The heirs of the East London Group


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.




Adam Dant


Ronald Morgan


Peta Bridle


The Bridge and the Eunuch


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 bridge built 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.



Gaily painted apartment blocks overlook a grim flyover and a polluted drain (open sewer) in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, India



A white Egret sits on a rock in the middle of an open drain beneath a flyover near Nizamuddin Railway Station, New Delhi, India


A man at his vegetable stall, near Nizamuddin Railway Station, New Delhi, India

Melvyn Bragg and the portrait


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…



Melvyn Bragg, British broadcaster and author

Learning something new


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.

What do you think?




An old man working as a scribe outside a shop in a Jaipur Bazaar, Jaipur, India
India – Jaipur – An old man working as a scribe outside a shop in a Jaipur Bazaar


and after

An old man working as a scribe outside a shop in a Jaipur Bazaar, Jaipur, India
India – Jaipur – An old man working as a scribe outside a shop in a Jaipur Bazaar


A big lump of red


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.


India - New Delhi - A stage set for a wedding with chairs and garlands
India – New Delhi – A stage set for a wedding with chairs and garlands


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…


Kissing in Sicily


… seemed to be a good deal of kissing on the island recently…


Italy - Palermo -  A young couple kiss as they part by horses used to ferry tourists at the Quatro Canti (officially known as Piazza Vigliena) a Baroque square
Italy – Palermo – A young couple kiss as they part by horses used to ferry tourists at the Quatro Canti, a Baroque square


Italy - Cefalu - Tourists photograph, chat and kiss on the sea wall
Italy – Cefalu – Tourists photograph, chat and kiss on the sea wall


Walking in Addis


A couple of hours walking the streets of Addis Ababa.

Looking for colour.

Making images for the sheer novelty of it.

The light of an African afternoon.



Ethiopia – Addis Ababa – A man removes his jacket in the heat of the day


Ethiopia – Addis Ababa – A woman looks at jobs advertised on a wall


Ethiopia – Addis Ababa – Men read rented newspapers on the street for a few coins


Ethiopia – Addis Ababa – A woman waits on a street corner


Ethiopia – Addis Ababa – A street boy


Ethiopia – Addis Ababa – Men pray at St George’s Church

The light…



India - Jaipur - A man walks through the streets of the Old City at dusk


I have just finished a lovely four day travel assignment in one of India’s most tourist-heavy cities, Jaipur. Ironically I was tasked to write and photograph about the quiet spots, the quirky and the unusual and I’m pleased to say that there were many. I stayed an extra day and a half in order to edit and write the piece and on the last afternoon, took myself out to shoot on the streets. I always used to do this kind of work on Leica’s and tranny. That process was very freeing but I find it incredibly difficult these days to shoot this kind of work on DSLR’s. Perhaps it’s just me but one looks so much like a photographer that the process becomes a cliche: two big heavy cameras with two big heavy prime lenses. A long way from the classic rangefinder. It is more than that however – purely in terms of seeing, those little cameras allowed you to examine spatial relationships through the viewfinder. You could pre-focus and just walk into the picture. I feel very removed when I try to do these kind of things with my current kit. There’s a sort of rhythm that works on the street and it’s really difficult to do with such a big, noisy machine pressed to your face. I have, over the years in India gone back to my M6 rangefinders as it’s still relatively cheap and easy to process film here.  However, then you have the laborious task of scanning – a process which, after spending the best part of two years feeding my archive (in the form of little plastic squares) through various machines, I’d rather die than attempt again. The irony is of course that I used to be sponsored by Leica (and Kodak for that matter) but who, apart from dentists (meaning rich hobbyists) as Simon Norfolk said a few years ago can afford a couple of M9’s? Or perhaps I’m just not working hard enough…