30 Dec 2011

turning for home

Since my last post in July the scope of the Ambiguous Book Project has entered uncharted territory. I've found it fascinating how we've moved out of the urban, through the suburban, beyond countryside into wilderness.
As we approach the fiftieth, that's right 50th, image of the sequence we're almost home but I'm sure not without some more twists before we're done.
In the meantime I've been thinking of how the book can be formatted and structured. In this instance the primary challenges of any book, the edit and the sequence, have already been taken care of. The very nature of Ambiguous means every image is included and they will each be presented in relationship to the one they respond to. In that sense all I'll need to do is click Get Photos then Autoflow and, ladies and gentlemen, my work is done. It's certainly an attractive option. I've taken an invisible hand to the project so far, gently nudging it on its path since launch back in February
However this collection of images is becoming such a wonderful resource I just wonder, I just wonder...
In keeping with the spirit of the essential ambiguity of photographs I toy with an idea made famous by David Bailey's Box of Pin-Ups. A loose, unbound collection of prints that can be seen in any sequence the viewer chooses. Willfully perverse though it may seem I find there's something in the idea of literally throwing Ambiguous up in the air and letting the viewer take a treasure hunt approach to join the images together as they fall...Yes? No? I think it's one I'll have to save for another day unless Blurb suddenly add this to their ever expanding list of publishing options. Why they may even have a Direct From Facebook one soon...wait a minute, what's this?
Hold on to your hats. Can we complete the project by next February to meet it's first birthday? I certainly hope so!
 

26 Nov 2011

portrait of a street photograph, part 1

I'm about to embark on a selection of images from some recent work from Barcelona and thought you might like to come along for the ride.
First stop is the contact sheet. Click on it for a bigger version.
link to Barcelona contact sheet
On first take the contact sheet represents a chaotic, random way of working. I'd like to think there's method in my madness. For me facing the moment I originally took the photograph is one part of my work that has noticeably changed over time. At first it was a time of high expectation, regularly dashed on the rocks of my ambition. Over time as I've put more time between taking and printing images my attitude has become more sanguine, an appreciation of each moment on its own merit.
The Barcelona work is interesting as I've a clear memory of the circumstances surrounding a number of the images. The sequence I've latched onto from the particular contact sheet above is one revolving, literally, around an argument in the street between a young man and woman.
link to Barcelona contact sheet detail
The street at the time was relatively empty so I was keen to be unobtrusive, not for any great ethical motivation, but to try to get as close as possible. The result is two frames, 14 & 17, of the event, spliced by two others where I was moving around it. Intriguingly these four images, presented as they are on the contact sheet, become a sequence themselves related not just by time and space but something, for me at least, more evocative, almost cinematic.
I'll explore this in the next part of the process. Can't say what that'll be yet as I don't know myself!

26 Oct 2011

street view people view

I'm been struck by the parallel debates about privacy on the internet and on the street. Central to both arenas is the image of the individual, the rights of its ownership and distribution.
The rise in popularity of street photography has brought fresh attention to the practice of taking pictures of people without explicit permission. On the web the ongoing debate over privacy is regularly fuelled by the latest Facebook feature or expansion of Google Street View.
There is already technological convergence between the street and the screen. Face recognition to optimise the identification of criminals by cctv is also marketed more benignly to find friends in party photos posted online.

This debate is not new. The tension between individual and state as played out on the street has been reflected in literature, often in a dystopic future. From George Orwell's 1984 to Will Self's Book of Dave a vision of Londoners is portrayed living with the consequences of the gradual relinquishing of our privacy.
My most recent collection of photographs, Between the City and the City, explores an idea of parallel experience, how we each live together alone in the city, our faces more like façades. It now forms the backdrop for a new book, Street View People View, that develops the relationship of our faces and the ownership of their image.
link to People View Street View book
The title of the book has been on my mind for a while. It seemed, for me at least, a logical next step in the enhancement of the digital documentation of public spaces to that of the people within those spaces. We can already identify our friends' physical location courtesy of mobile phone apps. Enhancing that visually would be neat wouldn't it? Imagine scanning a crowd with an augmented reality app that highlights those individuals. Cool.The anonymous crowd, familiar to the street photographer as the human zoo, now becomes a photo gallery of individuals, instantly profiled and packaged. Science or fiction?
As with my earlier books, Portrait of a Street Photographer and The Distance Between Us, I've thought about how those particularly wonderful characteristics of a book could be used to express these ideas. Consequently I've found myself breaking some of my own taboos.
I was looking for a way of simply illustrating the book's title. One design idea I tried was alternating the sequence of images with upside down cropped versions of each picture, including two separate front covers. The not-so-simple idea was the book could be experienced as a set of "street views" in landscape format and "people views" in portrait format. I liked the intention but the execution was a little laboured. I did however, whisper this, like the cropping so I kept that and tried another approach.
I've shied away from captioning my images in the past but I wanted to refer to the ideas that lay behind the book. Including quotes from press releases, novels and news stories satisfied that. Granted not a particularly original idea - I think Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip was the first time I saw this technique.
I considered really ramming the idea home with speech-bubbles above each figure's head with sample personal details. However I wanted to retain the feel of the images as pure street photographs and not interfere with them directly. This literal sub-text is then there as something for the viewer to consider as a separate but related element, more like a collage.
Finally I chose not to include any rationale in the book itself, This is exclusive to this site!
Street View People View felt like an opportunity to reflect on my own work, and the city I live in, and to consider street photography in a broader context in which it may be practised in the near future, coming to a corner near you soon...


