The art of being human

Street photographer Tony Cole talks to about capturing moments of the everyday

the war against cliche

It’s clichéd to say street photography aims to ‘capture the moment’, but it’s difficult to describe York-born Tony Cole’s work in any other way. There is nothing particularly technical about Tony’s work – though his ever-increasing Flickr portfolio, Yorktone, might suggest otherwise.

Rather, it’s better to describe his photography as a mixture of spontaneity balanced out with a painstakingly crafted composition. As Tony describes, “It’s really as simple as just going out, keeping my eyes open, capturing the image and then perhaps developing a concept or message based on the associations I draw from the image, associations with literature or poetry for example.”

His inspiration in photography is curiosity, an urge to “understand how we all manage to get along together or why sometimes we don’t”. No photo is staged, and Tony’s shots of real-life people are taken in such a way that perfectly encapsulates snippets of everyday lives.

“We’re always doing something interesting, just by existing”

“I never stage photographs – what would be the point? If there’s any value in the images I produce it’s in the fact that they are simple representations of ordinary life. The fact that there are sometimes interesting things going on in them just reinforces the point that all lives are worth examination, not just the celebs’ – we’re all, always, doing something interesting, just by existing.”

15 monument to nothing

Tony’s current work has been focused on York, the city he grew up in and then returned to two years ago. For Tony, the familiarity of the city gives him a chance to focus on the subjects of his photographs, though he admits York’s beauty and historic character provide a “superb backdrop”. Despite their content, his photos never feel intrusive, even in shots that Tony considers morally questionable. “I guess all I can say is what’s the alternative? Ignore what I see?”

Ultimately, his photos bring across a sense of intrigue. They do not pretend to understand everything being captured, but instead offer genuine contemplation or wonder, using quotations from literature and poetry to help frame certain images. Above all, they try to be honest.

“In the photo ‘Money’, a homeless man holds a few pennies in his fingers and stares at them. When I took the shot he was utterly absorbed in turning the coins over and over and mumbling to himself. What exactly he was thinking about is of course much more complex than any image can hope to convey, but as a symbol of how some members of our society are adrift through poverty (and the many consequences and causes of poverty), it genuinely moved me. Still does.”

“I never stage photographs, what would be the point?”

The contrast of people in certain photographs is particularly striking. Commonplace images that we would take for granted and pass by in the street become the focal point for much of Tony’s work. The young and the old, the homeless and the rich, construction workers and businessmen, York locals and Snapchatting students – all these disparities within society are brought to display through brilliantly realised juxtaposition.
Sometimes the results are comical, at other times, melancholic. In the end, it is the human element that makes, in Tony’s view, a good image. As he points out, “We are by far the most interesting, diverse, tragic, comic, beautiful things in existence.”

a doorway gospel 9

Accentuating the juxtaposition of his photographs is Tony’s choice to often work with monochrome colours. “I take all my photos in colour and convert them to black and white if I think that the colour is a distraction from the subject, which, I think, it often is.

“In general I think monochrome photography suits the English urban setting – lots of shadows. It could be that I also associate black and white with serious subjects; not too long ago all newspaper images were black and white, documentary photography was black and white, TV was black and white.”

There are times when the composition fails, or the moment of the shot was missed. “I’m never entirely happy with the shots, they could always be better. ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,’ as Samuel Beckett notes.” However, it’s fair to say Tony’s work captures the essence and rough-and-readiness of street photography, and his photographs are all the more dynamic for it.

Division three

“This one is taken at York City’s Bootham Crescent ground. I’m a lifelong City supporter. Through thin and thinner times I’ve attended their games, I love Bootham Crescent and would encourage anyone studying in the city to go along and sample a match, particularly a night game. It’s as far removed from the phoney glamour of the premier league as you can imagine, and, for me, that’s a good thing. Anyway, this shot was taken at half-time during a match, the three guys in the shot just seemed to arrange themselves perfectly under the frame of the stand – the lines painted on the floor and the structure of the stand draw the viewer into the picture and focus you on the figures, all of whom are just perfectly, but utterly coincidentally, posed.”

5 the great debate

“This shot was taken outside the British Museum – a favourite haunt of mine – as I work (and photograph) in London quite a bit too. Workmen were preparing advertising hoardings for the Ice Age Art and Pompeii exhibitions but had left a gap in the ‘m’ of Pompeii which rendered the word ‘Porn’ in metre high letters – obviously this sort of thing is a gift for a street photographer.

“I’m interested in how candid photography – photography in which the subject is often unaware of the photographer – can tread a line between art and exploitation, and this shot visualises that debate perfectly, for me at least.”

a whole day nearer
“This was taken on my daily bus journey to work. The passenger in shot only travelled on a Wednesday and got on the bus before I did, and remained on the bus when I got off. For the six months or so that I shared the weekly journey with her I never once saw her wake up. It intrigued me, still intrigues me.”

All photos courtesy of Tony Cole

2 comments

  1. If it moves him so much, why doesnt he talk to the people he photographs and find out their true story, or ecen offer to help in a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen, im sorry this type of secret street photography does not impress me as a photographer myself, i dont mind photos where people have been shown them after and asked their permissions, I know Tony wouldnt lke someone capturing pictures of any of his 3 children or his wife without their knowledge, then posting them for the world to see,

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  2. 13 Feb ’14 at 3:08 am

    Paul's Pictures

    We as GENUINE street photographers all have our own approach and intentions. Not all are wanting to or suited to speaking to the people we photograph. The telling of people’s stories can be done in many ways and often we are better to leave it to the viewer to think about the photo and maybe this helps them see more themselves.

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