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.
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.
A couple of years ago, the Spitalfields Life blog published a rather lovely book called East End Vernacular. It featured the work of the almost forgotten East London Group – a collection of painters who showed together from 1928 to 1936 and who all portrayed everyday life in a changing East End. They were mostly working class, realist painters who drew and painted what they saw around them. The book struck a real chord with me. As I’ve written many times before, I grew up in the 1970s in a grim and gloomy Hackney; a much changed landscape from the gentrified hipster hangout of today. As soon as I could, I fled the tower blocks and the grainy streets and made a career photographing (and sometimes writing about) the places that I could only imagine as a child. I spent more than two decades working (and sometimes living) mostly in Indian and Africa – but pretty much anywhere across the world that wasn’t where I was from. So the book was like a window into the past for me – more because it featured what I might call the heirs of those original artists. People like Jock McFadyen, Anthony Eyton and Dan Jones (a reproduction of whose painting of Brick Lane in the 1970s we now have on our wall at home) who painted a more contemporary vision of my formative streets.
A year ago I decided to try and photograph them all at home, in the studio or making work on the streets in a way to reconnect with my own past. The photographs connect in some way with my last book, The Englishman and the Eel as a form of re-discovery and trying (at last) to come to terms with that. It’s been a long process: a quick look at the embarrassingly extensive archive of this blog shows that I was stumbling around trying to find an answer to that more than ten years ago. See here for more on that.
Anyway, I digress. With the help of the Gentle Author, I managed to make contact with them all and each was generous with their time and thoughts. My only regret is of course being too late to manage to photograph one of my heroes, Leon Kossoff who had been ill for some time and died recently. He had a studio off Dalston Lane in the early 1970s and I remember seeing some of his work of my local area as a teenager and thinking clearly how the world could be made to seem different.
Here are three images from the portrait set of twelve. You can see the rest of them on my site here. For those technically minded, I wanted a clean, simple look to them all and decided rather than to shoot them as reportage, I’d use one or two Elinchrom Ranger heads on each set-up trying (OK… sometimes three) to make them look not lit but as natural as possible.
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.
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 quite a traditional photographer. To the surprise of many who see me working, I still expose my digital images the way I shot transparency film: carefully and with a hand-held meter. In this way, I’ve always had a problem with photographers that shoot real life and then work on their files afterwards to create a different, almost hyper reality. For photojournalists I find this very difficult to deal with and, as I’ve said before, I believe it can create a serious problem of authenticity and voracity. I find myself however at a stage of my career where I want to learn new things. I also find myself increasingly shooting personal projects with an eye to more commercial markets. Recently I’ve been trying to learn how to create a look that I feel happy with and that I can manipulate for a new project (that’s under wraps for now). After some deliberation and a lot of help from my friends – I have something I’m happy with. This may not be a very big step for some – very old hat to some people – but for me it’s an enormous one.
And it’s always good to learn something new. When was the last time we can honestly say that we have?
I won’t be shooting anything serious like this (in the sense of documentary work) but I may change and evolve a new process to reinvigorate things a bit on another front. Old dog/new tricks. Here’s one I made earlier.
I feel the weather turning. The mornings are colder. I hate it. I need cheering up. Here’s a picture with a big lump of red in it to do that.
Why did I choose this image? Just chatting to Michael Regnier at Panos. Sparked a thought about a lyric – John Foxx’s Hiroshima mon amour. Wonderful… “Features fused like shattered glass, the sun’s so low/Turns our silhouettes to gold/Hiroshima mon amour”
No relation to Delhi of course, but that image of light… I can feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun in the big lump of red…