Pin Prick Pupils & Polos

The sun rises over Brighton beach around 5am during the spring and summer months. I am there for a Sunday morning but the revellers are still there for Saturday night. Just as the sun starts to rise over the South Downs the club goers start to spill out of their dark dens and crash like waves onto Brighton’s’ pebbled beach, blinking like nocturnal animals in the bright early morning light. It is a truly wonderful place to be. Perhaps powered by the endorphins of their all night rave or perhaps by chemical induction (or more likely both) there is a strong sense of collectivism and love here. People are instinctively drawn to each other, clumping together into groups as if under the influence of gravity. It’s hard to know if the groups of people sitting on the beach are formed on the basis of long held friendships or simply the result of being caught up in the moment, of the shared experience of simply being there as the sun rises.

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As an observer I feel like an outsider invading someone else’s space. The fact that I am there for Sunday morning and not Saturday night and I am on my own does seem to set me to one side. I don’t know if the apparent intrusion of a man with camera compromises any photograph I make in this situation, but I am happy to find out.

Having spent many Sunday mornings on Brighton Beach, I have found that some of these groups are indeed tribal in nature. Their collectivism is literal rather than spontaneous and metaphoric; they are living an alternative lifestyle, somewhat outside of the mainstream, subverting the conventional. It would be easy to judge this choice but one of my motivations for pursuing this project is precisely to engage with people whose perspectives, experiences and opinions might be radically different to my own; this is where the learning and insight is for me as a person. I have found that the motivation to photograph interesting people requires me to adopt an open and non-judgmental approach and that even if this adoption is something I have to contrive by force of will rather than by virtue of innate nature, the experience is positive and the result is lasting and hopefully makes me a better person.

Tom is part of such a group. I first met other members of this collective on the area known as The Levels in the centre of Brighton about a year prior to this photograph. They were camping in the field next to the skate park although in reality it was less of a campsite and more of a makeshift outdoor living area, as if they had taken the space and belongings of a house and turned it inside out in an exploration of negative space. Now on this occasion I meet the same group again, this time expanded in number, lying easily on the beach and using each other as makeshift pillows or props. Time feels like it has slowed down for them; they are somewhere else and their movements are drawn out, heavy and awkwardly deliberate, as if moving through oil. I sit down and join them to simply enjoy the moment.

The sun is now fully over the horizon and is pouring deliciously clean light onto the beach. Tom is sitting opposite me with thousand-yard stare towards the east focusing on an abstract point so far off it might well be behind the rising sun. He as the most intense look in his eyes, his pupils are like pin pricks, his philtrum is encrusted with dried mucus, which the group refer to anxiously as ‘polos’. He looks in my direction and I try to talk to him; he is responsive but struggling to talk. I really want to take his picture but I don’t want to do this without permission. We manage something like consent by simple gestures and he relaxes back into his stare as I focus the camera on his glassy eyes. Looking at him, I am reminded of the image by Don McCullin of the shell-shocked marine at the Battle of Hue. There’s an irony in the contrast of those two images; in one the individual is impassive through fear and terror and in this scene, it is a chemical numbness. My thoughts run to the myriad possibilities of pain that any one of these individuals might have experienced in their lives and which has caused them to want to numb themselves in this way. It’s entirely possible that their collectivism is the result of needing each other and wanting to escape something that might be equally as horrible as that experienced by the Marine in Don McCullin’s image.

George from Clitheroe

I grew up in what was at that time a small village close to the meeting of the three county borders of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Although effectively a suburb of Manchester, Poynton had more in common with a rural and working-class way of life than it did the emerging aspirational middle classes of the mid 70s. At that time, there was still an active farming community and the historic influences of small scale coal extraction were still easy to find. People lived in the ‘coal miners’ cottages’ because they had been coal miners rather than because they were highly desirable properties full of charm and character. The associated farming pursuits of wearing flat caps, carrying a large stick and drinking mild or bitter in the local pub were still evident in everyday life and you didn’t have to walk very far before you had to take care to avoid stepping in cow dung. Urban life may have only a commuter’s drive north but Poynton’s identity was still very much rooted in the soil.  

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As a child I would walk from our front door, out through the modern built semi’s of the 1970s aspirational middle classes and up into the local woodlands and green fields neatly bordered by wild hedgerows. Copses made fabulous dens and whispered adventure, open fields swirled with long grass and crawled with busy insects as well as small boys. My childhood memories are a bit of mixed bag (a bag I still carry with me today), but my happiest memories are of being out in the small foot hills of the Peak District, playing wide games and having adventures. Proper and unashamedly, boy’s own stuff.

