NOTE: This is a Guest Blog post written by Timothy Lunn exclusively for www.streethunters.net.
iN-PUBLiC member Richard Bram speaks to StreetHunters about the importance of gesture in street photography.
A view of the London river emerges from the dull cloud of a December morning. Richard gestures out along the estuary, pointing toward the distant buildings of an occasional project.
When asked about the secret to his own street photography, he points to another artist: one to whom winter landscapes were also dear, one to whom a stoop of the leg or a wave of the hand was as important as a shaft of sunlight or a pop of vibrant colour.
But Richard doesn’t point to a photographer. He doesn’t point to the latest Magnum nominee or to the old masters of street photography.
Instead, he points to an old master of the painterly kind, a Flemish painter from the city of Antwerp working back in the 1500s.
That artist was Pieter Brueghel.
Of Brueghel, Richard says:
‘You know, you have to study the history of art. One of my favourite painters of all time is Breughel. A lot of his best paintings, like “The Road to Calvary” or “The Fall of Icarus” or some of his winter scenes, are filled with people.’
From the hunters bent forward, leaning out of the foreground, to the flattened peasant stretched across the ice in the mid-ground, his work is filled with actions, bodies, gestures.
For Richard then, the key problem in photography becomes not one concerning hard light or soft light, monochrome or colour, Canon or Fuji, but rather:
‘How much action can you put on one canvas before it falls apart? There are hundreds of things going on in some of Brueghel’s paintings – and yet they’re all gorgeous.’
To understand this problem further, we have to go back to the career of a failing businessman; one just starting his hand at photography in the mid-1980s, hoping for a change of luck.
‘Click Click Click’
Richard wasn’t always a street photographer.
In Kentucky, a graduate of Political Science had just got fired from his third job. Upon the death of a distant relative, the inheritance of a range of photographic equipment, and a spontaneous decision to pick up the camera, a bold foray into the world of photography began.
Poor, hungry, but desperately passionate, Richard was often forced to make the decision between eating and buying photo paper:
‘Sometimes I’d overstay my welcome at a friend’s house just in the hope they’d invite me to dinner.’
From the early days of making prints for the public library, Richard began to edge into the world of Public Relations photography. And so in the dusty rooms of conference halls and hotels, he began to discover his attention to gesture.
‘If you look at a press conference, when somebody is just standing behind a microphone and talking … it’s dead quiet. The minute they make a gesture, and point, or move their hand – click click click – all the cameras are going off! Because that’s what animates the photo: the gesture. It’s the gesture that gives it a little bit of visual interest.’
From among the corporate headshots and the boardroom meetings, Richard began to keep a collection of candid moments, actions and gestures that were unintentional, accidental, and even unfortunate, but always told a story.
Of his early work, he remembers this photograph of the Kentucky Derby in particular:
‘It’s all about her. The tough stance, that knitted brow. Don’t get in this woman’s way. And then you have the track characters like the guy in the sunglasses – there’s just something about the way he’s chewing.’
After meeting his future wife, Richard would take this principle learnt from PR – what he calls ‘the significant gesture’ – and apply it to a new life, a new city, and a new style of photography.
Street photography became the only means Richard found of making sense of his new life in London. Of this time, he recollects:
‘I mean I was here in this new country with a new life, a new wife, leaving my Public Relations career behind me. And I had to ask myself some serious questions, like “Who am I? What am I doing here? What’s my purpose in life?” So I always took my camera out with me on the streets when I ran errands.’
Some of these gestures were large and dramatic, such as the wave of a hand or a grimace of disgust.
‘There’s a picture of a woman holding a child, and there’s three of her children of different ages yammering around her, and this poor woman is being tormented by the children and all of the children are making gestures at her. Nobody is pointing out of the frame, so your eye follows the gestures into the centre of the frame.’
But other gestures were smaller, more discrete, and much easier to pass over. Of the latter type, he speaks with more interest:
‘But the gesture could also be a slight move of the head. It’s “Where are the eyes, are they looking right at the camera, are they looking up, are they looking out at the side?”. That’s gesture: it’s microscopic, but it’s crucial.’
Over the next twenty years, Richard would go on to join the iN-PUBLiC collective, publish his book New York, and see his work in the most popular photographic exhibition The Museum of London has ever held: London Street Photography: 1860-2010.
