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’t illustrates, 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.
When I was a boy, I used to walk the ‘Lane with my father on a Sunday. We’d sometimes see men selling the National Front’s rag on the corner of Bethnal Green Road beneath a tatty Union flag. This was the 1970s: a troubled time where the certainties of the post-war settlement were under threat. This was the time of Rock Against Racism and the murder of Blair Peach, where racism, nationalism and bigotry were presented in some quarters as appealing and even respectable. How times don’t change.
But each generation remembers its own battles. In the ‘90s I became a photographer, and, for a very short time, I started to make images of the ‘Lane and inevitably saw the same men selling the same newspapers under the same tatty flag.
In 1996 I made a set of portraits and interviews for the Independent on Sunday Magazine of the veterans of the International Brigades who had fought fascists in Spain some sixty years before. Many had to go and fight the same battles again across the world in 1939. A few talked about the resurgence of fascism after the war and how, when interned Blackshirts were released from prison they started to organise, prompting a far-right revival.
It was then I read Maurice Beckman’s book about the 43 Group – a historically significant but largely forgotten organisation of mostly (but not exclusively) Jewish ex-servicemen (and some extraordinarily brave women) who had returned from the horrors of war only to find fascism again on their own doorstep. I read how they resolved to fight back; to physically oppose the menace; to meet violence with violence to protect their communities. And how they had done so against the wishes of their elders and representatives.
My father lived in a poor, bomb-damaged street in Stoke Newington and, as a young man in 1947 had seen the savage violence of the long-forgotten battles of Dalston and Ridley Road. Battles unremembered but perhaps no less significant than Cable Street. I’d resolved to find those men that had stood up to a new generation of Mosley’s thugs and record them for posterity. But I never did; I spent the next two decades working and living across the world as a photo-reporter. I forgot.
Last year, I read Daniel Sonabend’s wonderful, forensic and compelling new history of the 43 Group, ‘We Fight Fascists: The 43 Group and Their Forgotten Battle for Post-war Britain’ (Verso, 2019) and I knew that I needed to make these images to remember before it was too late.
By the turn of this year, there were only six of the original members left. I photographed them just before lockdown and, last weekend, the Observer Newspaper ran the pictures as a tribute to their courage.
Tragically, Maurice Podro passed away a week before the photographs were first published and so these images are shown in his memory.
We forget at our cost.
(This text appears on the Spitalfields Life blog.)
Here’s the tearsheet from the Observer piece that can be found here.
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.
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 delighted to say that my new book, The Englishman and the Eel will be published by Dewi Lewis this November.
A sort of companion to my last book (also with Dewi), The Palaces of Memory – Tales from the Indian Coffee House, it explores the eel, pie and mash shops of my childhood. In doing so it examines the rich, largely undocumented cultural heritage of generations of working-class Londoners in a city whose only constant is change. After spending the best part of twenty-five years working in Asia and Africa, this marks a departure and a conscious effort to return home and examine Britain at a crucial juncture.
You can order the book from Dewi’s site or directly from me.
Here’s one of my favourite, but less obvious images from the book…
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…
ps. You might like to look at another image of Elvis fans that I made years ago that I featured on this blog in 2015…
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.
The current issue of Amateur Photographer Magazine features a rather lovely five page spread about my work with a nice interview by Oliver Atwell.