Associated with this cultural heritage, Poynton always had a great summer fete on the August Bank Holiday weekend. Every year the large field in the village next to Poynton Pool is taken over by braying farm yard animals and an array of chugging steam powered machines. The behemoths would rumble in belching black smoke and fizzing with steam, the smell of burnt coal mixed with hot water vapour mixing with fragrant dew laden grass.

The smaller steam powered generators are simply wondrous machines; they would rattle and pop and chug in a rhythmic almost alliterative sort of way, their fly wheels spinning with dizzying motion and connecting belts flapping and whirling. The noise was calming, almost hypnotic.

Chug, chug, chug chug, POP, chug, chug, chug, POP, chug, chug, BANG, chug, chug, chug….

The animals, hemmed in by five bar fences and studied by knowing farmer’s eyes would bray, whinny, moo or bleat. The farmers would stand like silent monoliths, studying the animals with critical eyes. There is a particular stance that must be adopted when undertaken such scrutiny; both elbows must be equally placed on the top bar of the fence but with one shoulder slightly dropped. One hobnailed shoed foot must be placed on the second rung up from the ground, the other should be at 45 degrees on the ground. Rough hands can be clasped in a number of ways, but a pipe must be in one of them and the obligatory flat cap should be pulled down just enough to shade the eyes and hide them from meeting the stare of anyone else. Conversation is kept to a minimum; an occasional approving grunt as a particularly fine sow or a well-set bull is paraded by is permissible, possible a few stunted words with some semblance of a sentence. But under no circumstances should any emotion be shown let alone expressed verbally.

Poynton Show is an institution; a past, present and future; the beating heart in the year of a village’s cultural heritage and I love it for all the reminisces and clichéd nostalgia of halcyon childhood days growing up in a semi-rural community that it represents.

I haven’t been in perhaps ten years but infrequent attendance is now part of its charm. It is what allows my attendance to feel so nostalgic. It means that when I bump into people that I perhaps only vaguely knew at school, perhaps didn’t even like at that time, in that single moment the serendipity of the meeting creates a shared sense of empathy. It’s like we were always friends and the literal time and distance and coolness between us over ruled by the shared space of the show. 

Above all else though, the event is still an agricultural show and a competition among those who still keep and farm animals. The judging is taken very seriously and the position of judge is highly regarded as one of status and importance. To give the show more credibility and avoid the inevitable nepotism of judging within a still relatively small community, the judges are mostly recruited from other communities. Artisanal farming and food production might be big business these days but the real earthly connection with hard way of life taken through inheritance or necessity is disappearing. The recruitment of judges who have a keen eye and innate understanding of the animals they are evaluating is harder and the net needs to be cast wider.

Clitheroe is located north of Manchester, in proper Lancashire. George was a judge, recruited from Clitheroe to the show because of his knowledge and expertise on farmyard animals. Even among the characters and stalwarts of Poynton Show he had clear and commanding presence. Who could not fail to notice the fabulous combination of beige moleskin jacket and matching Stetson and polka dot tie. You can’t see his cowboy boots in this frame unfortunately, but it’s not a massive leap of imagination to picture them. He’s an obvious character to photograph and I’m sure that with such a strong personal expression in style and dress, he’d be completely up for having his picture taken.

I am here with my two boys and my parents for some reminiscences and entertainment. I’m not really here to shoot portraits and Poynton Show is about as far removed from the metropolitan locations I usually work around, where unusual creative and artistic endeavours are not just tolerated but actively encouraged. I may be home home, but I suddenly feel like a stranger and rather than approach George, I spend a few moments looking gormlessly at the animals while fielding my own two critters, trying to prevent them from grabbing handfuls of prize billy goat fur and getting head butted in the process. Eventually I decide I cannot let him pass and put my boys in my mum’s care and take a moment to say hello.

‘Alreet, ‘ow do?’, George talks in classic ‘Lanky Twang’ and memories of Lancashire Hotpot and Eccles Cake supers at my dad’s cousin’s house under the looming presence of Saddleworth Moor come flooding back. I compliment him on his sartorial elegance and ask if he wouldn’t mind being photographed. As I suspected, he’s very willing and immediately pulls himself fractionally higher. The light is quite strong however so I walk him over to an area of shade cast by the row of large equestrian lorries big enough for a rodeo. I’d like to compose to include one of these trucks but it doesn’t quite work; I need his character to fill the frame so I step a little closer and the sun is momentarily obscured by cloud softening the light just as I take the picture.

George from Clitheroe goes back to judging the animals, I go back to herding my own flock and the show goes on.

