If there’s one thing that’s likely to cause your heart to miss a beat, it’s when your other half whispers those three little words: “Let’s go shopping.” Especially when the shops are packed with Yuletide tat, piped full of festive muzak and crammed with bucket-rattling do-gooders in Santa hats – the charity muggers. The dreaded chuggers.
I didn’t always harbour a fear of wasting a perfectly good photography day wandering round the temples of retail. In fact, as a camera-obsessed youth, Saturdays were my camera shop days.
I often took a trip to those great cathedrals of photography – the big camera shops in Manchester. What a thrill to browse the aisles of cameras, lenses, enlargers, papers, developing tanks and more, deciding what I’d buy if only I wasn’t a non-earning schoolkid. And then I’d usually splurge pocket money on a roll of Ilford’s best mono film.
But now, many of the best camera shops have gone. Of course there are beacons of photo retailing excellence around the country, just not near any of the major city centre shopping centres my missus suggests as potential venues for our retail expeditions.
So I decided to come at venue choice from a different tack – for its photographic potential. I decided Birmingham would be a good choice, as I’d always fancied photographing the stunning Selfridge’s building in the refurbished Bullring area. The lovely juxtaposition of the modern and old architecture is appealing, plus there would be loads of people around, ideal for some street candids. Hardly original I know, but better than an out-of-town mall.
Obviously you can’t really let on that it’s a thinly-disguised photo mission, so stealth is the order of the day. Not only to eliminate the stress from your partner as you once again stop to compose a photo, but to avoid unwanted attention from jobsworth security guards on the lookout for viewers of the Jeremy Kyle show who seem convinced anyone with a camera must be a weirdo.
So a monster DSLR and any form of tripod is well out of the question. I stuffed my Panasonic GF1 with 14-42mm kit lens into my metrosexual man bag and we hit the road.
The weather was gloriously winter-like, freezing cold but bright. So on arrival, some graphic shots of the outside of the Selfridge’s shop were dispatched easily. Lovely blue sky, puffy white clouds, those graphic circles of metal on the outside of the building. No fannying around with camera settings, just stick it on aperture priority to ensure everything is in focus, then snap away quickly. So within five minutes of arriving, I was convinced I’d got a decent shot in the bag.
Inside the shops we went. And while my missus gathered bargains, I hunted for shots. The three-level architecture made a decent pic, as did the funky Xmas decorations and maze of escalators. And a lovely pool of natural light illuminating a mannequin in a shop window display made a striking albeit contrasty scene. All good, and far more interesting than the shopping.
Lunchtime beckoned, and we stumbled on a themed French restaurant designed to mimic a typical Parisian café. I was instantly transported to the world of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Jeanloup Sieff. Only in the centre of Birmingham.
I began to think in black and white, and used the Panasonic as stealthily as possible. Pretending to be showing my wife photos on the back of the screen, I managed to squeeze off a couple of frames of fellow diners, lost in conversation. And when an older chap with an interesting beard plonked himself down and ordered a large coffee, I couldn’t resist quickly taking a shot of him. He noticed, so I asked his permission to take a few more and he gladly accepted. Although like most people, in these shots he pulled a cheesy grin, so I much prefer the original, less smiley version.
Then as we were leaving, he said I was obviously creative so he made up, on the spot, a poem about photography and chance encounters. It was heartfelt, creative and spontaneous. And something I won’t forget in a hurry.
So for a day that started with such promise of tedium, I got some great pictures, had fun and got some treasured memories. Such is the delight of photography. Shame I can’t say as much about the state of my bank balance, though.