5 May 2013

London joins the Photobook Club

I recently had a great opportunity to share my love of photobooks with some like-minded souls at the first Photobook Club London event. 
I'd discovered the club earlier this year and was particularly taken by a project that the force behind it, Matt Johnston, had initiated based on a book that had really fired my imagination back in my New York days, Invisible City by Ken Schles. Matt and Ken created a "digital resource" effectively enhancing the experience of the original work with interviews and notes. A real treasure.
OK back to the event. The Photobook Club idea has spread far and wide around the world. Formats range from Bring Your Own Book, sharing its personal significance, or more formally discussing a "book of the month". I'm pleased to report the first London meet-up took neither course.
Hosted at the marvellous Ti Pi Tin space in East London we were able to spend time perusing the photobooks on display and pick one, or more, off the shelf that took our fancy to discuss with everyone else. The choice is intriguingly diverse. Japanese miniatures bound by silken threads, idiosyncratic self-published pamphlets, heavyweight tomes from the major publishers all vied for my attention. 
Between chatting to the other attendees my attention was caught by a navy blue cloth-bound book. The subtly embossed cover listed names, like a roll call of lost souls. Inside I found a collection of portraits, consciously stylish, but for me at least with a more personal, deeper connection. The mood had an elegiac quality, informed both by the title, Nothing Lasts Forever, and the subject itself, the transition from youth to something, somewhere else. I had no knowledge of the photographer, Tyler Leboneor of the book beforehand so when I came to discuss it with the group it was wonderful that someone could tell me yes it was a fashion photographer's study of his friends and, in addition, they were from South London, place of my roots. OK not so challenging but a great way of broadening my usual diet of monochrome urban grit. Not so good for digestion.
Anyway around the table we became gradually more confident to express and discuss our thoughts. I'd like to think it was very much in the spirit of the Photobook Club idea. Everyone had something to contribute. Everyone came away a little richer. Can't wait for the next one.

29 Jan 2013

pickpocket photography

“This is going to be interesting,” Robbins said. “O.K. Time to go shopping.”
When Robbins hits his stride, it starts to seem as if the only possible explanation is an ability to start and stop time.
"My goal isn’t to hurt them or to bewilder them with a puzzle but to challenge their maps of reality."
In pursuit of his craft, Robbins has ended up incorporating principles from such disparate fields as aikido, sales, and Latin ballroom dancing.
But physical technique....is merely a tool. “It’s all about the choreography of people’s attention,” he said. “Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”
So he is this Robbins guy, a new street photographer on the block? Well he's actually a highly successful street pickpocket. Indeed. But before I go further let me assure you he's a "gentleman thief" i.e. he gives back what he takes. In a similar way to Derren Brown, Robbins has found greater satisfaction in the practice of his psychological and physical techniques of control for the rewards of entertainment and education. 
What he's also done is describe his ethos and his approach in ways that I, in that bubble that I live in, empathise with. I've often referred to the relationship between sport and street photography. The ability of a tennis player to place their racquet in just the right place, at the right angle, at the right time, all at speed, is a perfect metaphor for my practice of street photography. However when I consider the mental processes going on, the act of being drawn to a stranger on the street, to not simply observe them but to take, quite literally, that step further, I wonder if there's some deeper connection here.
link to street photograph
"What I'm doing is taking inventory and making sight maps and getting a feel for who these people are and what I'm going to do with them. I'm a jazz performer - and I have to improvise with what I'm given."
Aha. Another illusion I'm fond of. The romantic anti-hero driven to pursue their craft beyond rational reason. Alone in the spot(sun)light, conjuring beauty out of thin air. 
Idle thinking perhaps but, for me anyway, it's a little insight into why I do what I do.
If I haven't been out on the street for a while, my return is intoxicated by a sense of being both part and apart from the world of people. That moment of absolute focus on an individual is ordinarily reserved for friend or family. But, instead of an unconditional offer, the street pickpocket/photographer gives one of dispassion. The "mark" in return offers opportunity, oblivious to the transaction. For the street pickpocket the stakes are high, financial reward or criminal penalty. For the street photographer these consequences are at extreme ends of a spectrum of possibility.
Our pocket picking takes what we didn't even know we had.