 

"Are you ready for me darling?"

“Hello darling are you ready for me?”

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It’s an interesting non-sequitur . It is only 10am but this is London’s Soho where anything can happen and I’ve chosen this spot to shoot street portraits precisely because I know I’m more likely to find the most richly colourful characters here than I am most other places. I am experimenting with using a strobe to light my subjects and this particular spot is perfect for that exercise. My light is set up and ready to go and I am just taking a meter reading as all six feet something of this fabulous looking creature glides into the alley way where I’m setting up. 

Chapone Place is an otherwise dingy dead end alley next to the Soho Theatre off Dean Street. It is rather squalid and on a Saturday morning it can smell just a little too strongly of the night before if you get too close to the walls. But it’s covered and so out of the glare of the sun and it’s off one of the busier side streets in Soho so there is always a steady stream of people walking past. The location allows me to set up, keep out of the way and then accost unsuspecting characters as they walk by and persuade them into my project.

“As ready as I will ever be”, I reply, trying to be cool. I stall for time and ask her name half expecting her to say that it’s Lola, L, O, L, A Lola.

“Latoyah” she replies. I’m vaguely disappointed but as I said, it’s still only 10am and before I’ve even spoken to anyone I’ve had about the most fabulous looking and most photographically interesting subject actually proposition me.

Latoyah’s gender identity is relatively easy to deduce; she identifies as female but was assigned male at birth. Her structure is simply fabulous; long strong arms, fine cheek bones, slim hips, penetrating eyes; she is every inch Grace Jones and is captivating to look at. She is also incredibly easy to talk to. There is an easy comfort in her engagement that lacks any kind of antagonism and she has an affable style that is strongly suggestive of someone entirely at ease with themselves. It’s not that I’m suggesting this is anything other than I would anticipate, but my understanding of the issues associated with gender dysphoria is that the complexity and emotional burden of having to reconcile your assigned with your innate gender isn’t something that most people going through that experience would describe as easy.

My insight here is of course limited although I do have a little more than perhaps the average person simply by virtue that my best friend, whom I have known since we were 14, came out as transgender three years ago. She made the incredibly brave decision to pursue her transition as fully as possible, first choosing to outwardly express her female gender and then, very bravely, using surgery to correct the misalignment. I’ve tried to support her as best I can throughout that process; I am her best friend and she mine but I always have a sense that this must be a terribly lonely journey given how little most people can ever help to understand the complexities of the experience let alone have any real empathy for it. Few people have any frame of reference by which to understand the experience.

But Latoyah’s perspective is remarkable uncomplicated; we talk animatedly about my friend, about her own style and about her very big and very messy night out that she is only just returning from.

Having explained what it is I do, I ask if she was serious when she asked if I was ready for her and she hesitates for just a moment, expressing some concern that she won’t be looking quite as fabulous as she would like given that she has been up all night. I reassure her that this is complete nonsense (it really is) and she settles in to a pose for me. I want her to be bold and proud but just a little wistful and uncertain. It takes a little while to get beyond the burlesque (though the burlesque shots are also really quite fun) but we get there eventually.

We spend probably 15 minutes trying to get it right; I have a sense that it’s important to do that, to do her justice and make her look fabulous. Afterwards we hug and say goodbye and I offer to send her a copy giving her my contact details but oddly she never gets in touch. This is not unusual; often I think the anonymity of the moment is what allows the person to be engaged in this very direct way and maintaining that connection after the fact and in particular obtaining a copy of the results, would collapse that wave of anonymity into something more real and inherently more threatening.

Mostly this lack of follow up contact doesn’t bother me and if I think it might (because I think that the results are something I really want the person to have) I ask for their email address rather than rely on them having mine. I don’t know why I didn’t do this in Latoyah’s case; it’s something I regret.

Sant Cugat

By good fortune and coincidence I’ve been travelling a lot to Spain this year, either Madrid or Barcelona and, from time to time, Zaragoza, which lies almost prophetically half way between these two great cities that suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of a political divide. 

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My last trip was to Madrid and then on to Zaragoza. This time it’s Barcelona.

Barcelona is such a beautiful city. I was here earlier in the year just at the beginning of spring and had spent a few hours of an afternoon wandering around the narrow streets and the food market off La Ramblas. The sun had started to dip low in the sky, shining through the apertures of the market’s roof casting brilliant patches light that spilled next to inky pools of intense shadow. It was fun to have the chance to indulge in a little of the street photography that is guaranteed to get loads of likes on Instagram; throwing silhouettes of people against brightly lit colourful walls or catching figures half in the light and half in perfect shadow. I don’t know who first came up with this highly stylised and much copied aesthetic, but being an extreme take on chiaroscuro lighting I guess the nod should go to Caravaggio.

