18 Dec 2009

ways of walking?

I chose the title "Ways of Walking" for my original street photography website as it expressed two particular ideas: the style or state in which we walk, for example oblivious, alert, cautious, careless; but also the routes we take such as pre-determined journeys to work or more serendipitous ones when we have the luxury of time to follow something that captures our attention, a fragrance, a face, a memory.

In recent years I have found myself blurring the planned and random nature of my walks around London. The area I am most fascinated by is the West End, in particular the streets roughly bounded to the north around Oxford Street, to the east by Kingsway, the south by the Embankment and to the west at Park Lane. Within that boundary the direction I take is initially driven by the position of the sun. Staring at the sky above Centrepoint I sometimes think I'm as acutely aware of the weather, the change of light of chasing clouds, as any landscape or wildlife photographer.

Once the direction, west to east along Piccadilly for example, is set then it's a question of timing. Lunchtime affords an opportunity for a hasty assignation between office workers outside Green Park; a language school spills out onto Shaftesbury Avenue between classes, the students a synthesis of world cultures; an eddy around the news stand outside Leicester Square tube at a sign of the first edition of the day's Evening Standard.
New London street photography
Lately I've taken to Regents Street. I love its curve and breadth. The consistency of the style and height of the buildings are unusual for a London street. Its alignment, a bit north/south, a little east/west, means the sunlight can always find some stretch of pavement to illuminate. It also culminates at Oxford Circus, a wonderful gateway to one of the major arteries of London, nourished by the underground station's stairways recycling bodies in and out. This makes it sound like an amorphous mass of people but I feel that the architecture here doesn't diminish the individual and there is still an intimacy about this place that keeps me coming back.

3 Dec 2009

Auerbach's building sites, the mountains of London

The current Frank Auerbach show at The Courtauld Gallery, London Building Sites 1952-1962, portrays a London literally rebuilding itself post-war. The series of paintings depict building sites around central London including John Lewis in Oxford Street, the Shell building at the South Bank and the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square.
Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square by Frank Auerbach, 1962 
Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, 1962, Frank Auerbach
I was fascinated by the exhibition's title, an exception to my received impression of the usual ones there e.g. Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence: The Courtauld Wedding Chests. Portraying the primal scene of the birth of buildings, that point where the ground is literally broken, in thick, viscous oil paint in such a traditional gallery was a contrast I liked.

Granted the location of these buildings was influential and reminded me, in my own lifetime, of the appearance and disappearance of buildings, streets even: "a heaving, bubbling, cauldron" as Auerbach said.
He characterises London in this post war period in a wonderfully evocative phrase "...(it) was a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountains and crags, full of drama" and this series is on first look more representative of Mars than Earth, let alone London. Red, ochre and umber saturate the paintings' surfaces. It's a primal, alien experience yet a human element, although not immediately evident, is a definite presence. It takes me to my other interest in this portrayal of London at this particular point in its history which is more personal.

My father, as an immigrant from Ireland in the 1950s, represents the hidden hands behind so much of what shapes the architecture of modern London. Although not directly involved in the building sites represented here, his compatriots were. Looking at these paintings, at the occasional glimpse of a silhouette, gave me a sense of connection to him and to the London he would have experienced. Another quote from Auerbach: "...(there was a) sense of survivors scurrying among a ruined city… and a sort of curious freedom… I remember a feeling of camaraderie among the people in the street”.

It also made me reflect on the current renewal of the centre of London courtesy of the Crossrail project. I'd like to think there's an artist working now in the same vein, recording the birth of another landmark in the depths of the mountains and crags of Charing Cross Road.
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20 Nov 2009

new portfolio - The Distance Between Us

"The distance between us" is a phrase I've had in my head for a while. For me it's a way of expressing the relationship between four elements of my street photography: the individuals within the frame; myself as witness; the urban environment around us; and you, the viewer of the final photograph.

We share the street, in space and in time, going about our daily business but within the mundane we have walk-on roles in one-moment dramas. Quickly forgotten, if noticed at all, but they're still there.

Distance Between Us portfolio

The Distance Between Us commemorate those moments and perhaps bring the distance between us a little closer.

12 Nov 2009

books etc

I'm an avid reader of novels set in cities. My street photography is an act of turning a passing moment into something tangible and memorable. Inversely, the words of these novels, fixed on the page, fire up images and snatches of ideas in my mind.
I remember being struck by this passage from Paul Auster's City of Glass not long after I returned from living in New York City...

New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighbourhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within.
I can also pick out particular themes that I respond to. For example Jonathan Glancey's London: Bread and Circuses, Iain Sinclair's Lights Out For the Territory and Will Self's The Book of Dave each, in their own way, depict a great sweep of London's history, past and future, factual and fantastical, that changed my perception of the streets I walk today, home of ghosts of the past and the future. Here's Jonathan Glancey's insight...

In a transcendental moment, I felt as if I was rising like some cockney sparrow or the spirit of William Blake and, looking down on my own city - one of the world's greatest - saw it boozing and shopping away its political conciousness as it bopped to the tune of a thousand advertising jingles. Two thousand years flashed before my eyes and I was standing in Londinium alongside a supercilious legate from Rome in a purple-edged toga. "Bread and circuses", he sneered. 
Novels written in the 1920s and 30s such as Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton and, of course, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf have a relevance to my present day experience of the city, of an individual's daily life in the crowd, of dealing with universal emotions and issues, while negotiating the modern world. Patrick Hamilton describes a particular event that illustrates this experience for me...

