Still Awake, Still Waiting

Robert Frank and Two Images of Jehovah’s Witnesses Taken 60 Years Apart

One of the greatest things about street photography is that you never know what you are going to come across. The infinite number of variables that can seemingly conspire to deliver you to a particular place at a particular time to take a satisfying photograph is a thing of beauty.

You could apply the chaos theory to the city and the street photographer. Tiny variables in starting conditions can produce huge variation in outcomes. For instance, you get a later Tube into London because you slept in, because you unexpectedly had to work late and you were tired, so you miss the beautiful sunlight that was on Oxford Street, but you get there as it starts to rain and see the reflections in the wet pavement and the myriad of umbrellas!

So one Saturday I found myself in Newcastle-upon-Tyne at a particular part of the city at a particular time, with a particular friend, to witness stage light beaming down onto the face of a Jehovah’s Witness selling ‘Awake!’ magazine.

It was one of those ‘pause, act, move on’ moments, standing still for just enough time to focus, compose and receive the image before leaving the subject undisturbed and unaware that they have been photographed. When I got home and looked at this particular image I was instantly reminded of Robert Frank‘s image of a Jehovah’s Witness selling ‘Awake!’ magazine, a photograph from the seminal book ‘The Americans‘, surely one of the finest photo books there has ever been; a visual iconoclasm of the American Dream with one of the finest introductions to any kind of book. Here is a a small excerpt.

“Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”

Jack Kerouac, from the introduction to The Americans

Let’s iron the crease out straight away. I am not comparing myself to Robert Frank. That certainly would be vainglorious. I am about to compare two images of Jehovah’s Witnesses selling ‘Awake!’ magazine taken 60 years apart because I might learn something from the exercise.

I will look at Robert Frank’s image first, a grainy monochrome scene made in Los Angeles. Here we have an older, tired looking man looking at the lens and offering us the front cover of ‘Awake!’ He looks somewhat uncomfortable with a raised shoulder and a hand in his trouser pocket. His offer seems more in hope than conviction. Perhaps he is cold. He stands in front of a dressed stone building, and some readers of the image see a cross behind him, suggesting the crucifixion. It’s a stark, cold, lonely, unflattering image. The light is flat which accentuates these feelings. The only other detail to be seen is the man’s briefcase just popping into the frame in front of his feet. The whole frame is at an uncorrected angle, which is typical of images in The Americans as a whole. In this case, it gives the impression that we are looking down at him from just above his eye level.

Fast forwarding 60 years to the colour digital image I made myself recently, the contrasts with the older scene are many. Here we have a well fed man with warm coloured light bathing his face. He seems relaxed and confident. Both hands are held out offering ‘Awake!’ to passers by. The ‘stage’ light adds drama to his face, and combined with the fact we are looking up at him (shot from the hip), gives him something of an elevated status. The frame is busy. Signs compete for attention, including one saying ‘Please take one’. He is far from isolated, as two passers by can be made out in the deep shade.

So what do these readings of two images prove? Well, that there are so many ways to approach  image making on the street, producing a large array of different results, depending on framing, light, time of day, technique, development, choice of medium and the photographer’s eye. What about luck? Is there such a thing in the street photographer’s arsenal? Well, the more I venture out, the luckier I get. The eye becomes keener, and Robert Frank sir, ‘You got eyes’.

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