gender-specific person least suspects they’re being photographed. I think it helps to counterbalance those billions of posed shots, showing a different aspect to people’s lives which would otherwise remain hidden.

From waist height, I took the featured image (above) in Oxford Street. I think it turned out rather well. My camera (Canon 5DIII) lacks one of those nifty LCD screens you can tilt to help you take this kind of shot, so I always have to guess what I’m doing. Fortunately, I’ve avoided tilting the camera itself, keeping the verticals completely straight (without any later manipulation which always degrades the image).

Thanks to the bright but even light, both people in the shot look terrific. I hate “stolen portraits” that make people look bad. There are several street photographers who do this deliberately — in the Diane Arbus tradition. She, at least, created some truly compelling images as a result, but the vast majority of such photos are simply embarrassing for all concerned: for the photographer, onlooker, and (especially) the subject.

The Tour Leader
Here’s another stolen portrait: a photo of someone who seems to be in charge of a tour around the old flower market in Covent Garden. No one appears to be taking much notice of her, but she’s clearly visible with the brightly coloured parasol. I expect she’s waiting patiently for other members of the group to arrive.

I don’t offer this photo as one of my best examples of street photography, but I like it as stolen portrait. Everyone looks to be in good humour, but there’s also a slight hint of exasperation, of: “Where the hell have the others got to?” The leader is refusing to be moved and leans on the iron post for additional support.

If the image has any visual quality it’s in the contrast between the flimsiness of the parasol and the solidity of the post. This material contrast echoes the clash between “good humour” and “exasperation.” It’s a pity the crowd milling around are not in better positions, but maybe that, too, provides some contrast with the tour leader’s determination to be calm.

Pink Lunch
Finally, here a tough looking character grabbing a quick lunch at a high, pink table (above). You may thnk the image is a little bit intrusive, but remember, this is a tourist hot-spot where lots of people take photos — and the table’s location is scarcely discreet.

I don’t think the subject would mind. He’s not yet begun to jam the frankfurter into his mouth, in the style of one of those hapless politicians who’re always being caught off-guard by the paparazzi. This man is illuminated by some reflected light from the table. His gesture is poised in mid-air in perpetual anticipation of the food.

Stolen portrait? It’s a moment stolen from time. One of many trillions.

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