Michael Freeman, an old mate, a prodigious photographer and author – and an all-round very smart chap – has generously included me in a list of thirty photographers from across the world who are illustrative of various photographic practices that link to the title of this post.
I’m not sure whether I deserve to be in this list (along with the exceptional William Albert Allard) but Michael’s new book, Get the Photos Others Can’tillustrates, amongst many others, the notion of home territory – the idea that your knowledge of the everyday familiar will be invaluable in making images – with my work on London’s pie and mash shops. It’s ironic as Michael says that I’ve spent almost all of my career abroad, but it’s true that one never forgets where one comes from…
There’s an interview about how I approach and how I photograph people from a culture that I’m very familiar with as well as three illustrative images.
It’s a lovely book and, apart from my contribution, well worth a look.
During this period of social isolation, frequently referred to in the contemporary (and telling) militaristic parlance as ‘lockdown’, I’ve been thinking much about outside space. Photographs from across the world show people gathering on balconies, separate but conversing, singing and playing music the way that they used to do in more normal times. This additional use of personal and public space brought me back to Delhi, the city with whom I’ve had a long and complicated relationship.
When I first started to work there in the mid-90s, which in the evolution of that city seems like a very long time ago, the majority of residential areas were restricted by urban planners to just two stories. Delhi was, for the most part, a low-rise city with a human scale. People in middle-class areas inevitably used their roof space to build a self-contained room where their domestic help would live. By the time I arrived, the ever-resourceful Delhi wallahs had decided that these quaint little structures known as barsati (from the Hindi word – barsaat – for rain) were quite chic and started to advertise them for rent as an evocative, cheap and central place for urbanites. Despite me looking at a couple (I think in Defence Colony…) I never did take the plunge, fearful as I was of being drowned in my bed during monsoon or being swept away in the loo (the dry, seasonal Delhi wind – not the temperamentally plumbed convenience connected to the erratic Delhi sewers). I remember them being terrifically popular with an arty crowd and I’d sometimes be invited to parties where foreign journalists would hold court in them, serving imported drinks on tiny tables – the decor all Diwali fairy-lights, damp-mottled walls and antique Bollywood film posters. Apparently MF Hussain (about whom I wrote about some years ago here) lived in one in Jangpura as did Arundhati Roy in Lajpat Nagar. Anita Desi features one in her short story The Rooftop Dwellers.
The transformation of Delhi from sleepy government city to a gaudy, monied and dangerous metropolis (see Rana Dasgupta’s Capital) meant that the barsati has pretty much had its day. The two-floor Delhi dwelling is long gone, replaced by a Neoliberal architecture of individualism and show: multi-storied and gated. The city, seemingly desperate to forget its past (contrasted with today’s Britain that still clings to it’s own re-invented one) is unrecognisable. It occurred to me however, just how much I’d stood on these rooftops over the years. From traditional musicians in Old Delhi to The Coffee House to a friend of a friend’s place overlooking Mehrauli forest, they always felt a way to rise above; to overlook – to observe – away from the frenetic noise and bustle.
As I look out on these uncertain, pandemic nights, coming to terms with what was and what yet might be in a very altered world, I think back years to the Delhi that I once knew – my Delhi – and wish I’d have rented that barsati after all.
Photographers – well, certainly this one – are often disappointed when they give over their work to a magazine to publish.
The German Mare Magazine however, have done an absolutely wonderful job with my work on London’s iconic pie and mash shops in their latest issue. Essentially, a spread of my last book, The Englishman and the Eel (Dewi Lewis, 2017) it is beautifully and respectfully laid out over an enormous sixteen pages that give both my images and text space to breathe and shine.
It’s a long time since a magazine has given me so much space – especially a magazine that I’ve honestly wanted to work with for such a long time.
I’ve just returned from a three week assignment in Central America for an old and favourite client. When I think back to some other clients and assignments over the years, this was wonderful: lovely hotels, a great driver, and a workable schedule. It meant that I could produce really strong work from every situation that I was presented with and give the client exactly what they wanted.
It also gave me the opportunity to rebel – to do something different – to jump a little outside of the comfort zone that I was (very happily) working in. On a day off and by adding days at the end of the job (on my own money) I tried to make work that pushed me and in some senses, put me back in touch with the young photographer shooting transparency film on manual cameras that I was twenty years ago. I haven’t had much opportunity to re-connect with my younger self over the last year or two; to take chances; to ‘risk’ exposures and compositions – but I highly recommend it.
Let me expand. What I make are, I hope, beautiful, colourful and simple images. It’s how I see and how I think. It comes from my conception of where I believe good reportage (especially good written reportage), and good photojournalism comes from. The ability of an image – or more importantly – a series of images, to convey quickly and effectively, a story and a meaning (a bit passé I know for the Post-Modernists amongst you). Those (unlucky enough) to have attended my lectures earlier this year at the Photographers Gallery or any numbers of talks or mentoring sessions that I’ve given will remember me banging on about this. I can bore for England about the history of visual journalism in Weimar (or Hungary or in Russian Constructivism – just ask…) and the transplantation of this culture to mid-century America in the form the nuanced photo essay (and American soft power – ask at your own risk…).