Now in November as I drive from the airport to my hotel I notice that the light is being wonderfully rendered by a thin layer of gossamer cloud. It’s falling in abundance everywhere but is wonderfully diffuse and gentle so any splash of colour is super saturated. I’m excited and start imagining a new aesthetic of brightly lit and evenly toned cityscapes with vignettes of colour and that fine white balance that is so much easier to achieve when the lighting is this good. It’s still only 10am local time and I start to plan my day around all the work I need to do so that I can create a small window for when I might get the chance to shoot. My plan is built around maximising the daylight hours when a camera is most profitably used and booting the work work until after sun down. I do have got a lot to get done and I can’t afford to play fast and loose with the job I am here for but I don’t have to be up super early in the morning and the previously mooted client dinner hasn’t been confirmed so the evening is my own and can be used to work.

And then the client emails me to say that the dinner is on after all. Bugger.

Apart from anything else the emails have piled up between leaving home and arriving at the hotel and I also now have the added complication of a taxi strike in the city, making my transfer from the hotel to the following day’s meeting in Sant Cugat some 24km away a significantly more challening undertaking. I work solidly from 10.30am until it’s time to go to dinner at nine o’clock in the afternoon (but apparently we only have the table until 10.30pm when another party will need it to sit down to their own evening meal. Only in Spain!), and never even look at my camera.

My meeting the following day however is all done by 1.30pm including a light lunch and my flight is not until 6.30pm, plus I now also have a hire car (in lieu of a taxi) so suddenly the possibilities open up. Sant Cugat is a small town, quite independent of Barcelona and lying to the north west of that city. It is compact, neatly presented and populated mostly by families where one or both parents commute into Barcelona, leaving the town with a weekday mix of the children and grandparents. I decide to leave the car where it is and with assurances for how pretty the town is and where to find the prettiest parts, I head out on foot.

The light is not as flattering as it was on the previous day; it’s clear and very bright and the sun is still relatively high in the sky so shooting portraits is going to be tricky. I play a little with the fall of light and the strong contrasting shapes this makes with the shadows but I did that in Barcelona and it feels contrived and ultimately unfulfilling. I’m also finding that the majority of the people around are children of school age and while they are more likely to speak English and make an approach easier to broker, I’m still steering clear of the complications that such approaches create.

In the centre of the town there’s a 14th century monastery that seems to be both the literal and spiritual centre of the town. The walls are bright limestone tinted with yellow and around the perimeter are young saplings that still have some of their leaves offering the possibility of dappled shade. One side seems to act as a thorough fare from one side of the town to the next and there’s a gentle flow of people going about their daily business and passing through the grounds. A young couple wander in and drift a little around the grounds taking careless steps from the shade of one tree to the next. He is dark and brooding with a baseball cap and hoody, slightly swarthy and with intense eyes. She is lithe and angular, her jeans falling down over her hips and her top slightly cropped above her waist revealing the tops of her briefs. It’s something I try not to notice but it is both alluring and disconcerting; it is a detail of youthful hubris and growing sexual confidence and it is impossible not to notice it. The couple settle in the shade of one of the saplings and proceed to remove their roll tobacco and filter papers.

The wall behind where they have chosen to sit has the dappled shade of the sapling they are sitting under as well as the dark shadow of a vertical buttress. A crack also runs up the wall in dog leg fashion creating a natural framing element. The wall also has a lower horizontal buttress running around the base of the monastery and meeting the main wall at a 45 degree angle. It’s only waist height and I being to wonder whether this wall with crack, buttress and dappled shade would make a good setting for a portrait despite the fact that it would require the subject to be a little adventurous and climb onto the base of the supporting wall. I look around but apart from the couple, now unambiguously ‘skinning up’, there’s suddenly no one around. I ponder for a moment, weighing up the age gap between us, the fact that she is the more photographically interesting of the two and the more likely candidate (and the whole middle age man approaching a young woman has become somewhat political lately), and the fact that they are in fact rolling a joint. I decide to be brave. I have no more than three words in Spanish to my credit so any approach has to be in English but, being young, of course they do speak English.

