Street photography is photography that features the human condition within public places and does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. The subject of the photograph might be absent of people and can be an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic. (Wikipedia)
It just so happened that my brother, Stephen’s birthday fell on a Wednesday. We both love to go to the Pickens Flea Market, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to take him out for breakfast, then for a quick jaunt over to the flea market.
While the main purpose of the trip was to spend some time with my brother on his birthday, my ulterior motive was to use this as a test run for gathering ambient audio for an upcoming podcast. As always I had my cameras with me, but I also had two portable recorders with me.
I did get some audio, but the real treasure was the opportunity for candid street photography afforded by the flea market.
An early breakfast at IHOP, then we headed over to the market. We arrived at about 8:30, and it seemed like folks were just setting up shop. I had my little Sansa Clip MP3 player, memo recorder clipped to my shirt and had it set to constant record mode. I also had my Tascam field recorder. For cameras, I brought my Lumix and GoPro. I was going for small and subtle, but I was armed.
As we walked along the tables and stalls I snapped random shots with the GoPro. I started with it in video+still mode, where it was shooting 1080p video and capturing a 12mp image every 30 seconds. Later, I switched to burst mode where it captures 30 still images over 3 seconds each time I press the shutter release. Apart from having problems keeping my fingers out of the way of the shutter, that latter method seemed to work best. The idea was to capture unfiltered life at the flea market. I did take the occasional shot with the Lumix, but most of the images were from the GoPro.
Stephen is the perfect companion for these outings. As a pastor he naturally engages people and draws out their stories. The approach is as follows…
1. Scope out someone that appears talkative. Vendors that are engaging with their customers are more likely to share their stories. Some are there to socialize as much as sell. However, some just want to make some money, so if you’re not buying, they aren’t interested.
2. Find something at their table with which you can take genuine interest (or at least fake genuine interest.) Ask about it. This will give you a second gauge as to how talkative the vendor might be. If they give you a simple price and move on, you’re out of luck. However, if they elaborate on that item and imbue it with special significance, then most likely they have other stories of interest.
3. Buy something. Doesn’t have to be much, but a simple purchase of a couple of dollars worth works wonders for breaking the ice. If the person is gregarious, you now have a great opportunity, as long as it’s not too crowded at the booth. It’s a simple investment that can pay great dividends in quality of interaction.
We hit pay dirt with a couple of vendors that had amazing stories, and were more than willing to share them. First up was George Roberson, Song Slinger. He was set up at one of the outside booths, and first caught our attention because he had an old fiberglass bow just like the one Stephen and I had as children.
George used his stories as a sales technique. He asked if we liked music, to which we responded that we did. George then pulled out several CDs that he was offering for sale. His debut, “A Little Bit Squirrely”, feature life lessons as passed along by his pet squirrel. George was also full of advice about keeping squirrels as pets.
For $5 we bought one of his CDs. This kept the stories coming until another customer, and friend of his, stepped up.
Our next encounter started with the purchase of several small Hot Wheels cars. A vendor had a table of these, and was selling them for a ridiculously low price. Stephen wanted some to have around his office when he was meeting with church members who have small children that might need to be distracted.
At first the transaction seemed like it was just a cut and dry deal, but, as we expressed interest in some of the other items, the stories started rolling. George Martin is a Cherokee Indian, and on his table he had many Native American items that he had either made himself, or had purchased for resell. Most impressive was a set of stone pipes that George had carved. He had also done some amazing beadwork.
George talked candidly with us about his battle with alcoholism, his struggles, his triumphs, and his philosophy of life. He was quite proud of his Cherokee heritage, and participated in powwows around the country.
As seen from the images above, George was backlit most of the time, and I didn’t get a good photo of him. Plus, I was more concerned with audio recording. Stephen asked George to pose for us, and was able to get an excellent shot with his camera.
I got some excellent audio from those two interviews. I’m still working my way through that, and elements of those interviews will probably be in the upcoming podcast episode.
George Martin was an itinerant. He was just passing through on his way to the next powwow, flea market, art show, or whatever. Having talked to a couple of over vendors I found that this is not uncommon. Vendors do tend to fall into several categories. There are those that are retired and do this as a hobby. Some stick to the Upstate, or may even just come to this one market. Some range all over the place.
Some are folks that just have some extra junk around their homes that they are trying to sell. Others are there to make a living. Some of these have elaborate operations that look like they are doing good business. Some strike me as truly desperate.
The same could be said of the shoppers. Many, like Stephen and me, are fascinated by the interaction with people and the variety of goods. There are curiosity seekers, bargain hunters, and those that can’t afford to shop anywhere else.
One of my Facebook friends made an interesting observation when she saw one of these photos. She said that her husband likes to frequent swap meets, as they call flea markets out in California. He will wear the most tattered clothing possible and go looking like a bum so that he can get better deals. If that be the case, then these appearances may be deceiving. Some of these may be truly desperate, and others may just be playing a part.
Regardless, the image below is my favorite from the day. This guy does look rough and tumble. I originally posted the photo in color, but I think it looks best in black and white.
As we wandered through the booths we spotted a recurring theme that caused us some concern. There seemed to be a market for some VERY racist materials. I don’t know if the appeal is because they are so offensive, or exactly what the thought process is here. I hadn’t noticed these items on any of my previous visits, but once we were aware of them, they tended to jump out at us from every corner.
We even saw small Ku Klux Klan figurines at one stall. I’ve seen rebel flags and Confederate memorabilia at flea markets before. For the most part I’ve always chalked those up to Southern stubbornness of heritage rather than overt racism. However, this is different.
My own emotions were somewhat mixed. In addition to my repulsion at these artifacts, I confessed to being actually amused at the absurdity, overt silliness and hyperbole of the imagery. Perhaps that’s the appeal, and someone can justify owning or purchasing these based on that angle. I just don’t know.
It always amazes me how quickly the vendors bail out at this market. We had only been at the market for a couple of hours when folks started packing up. By 10:30 they were loading up vehicles and putting away their goods. It takes some effort to get set up, and if you’re only selling low-priced trinkets, it hardly seems worthwhile to stay for just a couple of hours. I guess they are hoping for a big sale, or at least big volume during that time. Also, some of these folks may have jobs that start later in the day, and this is a way that they can come to a sale mid-week, and still get to their real jobs.
With folks packing up to leave, we decided it was time to head back ourselves. We got some good stories, a ton of photographs, and a few good deals in the process. Most importantly, I got to spend some quality time with my brother on his birthday. Can’t beat that.
Here are all of the photographs from our outing: