“Your pictures are brilliant.”
“10 years of practice.”
What delicious irony to think that the world around us, which we consume unthinkingly every day, takes a decade to capture effectively on camera. Each frame of quotidian life – rain-slick pavements, ponytails tossed upward by wind, streams of suits spilling out of offices – are just part of the endless reel forming the backdrop to our day. But click the shutter at the right second, and that scene can become many things. Fine art. Social commentary. Candid portraiture. Photojournalism. That is the art of street photography, and Linda Wisdom is a street photographer.
“Well, I’m not a street photographer per se,” She modestly rushes to clarify, “I’m part time. I’m an I.T. person. To be specific, an Apple Mac engineer/consultant/ geeky person.” She owes this techy status thanks to a knack for fixing computers, “Before I knew it”, Linda explains, “I was head of a support department in a big-time publishing house.” Now she runs her own business, employing a team of engineers, which “frees up my time to do more photography!” But photography is not just a passion, even here Linda turns a profit. She teaches workshops, exhibits in shows, sells prints and leads Airbnb ‘experiences’, where tourists can sign up to a day of discovering London sights through a lens. Even commercial marketing agencies hire her on the basis of her online portfolio. “I still have a life in between this… surprising I know!”
How, I wonder, does photography edge its way into the world of a Mac engineer in the first place? “I sort of fell into it!” Linda laughs, “It comes back to the I.T. thing. I was in a stressful contract, everyone was competing against each other. It wasn’t my vibe. I thought, ‘I need to do something that takes my mind off it all’. I was into photography visually, though I had never used an SLR properly. I had a friend who lent me a camera, saying, ‘use this, go around London’, I forgot about work and my worries went away. I thought, ‘this is good, this is therapy. I don’t need to pay anyone now; I just need to buy a camera!”’
Herein lies the beauty of street photography; it is egalitarian. You can do away with hire fees for a studio and skip sweet-talking models for fashion shoots. Instead, an abundance of photo-sharing platforms such as Flickr and Instagram, as well as the revolution of camera phones, has caused street photography to be milled out by the million. But the latest iPhone does not an artist make.
“Do you think too many people think street photography is easy?” I ask. “Yes!” Linda replies, and then adds, “Not to be snobbish!” Snobbish is the last thing you would label this lively, gracious woman, though her eyes glint mischievously when she discusses certain tricks of the trade. “I’d disarm them with a compliment! Or pretend I’m a tourist!” She tells me, when I ask her how she’d deal with a passer-by who reacted badly to being photographed.
Apart from alibies, what else must one be armed with? Observational skills are an obvious must, and good walking shoes probably come in handy. But an online community can be eye-opening too. For self-taught Linda, the journey of discovery snowballed as her audience grew, “People were commenting on my pictures, and someone mentioned Cartier-Bresson, a famous French photographer. I looked him up and it was like Pandora’s box! I thought, this is what I want to do.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson is widely acknowledged as a pioneer of the street medium. He coined the term ‘decisive moment’ in the 1950s, theorising that the ideal photo was attained when light, form, subject and composition were all in their optimum position simultaneously. Mostly working in black and white, Cartier-Bresson and his contemporaries found subject in humanist portrayals of daily life, focusing on emotion and romanticising the commonplace. Meanwhile in Manhattan, style deviated from the compassionate perspective and was characterised by such cameramen as Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Joel Meyerowitz, who scoured the city stealthily, prowling for pictures that froze the furious energy of New York. Later, in the 80s and early 90s, an abrasive use of flash characterised Bruce Gilden’s aesthetic, and he’d often jump out at his subjects, alarming them. This was to “energise the frame” as he termed it, an in-your-face tactic that earned the Brooklyn born photographer begrudging respect, along with a reputation as a snap happy terrorist.
The preferences and habits of photographers are clues to how they interpret the human condition, and often the result presents the viewer with a thought-provoking new perspective. The magic of happenstance can cause us to reflect on communities, re-evaluate our surroundings and savour that semi-animalistic satisfaction of voyeurism. The best street photography makes us want to spin a story around the image, or jolt us out of our comfort zones. Linda, for one, admits she has always been drawn to people and the perceived relationships between them, seeking for moments of frankness in the kinetic push of our city.
But much like London itself, Linda’s work is full of mystery, unanswered questions and loneliness. A man feverishly kisses a woman on an escalator. A speckled dog with pointed ears perches on the shoulder of an elderly gentleman. Single shadows cut their way through empty stations. Men embrace women passionately on balconies. Dark figures wearing hats lurk in doorways. Geometry plays a fundamental role, she manages to centre each scene as though literally framing it with the glittering railings of London Bridge, futuristic tunnels at Docklands, rungs in a wooden bench or flights of wide stairs, imprisoning her subject in a maze of lines. All this, mostly in black and white. It is utterly arresting and, since most subjects are clearly unaware they’re being photographed, scratches the itch we all have to spy on others.
It is film noir, in still. It is Hitchcock, staged in modern London. It traps you in a beautiful story where every person in every picture is up to something. Clandestine love affairs, conspiracies. A city stopped in suspense.
And yet you know, it really is just the world around us.