Now there is an extraordinary allure in walking around, or hanging about the streets, in the vague hope of catching (and so justifying your rather bold expectations) one who has no thought of meeting you. You may, after a while, have lost all desire to see the individual in question, but at the same time you find a peculiar difficulty in behaving like a man and cutting a loss. Having gone to the trouble of trailing up and down six or seven streets, you are loth to lose your point for a ha'porth of obstinacy, and are almost convinced that the very street providence has selected for you is the eight. You therefore go up it. Then your eight will probably bring you to some short cut, or other topographically excusable ninth, and unless you are very careful you will find yourself before long calmly attacking your nineteenth.

I've just started reading the novel 253 by Geoff Ryman. It was first published online. In essence it's a series of descriptions of passengers on a London underground train and a single event that binds them together. Individuals are described in a sequence of three paragraphs, each adding complexity, literally filling out the character: outward appearance; inside information; what she is doing or thinking.

In terms of location there is a direct crossover to the subway/metro images of Walker Evans and Luc Delahaye. In addition there is a more fundamental connection to the mystery of street photography, or simply the way we instinctively assess and judge those around us based on our first take of their outward appearance. A photograph of that first take lets us dwell a little longer on that person.  A posed portrait offers an opportunity to find out more inside information yet we discover no such facts from contemplating a street portrait. We have to work a little harder, if we choose, to construct a story about what we see. I'd argue that effort can be as creative, worthwhile and mysterious as the taking of the original image.
Ultimately it's why I'm still driven to do what I do.

30 Oct 2009

18 Sept 2009

"loved; life; London" published at last

The title is a line taken from the novel Mrs Dalloway written in 1925 by Virginia Woolf. I read it after seeing the film The Hours, a story of how the novel affects three generations of women, three times in a row on a flight from Tokyo so it made an impression on me in a number of ways!
In relation to my own work I connected to the novel in part because of its setting in central London, but more so through the style of writing, the personal thoughts of individuals woven into their experience of a day in the city.
The photographs of mine that arrest me most are those in which the figures passing through the frame beg me to wonder what's on their minds: the mundane, the epic, the hope, the fear.
As I work in black and white, in a style that concentrates on moments of interaction between individuals and the fabric of the city, I am also drawn to the impression that it's sometimes a challenge to precisely place these images in a particular year or even decade.
For me these moments are a bond with the lives of Londoners coming to terms with the new experience of a rapidly changing London in the 1920s, around the time Mrs Dalloway was written, an experience we continue to encounter today.

loved life London by Sean McDonnell
The title is taken from a passage in the book that I particularly respond to:
For having lived in Westminster - how many years now? Over twenty, - one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can't be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
loved; life; London is my first published book.
Comments welcome!

6 Sept 2009

full frame, uncropped

I was born and raised in London in the 60s and have been taking photographs since a child. Family cat, leaves in the back yard, regular stuff.

In the mid-80s I left to live in New York City. There I found a new way of photography, or perhaps it found me. My style simply grew out of my reaction to what was happening around me and taking pictures was a means of making sense of it, of trying to connect.

The streets of Manhattan were full of open emotions, of highs and lows, of new sights and sounds and I couldn't get enough of them. The pictures I took were no longer carefully composed. They were taken as a reflexive act, part of a stream of consciousness as I careered down Broadway, across West 14th, back up 7th Avenue, immersing myself in the ebb and flow of the city, learning how the light fell at what time of day on what corner, a creeping familiarisation.

I shoot and move on, don't look back, just keep walking. I find a film processing place on West 23rd. The contact sheets invariably disappoint me. They're mute. I try harder. I want them to be as alive as the streets.


I returned to London. Walking the streets, camera in hand, it's not NYC. Life isn't lived in public in the same way. The sun doesn't shine as strong or as long. I've to work that much harder and longer to tap into the same energy from the streets. I'm also no longer the outsider, this is my home town after all, but my motivation and way of working are still relevant. I've returned to a London in the boom times and I feel like an uninvited guest at the party. Photography now channels my mixed emotions into something tangible, a positive from the negative.

I still use film, it makes no economic sense as I develop rolls and rolls to produce one worthwhile image but there is a preciousness about the 36 frames. Rewinding the exposed film back into its canister feels satisfying, a job done. Reloading a new one a kick start.

For a long time I paid no serious attention to the printing of my pictures. I regarded the fine art world of archive prints and white gloves as irrelevant. I showed my work pasted as photocopies on corrugated metal fences Then I was fortunate to meet someone who showed me that it was possible to print my pictures without anaesthetising them. Stuart Keegan's prints brought those original scenes back to life, turned the volume up. I felt like an acapella musician brought into a recording studio and given the wall of sound treatment. The resulting prints brought my work to a new audience. They were collected and exhibited and raised new questions for me.

My method of selecting images for printing up from the countless contact sheets was very much based on gut instinct, that first glimpse that induced a physical intake of breath in me. I'd never analysed them in a more intellectual way, their theme, tone, composition. I resisted it for fear of second guessing myself, giving myself the yips and losing whatever touch I had. Slowly I began to review my early work and found myself enjoying the process, of looking at them with fresh, or perhaps older, eyes. Images that I'd ignored now spoke to me.

A website followed and a book's on the way.

Meanwhile I'm still on the streets, still searching for a pulse, a beat.

25 Aug 2009

the how and the why

This website is a companion to my other called Ways of Walking. I use film so the images there have reached the end of a long journey of processing and contact sheets, work prints and editing, final prints and scanning. As a result it takes a while for things to change!

This site will tell you more about the journey. About me. About why and how I practise street photography.