4 Dec 2010

street photography talk at Photofusion

I was fortunate enough to be invited to talk to a group of street photographers at a course run by David Gibson of In-Public at Photofusion in London last week. It was the first time I'd done something like that and I certainly hope those on the receiving end enjoyed it as much as I did.

In the spirit of this website I wanted to convey "the how" and "the why" of my work as much as the end product, the picture itself.
Preparing the talk lead me to review my work in a chronological way. Surprisingly to me, but perhaps inevitably, I couldn't separate it from my own journey, from the certainty of youth to the less than certainty of older age.

If you're interested you can see the pictures I talked about at the bottom of this entry.
I wanted to break up the presentation of my images with ideas that gave a little more background to my state of mind at the time so, before you look at them, I'll explain some of the more random ones...

I characterised my pull to the febrile atmosphere of New York City through the images of David Byrne, an icon of the New York art/music scene, and Telly Savalas, an icon of my misspent youth watching TV, the New York City detective Kojak. I could have gone on to include Andy Kaufman from Taxi and Gene Anthony Ray from Fame but I think I got the idea across...
The technique I'd developed, more by accident than design, was releasing the camera's shutter away from my body, requiring a degree of hand-eye coordination. Who better than the tennis player John McEnroe to represent that? Then, sticking with sporting metaphors and perhaps pushing them too far, I chose an image of the great Austrian skier Franz Klammer to represent my physical approach on the street of moving at speed but with control. Make sense? No, perhaps only to me.
The other images I've chosen are those of Shane McGowan and Viriginia Woolf. I admit I liked their juxtaposition but they also helped illustrate the part of my story where I've been influenced by musical and literary work.

The final pictures represent photographers I particularly admire. There are so many I could include but I chose these for my audience, ones which perhaps are not so obvious: Roy DeCarava, Ray Metzker, Daido Moriyama, Sylvia Plachy and Michael Ackerman.
You can certainly include Don McCullin in that group too. A photograph from his book Homecoming opens my talk.

There were some very good questions and comments which were really interesting for me, not having gone public in such a way before. I'll pick those up next time.

26 Oct 2010

lost London street photographers

I've recently re-visited Mike Seaborne's book "Photographers' London: 1839-1994" and it's made me curious about the content of the Museum of London's street photography show next year. The book features a number of photographers who recorded street life in a variety of styles who've had little recognition in the surge of interest in the genre in recent years. For example it would be great to see references to people such as Paul Martin and Margaret Monck.
Here are examples of their respective work courtesy of two great online resources, photoLondon, now no longer updated but still useful, and Exploring 20th Century London.
Blind man at the Caledonian Cattle Market, c. 1895 by Paul Augustus Martin
A man carries milk bottles through an unidentified street by Margaret Monck
I'd also be interested to see any work of the many "Anonymous" photographers documented in the book too. In particular I'm fascinated by these four images entitled "Shoppers in Sutton High Street, c. 1930".
Shoppers in Sutton High Street, c. 1930 by Anonymous
Apart from the period in which they are taken, which is of particular interest to me, I enjoy the relative incongruity of their location. A popular history of street photography would place these in New York or Paris, even Moscow. Sutton, UK doesn't quite fit the received narrative.

I hope the Museum of London's new exhibition seizes the opportunity to present an alternative perspective. One which challenges the notions that this style of photography is new to London, transplanted from continental Europe and the States, and practitioners such as Roger Mayne and Tony Ray-Jones are exceptional rather than part of a continuing tradition.

30 Aug 2010

on show - Museum of London

I've been invited to show one of my images at the Museum of London's London Street Photography exhibition opening next February. It's a fantastic honour as, obviously, London is so close to my heart and the Museum, in particular, is one of my special places.

The image selected was made around 1989 which, in retrospect, was a really productive period of my work. Post-NYC, pre-children I had the luxury of time, but no money, to indulge myself coming to terms with my return to London.

link to my Museum of London street photography show selection

It's ironic in that one comment made of my pictures is how hard it is to identify their location and date. For me that's as much about our pre-conceptions of how images of London, or contemporary London for that matter, should look, so I'm really intrigued to see mine in the context of a historical survey.

