Throughout my working life my public profile has been that of a writer – a journalist and an author. But it’s time the truth is out: I’ve been harbouring a secret double life. As a photographer.
I’ve never made a big noise about it, despite having a couple of exhibitions of photos I took years ago in India and Papua New Guinea along with publications in the news media. From my early teens, when I spent my school holidays working in a photo-processing lab, grabbing small, square prints as they tumbled off huge stainless steel drying drums, I’ve been snapping away with generations of cameras.
I’ve owned Russian Feds (a copy of a Leica rangefinder) and Zenits, a Rolleicord, before moving on to SLRs of just about every brand and more lenses than I care to think of. There have been magazine spreads, double page spreads in the Daily Mail, and book covers.
Now with a snippet of my secret life revealed it’s time to talk about a passion that has grown on me – street photography. How easy it would have to be, I believed, to just go out into the streets and fire away because there were subjects everywhere. Easy? Not at all. The moment has to be perfect, the light and shadows have to dance together and, more often than not, you have to ensure you’re not spotted (although sometimes a face staring straight at your camera can add strength to the image). Good composition helps, but it’s not always possible. But most of all the picture has to be interesting. You want the viewer to look into it, to feel what you felt when you took it. Street photography has been a progression, just as, years ago, I was able to confidently put away my light meters in the days of manual film cameras and estimate the settings required for my favourite Tri-X black and white film, which I would later develop using D76 developer before exposing the image onto contrasty Kodak or Ilford paper under my Durst enlarger. Later I needed only to develop film in some hotel bathroom and slide the negatives into a film scanner before adjusting the image on a 180C Mac laptop.
How the world of photography has moved forward since those days of the 1960s and ‘70s. With a top-rating phone your camera, darkroom and transmission device are in your pocket. Good cameras with wi-fi also allow for instant transmission to a phone, iPad or laptop for further editing.
But what attracted me to street photography? I don’t think I realised it at the time, but I owe it all to the man whose name (among others) is synonymous with the art – Henri Cartier-Bresson. Inspired by his work in Japan in the mid-1960s, I packed my bags 10 years later and followed his footsteps hitch-hiking around the country to the places where he’d taken his famous pictures. Sadly, my negatives have vanished, but I still have a few prints, one of my favourites being at the top of Mt Aso (which he’d also visited), where I found another photographer, covered in volcanic ash, waiting with his huge box camera on a tripod to take photos of non-existent tourists.
Street photography is a fun world, without the pressures of having to rush a news picture off to a newspaper or magazine. And what do I use? I had loved my small back-up film camera – a Ricoh GR – and when digital cameras found their feet I bought the digital version. Sadly, it was stolen from my bag as I flew to Nepal to cover a tour there of the actress Joanna Lumley.
Today I shoot ‘small’. I carry almost exclusively a Panasonic LX100 which has superb quality but if I need something longer I still have a Canon SLR and a dust-covered 100-400mm lens. And then there’s my smartphone – the LG G5, which produces incredible images, its wide-angle camera ensuring a virtual ’no miss’ when shooting from the hip.
How do I edit my images? Principally it’s Lightroom or Photoshop – but if I’ve transferred pictures to my iPad it will be mainly in VSCO, Snapseed, or Photogene. Too many? Maybe. But I do enjoy jumping around a bit as I’ve found that one app might do a better job with a particular image than another. Although that’s not always the case. I do also edit on the phone, but there’s no doubt that a larger screen is preferable.
Just thought I’d say hello now that my secret double life has emerged.
It – or I – will be back….