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.