22 Sep 2011

life class

It was wonderful to give another talk at The School of Life earlier this month. Many thanks to Nick Turpin and the participants of the Photographing London weekend workshop for a really inspirational afternoon.



I am impressed at the quality of work at these sessions. Once again it's a real lesson for me in setting oneself parameters or a challenge. Inevitably I search for a metaphor in these instances and the mental and physical effort required is certainly of Olympian proportions.

Two marvellous images are worth noting from Laura Fitzpatrick and Tony White. Each in their own way exemplify for me the essence of street photography.

Tony's image, and style now I'm glad to have discovered more of his work, has a real warmth and a resonance with the sensitivity of Tony Ray-Jones. There's certainly an undefinable Englishness to this picture which is a joy.

In contrast Laura's photograph at the foot of Nelson's Column is a tour de force of geometry and timing. It feels so perfect that it ironically touches on contemporary practices of digital manipulation and staged flash mobs, even though the image is entirely of the moment, taken as found with no intervention other than being in the right place at the right time and having the presence of mind to take the picture.
Easy, eh?

19 Aug 2011

between the city and the city

12 Jul 2011

25...and counting

I had anticipated announcing the completion of the first part of the Ambiguous Book Project around now. The initial response of "I'm in!" from nearly thirty photographers however has almost doubled thanks to the fine support of the good people at Blurb.

Their Q&A with me prompted a second wave of participants from all around the world. I did contemplate starting-up Ambiguous 2, the Sequel, but felt it little presumptuous as I hadn't even published the first one! In fact the second wave of ambiguants have really enriched the project.

For a start there are more women. I've self-consciously written before about the gender bias of street photography. (On a side note I'd recommend the current show at the Photofusion Gallery, On Street Photography: A Woman's Perspective, part of the marvellous London Street Photography Festival.)

In addition countries represented now extend over the horizon to India, Russia, Ireland, Colombia, Spain, Austria and Australia.

There is also the promise of even more wonderful images to discover.

The only direction I give participants is to interpret the photograph I send them as freely as they wish. In fact it's interesting to consider how much curation is behind this project. At one level there is none. There's no qualification criteria, no committee sitting in judgement, no entry fee, no sponsor to satisfy. It's an entirely open collective effort and I'm just acting as a mailbox.

And yet, and yet...I have to accept that this particular utopia has been founded in my shadow. In the city of Ambiguo there number Blurbarians, Blurberati and Blurbaristas. A significant majority of Monochromists and at least one fundamental Analogue-Monochromist. Romantics rub shoulders with Realists. Watchers flirt with Waiters. Bus Riders vie with Train Catchers. Barflys, Beachbums and Fastfood Junkies indulge themselves...It's my kinda town.

However what's even more of a bonus are the thoughts and words behind those pictures.

I'm delighted that the essence of the project - the capricious, mutating meaning of any photograph - has connected so well. People really spend time, revisiting their archive, mulling, finding a nugget of possibility. I receive emails of frustration. I empathise. I say, I know. It's not easy. But believe me it's worth it! We're building something special.

30 Jun 2011

step in time

I'm back on my reading habit and enjoying London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. I'm only half way through it but I've already been struck by some fabulous images
If you stand in Lombard Street at any time of the day, for example, that narrow thoroughfare like others in the vicinity echoes to hurrying footfalls. It has been a continuous sound for many hundreds of years, in the very centre of the City, and it may be that the perpetual steady echo of passing footsteps is the true sound of London in its transience and in its permanence.

and this

It is a city always known for its vivacity and its restlessness. We learn from Thomas Burke's The Streets of London that the citizens' 'progress through the streets is marked by impetuosity and a constant exertion of strength'. We learn further from Pierre Jen Grosley's A Tour of London in 1772 that 'the English walk very fast; their thoughts bring entirely engrossed by business, they are very punctual to their appointments, and those, who happen to be in their way, are sure to be sufferers by it; constantly darting forward, they justle them with a force proportioned to the bulk and velocity of their motion'.
They echo some ideas I've just been exploring on film - the moving kind. I've been spending time in the City, London's financial district, lately. There's a particular pasage in The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.