I approach them acknowledging that I can see what they are doing but reassuring them that it’s entirely none of my business and not the reason I have approached them. I ask if they would let me explain what I am doing and I introduce myself but the young man has one ear plugged into his music and the rest of his attention focused on his tobacco. The young woman is more receptive and introduces herself as Beth. I explain that apart from my day job, I’m a keen photographer and that I like to engage people and persuade them to let me take their picture. I show her some examples of my work on my phone and Beth is both immediately and genuinely enthusiastic, explaining that she is also a photographer. She is fascinated by and complementary of the examples I show her and this is of course terribly flattering; I experience the flutter and nervousness again. Beth shows me some of her work; the first examples she shows me are strong fashion shots with great perspectives and lots of natural light. I comment on this and ask if she is indeed a fashion photographer but her answer throws me.

“Well I’m only 18 so I still don’t know quite what I want to do.”

The instinctive trepidation I had initially felt based on propriety and appropriateness are confirmed by this information but my sensibilities are sent into a slight tail spin when she then shows me more of her work. The examples are bold and daring and while there is nothing inappropriate about them, it’s clear that she is nude in many of the images and it is impossible not to acknowledge her physical beauty and sexual appeal alongside my admiration for her self-confidence. It’s an exploration that I couldn’t bear to do of myself, lumpen as I am in my sprawling middle age. My emotional response to her showing me this work is a complex mixture of excitement, respect, admiration and self-admonishment as I reconcile my feeling of excitement with the fact that I am old enough to be her father. I have always been very wary about photographing any woman that on first sight I might find physically attractive (and especially if they’re considerably younger than I am) because I want to avoid objectifying my subjects (and slipping into middle aged lechery). But Beth is genuinely excited to engage and wants to be photographed. I reason that I should just set the picture up and see how it works; if nothing else it will be a learning outcome and I can always say ten Hail Marys later if I feel I’ve violated my own moral code of conduct.

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I give Beth some direction, asking if she can indeed clamber onto the low buttressed wall and crouch half in and half out of the shade so that the crack in the wall runs above and round her head rather than straight out of it. She is compliant and willing and I have that sense that I better know what I’m doing or else I will be discovered as a fraud. After we make the shot, I share the result with her on the back of the screen and she expresses how much she likes it. We part and I promise to share a copy with her.

Perhaps the oddest part of this whole experience though is that her boyfriend has remained uninterested, almost implacable, throughout the entire process. Maybe there is some male pride thing going on, maybe there is distrust or resentment and perhaps the more interesting thing to have done would have been to also try and engage him. It’s perhaps more interesting that I didn’t.

 

Danny - Champion of the World

Everyone is who everyone is.

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The man sits comfortably on the ventilation housing rolling his own cigarette as the morning sun hangs in an easy fashion over the concrete flyover of Brighton Marina.  His corduroy jacket is stylish and a wonderful amber colour, but it is, along with his baggy jeans, a little dishevelled and grubby. They could probably use a wash and the man doesn’t seem to notice that his collar is unevenly folded around his neck.

Beside him sit the accoutrements of his past time; a pack of Rizzla papers, a box of tobacco on one side and on a box of orange tipped filters on the other. There’s a device with a cylindrical opening at one end that reminds me of a pencil sharpener but which I surmise must be for combining the filters with the rolled tobacco and there is cheap penny lighter made of translucent red plastic. I can see the lighter fuel inside and notice that it is already half spent. In front of him on the grass is an old rucksack; clearly the companion on many journeys out. The man is concentrating on the delicate rolling process taking care not to jack knife the paper and ruin the job. The paper rolls easily into a tube in his fingers and he then caresses the thin paper with his tongue, sealing the open side down. He puts the filtered end into his mouth and as he does so I notice that he’s missing quite a few teeth.

It is such a comfortable moment. I watch for a few seconds taking in the composition and try to work out how it could be improved. I conclude it can’t; it’s a simple moment and he is framed perfectly by the green structure behind him. It is perfect in its simplicity and the consummate ease with which the man is now enjoying a cigarette.

He pulls something out of his pocket and turns his attention to it, Holding the object in his hands he draws sub consciously on the cigarette. I watch as he rubs the object, turning it over and examining it carefully. It’s a perfect moment and I have to decide if I want to disturb it. I can see it would make a wonderful composition but an approach now would change the moment. I could choose to shoot candidly but I’m not a fan of this; I prefer the engagement that making a portrait requires. I know lots of candid portraits work really well, it’s just that I don’t know how to make them so I decide to approach him.

I say good morning to him and he looks up from the object.

“’ave a look at this, what do think of it” he says without even flinching. I take what appears to be an old coin and turn it over in my hands. He’s been rubbing it clean, trying to revive some of it lustre. It’s about the size of a two pence piece but it is clearly marked as a one pence piece and the colour is more yellow than bronze.