17 Jun 2010

urban encounters: Berlin trams and London bookshops

Last month's event at Tate Britain,Urban Encounters: Routes and Transitions, was a great opportunity for me to consider street photography, and my work in particular, in the context of others who are stimulated by urban environments. The participants were drawn from a spectrum of writers and practitioners, from the UK and internationally. Under consideration were themes of migration, location and memory and they were each explored from personal experience rather than purely theoretically.
Urban Encounters: Routes and Transitions

The main speaker was Camilo Jose Vergara, a photographer who was new to me. He showed his most recent project on the streets of Berlin, in particular an extended sequence where he took a fixed position inside a tram and photographed people as they entered. It was interesting to me as it's a direct contrast to my own approach of constant movement, opening myself to the random collisions and coincidences of people and their immediate environment. However by setting strict parameters around a subject, literally a door frame in this instance, a kind of levelling arises by removing them from any indicators of their social status and placing them in a situation of immediate common purpose i.e getting on a tram. This democratisation is in itself an interesting concept in the light of Berlin's recent history. In spite, or perhaps because, of this it was hard to resist projecting a narrative onto the individuals portrayed. Clues of of their appearance suggested their "real" lives.
When I think of taking this approach to my own work I find that the presence of the urban environment, the shop doorways, bus stops and pavements, the fabric of the city, is as much a part of the scene as the individual. It's that ongoing negotiation that intrigues and excites me. Still, that shouldn't stop me from trying something new!
Another comment of Camilo Jose Vergara that struck me was his determination to have his work published in print. It arose principally from a concern of the long-term viability of digital recording, archiving and retrieval. As I sit here committing these thoughts to a system now owned by a global corporation with no obligation to continue to provide this service, for free, in perpetuity, I'm thinking I really should move this site onto WordPress or Posterous! Seriously it's a salutary reminder of how quickly the words photography and digital have become synonymous. Ironically I've found the route to commit my, what's come to be known as, analogue work to print by using a purely digital process. 
I have explored traditional printers for quality of reproduction but the print-on-demand and distribution benefits of Blurb, minimal commitment with maximum reach, are more attractive for me at the moment. It's easily characterised as vanity publishing, but there is something in the concept of preservation that justifies it to me. Preservation for whom is another question but the idea of time capsules has always fascinated me. There's a great second-hand bookshop I visit and I always enter it with a sense of adventure, and it's as much about the sensation of handling books printed fifty years ago or more as finding any undiscovered gem. Even with the half lives of our digital footprints c/o Facebook etc  I'd like to think there's still a place for an artifact, something that can speak of us and our experience that can be witnessed in the future. Perhaps I've been listening too much to A History of the World in 100 Objects!

31 May 2010

the price you pay

What's the cost of street photography? Street photography is for me a self-initiated, self-indulgent, self-financed act. Part of the tension I bring to my work is that desperate pull between the worlds of earning a living and the intoxicating state of creating work for its own sake.
This issue was really brought home to me while reading the book by Sam Stephenson of The Jazz Loft Project featuring the images of W. Eugene Smith. In essence it's a document of the life and times of that photographer in a New York City of the late fifties, early sixties where the jazz scene defines my perception of the romance of that world, however misguided.
Ironically the words and the image that I responded to most were the references to his family life...
...Smith was thirty eight years old and at the top of his profession. But he was suffering through a harrowing stretch in his personal life. His misery made may of those closest to him miserable in turn. He had four children and a wife living at his home in Croton-on-Hudson, and another child living with a lover on Philadelphia. He virtually abandoned all of them when he moved into 821.
...In a 1976 interview he [Smith] recalled the time around 1958 as his peak as a photographer but his nadir as a human being: 'My imagination and my seeing were both - and I don't know if I can think of the right term - red hot or something. Everywhere I looked, every time I thought, it seemed to me it left me with a great exuberance and just a truer quality of seeing. But it was the most miserable time of my life'.
In the book, among the many of known and unknown jazz musicians of the day, there is a photograph of his daughter Shana in the stairwell outside the loft itself.
W Eugene Smith Jazz Loft Project
Jazz Loft Project, W Eugene Smith
This photograph really made me pause for contemplation of that moment and that gaze between father and daughter.
Such sacrifice is not for me. The price is too high. I can remember walking the streets of Shibuya in Tokyo, camera in one hand, a bag of toys in the other, and thinking 'I'm sure William Klein didn't do this...'
However I can't escape the question that by not "following the dream", that talisman of self expression, is my work never going to be good enough? Good enough for whom? Maybe good enough just is...

6 Apr 2010

"loved; life; London" review

My first book loved; life; London is reviewed in the Spring issue of fLIP, the magazine for London Independent Photography. Here's a preview of some of the images and it can be purchased online.

loved; life; London preview

I'm particularly proud as the members of London Independent Photography share a passion for the city and it's a privilege to be included in the magazine. 
To any reader who buys loved: life; London I'd like to offer a free copy of my second book Portrait of a Street Photographer.
Please email me first at sean@waysofwalking.net for more details!

5 Mar 2010

streets seen and heard

I'm reading a new book called Street Seen, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
It's really struck a chord with me and the clue is in its subtitle, The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940-1959.

