The Flaneur and The Twilight Photographer — Street Photography

Summer is prime time for photo shoots on the street — depending on what your intentions are.

Yesterday evening drew in quickly, I was busy reading a good book, one eye ogling the changing light outside my kitchen window.

A keen photographer will always have an excuse to get out and take photos. I wanted to catch the evening light.

I’d packed my camera in my shoulder bag, it sat on the table — the book was a good read, so I kept telling myself, a couple more pages, and then I’d spring into action and go and take some street shots, before the sun finally dips below the horizon.

I was reading a book, “Wayfinding” by Michael Bond. It ties in with other reading about how we relate to our environment, mostly unconsciously. “Headspace”, by Dr. Paul Keedwell, and “Places of the Heart”, by Colin Ellard, A nice set of books to read and study. All of them excellent.

The sun dipped halfway behind the rooftops, and I needed to get out and use that sliver of time to get some lovely photos of people, the streets, and hopefully, nature’s gorgeous shadows on concrete structures.

The “golden hour” can sometimes seem long, other times, it’s like being in a fast forward film that spools away into the night.

When darkness finally envelopes the city, the beauty fades into dark gutters.

The feeling I get when I decide to go and take photos is a little like going to dinner. It could turn out be a great evening of discovery. People, colours, spices, and unexpected events on the streets of Berlin.

Or it can turn out to be a confusing mess of blandness that frustrates the creative mind. Like bangers and mash on Thursday night.

I grabbed my bag and headed out. Already aware that I didn’t know where I was going — that’s a bad sign.

The light had dipped, and as I shouldered my bag, I looked out the window and watched passers-by in white and blue cotton shirts, the light reflected beautifully, and the brighter colours were on the edge of popping.

During the Golden Hour, colour pops, while grey city streets and buildings dampen and meld into the forming shadows.

A mustard coloured top and a pair of white shoes and tanned legs become prominent in the evening light.

Buildings turn into dark blocks with the remnants of sunlight skidding over the rooftops.

I realized that I had no idea where to go. So, I took a ten-minute train ride up to Brandenburg Gate — I hate going there these days. I’ve photographed it so many times, and it’s so familiar, that I have a standardized image of it in my memory. But I had to quickly be somewhere, and know what I would find. that way, I could quickly think about what my real intentions were.

But, I’m always wrong about Brandenburg Gate. It’s a magnificent structure, and it all depends on the sunset, or sunrise. The angle of your shot, the lens, and the settings, etc. The astute eye sees things anew, but it’s sausage and mash to the local who passes it each day.

Brandenburg Gate at Sunset. Copyright; Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2022
Brandenburg Gate at Sunset

I mentioned the Flaneur in the title of this article. I think of myself as a flaneur. It’s a healthy way to enjoy life in the city, and it gives me another excuse to put my boots on and get out the door of my apartment.

Walking is as much an enjoyment as is looking at compositions of people and buildings on the street. To walk, and follow my feelings, then discover I’ve ended up in a small street in another part of the city. A place I hadn’t visited in years. It piques my curiosity about how we live and navigate.

According to scientists and laboratory rats, we have developed the ability to build a cognitive system of mapping our environment.

It’s complicated, but basically, we choose landmarks that serve as orientation points that create spatial awareness in the rest of the environment. We also use borders and boundaries to help us navigate while we walk.

Landmarks and boundaries tell us where we are, and where we could go to, from there.

This is just a snippet of the complex structure of our navigation system. But it does help us understand why, when we are in a hurry to go and take photos, we will inevitably head for a strong landmark that is already set in our mind. From there we can think about what to do next.

We are like the rats in a maze who know where the tasty food is hidden.

At Brandenburg Gate, I was confronted by a flaneur’s dreamscape. Crowds of people stood back from the Gate and stared at it. Their heads tilted back, and the mouths slightly opened. It reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.

The sun was going down behind the distant treelines that surround the Presidential palace, and the Victory Column where the infamous Else (Golden Angel) watches over Berlin’s residents.

The atmosphere was full of anticipation. Families took photos of each other, lots of young people posed for Instagram photos — often melodramatic poses in an attempt to appear important, significant, or possibly, sort of famous.

These strangers had unintentionally created a positive group feeling, because they were all doing similar things like taking selfies, family photos, or simply watching the sun disappear, and it created a tension full of anticipation.

A mixture of groups, families, youth, gang-like lads who posed for me, individuals with cameras, and of course other street photographers.

Three lads in Berlin, posing for the street photographer
These young men saw me, stopped and said, “Photo shoot! Cut a pose boys”. So I took a shot to please them, and fluffed my focus.

As I watched out for a good street shot or two, I still had the feeling that I wanted to leave. To head down to the river which is only 600 metres away, just past the Reichstag building. An easy jaunt across the road, through a woodland pathway, past the security guards and down to the riverside.

But the feeling at Brandenburg Gate, was fascinating. It’s good to be amongst people who are enjoying themselves, even strangers.

I had that feeling that there were enough textures, shadows and light, flowing groups of shifting people, and golden glows here, to stay and try and make something out of the thing I already knew.

It’s a part of our navigation system. It kicks in, and helps us to make decisions. I felt relaxed and fascinated at the same time. So, you could say a feeling of wellness caused me to stop moving. I settled down. I now intended to bathe in the evening light, and enjoy the safety of crowds.

I took a few photos. I also notice I was winding my lens in to 50 mm most of the time, even though I thought I’d use a wide-angled lens mostly. The proximity of crowds opens your eyes, and can make your heart thump, so why not try and do what Henri Cartier-Bresson said, get up close.

Like every street photographer, I also have problems with getting close to people for a good shot. I kick myself more often than not for missing out on framing up close, to ensure better composition, and better quality. It’s not that simple in a city where the legalities of taking another person’s photo is problematic.

I want those shots. So, I take a few sneaky shots from a distance. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction in that.

Street photography at twilight in Berlin

The sun had gone down, and dark clouds ruined the brightness expected for those last few minutes. Darkness now fell on Berlin.

I kept at it, pointing and clicking at groups and individuals that I thought might make a good shot. I knew that noise would be a problem in the twilight zone, and my camera was set at 1600 ISO already. That’s pretty high for a Canon Rebel. Great little camera, it’s lightweight and easy to stow in a shoulder bag. Great for street photography. Dodgy at night.

The fact that I went out without any photographic intention, but to take photos, created a mish-mash of feelings that were hard to master. Photography, writing, it’s the same problem; try writing a good story without having any idea what you’re going to write about. Guaranteed, you’ll be swilling coffee all day long.

So, I ended up with a couple of good compositions, unfortunately the badass photographer in me was still at home reading a book.

Group of Lads enjoying Sunset Street Photography in Berlin
Group of Lads enjoying Sunset

I took a camera without knowing the what and why of my intentions, and photographed a noisy twilight, but enjoyed the company of strangers.

Intentions are everything when it comes to, well, everything.