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Lights! Camera! Action! |

Do you know the song?
“ Asked a girl what she wanted to be
She said baby, can’t you see
I wanna be famous, a star on the screen
But you can do something in between...”


I’m not sure I want to be on the screen, but I’d settle for being a film star – 35mm stills film obviously! I know my pictures aren’t exactly movies, but there’s always a bit of a story being played out as you move through the frames, and this is a bit of the story of Beep, Beep, Yeah.

The original strip of film from which the print comes was a gift for my wife, Lee. I’m afraid I can’t remember now if it was a Christmas or a birthday present. This either means it was taken in the dark days of November and December, or the dark days of January and February. What I do remember was that there never seemed to be enough light to take my number plate shots. I’d be kneeling down on the road trying to steady my hand on the car bumpers, and having to choose between a wide aperture and a tiny depth of field or closing it down and having a really long exposure time.

The traffic lights of course provided their own illumination, but they also brought their own challenges. In my first attempt at this picture I tried to take the traffic light shots after dark. I’d nip out on my bike in the evenings with my camera a long lens and my tripod, fielding the suspicious questions from my wife about where I was off to. I wanted the present to be a secret so although she knew I was up to something, I tried to keep her in the dark as well. So her questions were met with pretty non committal answers like “I’m just taking some photos, I’m just doing some Art.”

I always went to the same set of traffic light, only about half a mile from our house, however it always seemed to take about an hour to get my three shot run of amber, red, amber. I’m sure my wife thought I was cycling around for miles searching for a perfect photograph. To get the right angle on the lights, I’d set my tripod up in the middle of the road, a few yards down from the central reservation. I hoped that my fluorescent yellow cycling jacket and the flashing red light on my helmet would be enough to get me noticed by any impatient boy racers trying to beat the lights. Never-the-less it was always a fairly nerve racking experience looking trough my lens with my back to the roaring traffic. Actually the traffic never really roars out here in suburbia, but it still purrs pretty loudly!

As it was too dark to focus when the lights weren’t illuminated, I had to watch the lights run through a number of cycles before I took each shot. The first time through I’d focus and compose my shot, the second time through I’d double check it and probably readjust. On the third or forth time through I’d eventually release the shutter. Working as I do on one piece of film at a time, with no pasting mistakes out in Photoshop later, I have to be pretty sure of my shot before I push the button!

After I’d done about three words in this way, taking number plates during what little daylight there was and taking the lights after dark, I realized there might be an easier method, which meant I could take all the shots during the day, and away from my wife’s curiosity. I found a set of traffic lights near where I work, which have a 3ft high black electrical box in front of them. I discovered that if I clambered up on to the box and stood up, the lights were exactly at eye level. They were close enough to do away with my long lens, which meant no tripod, and focusing was so much easier because there was still light even when the signals weren't illuminated. If I leaned close enough I could still compose my picture so I had a single circle of light in a black frame.

It was all very nearly perfect, but unfortunately I’m not very good with heights. Even at three feet up, my vertigo makes me feel a bit unsafe, especially with one eye closed. So I’d hang on pretty tightly to the shade around the lights struggling to keep my balance. But I was happy to swap my evenings standing dangerously in the middle of the road with lunchtimes spent balancing precariously a few feet above the pavement!

Once I discovered these lights I was on a roll. (they are at the junction of the Strand and Exeter Street, just opposite the Savoy, if you ever want to find them). I started my film afresh to keep the light shots consistent, but I soon made up time, by being able to shoot continuously through my lunch breaks. A quick wobble by may favourite traffic lights then off to find parked cars in the streets around.

I’ve heard stories told of remote tribal peoples who fear that having their photograph taken, will take away their soul. Well in our sophisticated society, it seems people get similarly agitated when you photograph their numberplates! I suppose people assume I’m up to no good, or I work for something like the DVLA or even worse, that I’m some sort of plain close traffic warden. Once on a previous project, when I was looking for a nice letter on a yellow background, the car owner became so angry I feared he might turn violent. In case like these when the public get upset by my street photography, I’ve found the best approach is to tell people that I am “making ART”. This either confuses them long enough to allow me to make a swift exit or frightens them away! I had to fall back on this plan of action a few times during this project. One time I was wandering down the road where I live looking for a Y, and found one on a very smart looking Jag. As I crouched down by the boot to take my shot a voice boomed down from the heavens above
“‘Ere what’s your game mate?!”

I looked up and was relieved to see I had not actually incurred the wrath of God, but merely the ire of a man on a ladder cleaning his windows. I was also glad that he was too far away to make physical contact!

“It’s only Art!” I muttered as I hurried off. I’m sure I detected a hint of pity as well as confusion in his expression as he looked down on me. I think quite a few people consider artists to be slightly insane, barking mad even. And like sleeping dogs we are best left to dream our crazy dreams in peace.

Most of my number plate pictures come from cars parked in the side streets running of the Strand where I work. In an attempt to avoid the possibility of conflict I resolved to ask permission from any one who might be the car owners, before I attempted any photos. Sometimes I’d ask the car’s occupants, sitting reading the paper or eating their sandwiches. Sometimes I’d ask people just standing nearby. I got quite a few bemused looks from people who obviously had nothing to do with any cars in the locality, a  few outright (verging on angry) rejections, but a surprising number of people gave me their approval, despite the fact that they clearly thought I was mad.

A lot of the cars pulled up beside the road were black cabs. Often the cabbie was catching a quick forty winks between fares. Snoozing cabbies, I thought, were also best left in peace (dreaming up new routes to the Isle of Dogs and Barking?) I’m sure that they wouldn’t take kindly to waking from their reverie to catch sight of me in their rear view mirror, snooping around by their exhaust pipes. Still there were quite a few unoccupied cabs that made it onto my film. You can tell the pictures of cab plates because they generally have parts of telephone numbers or web sites visible underneath the letters. In fact perhaps I should consider charging for the advertising on the more legible ones. It might even be worth taking a note of them, just in case you get stranded one night in the Isle of Dogs!