Just sometimes… we all need some space to experiment; to let our visual hair down (those that know me will realise the painful irony here) and make interesting questions as photographs. We need to wander around Guatemala City (and other places) and make images that push us. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t but doing something that challenges you is always worthwhile. Isn’t it? I remember a younger photographer that would always shoot the story but then always try something different. There were always a couple of frames on the end of every roll (sometimes in the middle) where I’d tried a composition that didn’t fit the story (and I couldn’t edit it in) but made a strong image that stood alone. I’d stopped doing that for a while and so with a single Leica (a very taped-up M10 if you’re interested: but it’s not that interesting is it?) and (mostly) a 50mm lens, I started challenging myself.
Here’s some of what I came up with.
Some of this ‘safer’ work is available to view on my Twitter feed and (apparently more important) Instagram page … instant-this, instant-that… you know how it is… but if you like what you see, follow me and I’ll try and keep uploading…
Recently I stopped my car to take a photograph. I stopped on a stretch of road (actually a bridge) that I’ve traveled a thousand times; a stretch of road that leads to the gora ghetto of Jangpura Extension, a sort of home from home in one of the world’s most cruel and beautiful cities. I stopped to make a simple image – with cars whizzing past me – of a brightly coloured apartment block (on the roof of which some years ago I’d been shown by a young man how to fly a kite) crucially situated between a drain (old) and a flyover (newer). I made a very simple picture but this being Delhi, the ground itself hides more than it tells. This stream of black water is actually called the Barapullah and it’s one of the key drains of the city. Barapullah apparently gets it’s name from a bridgebuilt across it by the then emperor Jahangir’s chief eunuch, Mihir Banu Agha. The bridge had ten piers and twelve columns – hence, the name, Barapullah.
According to RV Smith‘s wonderful The Delhi that no one knows, by 1628, the road between the Barapullah and Humayun’s Tomb was a wide tree-lined path. The bridge now stands amidst a makeshift market near Nizammuddin railway station and the traffic of the main road. The Barapullah drain that flows below was one of the ten streams in the city that drained eastwards into Yamuna. Sadly, it’s simply now an open sewer.
By coincidence, I’ve photographed that same market several times over the years on my walks around the area and I show here two images that give a sense of what the drain looks like now and the market itself.
On this anniversary, I thought I’d show images from a remarkable story that I illustrated for a Channel 4 documentary many years ago. Titled The Last Jews of Berlin, the film featured Jewish survivors of the Reich that had successfully lived undercover in Berlin for years. I present two images from that set.
Apparently, the seminal British television arts programme, The South Bank Show is forty years old this weekend. I remember watching it on a Sunday evening with it’s extravagantly coiffured presenter, Melvyn Bragg.
I thought this might be an appropriate time therefore to show an image from a (very brief) portrait session I had wth him some years ago. I can’t remember the client but I do remember that the venue was the South Bank Centre and that I probably had less than five minutes – a pretty standard amount of time to make an impactual and polished image under the cold, dead eye of some insufferably intransigent PR (plus ça change…).
In those days, it was rare to be able to set up a background (as seemingly all celebrity portraits have to have now) so I chose a neutral wall and used a metre square Chimera soft box mounted on a Lumedyne head with a heavy battery pack that no doubt I’d struggled with on the ‘Tube at rush hour… This is back in the days of film when I was shooting 6×6 and one had to meter slightly more carefully than with the more forgiving digital cameras that we now take for granted. I remember very little about the shoot except looking at the contact sheet I see that I shot just ten images (from a roll of twelve) and Bragg was polite if brief. He did comment on my camera – as many people used to – an old Mamiya TLR – a C330 built like a tank with bellows… (years later I’d photograph Arundhati Roy who insisted that I only use that camera because it looked “like an antique”). The softbox was great at wrapping light around the face if you set up right and had time to adjust and it was a stock-in-trade technique I used when I knew I’d be pushed for time and wouldn’t be able to use a second head for a little help with the shadows. All key light, no fill.
I shot a portrait for a European magazine yesterday – something I don’t do enough of these days and I used three lights on one set up (for those interested in such things, a big, deep 100cm Elinchrom Octabox as key and then two other kicks with a brolly and another shot into a reflector underneath). It took more than twenty minutes to set up before I shot a frame … I did at one point miss those earlier simple shots… but not the inevitable wait for the film to come back from the lab to determine whether the job was a success…
I’m no Elvis fan but I know lots of people have a very soft spot for The King and his music. For many, the anniversary of his death today is a significant one so I thought I’d show a few images that I made at an Elvis convention some years ago in Blackpool as a mini tribute. Once upon a time I was shooting a good deal on a rather lovely 5×4 Horseman Camera with Polaroid Type 55 (pos/neg) instant film. Working that way allowed me to shoot rather formal – but unexpectedly beautiful images that I could peel apart and then give to the subject (whilst shoving the negative in a big tank of fixer). It was a lovely way to work but my back never forgave me for the weight of kit I had to lug about. Anyway, here’s a triptych of some of the work…
Whilst looking through my archive yesterday for something completely different, I happened to chance upon this image that I think, whichever way you voted in the EU Referendum, might sum up today’s triggering of Article 50 by the British government. It was from an assignment for the Times Magazine on David Miliband in 2008. I’d travelled with him to Kiev, Brussels and errr… Birmingham as well as shooting a portrait at his home in London. This was taken after a rather laborious interview in the European Parliament’s TV studio. Everyone else had cleared off and just the dying buzz of the tv feed remained in the air. Clearly weary, he held his face in his hands as the lights started to dim. It’s never been published before and I’d forgotten all about it but I thought today it might have some … resonance.