While shooting my pictures of feet, I wrote (and then as things went on, revised) a short set of Roy Stryker-esque rules to keep me on track:
- All photographs must be taken between the 16th July and 26th of July
- Take a photograph of the shoes worn by each person who sits opposite you on the tube
- Try to get a mix of men and women.
- However, you are not allowed to move your seat to be opposite someone with better shoes.
- Do not behave in a way that could be viewed as creepy: if there is only one person in a section with twelve seats, do not sit opposite them.
- If challenged, explain what it is that you’re doing; if someone objects, delete the picture.
- If there is someone standing in the aisle and obscuring (or partially obscuring) your view of a pair of feet, wait until they have moved.
- The finished pictures must show a clear shot of a single pair of feet.
- No rucksacks!
Early on, I gave up on trying to get a serendipitous spectrum (black/red to violet/white) as there were too many brown shoes while no one wearing yellow shoes sat down opposite me and in the end I had between around forty pairs of feet to choose from, with up to four ‘goes’ at getting the picture I wanted.
One of my tutor’s comments on the pictures for assignment 3 (also taken in the tube) had been that I needed to set my camera to use a higher ISO to improve the overall focus of my pictures. I had done this and have noted that – having got rid of my 10 year old D50 – probably don’t need to be so conservative with my sensor sensitivity setting; general tests seem to confirm that both my D610 and Fujifilm X100-s (the camera used for these pictures) are much less noisy at a high ISO setting than my earlier DSLR which only went up to 1600 and wasn’t very happy when you did. Despite this, the tube is not a perfect environment for photography – the movement of the train combined with low lighting, particularly at floor level makes sharp deep focus a tricky thing to achieve. I was able to do a simple, technical first edit to reject anything that was not crisp at the toe-point of at least one shoe and preferably both.
Further early pictures were rejected on the basis of the ‘no rucksacks’ rule; a pity because there were some smashing colour combinations and pairs of shoes worn by people who wedged their rucksacks between their feet. However, the cut off at the top of the frame would not work well in terms of isolating one person’s feet.
All three rucksack pictures have quite interesting arrangements of feet within their un-cropped frame. The fixed lens on the X100 doesn’t isolate a single pair of feet in the frame, so pretty much all of the pictures had other people’s feet to the sides. This was not something I wanted for my eventual typology, however attractive the effect. I began to work with the pictures that remained.
I needed to work out a workable crop. To start with I tried a 5×4 ratio to reference Sanders’ and the Bechers’ use of a view camera to make their pictures.
Unfortunately, this only worked with people whose feet were relatively close together – already here the woman’s feet are beginning to push towards the edges of the frame. I went for the as-shot, 6×4 ratio of the camera I was using, to allow the pictures to breathe a bit more:
This resulted in a more comfortable crop, but I thought I would try one more thing before applying it to all the remaining candidate shots: I went for a portrait format version in both 6×4 and 5×4; the 5×4 looked better:
Again though, it seemed a bit cramped and, because all the pictures had been taken in a conventional landscape format didn’t leave a lot of room for adjusting the vertical position of the feet in the cropped pictures (the 4×6 was even worse in this respect – you had to include the whole height of the image to get in even a relatively narrow spread of feet)
I quite like the effect of this, but for the purposes of the assignment, 6×4 landscape format it was. I also straightened up the horizontal perspective using the junction between the bench seat and the floor of the carriage as the standard.
David Bate – in the chapter on portraits in Photography: the key concepts – has written about how we read pictures of people, using expression, posture, clothing etc. to try to identify (or identify with) the person pictured, almost without thinking about it. This can be applied to partial portraits showing details of someone’s person, as well as to a head shot or a full-length picture.
Looking at the pictures each evening, I had tried to work out how different people would take different things from the pictures: someone interested in footwear would be able to draw one set of conclusions from the style and colour of the shoes – much as Stephen Shore talks of the paints used on the cars in Uncommon Places becoming more and more evocative of the time depicted – while another might read different things about how relaxed people were feeling that morning or evening (and are the people going home, more relaxed than the people commuting at the start of their day?); a historian of the tube would know which line was which by the colour of the flooring and on and on. I took this difference between the dark Central Line and the much lighter, Victoria Line flooring and decided to use it as a further organising device: an even number of dark and light backgrounds could be used to give a chequer-board effect to the overall display of pictures. The Central Line is much dimmer than the Victoria (somewhere between one and two stops) so some of the pictures from the second part of my journey were taken with a longer exposure time , making it harder to get them sharp, unless I waited until we were stationary in a station.
I could have further increased the sensitivity of the sensor, of course, but I didn’t – I’m only beginning to really process Martin Parr’s pronouncement on digital photography: (‘The thing people do not realise with digital is that what you should be constantly adjusting is the iso’) and need to do more systematic tests of how both my main cameras perform. The result of this was that I had a smaller set of Central Line pictures to work with, so an easier task of getting them down to a final candidate list.
At this point, I went to Boots and made 6×4 prints of about 28 pictures (eleven Central line and seventeen Victoria). I tried to arrange them into a grid and realised that the final organising principle (to go with even numbers of men and women and alternating dark and light flooring) could easily be a continuous line running through the set, provided by the junction between the bench seat and the floor – a single silver bar on the Victoria Line and a double gunmetal one on the Central giving a skirting-board effect; I would use the lower of the two central bars to provide a unifying constant, running through all the pictures. Neatening up the position of the line (a third down from the top of the frame) proved impossible to reconcile with the other framing rules. More pictures were eliminated, leaving me eighteen or so to play with.
Another difference between the Central line and the Victoria is that the central block of seats has a two-seat wide recess by the pole at the centre of the carriage. It took me a while to realise that sitting in one of the recessed seats changed the angle so much that pictures taken there didn’t really work with the ones taken over the standard-width aisle elsewhere. Reduced further the number of useable Central Line pictures.
Which meant all I needed to do then was prune down the Victoria Line shots (a subjective process that I have not fully unpacked) to include the ones that I liked while balancing out the genders and to write up the Artist’s Statement.
- Roy Stryker (1893-1975) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Stryker
- Walker Evans – Subway Portraits (1938-1941); easily findable with an online search eg here at MOMA, New York: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/walker-evans-subway-portraits-1938-41
- Martin Parr – Tokyo Commuters. 1998 – on Magnum Site (https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2S5RYD12J76K) – accessed 02/09/18)
- Martin Parr quote (June 2018) from the FAQ section of the artist’s site: https://www.martinparr.com/faq/ – accessed 02/09/18
- Bate, D (2012) Photography – the key concepts, Bloomsbury Academic, London
- Shore, S. (2014) Uncommon Places Thames and Hudson, London