“It’s an old Jamaican coin” he says, “Do you think it’s worth much?” I pause before saying anything recognising the potential for disappointment and in the gap he answers his own question. “Still if I keep collecting them often enough one day they’ll be worth something”.

“I’m Greg, what’s your name” I ask, trying to change the subject.

“Danny” he says as I hand him back the coin and we shake hands.

I ask him where he is from and he tells me he is Brighton born and raised. He lives locally and comes down to the flea market scouting for potential treasure, every Sunday morning.  I comment on his jacket and cap and say that I really like the way they look and the compliment fails to land but it doesn’t seem to matter; Danny is relaxed and happy and appears to be taking me entirely on trust.

I explain to him what I do and why and ask if he will be part of my project. He looks up at me squinting a little through one eye from under the shade of his cap and asks what I intend to do with the picture. He is most concerned that it won’t be published in a magazine or something. His sense of privacy is clear; he is happy to engage in a moment where he can judge the intentions of the individual but he is also aware, perhaps through negative experience, that people are want to judge him poorly. Perhaps he worries they will think he is homeless; the thought had crossed my mind also.

I assure him that I won't be publishing his picture in any magazine but tell him it will appear on my website. He seems comfrotable with this.

"Alright, but I'll have to put my teeth in first". I smile and tell him not to worry. I step back a few metres imagining a square crop from the 3x2 frame and want to maximise the composition. I don’t need to direct him; he just sits there enjoying his cigarette and switching his look between the far horizon in front and me. 

Afterwards I explain that I would love to be able to share a copy with him and ask if that would be possible. In my mind, I am worried he might well be homeless but then why would he be buying old coins if he were? I feel a strong sense of compassion and hope that I am wrong and indeed I am. He pauses and thinks for a moment.

“Yeah, now hang on, where can you send it to.....what's the address?” He thinks to himself. It’s slightly odd that he has to think so hard for the address he lives at. A myriad of possibilities occur to me; he is in temporary accommodation, it’s a half way house or perhaps there is something else happening here, the possibility of cognitive impairment. Again I feel a strong sense of compassion.

Eventually he gives me the address, thinking carefully about each line as he offers it to me. I open my notebook to write it down.

“It’s Danny isn’t it” I say, heading that title on the paper.

“Er yeah, how on earth did you know that”? He is genuinely surprised and again I suspect the possibility for some cognitive impairment.

“Ah you told me just a moment ago” I reassure him.

“Oh yeah, I did didn’ I”. We smile at each other as I write down his address. We shake hands again as I say goodbye and I leave him as I found him, smoking a roll your own cigarette.

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I walk down the path and turn the corner towards the underpass of the road that feeds the Marina. At this junction, there are tall pillars carrying the opposite side of the road over the ground level. The sun is shinning at a perfect angle through the pillars of the overpass on one side and the car park on the other. It is creating two perfectly illuminated windows of light in an otherwise black shadow. They are perfect frames and I stop to hang around and wait for some one to pass by that I might use as a subject to place in these wonderful apertures. As I do so, my mind runs through the possibilities and it occurs to me that waiting for someone interesting to pass by is entirely unnecessary; I’ve already met the most interesting individual I am likely to encounter that morning. Only the fear of pushing my luck causes me to hesitate and then I remember what a wonderfully talented (and already very successful) young photographer told me recently about what she most attributes her results to: being prepared to be just a little bit cheeky and push your luck just a fraction.

I walk back to Danny and identify the problem; I don’t want to push my luck but that there is such a wonderful pool of light just round the corner that I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to create a powerful image.  I ask if he will be willing to be a subject again for me and this time he checks the request.

“I will get a copy of these right?” His question is wonderfully sincere and perhaps the most natural compliment that a subject can offer me. I assure him with my hand on my heart that he will and resolve in that moment that printing his portraits and putting them in an envelope will be the first thing I do when I get home.

I position Danny in the aperture so that his shadow falls backwards onto the wall. The legs are elongated aping a Giacometti statue and his expression is one of quiet contemplation. It’s an even more perfect moment and I am captivated. I click the shutter and in my head there is a low rumble of an explosion that signifies I’ve just photographed dynamite.

Who doesn't like Paris in the Spring?

Who doesn’t love Paris in the spring?