I've really felt it on the street in the City. Unlike the West End, whose morning rush hour is more distributed, both geographically and over time with shops generally opening later, the City is highly concentrated with well worn paths from tube and train stations dense with a majority of office workers determined to be at their desks for a 9am start. The sheer volume of people marching as one corporate mass is at first glance not materially different from the 19th century factory workers. On further observation, subtleties, intricacies emerge, the "ballet".

The influence of the medieval city's pattern of streets, courtyards, alleyways and lanes is enormous on the present day experience. Entering and exiting them, smoothly without breaking stride or sweat, is an art. There's as much social nuance as an Elizabethan court dance in the manner in which these steps are negotiated. Assaying one's way from the chill gloom into startling sunlight requires an appreciation of  the movement of bodies that Galileo would admire. Jousting scalding cups of latte, eye-level umbrella spokes and sharp elbows add to the drama, and exhaust my metaphor.

So it's hardly a great discovery but movement is intrinsic to this experience. It's challenged my default response - take a photograph, get close to the action, capture the essence of the moment. It feels like an opportunity to explore what the moving image can offer.

Don't worry I'm not renouncing the still! I confess it feels a little clichéd. There's certainly a tradition of street photographers taking up movie-making. Perhaps it's a natural next step. The motivation and opportunity to say something, new or otherwise, with still photography is exhausted.
Personally I'm not at that point, yet!

29 May 2011

fly wall hornet sting

The Ambiguous Book Project has certainly made me re-think. Re-think not just the powerful images that have been submitted but my whole approach to photography.

I've come from a place where words like serendipity, chance, observational, non-intervention are my maxims. I've shied away from putting myself in the picture, both figuratively and metaphorically. I confess, after a little scrutiny, that's certainly disingenuous. I was struck by a quote from Werner Herzog in a recent interview in the New York Times.

“I insist that even if you make documentaries, we are filmmakers, and we must never be flies on the wall, unobtrusive and just registering. As filmmakers we should be the hornets that go out and sting. The fly on the wall is a perspective that is suspicious to me per se. Every single camera angle is already a choice and a statement.”

One of the motivations behind the from the hip technique I've pursued is a dissatisfaction with my own overt efforts to control the composition of my pictures. Formally they were competent but the rational thought behind their construction drained the life from them. They rarely reflected how I felt. To retain that soul I gave up all control over the composition of the image to my old friends (the cop out twins?) serendipity and chance...

Granted it's not entirely random. In deference to Werner Herzog I am deliberately introducing the camera into a situation that I have determined is an opportunity. The moment of exposure, the sting if you will, is of my choosing. However, in this scenario, the target is not.

Introducing that ambiguity into my photography from the very moment of conception has always attracted me. As well as the essential originality of the image - the first time I see it is on a contact sheet - the images that I respond to most have an innate democracy. Each element has equal significance, an equal vote to win my attention.

link to new colour photograph

So what's my problem? Well the images I see submitted to the project are deliberately composed yet still evocative, full of soul. The interpretations each photographer has offered enriches the experience further. Perhaps I just need to lighten up. Not worry about a composition that speaks directly of my experience. After all it's only supposed to be a representation, right?

17 May 2011

now we are 10

I'm really proud to say our first ten images have been contributed to the Ambiguous Book Project. I'm already struck by the quality of the photographs and fascinated by the insight shared by the participants.

I'm heartened that Anita French responded to the challenge with an image that immediately expresses the essence of the project: not just a striking image but one considered in terms of thoughts triggered by my picture.

From the States we bounce back to Europe, to the Netherlands to be specific and to Michiel Faro. I really like Michiel's take on his image, "..different yet strangely coherent directions" has resonance for the whole project!

Zun Lee from Canada's interpretation really excites me. Using a single element of the previous picture he conjures up a whole new world of possibility.

At this point I was interested to see if the sequence would start to focus on characters and their stories. However Fabrizio Quagliuso brilliantly switches focus to the fabric of the city and its equal significance.

The image from Tiffany Jones is a marvellous counterpoint. It's a powerful example to me how insight into the photographer's own thinking can enrich the experience for the viewer.

