For some unknown reason, I seem to have forgotten that some months ago, I was shortlisted in the Portrait section of the British Photographic Awards for my photograph of the late Ronald Morgan, part of my series on the heirs of the East London group.
I photographed Ronald, an extraordinarily prolific painter in his sparse Art Deco flat in Bow that was also his studio. Every room was full of paintings and easels – a warren of creativity and colour.
Ronald, a much respected artist, was a charming, charming man and I enjoyed a wonderful couple of hours with him.
Recently, I was having some of my black and white archive scanned. A lot of this work had been rather rushed (by me and others) during the process that saw my old agency Network Photographers digitise as fast as we could. It’s clear that some really interesting images were missed but I suppose that was entirely inevitable. Anyway, looking through the work now, it allows one to examine past images in a new light and with fresh eyes. As I looked through the innumerable contact sheets, I saw that on each assignment there was always one or two of me usually taken in a hotel room mirror, just before I went out to work. I suppose that these were a kind of early ‘selfie’ but I realised that I’d been doing it ever since I photographed the Croatian conflict in the early 1990s. I’m not superstitious but on that trip, I stayed with a chap called Paul Jenks about who I’ve written about before here and here. I noticed that he’d often take an image of himself in a mirror – he called it the obituary picture – an image to be used in case anything unforeseen were to happen. Despite what didhappen to Paul – or perhaps because of it – I adopted the habit and kept taking images of myself in hotel mirrors. At some point in the last several years, perhaps because I started to feel daft doing it and was simply deleting the images as soon as I got home to edit – or simply because I no longer recognised my ageing self – I stopped.
There is of course a great tradition of making images of oneself. Many have done so throughout Lockdown from sheer boredom I imagine but artists from Artemisia Gentileschi to Nancy Floyd (who photographed herself every day for forty years) belong to an honourable and significant tradition.
Looking through the black and white contacts made me realise that I had frozen myself in time in episodes that revolved not so much about significances in my own interiority, but in my brief appearances in other people’s countries and larger narratives. Certainly not in any pompous sense and certainly not quite Zelig-like, but worthy of further thought.
Here’s one from a grim Basra hotel in Iraq in 1999 (yes, I did used to wear one of those multi-pocket jackets) and one from a hotel in Zamalek in Cairo in 2013.
Similar (battered) cameras, less hair. Same odd life…
During Lockdown, like many people, I’ve spent some time looking over my archives. On my infrequent Instagram postings, I’ve decided to feature three images that were in the mix for my second book, The Palaces of Memory – Tales from the Indian Coffee House, but never made it. The editing process was very thorough and sometimes you have to let go of pictures that you like and think are strong but simply don’t fit a narrative. That was true of so many photographs that I made over the years on this project. Never so much as the image below however.
It was made in Shimla on a freezing cold, three-day trip staying in a miserable budget hotel, a twenty minute walk from town. The frame, shot on a really awful early digital Leica (an M9) seemed to encapsulate my feelings echoed in the face of the waiter on the first day. I didn’t like Shimla that much. I just saw a tatty old British capital playing on its dubious heritage, packed full of noisy tourists. But maybe that was just me on those days – the rest of Himachal Pradesh remains beautiful. The Coffee House was nice though. Welcoming and warm.
I remembered that I’d arrived in the evening after a long drive from Delhi with my long-time driver/fixer/partner-in-crime, the late and much missed, Armajeet Singh.
I wandered alone into the warm fug of the half-empty coffee house late at night. There were pictures to be had and now, years later, I remember the yellow light and the steam, but I hesitated and shot nothing preferring to just look. I had a coffee and left, angry at myself for not pushing harder. It was however, a cold calculation born of not wanting to make a mistake before I’d had chance to ask permission properly and work out the lay of the land. Of course, when I went back over the next couple of evenings, it was never the same.
It never is.
Perhaps that’s why the waiter’s face chimed with my mood when I made this picture the next morning. You always end up photographing yourself in one way or another. Photography’s funny like that. The frame often has you in it, even though you’re not…
It was certainly how I felt when I was just starting the project and was unsure where it would go or whether it would work.
Really delighted to have a spread of my work on India’s iconic Coffee Houses in the new issue of Exit Magazine. The issue’s theme is cafes, bars and nightclubs and I share the edition with the work of Brassai, Martin Parr and Anders Peterson. You can see the whole magazine here.
It was a real honour to have my portrait of the late Maurice Podro, anti-fascist fighter and member of the 43 Group as the cover feature of the current issue of Searchlight Magazine (along with his obituary).
We could do with more men like Maurice at the moment.
There is much current debate around photography and ethics. Despite the fact that I’ve been asked in several interviews over the years, I don’t necessarily think of myself as any sort of paragon of virtue. I’m sceptical of any set of ethical guidelines that are set in stone for a particular place and time and for me, I think my ethical guide has always been to treat people fairly and try and be a decent human being.
Paul asked me to contribute my thoughts on how to behave as a photographer and he accompanied it with a sensitive image of mine, a man being dressed by his mother in a secure ward in a mental health facility in New Delhi.