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Every now and then my otherwise mundane sales job throws me a golden ticket and I get to travel to somewhere interesting. Most business trips are dull if not frenetic affairs. A shonky seat on a Ryan Air flight at stupid o’clock in the morning with nothing more than stale muffin and something that passes for coffee for sustenance, is usually followed by a taxi ride with a driver racing towards an early grave. Most meetings take place at an office, the location of which seems to have been selected on the basis that it is the singularly dullest part of an otherwise fascinating city. The meetings themselves might as well be happening in the same box that Schrodinger’s cat inhabits; it’s a sort of twilight zone of existence where death by the quantum decay of a boredom probability wave spreads uniformly through the room and increases in certainty the longer you’re there. I usually leave these events moribund; only the prospect of another taxi ride with a failed F1 driver kick starting the flight or fight response keeps me going. 

But a few years ago I figured that if you were going to have to travel to a meeting and if that meeting were say in Paris or Stockholm or somewhere else equally interesting, then why not make that meeting start at 9am on a Monday? And since that obviously means you have travel the day before and since that day is thus a Sunday, why not travel on the first train out to Paris rather than the last?

Life is better when you realise that there is a world out there you can engage with and spend time in. So these days, whenever I travel, I always look for the opportunity to overlap the trip with a little time to explore. As I said, who doesn’t love Paris in the spring?

This particular trip to Paris also happened to coincide with Paris fashion week. I’ve never been a fan or follower of fashion; my opinion of the fashion industry has in the past been not unlike that of the boyfriend in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’; I’ve regarded it as shallow, vacuous and exploitative. I’ve mellowed a little since I started to focus more on photography and have explored the work of some amazing fashion photographers who also created stunning explorations of humanity and culture through social documentary projects that were every inch fine art as they were anthropological. Richard Avedon springs to mind as the obvious example, but the contemporary photographer Ethan James Green’s project ‘Young New Yorkers’ is compelling and sublime in equal measure.

My favourite part of Paris, rather unoriginally I know, is the area around the are north of Boulevard de la Chapelle, from the village feel and cobbled streets of Mon Matre up to the fascinating sprawl of the Clignacourt flea market. If you’ve not been to Clignacourt it’s a street photographer’s paradise; think Camden Town but five or six times the size. You would need several days to explore it properly.

On this particular day the sun was shining in a clear blue sky; there was no diffusion to the light but since it was spring the sun was still relatively low in the sky and so was just about manageable. I was shooting with my Hasselblad, which at the time I’d not had very long and I was only beginning to understand that medium format film needs lots and lots of light; far better to have a lot of very harsh light and try to find a way to improve a soft box, than have poor low contrast light and end up with washed out negatives.

There are a number of covered markets within the Clignacourt complex. These are wonderfully social affairs as they are structured with individual box like units situated so close to each other that the vendors will know if you used a little too much garlic in the previous evenings meal without even having to say bon matin. This proximity however is what makes these markets like a microcosm of social interaction. Thanks to French social justice, the leases on these boxes are long held and the vendors are like an extended family. Arrive at around 1pm and you will see them relaxing on camping chairs around pop up picnics tables adorned with soft cheese, red wine and pot au feu. No one in the world does lunch with such consummate ease like the French and the Parisians are the past masters. It is as delicious a sight to observe, as it must be to engage in.

The markets also have great lighting because they are covered with interspersing frosted glass panels that create wonderful pools of relatively diffuse light. Find a spot where the sun creates a corridor of light, place your subject in it, spot meter for the shadows in that spot and you will have a wonderful chiaroscuro lighting effect.

I’d spotted the yellow seats a little earlier in the morning and making a quick calculation had worked out that around 1pm the light would fall perfectly on them. I’d hung around and approaching that time started to scout for an interesting subject to place there. There’s no shortage of natural characters but the stall holders tend to be less easy to persuade and it’s not always fair to distract them from either work, or worse, lunch.

I had seen Florence in a shop looking at art deco jewellery and almost thought that perhaps if anything she was a little too obvious. But then I also noticed that the light wasn’t quite as diffuse as I might have liked and then looking again at Florence, her striking, almost intimidating look seemed like it would suit that.

I skulked furtively outside the shop, trying to eaves drop the conversation to see if it would give me any clues as to how I might approach her. I suspected she might be quite intimidating to approach and if there was going to be a language barrier that would make it harder. But sure enough I was able to gleam that English was her first language and almost certainly she was American. I started to feel that frisson of excitement from the squirt of adrenaline in my stomach; we’re on.

I hung around feeling like a stalker hoping I wouldn’t get made before she left and as she stepped out of the shop, I surreptitiously slipped into her magnificent wake a suitable distance behind and tailed her. I timed my pace so that I pulled alongside her right at the spot where the yellow seats were melting in the light falling through the window.

"Excuse me, sorry to bother you but I couldn’t help noticing you in that jewellery shop back there and I just wanted to say that your look is utterly fabulous and....."

