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.
Over the summer, I wrote on this blog about my series, the Heirs of the East London Group, the inheritors of the almost forgotten group of working-class, realist painters who had depicted life in a changing East End at the start of the twentieth century.
This week, Amateur Photographer magazine published a piece written by me about the work and, I’m delighted that the publication has been dedicated to, as I hoped, the late Ronald Morgan who passed away some months ago and whose image dominates the feature.
I’ll publish some of the text of that interview here next week if anyone would like to read it and hasn’t, by then, had the chance to buy a copy of the magazine.
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.
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…
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.
Yesterday, I was delighted to learn that Prince Charles and family – surely Britian’s most celebrated benefit claimants – were visiting his very own bejewelled architectural confusion, Poundbury. Three years ago, I visited the same town – a kind of Daily Mail wet dream of Middle England, to write about it for a special edition of the German magazine, Brand Eins. I found the place mostly deserted with a chill wind whipping through a stage set of architectural pastiche and folly. Charles, a fan of the work of Albert Speer, has overseen the creation of a fantasy land: a reimagining (from a lonely castle window) of a ‘former’ but entirely fictional Britain well suited to the Brexit generation (British homes for British people…) – an airbrushed past of classical architectural tropes masquerading uncomfortably as an (upmarket) housing estate.
You can read the piece called ‘The strange Death of the British Utopia – or how Britain live in her own past’ here (warning: it’s long…).
but I leave you with an image of a deserted street and a Neo Classical … errr bus shelter.
So goodbye to the Independent on Sunday Magazine… In the late 1990s/early 2000s, I had a few lovely covers – thanks to the wonderful picture editing duo of Susan Glen and Victoria Lukens… my favourite I think however remains this one (apologies for the terrible scan) that I made with the brilliant Peter Popham about Arundhati Roy‘s Kerala. A marvellous assignment and great memories.
The current issue of Amateur Photographer Magazine features a rather lovely five page spread about my work with a nice interview by Oliver Atwell.