“Normally I’ll just wait but we can’t do that today,” says Alan Schaller. “Will be a very boring workshop if we sit around for hours.” There were ten of us crammed into a minibus headed to the Little India district. The day’s agenda was to trail Schaller along the streets and alleys of the area and watch the British street photographer’s prowess unfold up-close in real life as part of a Leica Akademie Singapore masterclass programme.
Specialised in black and white images, Schaller — co-founder of Street Photography International Collective and Leica ambassador — was our tutor of the day.
One of Schaller’s most definitive shots was of a New York pigeon caught gloriously mid-flight, its wings extended in full. What rendered the shot extraordinary was his impeccable intuition for timing and perspective. In the split second of the pigeon taking flight, his judgement nudged him to press the shutter in the exact moment its reflection briefly entered the glass window behind it. And as luck would have it, there was a third silhouette he didn’t foresee: its shadow on the concrete wall.
“This was a single shot,” he recalls. “There’s fuller confidence in pressing the shutter once.”
“Although it may sound peculiar, one of the few things that is constant in almost every country I am in, and reminds me of my home city London, is the presence of pigeons — they are everywhere. It took me a while to appreciate this, but I did, and soon began to take the odd photograph of them for fun,” says Schaller.
At the crux of street photography is chance. Unlike photographers who take portraits and stage shoots, for example, a street photographer often doesn’t exercise control over an image prior to taking it. Street photography is all about capturing the right moment on camera as it happens spontaneously. It’s the immortalising of happenstance. Though for one to take place, patience needs to be virtue. Something that’s hard to come by when everything instant is the current zeitgeist.
“90 percent of us [street photographers] are fishers, we’re not hunters,” Schaller explains before recounting the numerous times he would doggedly frequent and lurk around the same spot for consecutive months in order to capture a shot he’d be happy with. To him, it’s never about the breadth of an area he could cover nor the quantity of shots per day; it’s about seeing through an instinctive, thinking eye.
“It’s not random. I’m continually assessing why a scene isn’t a good scene, what could potentially happen beyond my control that I can’t pre-empt. It’s best to think about it first,” he shares.
We alighted to the hubbub of Little India’s landmark Tekka Centre and Schaller huddled us into a circle. Giving us the lowdown on what we needed to be taking note of, he suddenly noticed a disgruntled man trudging past us and says, “Watch this.” He lowered his trusty Leica M Monochrom — a model that only shoots in black and white — to an inconspicuous chest level, trailing the man. The camera’s all-black facade as added stealth.
As the man stopped to wait for the crossing sign to turn green, Schaller circled around to his side, pretending to peer at the oncoming traffic while his lens was blatantly pointed towards the man’s face not more than two feet away. Then there it was, the swift silent snap.
Schaller didn’t even have to look through his viewfinder nor at the oblivious man. He knew what the shot would look like. The result was a dark outline of the man, his features hardly perceivable, contrasted to the whiteness of the backlighting sunlight. It was quite unmistakable that the assured ease required years to perfect.
One of us asked why he held the camera chest-levelled. “We see the world as we the world all the time. Shooting like this...,” he shifted the camera to his eye-level, “...is like showing what the world is again through the same perspective. I like to use the camera differently and offer a perspective that you can’t just simply see. You can turn ordinary things into interesting things.”
Schaller’s ‘Metropolis’ series explores how “we’re in more contact with each other than ever but also more disconnected.”
Schaller sees in black and white. His eyes perceive colours, but having shot in monochrome mode for years has numbed his responsiveness to colours. To Schaller, stripping a moment of its full spectrum of colours hones the focus on the subject, shapes and textures. While the imminence of negative space is pivotal in unearthing the significance of a photograph.
“I started shooting with this big negative space. I found that I was taking a lot of pictures that was graphic, and often had a single figure. It developed into my first series called ‘Metropolis’,” he says. The series became an examination of how humans are dwarfed in the modern world: “It was about the disconnection between in today’s world and how many people in big cities, as backed by research, are feeling more and more lonely, isolated and often depressed. Using the techniques with negative space, it was almost necessary in such a big city [London] to try isolating people but make it seem intimate.”
Schaller’s next project involves people on mobiles. It’s hard not to do the project when everyone in the street has their face glued to their screens, he says. Schaller himself tries to steer away from relying too much on the digital. In his search for unseen perspectives, the photographer has made it a habit to talk to people. Instead of Googling, he would prefer to ask a local of the city he is in — typically a teenager — for unusual haunts.
“I like talking to people,” he admits. “I set myself a project when I first started to talk to 10 strangers a day — not necessarily to photograph these strangers, but to talk. There’s a saying that “a great photographer is a lover of people”.”
Schaller’s search also entails a self-imposed need to be aware of his surroundings on the constant, “My eye never switches off. I keep my camera with me at all times. My friends mock me for the fact that I take it to the bathroom even when I’m in a restaurant. A bit weird and creepy, I know, but it’s the nature of street photography: You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“I’m still a very young photographer in terms of years. I try not falling down the trap of it becoming too commercial, corporate,” quips Schaller.
His body of work — well-composed frames of fleeting moments that exist out of a greater narrative — may not tip off the hardwork and inconvenience behind it. Yet against the current of instant gratification and digital razzmatazz, the art of black and white street photography is championing the diminishing appreciation for the slow; for the joy of the journey. And according to Schaller, it’s a visual embrace of humanity and its motley of differences.
“I didn’t see it as my job to tell people how the world is. I don’t title my pictures, because putting a title to an image tells the viewer what it is. We all have different life experiences and you bring that when you’re reading a book, watching a film — and when you’re looking at a photograph. We all have a different view of the world.” Of his work, Schaller posits, “It’s not meant to be life-changing. It’s meant to be a celebration of street photography.”
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