Our voyage next takes me to Pakistan and a gift from Ali Sultan that, even now when I look at it again, has deep emotional impact. An ambivalent image for an ambivalent world.

Orville Robertson evokes a sense of a place I was once very familiar with. It's a real lesson to me in how any rules of composition, when it comes to photographing on the street, are there to be redefined.

And guess what? Donald Martinez has done just that. His interpretation of Orville's image neatly flips the arrangement of elements to mirror its mood.

A wonderful sequence is now developing thanks to Anika de Souza. The inanimate transforms into the intimate.

Superbly complemented by Matt Scandrett, I'm transported both in space and time.

I smile when I look at these last two images as I've been congratulating participants in embracing the project. Here are two, sorry four, people doing just that!

OK. Deep breath. Onwards and upwards.

25 Apr 2011

yesterday Derby, tomorrow the world

My little film is taking on a trajectory closer to an indie band's journey to fortune and fame.
Debuted at a festival in the Midlands, it next played to a hundred people in a small room in north London and now takes the stage at a prestigious West End venue.
The World Photo Festival opens this week at Somerset House and I've a slot at the Carousel session.
Wherever next?

20 Apr 2011

maybe it's because I'm a Londoner

One interesting response I had to my pictures at the London Street Photography show was a request for an interview for The Irish World. Nothing came of it...except it's lead me to reflect on my status as second generation Irish and what, if any, influence it's had on my work. Don't worry, this isn't turning into a misery memoire. Normal service will be resumed!

My first thoughts are around some kind of identity of belonging, Where's home?

I think I'm a classic immigrant child, caught between parental and host country's nationalities. The twist is the particular historic relationship between Ireland and England. Looking at my own upbringing and others I know of immigrant descent there's broadly two experiences. One a deliberate celebration of difference: a public life built around extended family and other immigrants; close affiliation to the social networks of religion, culture etc. The other experience of assimilation, keeping your head down, adopting not so much a pro-active Englishness, whatever that is, but a dilution of the ways of the old country.

My parents certainly had many friends from their old country. They'd met in the Irish dance halls of South London in the 50s and both worked in professions, nursing and engineering, with substantial reservoirs of Irish blood and sweat. However my life was relatively insulated from that world, I think, as a consequence of two conflicting ambitions of my parents. My father's dream to never settle here because in his mind he was always going to return home, and my mother's determination, as much out of necessity as desire, to make the best of life in the here and now, in England. The result was an in-between state of mind where England was not good enough for me, nor I for it.

So if I'm neither Irish nor English, then how about 'British', tribe of choice for many second generation sons and daughters? Well I'm afraid that resonated too strongly with the phrase 'Brits Out' painted onto the walls of my 70s childhood memories of family holidays in the north of Ireland. Consequently the only real place that I felt was mine to show allegiance to, and feel comfortable being associated with, was London. It felt big enough, old enough, strong enough...yet still undefined. Think of a Londoner and you're as likely to come up with Del Boy Trotter as you are Dick Whittington, Charlie Chaplin as much as Charles Dickens. Unusually for a label, 'Londoner' felt liberating not restraining.

link to my new London street photography

Today under my flag of convenience I stride my domain not as a king, more like a thief. London doesn't owe me anything. Unlike the Duke of Westminster I don't own the place. Everyone on the street is a Londoner, for one day at least. I'm just like them. Just visiting.
Thanks to these reflections, the in-betweeness of my upbringing, my subsequent choice of London as a safe haven, I now see a source of my particular take on the fluid and fragile nature of city life. The photographer as outsider is a well worn image but it's fascinating to consider in relation to street photography. Does the work of a native Chicagoan, Roman or Mumbaikar have any greater authenticity than the visitor? One for a future post I think!

2 Apr 2011

photographing London at the School of Life

Last week I had the pleasure of discussing my work with a wonderful group of people participating in a street photography weekend run by Nick Turpin at the equally wonderful School of Life in the heart of London.
The School of Life's strapline is "Ideas to live by". It was I felt a very appropriate venue to consider the practice of street photography which for me is characterised by its representation of every day life, one step removed. The 'takeaway' from my talk to the group was to simply appreciate the experience of coming off standby mode, where we live much of our lives, to a more switched on state where, to quote Ian Sinclair in Lights Out For The Territory quoting William S. Burroughs,
"...the important fact about urban living: the continual stream of second attention awareness. Every licence plate, street sign, passing strangers, are saying something to you."

I appreciated they'd had a tough weekend walking the streets of London, fulfilling stretching briefs set by Nick, but I hope this message had some resonance. The more I talk it through in front of people, the more it makes sense. To me at least.

