How to Photograph London: Juxtaposition
I came to London in 2000 from Los Angeles. I followed a girl and a book deal, two excellent reasons to move continents, and I’ve lived here ever since. London is such a crazy, huge, messy city, and it’s endlessly interesting to photograph. But the vastness can be intimidating. A lot of people say to me they just don’t know where to start, or how to find a ‘way in’ to shooting here; how to get a handle on the city. So I thought it would be helpful to offer up some of the things, or themes, I love about London.
Unlike cities like Paris or Venice which were built in a certain style at a similar (ish) sort of time, London’s architecture and history is all mixed up, layered, piled on top of each other. I love that constant sense of juxtaposition of old and new and so I wanted to explore juxtaposition as a general theme this week – particularly when shooting cities. I want to show you some of the ways I’ve used it in my work to help you think about the myriad of ways you can bring the concept of juxtaposition into your work.
What is juxtaposition in photography?
Collins Dictionary says – If you juxtapose two contrasting objects, images, or ideas, you place them together or describe them together, so that the differences between them are emphasized.
Why use juxtaposition?
The reason to seek out juxtapositions is because by placing contrasting elements next to each other you instantly create a story, express an idea or create humour within an image. It’s great to use juxtaposition to photograph a city, because cities are a massive jumble of elements, and creating interesting photographs that are clear is tough in a city so full (and sort of messy) of elements.
Juxtaposition gives your eye something clear and easy to read. It’s a really fun concept to play with and it’s a way to make something instantly interesting or intriguing (as an aside I really like what photographer Joel Loengard said, that it’s more important that photographers are interesting than good.)
Ways to use juxtaposition
I seem to be writing juxtaposition a lot in this post because I just think it’s such an awesome looking word. I hope it’s not making your eyes hurt.
So some good ways to start using juxtaposition is contrasting things like:
- Old & new
- Colour e.g. warm colours next to cool colours
- Moving & still
- Textures e.g. natural against man made
Old & new
It can be really obvious, like here where you have the bottom half filled with green grass and old buildings, and the new shiny buildings almost floating in the clouds.
London, particularly moving East, is full of really stark contrasts like this:
In the photo above you’ve got not just the contrast of old and new but the lines of the building which are rigid, straight, organised and made-made with the chaotic, bendy and wild lines of the trees.
And it can also be very subtle…
The photo below is one of the first shots I ever took in London during my first week here in August 2000. I can’t tell you the excitement I felt when I walked around the corner and encountered this view. It was at this moment that I knew I had made the right decision in moving to London. To me this typifies the capital – the mix of new bland office buildings, old Victorian buildings (now offices or flats), the looming grandeur of an old building (St Paul’s Cathedral) – and of course a pub, with its hanging baskets.
The contrast of the men moving with their gorilla with the man who is standing still (exhausted? fed up?) and his gorilla, who is also unmoving:
Sometimes it’s almost as though the contrasting elements start a little conversation in the image. They provoke little questions.
Moving & still
I think this image also has the contrast of old & new – so feel free to play with multiple ideas of juxtapositions in the same photo.
A more subtle example, the moving clouds reflected in the window next to the solid wall and the rigid fence:
Here I like the contrast of the garish colours of the graffiti on the brick wall against the wild red poppies and grass.
This image above is dominated by lines (love lines!), but of two distinct types: the rigidity of the man-made against the wildness of nature’s lines.
And lastly adding humour using the ‘j’ word
A few years ago I shot a portrait project of bellies. One thing that came out as a strong theme was by contrasting someone’s belly with an element that was very different from their belly, it created a humorous tone to the photo.
A very pregnant belly of a lady who was standing up, with two young men, sitting down:
Contrasting a huge belly with two slim ones:
Contrasting the very open gesture of showing your belly, with the closed gesture of someone with their head in their hands:
I shot these mainly out on the street in London, and I have to say I was super encouraged by how many people were friendly and let me shoot a very intimate part of their body – on the street! So if you have any fear of shooting strangers in this city – remember my project and it should give you a bit of encouragement.
A couple more ideas….
Street photography is a particularly good way to use juxtaposition. I think the work of Joel Meyerowitz is particularly good demonstration of successfully contrasting elements in your work – particularly his early street photography and his projects such as Fire/Air and for colour contrasting the project he did on Ground Zero after 9/11. Interesting interview with him here on his work.
I love Elliot Erwitt, particularly his project on dogs. He is also a good photographer to explore on the subject of juxtaposition. You can’t pigeonhole any photographer with this theme but some people use it more interestingly than others. Good to check out regardless.
How do you use juxtaposition in your photography? I’d love to hear your ideas – please comment below or email me directly.