The photographers featured, Lisette Model, Louis Faurer, Ted Croner, Saul Leiter, William Klein, and Robert Frank, are well known practitioners of what's come to be called street photography, although tellingly the curator Lisa Hostetler explicitly does not want to use that label, believing it to be "too nebulous". Instead she connects these particular photographers by their passion for the authenticity of their photography as an immediate expression of their own perceptions and experience. The historical context of their work, during and post World War II, is also crucial. At a time when fundamental values of society were challenged leading to the post-war pursuit of the American Dream, these photographers, together with painters, poets and writers, were in the vanguard of questioning that homogeneity, focusing instead on the individual to offer alternative visions of society.
Ted Croner, New York, 1947
New York, 1947,, Ted Croner
Ted Croner's quotation, "They weren't pictures of people. They were pictures of the way I felt" made me jump. Emotionally it resonated with me as a very succinct way of saying what I've spent most this website talking about. Then it also made me think about how I found myself in a similar place fifty years later. I now live in a world where the American Dream is dominant, a consumer society is one I literally buy into it. Is my work any less authentic, just a re-run of an old 50s B-movie? I know I came to this form of expression in my own way, I wasn't seeking to copy, or pay homage, to any other photographer. It found me and gave me a voice. For me the "psychological gesture" is still as relevant today. The concerns of our lives have much in common with those New Yorkers two or more generations ago and I find it enervating to hear those echoes through the photography of that time.

On other note Roger Mayne was, welcomely but a little anomalously, included in the selection of works supporting the featured photographers. Apart from Young Meteors by Martin Harrison I can't think of an attempt on this side of the Atlantic to present photography in such a thematic way, a blend of the personal and the political. Perhaps it's time for another!
Update - a fascinating discussion, including Saul Leiter, emerged from the show which was captured as a video. In keeping with the theme of this post it's just as well heard as seen...

In addition here's a commentary on Louis Faurer's short film "Time Capsule"

20 Feb 2010

a black and white life

When I think of why I have devoted my work to black and white and not colour street photography, I must acknowledge the significance of my childhood spent in the flicker of black and white television. Absorbing those images not only gave me a view of the world outside, they gave me a way of interpreting it.
Black and white was drama: it told me stories, it made me laugh, it brought me to tears. Images played in my mind in black and white...I'm sure I dreamed in black and white too! The composition, framing and sequence of those stories beat a path into my subconscious.
For me colour was a wrapper, black and white was the real stuff, there when you dug your nails beneath the surface.
It's not that I haven't had dalliances outside my relationship with black and white.
I've used a cameraphone to experience the immediacy of the taken image, there in the palm of my hand. My technique transferred easily enough. However I found colour in itself wasn't a significant element, a red flag to my senses. What I did discover was that, no longer driven by the sunlight and shadow that saturates my black and white work, I was at liberty to explore flat grey days as well as interior public spaces.
The results for me didn't have the same engagement, soul even, as my black and white work, but stepping outside my usual way of working tapped into something different. Watch this space!

25 Jan 2010

chasing pavements

I was in two minds about the style of my last street photography book loved; life; London. I wanted to reflect the energy and randomness of the street. I also wanted to focus attention purely on the images and their sequence, not on the design of the pages, as this was the essence of that particular body of work. I decided to publish them in a more formal, traditional design but it left me with an ambition to create something that made more of the qualities of a book and also the interest of a reader.

Creating a book based on this website, where I've examined why I do what I do, felt like a natural next step. Street photography for me is not purely about the final image. The act of taking them is an expression of my feelings about the city and how we conduct ourselves on its streets. I've reflected that in a layout with a variety of picture size and crop, some of my own text and other visual ideas.
Portrait of a Street Photographer by Sean McDonnell
Portrait of a Street Photographer is more an impression than a documentary. It's not a life story, just a snapshot.

11 Jan 2010

single lens reflex

Looking through the viewfinder wasn't working for me. The pictures I took were too static. Stopping to raise the camera to my eye took me out of the flow of the street and I wanted a way of working that meant I could stay immersed in it, observing from within.

What came more naturally to me was using the camera simply as an extension of my arm. I used it at waist level, above my head, behind my back. The pictures weren't random. I was responding to images forming before my eyes. I relied on footwork, timing and hand-eye coordination to take the picture as I approached, passed and moved on.

It was incredibly liberating, exhilarating. I could move to the rhythm of the street, creating sequences of images like musical notes on a manuscript. I discovered perspectives and compositions that genuinely excited me, images that were far closer to the emotions I felt on the street then anything I'd taken before.
New London street photography
Using film I never see what I've taken until it has been processed, contacted and then printed. Back in New York I was desperate to see the results as soon as possible but over time the distance between conception and birth has become longer, yes up to nine months sometimes! This gap is significant. It means I can sustain the sensation of seeing the picture, the thrill of finding something in the everyday that no-one else has. The value of that moment is not immediately judged by the success or not of capturing it, That act is something separate, something squirrelled away for the future in a dark place,

When the picture eventually sees the light of day again it is transformed. The memory of the original moment itself is gone. Now it is reborn as an image in its own right, with no obligation to the day it was conceived. I give it no name. Its identity is given by the viewer. The image now finds its own way in the world. And I like that!