It was fascinating to see each member of the group's different, and common, interpretations to the challenges they had been set. The idea of working as a pack in this way, sharing a common purpose but following your own instincts, is intriguing and not one I've experienced. There's an inherent contradiction for me in undertaking what is essentially a solo pursuit in this manner, but there are certainly photographers out there who practice in this way.
The Ambiguous Book Project has got me thinking about collaboration. It's a virtual project where every participant is working independently. Even more so when I'm asking them not to go out onto the street but to stay indoors and look at their personal collections! However we are still sharing an approach, reflecting on images and how they can reveal more than we may have originally intended. I wonder how we could develop that into a realtime, in person activity?
Hey look at me, already thinking of the sequel.That's a little way off just yet!

24 Mar 2011

ken burns is innocent

Moving pictures? Sound as well? Nah, it'll never catch on. Who do you think I am, desperate to tart up my fine art photography with a garnish of Ken Burns effects on a bed of Gerry Rafferty's Streets of London?  Well, against my better judgement, I've been thinking of putting together my pictures to a soundtrack of some description. 
It's interesting to re-consider the concept of a slide show in terms of an experience that now isn't so much about sitting in your front room comatosed by the neighbours' holiday snaps or a cold church hall camera club enthusiast only interrupted by the whirr-click of a carousel. Daddio get with the digital age. Now we can consume byte-size pieces of media on-demand. Simultaneously re-tweeting Justin Beiber while waiting to eBay bid on a collection of 60s manga we queue a YouTube sequence of skateboarding cats.

How to compete for any attention span, however shallow, in those circumstances?

As part of the opportunity to display my book loved; life; London at the Format Festival I was given the chance to participate in the Carousel Slam. I loved the oxymoron. It made me reconsider my outmoded thoughts on slide shows and I decided to jump in.

The business of editing and sequencing images was my first challenge. I had a way in by virtue by referring back to love; life; London and I soon had a rough cut of about 30 images. However just sequencing them like a PowerPoint presentation i.e. centre each image onscreen, 3 seconds each, next - next - next - etcetera - etcetera - etcetera didn't do them, nor the medium justice.   
I wanted to give some energy, some reflection of the street to the experience.This made me focus on the soundtrack. I was desperate not to contradict my no-crop no-caption maxim, not to "lead" the viewer but let them make up their own mind what they take from the picture. I didn't want to set these pictures to a song which made an overt connection to a particular interpretation (herewith known as the Rafferty Effect).

Where did that leave me?

As well as photography about the city, and books about the city, I do love films about the city too. Digging around the sequences on my YouTube channel I picked out a couple. The first was The City, an American documentary from 1939 by the splendidly monikered Willard van Dyke. It has a wonderful soundtrack which is a sampler's paradise. The vocal excerpt I picked had a marvellous quality, like a 50s government information film, but the spoken words were more B-movie panic than Keep Calm and Carry On.

To follow I couldn't resist one of my all-time favourites West Side Story. If I'd ever had a Jim'll Fix It wish (details here for my overseas friends) then it would have to be a walk-on role in that production. It's such a perfect combination of sound and vision I felt guilty running Leonard Bernstein's score against my pictures.
However the segueway between it and the first piece just fell into place so perfectly I felt it was meant to be. Honestly.
Now when I reviewed the sequence I wanted to do something more with the images themselves. Working on a MacBook the Ken Burns effect, a zooming and moving effect, is a default within iMovie and I confess to having found it profoundly irritating whenever I'd seen it. However, after introducing the soundtrack the ebb and flow, rather then making me feel seasick, suddenly made sense. I applied it to all, with a little tweaking, and clicked save.
OK it's showtime...although you've probably gone straight to play this before reading of my ramblings above. I know I would.
Just this week I was invited to show this again at the HOST Gallery's Slam and this time I was to able to introduce it in person. It was a really inspirational event. A full house collectively experiencing a diverse collection of moving images, in both senses of the word. it was also great to be part of a broad cross section of photographic approaches.
This current year of street photography is wonderful. It's certainly keeping me busy. However I think it's important to recognise there's a real opportunity here to make connections in the wider community of people who care about cities, about urban places, about how we shape them and how they shape us.
And by the way, Ken Burns, if you're listening, I take back what I've said about you.

20 Mar 2011

the good ship Ambiguous sets sail

Heavens, I'm so excited by the Ambiguous Project.

25 souls have signed up for the voyage, from all points of the compass. I've even been drawn to the siren call of Facebook, after resisting for so long.

True to my convictions about photography I believe the act of creation is as important as the final output. To make that happen I've set up a page so we can all share in the making of the book.




