Photography – The Very Familiar

We’re delighted to introduce Geoff Maxted, a freelance writer and photographer. Here, he imparts some practical reflections and ideas on how to get the best out of shooting in your local area – especially when that’s the only place you can go…

Lockdown Breakout!
Photographing The Very Familiar

No, I’m definitely not encouraging people to burst out of their coronavirus bubble, but it is a fact that we can get outside and take daily exercise. That’s the ideal time for a bit of breakout photography to find something new in that which we see every day.

That’s the catch; our daily lives are filled with the familiar. We go about our day to day work and play at similar times and on similar routes. That’s how it has to be. High days and holidays define the different but mostly we remain in the mundane. This routine has been magnified during the 2020 virus crisis and more than ever before our location variety is restricted.

Familiar Surroundings

As many keen photographers will have realised time and time again, the more familiar something is the less we see in it. There is no possibility of photographing the same place over and over again and still strive for originality we assume, but is that just looking at the big picture? Are there in fact new ways to document that which is familiar and be able to make a set of worthwhile images. Your toughest critic is yourself; if you like what you do, others may too. These are shots I made during the winter and into the situation we find ourselves now. We have to make the best of what we have access to.

A Respectful Distance

Those fortunate enough to live in rural areas perhaps have a little more leeway, but the majority live in suburban or urban areas surrounded by neighbours and strangers who might take exception to an inquisitive lens. In short, don’t push your luck in the quest for the different image; if in doubt ask and above all stay safe.

The Weather

If there’s one thing we are not short of in this country it is weather. We get plenty of it. We can experience snow, rain, sunshine and winds, sometimes on the same day. Now, in this climate-sensitive era the boundaries between the seasons may be blurred but they are still there.

If travel opportunities are limited, the local park holds many photographic secrets if inspected closely enough. It may have small areas of woodland, a lake or a broad expanse of open country and it changes all the time. The seasons are magnified by nature; there is winter’s cold hand and new life in spring. Then there are the people; the regulars, the dog walkers and the exercisers: People who are often happy to strike up a conversation and maybe even agree to a photo or two.

Parks demonstrate seasonal weather very well. Chilly frost and snow-covered ground devoid of life contrasts with rain-soaked vistas and baked earth festooned with sweltering bodies. Mud can cake boots and pollen invade noses and eyes. Expect snowdrops and crocuses early on, followed by the nodding heads of daffodils. Watch as the male swan chases off last year’s fledged offspring at nest-building time. Avian visitors arrive for summer or are perhaps just passing through for warmer climes. Ice cream vendors appear. Cafes open up (in the not too distant future, we hope), but in all too short a time the nights start drawing in and we begin the slow descent into winter once again.

Nature and human lifestyle offer boundless opportunities for photography, if you look beyond the obvious scenic views and sunny days. Explore more, delve, look, listen and ask.

The Personal Project

Try to move away from random shooting. Set targets and plan a series of images of a certain type or place, whatever the local environment. A set of themed images makes for a good creative whole. Winter gloom in evocative black and white or summer’s lease in glorious colour. Local hedgerows are a haven for wildlife as much as for festivals of litter. Does your area need cleaning up?

Would the series be of interest to the local press or community group? Is the topic about your community or garden or shopping precinct? Every picture tells a story, at least according to Rod Stewart, but a series delivers the whole album.

Down Our Street

There’s a tendency these days for newly built estates to be bland and featureless, but during the building there are plenty of images to explore as the landscape changes. Does the work despoil in any way sensitive areas and is this worth documenting and reporting? Progress often brings dissent among the locals. They might even protest. Be there with your camera. However, once the properties have bedded in they begin to take on the patina of other peoples’ lives. Gardens change for better or for worse and community activities increase, all of which goes to demonstrate how much an area can change and how much variety it can offer.

There is much to interest the enquiring eye in older, more established areas too. The sweep of a tree-lined boulevard or the faded elegance of a Victorian terrace; the open plan nature of a developer’s sixties’ dream settlement, possibly featuring ‘award-winning’ high rises and suspect pedestrian underpasses that have all seen better days. Neon-lit night-time cityscapes and colourful markets; reflections in a puddle after rain.

There is, in the local high street, mixed shopping, street vendors, a rising tide of charity shops and forlorn ‘To Let’ signs on boarded up premises. Small independent shops, especially good old-fashioned ironmongers or butchers’ shops are a disappearing breed, it’s time to document their passing, like the photographer who once shot so many old-fashioned Woolworth shop fronts before that famous name faded away.

So, a good long walk around your local area with eyes peeled, an idea in mind and a camera at the ready is a great way to occupy your permitted exercise time while working on your fitness. Work to see beyond the obvious and poke your nose around the back. Don’t venture alone into troubled areas and don’t be too blatant. Adopt the guise of the seasoned street photographer and study their methods.

Your street. Your district. Your town. Maybe it’s not all that familiar after all.

All words and photos © Geoff Maxted 2020

You can find and follow more of Geoff’s photography on Instagram 

11th May 2020