She looks at me before I’ve managed to draw breath and make my request and with vocal and visual intent cuts right through the BS and challenges me directly.

"Yes I saw you outside, I suppose you want to take my picture".

This does happen from time to time and usually it just makes thing easier but in this instance I feel on the back foot; something is telling me I might be in over my head with Florence and my suspicions are right. I can clearly now hear the accent she tells me she is from New York. I ask her what she is doing in Paris and she tells me she is a fashion writer and is here for Paris fashion week. My back footedness is confirmed and I comment that photographing someone from the fashion industry is always going to make me look like a complete amateur. I ask her if she minds and she smiles and softens a little saying that she understands very well how hard it is to persuade people to be part of projects and so agrees. I’m in, but only just and the gap in the window of opportunity is clearly slim. I need to work quickly and effectively as I will have just one shot I can make and so I need to make it count. I stall for time to compose myself and take a light meter reading. Even though I’ve already pre-metered for the light this gives a moment to think about how to set things up. The seats are too good not to use and contrast well against her dark clothing. I shoot one frame and then pause to think whether there isn’t a better shot and in that brief pause the window snaps shut.

It’s a moment of insight into what it might be like to be a professional fashion photographer; you work at pace because time is money and there is an expectation that you both know what your doing and know how to get the shot you need without faffing around. Florence is kindly and sympathetic but she is not patient and won’t suffer me as a fool. It’s a powerful learning experience and one that thankfully resulted in a portrait I am very happy with.

 

 

A middle age, middle class twat from the Home Counties (that's me, not the chap in the picture!)

Brick Lane again. I’m walking around and feeling every inch the Home Counties twat that I clearly am. Look at you with your expensive boots and flash camera; twat. Even so I am filled with a sense of excitement by the atmosphere on the Lane. I swim through the thick treacle of culture and wonder at the edginess of entrepreneurial risk taking that is every where you look, and as I do so, I recall my own days as a ‘bright young thing’ in the early days of the internet when we were going to invent the world for the very first time and everything was possible in a ‘fuck yeah’ kind of way.

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But then I realise that it is today and I am neither bright, nor young and probably not even a thing except for in the eyes of two young boys (who genuinely adore me and I them but then that’s sort of a given isn’t it?)

I’d love to reinvent myself and start over. There isn’t a moment I go out with my camera and think perhaps I should just resign from my well paid job in sales and reinvent myself as a photographer.  But I’m no longer the only one relying on me making something of myself and to be honest, these days it is more than enough to be something to two small boys with wonder and dreams in their eyes, even if I am nothing more than a reasonable competent, well intentioned but otherwise dull average Joe everyone else.

But still everyone in Brick Lane is inventing something; everyone is an entrepreneur with a new ‘new thing’ to sell. It is a terribly exciting place to be.

I see Ole from across the road and catch myself; fabulous black skin, sharp suit, bright red tie, green railings. It cries out to me but I hesitate because it’s Brick Lane and I’m a middle-aged twat. I’m also white and he’s black and this is odd because what holds me back is the sense of risk, of ‘cultural appropriation’, something I’ve read about and understand on an intellectual level (I have a degree in culture and anthropology after all) but am only ever a hair breadth away from being guilty of. I pause and reflect and then think ‘fuck it, we need to engage more, we need to acknowledge issues of race more and it’s too good a picture to waste.’

So I head on over and catch the guy before he gets too far beyond the green railings and persuade him to let me take his picture.

“This is my card” he says after I’ve taken his picture. I give him one of mine and accept his, feeling the quality of the paper and the embossed logo. I immediately think of the film ‘American Psycho’, the bit where they engage in a bit of blokey dick swinging over who has the most prestigious card and I feel I’m definitely on the back foot with my little square thing with a pink border and somewhat pretentious but well intentioned nonsense about ‘the three selves’ printed on it.

“Ah you're the CEO of the company. What does your company do?” I hesitate in my mind hoping that he won’t pick up on the unintended note of surprise and interpret it as ‘hey, a black CEO, who knew’.

“Well that's my old company, we're just starting a new one, providing capital to new ventures in the Middle East, but you can still get me on these details”.

I breath a sigh of relief, congratulate him and wish him luck with his new venture and then make my excuses and say goodbye.

I wasn’t sure if the image would turn out well or not. To be honest I still don’t know but I’m not sure it matters; I learned something from the encounter even if it was a risk. I have learned that even if you run the risk of offending someone, of revealing your unconscious biases or coming over just like a twat, if your intentions are good and honest, then it’s OK.