Earlier this year the world’s most prestigious photo agency Magnum brought out their guide for photographers and it was teasingly entitled “Wear Good Shoes ” !
This advice, quoted from Matt Stuart, for budding photojournalists, was not totally tongue-in-cheek, as robust footwear is no doubt a pre-requisite for any photographer setting out to cover all sorts of terrain in search of the images that will finally come together in some story form.
However, what any good photographer needs to be looking for, at least for part of their journey, once they’ve chosen the right pair of shoes, is good headgear. Not to wear, but to shoot !
I guess if I was to list my 5 favourite or most influential pictures, this photograph below by Eugene Smith would definitely be up there, near the top.
The closeness, the tight framing, the deep contrast of light and shade, the burning heat, the intensity of expressions, most notably the force of the Guard in the foreground, in Napoleonic-style pose: all these factors allied to the fact that there are three figures depicted, bestows a classical, timeless quality on this image, that has remained permanently embedded on my mind, since I first saw it thirty years ago.
But over and above that, what really gives this photograph that extra dimension are the peculiar shaped helmets that these guards are wearing. These three items of protective headgear all slightly tilted in different manner, create strong rhythmic shape and provide the graphic tension and structure that binds the whole image together.
Much of the iconic film photography of the 20th century featured distinctive forms of headwear, that denoted social status, gender, occupation, cultural and geographical identity. These classical images became part of the visual grammar that influenced my photographic approach and continue to inspire me.
Hats evoke style, they bring weight and formality to photographs and create a visual aesthetic that is hard to define, but instantly recognizable.
Compare these two images of woman with veiled headdress. The first taken by Vivian Maier on a street in Chicago, the second taken by me at a recent wedding in Brittany.
Britain has a particular love affair with hats. From the bowler, to the trilby, the deerstalker and the flat cap, a range of look and functionality, matching class and social activity. Nowhere is the symbolism of this British tradition more evident than during the annual sporting, social events such as Henley Regatta and the Epsom Derby.
Even in my industrial corporate work, I’ll be on the look out for a good hard-hat, as the colours and shapes these provide, add an extra-dimension to the image and enhance the overall visual structure.
On a recent trip to London, I happened to come across a Sikh rally. With my western eyes, I was completely enthralled by the “exotic” range of colours and shapes of all these turbans on view, and interested how this traditional headgear complemented the character of each person’s face. Photographically I felt I was mining a rich seam, as there was a visual coherence and order, that offered itself instinctively to my eye.
Generally though when I hit the streets today there are not that many hats around, other than the occasional backward-facing baseball cap. We live in different times, with a democratisation, some would say standardisation of dress code.
Headgear is less quotidian, more reserved for the ceremonial and ritual. This is especially true in Western Europe. I’m sometimes envious of those photographers who shoot in South America, where for cultural and climatic reasons, hat-wearing still appears to be a more traditional, everyday occurrence; although I accept this is perhaps an over-romaniticised view of the situation.
At least I got a slight flavour of South America on my visit to Rome this last spring, when i captured this ” headless” portrait of a musician who had just finished playing by the Coliseum. It was definitely the hat that caught my eye, it’s shape and texture, which along with the lines and simple colour palette, captured the mellow tones of latin jazz on a balmy evening.