30 Dec 2012

we're all Londoners now

Editing my work for the new website reminded me of the excitement of finding something new in pictures that I'd thought had nothing more to offer. It got me thinking of taking that process up again in book form which, as after publishing Ambiguous, I'd been taking a break from. Indeed, as well as selecting images, the process of sequencing, of shuffling, pairing and juxtaposing, was one I've really enjoyed and found to be another rewarding way of looking at my photographs. 
My initial idea is to develop the Londoners theme. Seems obvious in retrospect but I suppose I've always considered the character of the city itself as significant an element in my images as the people themselves. Focusing, literally, onto individuals is a challenge to me. It's not "my style". However for me making books has become an opportunity to question just that. I love the constraint of working to a particular format, to a particular image size and shape. I'm attracted to print on demand services as I can experiment with these ideas at low cost. Consequently I choose another economy style, a little bigger than The Distance Between Us. As with that book it makes me think hard about one of my absolute articles of faith FULL FRAME, NO CROPPING. However whether by accident or by design - hey, another one of my catchphrases - this decision becomes a lot easier as the narrow, portrait format lends itself very well to the Londoners idea. The consequent crop gives the figures centre stage. Significantly some of the minor players, those with bit parts in the original, now come to the fore thanks to the indiscriminate scythe of the crop tool.
Initially the book takes on a claustrophobic mood. Images full bleed over the edge of the page, facing each other on left and right pages. I cannot seem to avoid the influence - although I'm certainly not in the company - of two of my favourite books, Invisible City by Ken Schles and Michael Ackerman's Fiction.
However I realise that the subject of the book is now the city itself, not the individuals as I'd proposed.  As a statement of intent I re-name the book Londoner. I step the images away from the page edge. I give them each their own page of white space opposite. Two simple acts but transformative. The pace of the book slows. The energy of the images is not diluted but accentuated. The individual figures become just that, no longer competitors in an Olympian 100 metre dash, but characters in a marathon performance of Shakespearian comedies and tragedies. 
link to Londoner book

30 Nov 2012

ways of walking stands up

It's like seeing a child grow up but I've had to accept my Waysofwalking website now has to stand on its own feet. The old design was wilfully "artistic" and not particularly intuitive to use. Definitely a case of style over content. The new design turns that around.
link to Sean's new website
My priority for the new site - bearing in mind it's taken five years to update it - was to future proof it as best I could. Consequently this one is what's called responsive which means the layout adjusts if you're looking at it on a tablet or smart phone. You can drag the window around on your computer and see what I mean.
link to Sean's new website

I admit the design feels a little basic but it'll be interesting to watch if visitors stay longer on the site as there is now more pictures to see more easily. The process of editing them for that purpose was fun.
As well as the established collections, like The Distance Between Us I've published as books, I've brought together images in new ways as well. Sign Language is, I hope, self explanatory, however I confess Touched, Wonder and Londoners seem more arbitrary but, for me at least, hold together. This is as close as I'll get to "labelling" my pictures, advocate as I am of the ambiguous!

25 Oct 2012

who's calling the shots?