Given his expertise in capturing action on the street, we invited him to speak to our readers on the subject. Here are Richard’s top five tips for working the streets.
5 Tips for Capturing Gesture
1. When we think of gesture, we immediately think of a wave of a hand or a stamp of a foot. But gestures are diverse and varied across your work. What other aspects of body language and facial expression constitute a good photograph?
I’m not sure if gesture alone will constitute a good photograph, but it certainly helps. As a photographer you have to be alert and awake, all your antennae turned up to full gain, looking at everything happening around you at that moment, trying to anticipate – looking ahead to see what might be coming your way. If you see people arguing or someone in an intense conversation on their phone, chances are that there will be a shrug, a look, a point or wave of the hand that can potentially make a photograph. Most of the time it won’t- that’s the heartbreak of it – but once in a while it will and if you’re alert and ready, you’ll get it.
2. You’ve lived in some of the busiest cities in the world. What have you found to be the best locations for capturing interesting gestures?
Anywhere there are people; it doesn’t have to be London, New York, Manila, or Tokyo. It’s easier, of course, in a big city. As my friend Gus Powell says, New York is the most generous place on earth for a photographer; every time a subway train comes into the station, a new cast of characters comes up out of the ground.
But I’ve gotten good photographs in small places, little towns and even country roads. As long as one is ready and alert, you’ll see photographs everywhere.
3. Time and patience must play a big part in capturing the right gesture. Do you follow interesting subjects, stay in one place and wait, or practice a bit of both when hunting the streets?
Frankly both. Usually, I’m not a very patient person; if I’m hanging around a place working and working but not feeling it, I’ll move on. Sometimes though, I do the very thing that I assign students to do in a workshop: stand on one corner for 30 or 45 minutes and photograph what happens. This helps teach that patience that I myself lack from time to time.
4. We’ve talked about gesture, but really we should speak of gestures when examining your body of work. How do you go about organising and composing these kinds of chaotic photographs?
I try not to have the main subject in the centre of the frame, though I don’t always succeed. Right from the start that will make it more visually dynamic. (This is a general rule – sometimes it’s a different thing and requires a central subject. How do you know? Look at a million pictures – then you’ll know.) so even when working very fast, my eye tries to take in the entirety of the frame in the viewfinder and fill it all in. Also, if you’re thinking photographically, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what will be in a frame before you raise the camera.
5. Amateur photography books so often outline the principles of light, composition and colour – but rarely action or gesture. Why should we attribute such an importance to the raise of an eyebrow, or the shake of a fist?
Because that’s what makes something dynamic, not static. When there is an action or gesture to animate the photograph, it makes it a moment unlike something that you’ve seen before. There’s nothing wrong with those books as starting points because one has to learn all that stuff and get it internalized, but then you have to go one from there. That’s when it gets hard. That’s when it gets truly rewarding.
Thank you Richard!
The Significant Gesture
Given Richard’s interest in the history of art and photography, we decided to challenge him with one final question.
For despite the novelty of ‘the significant gesture’, it surely sits close to what Cartier-Bresson, with all his comments on ‘the decisive moment’, anticipated during the dawn of street photography.
But Richard is quick to clarify, and his response is telling:
‘What Bresson said about the decisive moment was that It’s when the geometry and the gesture come together. This is quite intellectual, but I’m far more emotional. I’m less on the geometry, especially if I’m doing it fast – I’m more about the emotional moment.’
So much of Richard’s street photography resembles those early PR events that he documented as a young man. For despite the outward show of formality, composition and intellect, it is surely the unguarded, vulnerable and accidental moments that interest him the most. These have as much to do with emotion as abstract principles of composition.
And so, when we draw a comparison between himself and his work – his formal, intellectual exterior hiding an otherwise gracious and kind interior – he shrugs his shoulders, raises his hands and leans back:
‘I’m a slightly nervous guy myself. But that’s what I see – that’s what I feel. That’s what catches my eye when I’m out on the street. So in the gesture, sure, there’s a bit of a nervous energy … but that’s what street photography is to me!’
For more on Richard’s work, visit: https://www.richardbramphoto.com/
You can also follow him on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/photobram52/
For information on his books, visit: https://www.richardbramphoto.com/books-1/