OK the first image has been cast into the ferment.

It's one of mine, taken at the Elephant & Castle in London in the late 80s. There were a few thoughts in my head when I chose it. As it's the first in the Ambiguous sequence I had the advantage, and burden, of selecting anything.

This particular image appealed to me as it's one I've personally spent time contemplating. I originally chose to keep and print this picture for reasons to do with the composition. However that's changed over time and now when I look at it the location and subject of the image itself evoke special memories, both of my childhood and, in later life, as a young father myself.

I
n other words it fits my brief for the project perfectly.

links to my Ambiguous Book Project image

 I can't wait to see what happens next.

17 Mar 2011

Are you looking at me?

Thought I'd just publish my recent piece in fLIP, London Independent Photography's magazine. 
As I've found with this blog, reflecting on why I do what I do is a rewarding exercise. The standby excuse of any artist, the "I just do it because I have to" position, is perfectly acceptable but, as I've found, a missed opportunity to question and justify my own indulgent behaviour! 
Anyway on with the show...
Standing in the shadow of Centre Point I'm facing a dilemma. It's 4.30 on a still July afternoon. Attempt one more pass westbound along Oxford Street into the sun, my friend and adversary. Take the tube to Marble Arch. Risk missing a scene. Restore some energy for the eastbound assault at 5. Head's throbbing, throat's dry, hands sweaty. Last roll of film presses insistently against my heart. Remember. Left breast pocket for fresh, right for spent. Left right, left right. Suddenly I'm off. I exit my cool refuge and immediately sense an opportunity. Pulse slows. I'm physically here. My mind's out-of-body. The curtain on the choreography of the street is about to rise. Cue Sean. 
I appreciate this may all be a little melodramatic; the portrayal of the photographer as outsider, a single white male with a starring role in his own remake of Taxi Driver, perhaps with better hair. Nevertheless my approach to photographing on the streets of London is characterised by both a physical and mental immersion in the act of taking a picture. 
It all began over twenty years ago with my baptism to the streets of Manhattan.
"Is the bus free? Is the bus free?"
"Kid, the only thing free in New York is the air." 
A spiritual home to a kid who idolised 70s TV cop shows and 80s new wave bands, New York City became my real home for a couple of years. More by accident than design, my move was as much about the chance to re-invent myself in the grand tradition of 'making it there' just like Frank Sinatra said. It wasn't easy. As my airport bus driver friend would agree, New York is a helluva town. 
Taking photographs became a way of making sense of this Babel. The density of midtown streets, the impulsion to keep moving, "NO LOITERING" signs, lead me to a style of photography that kept me inside the strongest currents of this stream of consciousness. Pre-set aperture, shutter speed, focus. Camera rarely held to my eye, more often away from my body, a two-way mirror that both reflects and absorbs. Not that this technique was without drawbacks. A couple of months after my arrival in the height of summer my camera had enough and expired on the corner of West 34th and 8th. After presenting it to a repair shop for estimate I was admonished on my return and told not to use it on the beach without sufficient care. In fact the salty residue that had seeped into my camera was the sweat from my hand. 
Although my technique has essentially changed little since then, the greatest difference has been in my perspective. In New York I rushed to the film processing store every week, clutching my half dozen rolls of Tri-X, eager to see what sliver of the street I'd managed to capture. Invariably I returned disappointed. The images never quite living up to my expectations. Mute, monochrome, motionless, I felt I'd anaesthetised the very things that inspired me. Yet I persevered, always looking for that one, golden shot. 
Back in London my frustrations mounted. I felt I'd stacked the odds even higher. At least in New York a constant diet of sunshine fed my fast shutter speed, big depth-of-field habit. A neat grid of streets meant I co-ordinated my wanderings to maximise the light: shadow ratio. An exuberant street culture guaranteed a flow of individuals of all strokes, loud and proud. As I attempted to mine the same vein in my home town I began to wonder what I was doing. My persona as outsider had been legitimate in New York. That didn't seem to ring true any more. 
Then I did something I'd never done before. I began to really look at my pictures. Plunging into my contact sheets, old and new, I found images that had lain dormant for ten years or more. It struck me it wasn't about the golden shot any more. It was about recognising the possibility of a picture. It was the act of seizing that moment that was so exciting. Whether I successfully recorded the moment on film was something separate, something with its own life, sometime in the future. You can regard this as a cop-out, a sign of getting old. Perhaps it is but somehow I think I'd rather be a Winston Smith than a Travis Bickle.

