The scene is deserted and dark, lit only by the faint glare of the occasional streetlight. The dim silhouette of a lone figure strides towards the camera, his hurried footsteps emitting the only sounds in an otherwise deafeningly silent cityscape. Without pausing, he lights a cigarette, briefly illuminating eyes darting back and forth with anxiety. He quickly exhales and slips the cigarette back between his slightly trembling lips before turning up his collar against the damp night air. Suddenly, a loud bang pierces the night. He spins around in a crouch to face the direction of the sound. Nervously he rises, chuckling to himself as he realizes it was only the backfire of a car somewhere off in the nearly complete darkness. He turns back to the direction of his apartment, just in time to catch a glimpse of the glint of the steel blade hurtling straight towards his heart…
As you can tell from this over-the-top lede, I’m a huge fan of the film noir genre in cinema. I grew up watching those old, dark murder mysteries made back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, spending hours being drawn into a world of shadow and light. Many years later, I’ve come to realize how profound an impact movies have had on my street photography. I’ve been influenced by the directors and cinematographers of the time, their use of shadow and light and Dutch angles (tilted camera angles) to heighten the tension, set the mood and engage the viewer. I’m fascinated by those film techniques and try to find ways to use them effectively in my street work.
Take the image at the end of this article. I use a shaft of light streaming between two skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco to frame the subject. Although she remains largely shaded, her form is accentuated by the rim light along the right side of the figure and the contrast between the lower body and the light. Barely hidden in the shadowy background looms a series of imposing columns and a large sculpture of ambiguous human forms. These ethereal figures surrounding her in the composition provide an element of tension, much like the silent threats lurking in the shadows of the film noir genre. Also, serving up a bit of tension is the incomplete shadow at the bottom of the frame. In film noir, you would see a partial figure – usually a villain – lurking at the edge of a frame. A disembodied shadow is another example of this. The human brain likes to see things in completion; if not, it subconsciously carries out the process itself (the Gestalt principles). These things brought together tends to engage the viewer.
Dutch angles were also used in film noir. This is where the camera was tilted slightly to denote unease, tension in the scene. Think about it the next time you capture two people in a standoff, or somebody feeling uncomfortable about a situation. A tilted composition would indicate that something isn’t right; it throws everything off, outwardly projecting some of that discomfort beyond the two-dimensional plane. Again, you have an engaged viewer.
Director Carol Reed’s 1949 film, “The Third Man”, is a prime example of how these techniques collaborate to convey the story. In the last act, Joseph Cotton and Trevor Howard pursue Orson Welles through the darkened streets and sewers of post-war Vienna. This absolute masterpiece of cinema used shadow and light and the Dutch angles so effectively, you get a strong sense that you, too, are chasing Orson Welles. I would enthusiastically encourage you to watch this film if you want to see brilliant cinematography, particularly as it can be applied to street photography. Robert Krasker, the film’s cinematographer, won the only Oscar awarded the film. I could recommend others in the film noir genre as well.
The key to any photographic genre is to have the viewer fully engaged in your work. One of the most disheartening things for a photographer is to have his displayed work quickly passed by, clicked though or the page flipped. I should know – it’s happened to me far too many times. Fully engaging the viewer slows the pass-through time considerably. In essence, you’ve added another physical dimension to your work, one that extends beyond the two dimensions inside the frame (or the page or screen). Creative tension does that, and the application of the film noir techniques I discussed above are examples of the many ways to achieve it.
In later posts, I’ll discuss how other art forms have influenced my street photography. Stay tuned.