Purely by chance - is there another way? - I find myself thinking about the implications of another piece of new technology that's caught my attention. 
Life logging has had a couple of recent shots in the arm with news of upcoming launches of Autographer, "the world's first intelligent wearable camera" and Memoto "the world's smallest wearable camera". The notion of recording my daily life in pictures in an arbitrary way i.e. with no choice in especially what I'm taking has a certain attraction to my wayward sense of purpose.
What would a journey down Oxford Street look like, a image every 30 seconds or whenever the camera fancies? How do we value an automatic street photograph, created with no conscious decision by the autog-rapher/me-moton to take it? For that matter can we even begin to absorb such an individual's output of up to 2,000 images a day? Will we see, like kinetic photography, a community of practitioners dedicated to developing techniques to literally put their own spin on the images? Could we see synchronised flash mobs, creating tapestries of stop motion style images? Jousts between rival crews on bikes careering towards each other? Citizens acting as mobile cctv vigilantes?
Or, more likely than my dystopian fantasies, are we entering an age where simple images of common humanity are as distant as daguerreotypes and need to be produced through a Hipstamatic filter to satisfy our richer appetites?
Here's the interesting consequence of this latest wave of innovation for me. The removal of any authorship of imagery, only ownership by virtue of simply being, quite literally, in the right place at the right time, is ironic. The resulting images are certainly unique but I wonder if our criteria for selection will become less about the content, more about both the metadata - the objective information about when and where the picture was made - and the tag, the subjective way we choose to describe and categorise that image at the time it was made. They become pure records of fact, in our ever expanding digitally documented lives. The Descriptive Camera follows the former its logical conclusion. The latter ambiguity plays to a favourite theme of mine.
Will that age of analogue photography, with its associated canon of great photographers, come to be regarded as we do now the Dutch masters? A darkened room in a dusty museum. Perhaps it's already happening.
Photography has by its nature been defined by technology. However this is an age where image making and distribution is in the hands of effectively everyone. That's powerful stuff as we've all witnessed in different places around the world. Consequently the impact of any new camera, mobile app, photo-sharing service is far greater than before. Understanding who's calling the shots is going to be interesting.

21 Sep 2012

decisive moments

The decisive moment is a phrase I've often questioned. It's a neat strap line serving to communicate the essence of street photography. It leaves no doubt what constitutes a great, or even good, street photograph.
In my own work I've played with the notion of decisive. In my world the precise moment is left to the trinity of my partners Fate, Chance and Serendipity. The results can be interpreted as lucky shots. I'd argue that my approach takes just as much presence of mind, channelling the spirit of John McEnroe as well as Eugen Herrigel.
This debate has for me been refreshed by two recent, well in the last year but time for me is a little elastic, events.

I'm not a great follower of new cameras but I couldn't ignore the buzz around a new Nikon. Let me hand over to the experts...

Smart Photo Selector (SPS) captures the perfect moment in any scene; shooting 20 full-resolution images in the time it takes you to snap a photo: you just press the shutter once and, utilising the pre and post capture technology, the camera starts to take the pictures before you’ve even fully depressed the button. Your ‘best’ five shots are saved based on facial expression, composition and focus and the ‘perfect’ shot is presented to you. Never again will you miss the very second a dog catches a ball or the joy on your child’s face while they are on a swing.

Well fancy that. Not one but 5 decisive moments. Now I'm not so old as not to know about motor drives but the concept of "pre-capture" is fascinating. Are we now about to see bodies of work of pre-decisive moments, full of nearly men and wannabe women?

Well guess what. With no suggestion that any pre-capture technology was employed a new - OK six month old - book by Paul Graham reveals sets of sequential pictures from a fixed point of view, a cascade of decisive moments each as valid as the one before...or the one after.
link to Rockefeller Center, 23rd April 2010, Paul Graham
Rockefeller Center, 23rd April 2010, Paul Graham
The Present neatly denounces the first article of faith of street photography by referencing the stock elements of the genre: New York City sidewalks, late afternoon sunlight, office workers and panhandlers, visual puns and ironic juxtaposition. Each served up and hit to all corners of the court. It's a tour de force but executed so clinically it's more an exhibition match than championship final. Decisive moments are ten a penny here, but nonetheless still precious, their value quality not quantity.
For me the spirit of this particular deconstruction of street photography is one of renewal. It describes a way forward to a place where street photography can still be fresh, relevant and of today. Not just a homage to a golden age nor replacing the bow with a Tommy gun to make damn sure you get your shots.
This is a place where moments are still sought and celebrated but it's not 30s Paris or 60s New York. Any decision of our times is a best guess.
It's still some way in the distance for me but I think I'm on the road at least!