9 Mar 2011

hello London

Welcome to readers of the new Street Life issue of fLIP, the excellent magazine of the London Independent Photography community.
link to fLIP Magazine street photograph edition
Thank you for your interest in my work and I hope you enjoyed my piece "The Distance Between Us".
I'd like to reciprocate and invite you to join Ambiguous, my worldwide street photography book project!

The details are in this post.
So far photographers from the Netherlands, the Philippines, Italy and New Zealand are in, as well as the UK, so you're most welcome to join too!

16 Feb 2011

announcing the ambiguous book project!

If you arrived here via my books on Blurb then thank you for making the journey. Look around, touch what you want, don't worry it won't break. While you're here let me tell you about a chance to publish your own work as part of a new Blurb project I'm planning...

If it wasn't reward enough for choosing my book loved; life; London for their stand at Format 11,  Blurb have also kindly offered me a voucher to spend in their store. To spread that goodwill around I'm using it to fund a collaboration. Let me explain my idea.

I'd like to present a sequence of photographs in book form that reflect the experience of the street. The theme? Ambiguity. The modus operandi? A simple game of word association...but using pictures instead.
This is not a kind of Street Photography Now project that you go out and shoot. No, this is about images you've already made. The idea is to really look at those pictures again. Find something in them. Something that may have not been the original reason to take or save them. Something that you, and it need only be you, can connect with an image selected by another photographer who, in turn, has made a connection to another image...and so on and so on. The link could be the circumstances surrounding it, an otherwise insignificant element within it, a simple leap of imagination. Surprise yourself!

OK, still interested? Let me answer some questions...

How are you going to choose the participating photographers?
I'm not. I welcome anyone who's motivated to respond. I'm not fussy! I'm not looking for Flickr account links or website URLs.

So this is all about black and white, old school, urban gloom? 
You disappoint me. I love colour! I welcome any format too: digital or lomo, iPhone or pinhole.

It's a London thing, right?
Not at all. Small town America, mega city China. Anywhere in between.

How much do you want me to pay? 
Nothing. Nada. Zip. All I request is a little of your precious time, gratis. Believe me, it'll be a great investment!

OK, so how much can I make?
See answer above. Be advised this is not a path to riches. This is a non-profit exercise for all of us. The book will be sold at cost on Blurb, just for the warm glow of satisfaction of creating something unique.
This sounds too good. Where's the small print? 
I see you're a hard sell.
Believe me, I want to make this process as simple as possible.

Yes, I'll co-ordinate the exchange of images and the production of the book.
No, you don't have to sign up to Blurb. 
Yes, you will be credited as co-author of the finished book.
No, your image will not be used for any other purpose than this project without your permission. Same goes for your email address.
OK, I'm in! Where do I sign?
Wonderful. Just send me an email with the subject "I'm in!" to sean@waysofwalking.net

I'll be in touch to start the chain. 

13 Feb 2011

Museum of London street photography show - countdown begins

Well, the Museum of London's street photography exhibition opens this week and I'm really looking forward to it. Highlighting our city’s rich tradition of street photography, one that is as distinctive as Paris or New York, is long overdue. This survey, in the setting of the Museum, is a perfect place to consider what the images reveal of London's social history. It's fantastic this form of photography has risen in popularity in recent years but I hope the presentation of contemporary images alongside those of Paul Trevor’s will make us stop and think what a street photograph can actually be, as well as others by Paul Martin will serve as a reminder of its roots.
link to my Museum of London street photography show selection
As for my own work I am intrigued how it will be presented. Despite being a proud Londoner one of the characteristics of my photographs is how ambiguous they are in term of location and, to some extent, time as well. However I can testify the main image selected for the show is from 1989, taken in London's West End!
link to my Museum of London street photography show selection
There will also be some of my more recent work projected as part of a sequence of contemporary London street photography.
link to my Museum of London street photography show selection
I love how the show had broadened its appeal, curating work via The Big Issue and Metro, and stimulating debate on the merits of The Ted Heath Orchestra versus The Cheeky Girls as soundtracks to some of the show's photographs. I sincerely hope the programme of supporting events over the summer makes the most of this attention and delivers an international impact as well as one, to use a popular phrase, which establishes a legacy to Londoners.

7 Feb 2011

read all about it...man gives birth

As a break from processing my small mountain of rolls of exposed film, I've been working with Stuart Keegan on printing some recent work. Yes, I really do still take pictures!

