With the publication of Urban Portraits, Keith Moss has produced a book both lush to look at and informative to read, particularly for the aspiring street or urban photographer. Resulting from over thirty years of experience in the field, the handsome A4 volume is a collaborative venture between the photographer, Professor Robert McMurray, and wife Pat Moss. It combines richly detailed snapshots of strangers in cities across Europe with advice on how to obtain the best outcomes from your explorations in urban photography, while maintaining respect for your subjects.
This sturdy volume is a pleasure to peruse, broken down into seven easy-to-follow sections which guide you through various considerations necessary to obtain the most effective portrait. Some topics detailed include: body language; how to engage your subject; ethics and a respect for cultural specificities, as well as advice on planning, technical concerns, and the post-production process. These sections are punctuated by Moss’s stunning black and white photographic portraits; evidence of the seasoned application of his particular methodology.
His aptitude for making his subjects comfortable in their own skin and in front of the camera is evident throughout his work. There is no sense of distance between subject and photographer, with his shots feeling immediate and unmediated. Expressions are often soft and unguarded, with eyes returning the camera’s benevolent gaze, resulting in intimate images that provide a radiant expression of the subject’s inner being in a kind-of communion with the camera. The Italian is a perfect example of this; a beguiling image created in moments, despite the lack of a common language.
The relaxed demeanour of his sitters is proof of an astute understanding of body language. As detailed in the book, this is central to gaining your subject’s engagement for a portrait, as well as in ascertaining consent – something integral to Moss’s ethical practice. This is gauged with the reciprocation (or not) of eye contact or a smile. If returned, this is followed up with a verbal confession of interest; often a compliment about what attracted your attention (an item of clothing, their appearance). He cautions the intrepid photographer against insincerity however as “we can all smell bullshit”. Once approval is granted, Moss advises being conscious of how they present themselves. The way they are most comfortable being photographed will be indicated by a number of “tells”, such as which hip they lead with, the side of their face they present, or the way they part their hair. Being cognisant of their body language will allow you to capture them at their most relaxed and receptive.
Urban Portraits is not dogmatic in its advice but gently guides the reader, acknowledging that some situations may require a more adaptable approach. What is most clearly conveyed in the book though is the (almost sacred) sense of connection urban photography can facilitate with others, being for Moss a practice that hinges on “the empathetic encounter with fellow human beings.” His work, like the American-German photographer Evelyn Hofer, privileges the “ordinary” working-class, and he includes here an assemblage of manual labourers: from agricultural workers, to cleaners, builders and bakers, each portrait acting as a testament to their individual dignity and occupational pride.
Dynamic milieus and captivating juxtapositions comprise a number of particularly eye-catching shots. A smiling young couple pose next to an image of a besotted elderly pair, a celebration of enduring love, while city streets depict zany characters, trendily dressed individuals and a lively urban culture. The impact of these images is slightly muted by a greater number of more conventional, straight-forward portraits; of market-traders and artisans in the midst of their daily routine, their more literal representation yielding less evocative results. However, for Moss, the final photograph is less important than the practice of urban portraiture, an undertaking which provides opportunity for meaningful engagement, no matter how fleeting, with people from all walks of life. This celebration of interdependence and social connection, in abundance throughout Urban Portraits, is something to cherish in what is gradually becoming “an increasingly virtual world”.
– reviewed by Daniel Pateman
Urban Portraits is out now and available to purchase here.
A 2016 interview with the artist can be read here
Images below: ‘Italian Man in Edinburgh’ (top) and ‘Old New Loving Couple’ (bottom) © Keith Moss