The ritual of film processing > contact sheets > first edit > work prints > final edit > finished prints is a long journey from the moment of making the initial exposure. I've irreverently compared it to a pregnancy as some of these "new" photographs were taken over 9 months ago.
link to my new London street photography
I don't religiously document the precise date and location of my pictures, no EXIF data for me I'm afraid, let alone a more intimate account of what attracted me to take them. Consequently when I selected these new pictures to be brought back kicking and screaming into the world it was, at the risk of over-extending this metaphor (not something I could ever be accused of, naturally), on the basis of their ability to stand up on their own two feet. Inevitably this judgement is still subjective - hey, this is art after all - but I approach them with a degree of detachment comparable to anyone looking at them for the first time. I don't expect to change people's opinion of them once the title or "story behind them" is revealed. In that way I suppose the story is thrown back to the viewer to make up for themselves.
link to my new London street photography
It would be fun to record those stories in some way. This idea seems to lend itself most naturally to online sharing such as Flickr. However I'm not thinking of simply an instant comment on a website - although that might be nice - but something more considered. I'm thinking out loud here (I wonder how that translates into Korean or Chinese?) but perhaps I should investigate the collaboration approach that Blurb offers. I'll look for some examples and let you know.
Thanks for listening.

23 Jan 2011

the reluctant flâneur

One of the topics raised in my street photography talk at Photofusion last year was the approach of setting yourself a project as a street photographer, working to rules, taking pictures for a particular purpose, versus a more aimless, wandering style. I'd originally, and a little arrogantly, put myself in the latter category.

Setting limits surely contradicts the whole ethos of street photography? The romantic tradition of the flâneur predicates a reckless abandon to chance. There's no plan of action or premeditation. Everything has equal significance before the steady gaze of the impartial, impassioned observer.

Well, with a little more thought on my part, and the purpose of this website, despite those ambitions I have a number of conditions surrounding my work that mean I do not so neatly portray the free wheelin' style of the boulevardier.

And, as is the fashion of the web, I'll turn them into a list (and include yet another gratuitous French reference).
Recipe for Street Photography à la Sean McDonnell
film
35mm
black & white
HP5
SLR
Olympus
single lens
fixed
28mm
1/500
f16
blind
London
West End
daytime
weekdays
outside
natural light
sunshine
people
don't go back
Season well and simmer for 25 years, stirring occasionally.
I've now come to a point where I'm thinking about people. Who do or don't I take pictures of?

The mélange of social classes is a defining characteristic of street photography. What attracts me to London's West End in particular is that mix of shopper, worker, student, tourist, day tripper, native (and all the subtle classifications between) thrown into eachother's company.

However the privileges of the city are granted by invitation only. London's better than a lot of cities but access and navigation for the less physically able is restrictive. The explicit and implicit presence of authority and surveillance, encourages a conformity of appearance and behaviours and, by implication, draws attention to and discourages those who deviate.  Flipping this around I can't ignore the corresponding position I hold as a single, white, male on the street; one of the silent, invisible, majority, able to go about his business with relative impunity.

When I look at my work I like the diversity of people I see. I feel proud that London is a city where, in spite of the reservations I've touched on, it is a city to roam. However I'm mindful that freedom, and the freedom to record it, is hard won and precious.

Well I don't quite know how I've ended up talking about liberty, equality and fraternity...but then again perhaps I do.
À bientôt, mes amis!

5 Jan 2011

new year, new book

My collection of images I called The Distance Between Us came into being over a year ago. While revisiting my work, I began to saw a number of photographs with two figures interacting with one another through a gesture, eye contact or just being in close proximity to one another. Some of those interactions were obviously intended by both parties, others were not. What interested me was their record of moments that we are all party to, throughout our public lives on the streets. The effect of sharing public space with a random cross-section of others means we experience a level of intimacy that I think is worth cherishing.

I was content to let these pictures live together as a stack of prints. I'd just published two books and wanted to absorb the process and consequences of that. However at the end of last year I felt ready to think about how they could be presented on the printed page.
My original book loved; life; London follows the traditional approach of a monograph: same-size images sequentially presented as they'd appear on a white gallery wall. The second, Portrait of a Street Photographer, is an attempt to put the photographs into the context of why they were made. To reflect the street experience different layouts are used to give the book a rhythm and dissonance. My new book, The Distance Between Us, develops that approach and deliberately presents the images in a fractured way. It's not a printing error!
link to The Distance Between Us by Sean McDonnell
The decision to use this approach was influenced I confess by the new pocket book format that Blurb have released. It's not a friendly format for full frame 35mm street photography but using the dimensions of the pages to determine the crop and arrangement of the images felt natural and in tune with the ideas behind this particular collection.The paper stock is certainly not for the purist but, again, I feel it complements the nature of these pictures and they add up to something greater than the sum of the parts. Hey, I think I've another book title...