By Salina Christmas & Zarina Holmes
We’re fans of Chris Steele-Perkins, and were quite impressed by his work which was featured some time ago at a Magnum Photos show called ‘Bitter Fruit’.
Sojournposse was excited to be able to attend the Magnum photographer’s talk on his latest book, England, My England, held on 8 June at the HOST gallery in East London. The talk was enlightening, but the Q&A session, which followed the slideshow presentation, was unforgettable.
Chris Steele-Perkins signs an autograph after his talk at Foto8 on 8 June 2010.
Steele-Perkins made the photography blogosphere livelier this week with his comment on the Photographers’ Gallery at the talk. He said it is shit (click here to read the transcript). We mentioned it on Facebook that evening. Duckrabbit published a survey on their blog the following day: “Is the Photographers’ Gallery shite?”
A video by Sam Cornwell was published the day after.
Anyway, what’s the point of embellishing on what Steele-Perkins lucidly elaborated on that evening. Here is Chris Steele-Perkins, in his own words:
On England, My England
England, My England is a body of work spanning four decades. Steele-Perkins is known internationally for his work with Magnum Photos on subjects such as Afghanistan and Japan. His England my England journey began with a question upon his return from the overseas assignments: “Do I see England in a different way?”
“This is not a travel book. It is my experience on England. It’s ‘everydayness’, and how everyday can be special. I omitted celebrity portraits and landscapes to feature only ordinary people.
“I just want to show that England, for all it’s shittiness and all the complaints, although far from perfect, is not too bad.”
On designing his own book
“The challenge of making the book is to make it coherent.
“You do read metaphors into you work that sometimes no one else does.
“I considered two approaches, a group sets of photographs tied to one related concept, or a simpler approach which I used for England, My England. I create a narrative that follows the time frame. This makes the editing process easier.
The photographer explaining his narrative style to the audience.
“It’s important for a photo to have a sense of cover. Why is that picture on the front cover? Because I like it. The photo is shot in the 80s, an era sat in the time frame of the entire journey.
“Spreads are important, sometimes, not always. You got to play on spreads. I add blank pages occassionally as breaks. The creases in the middle of photographs don’t bother me [because] life isn’t a flatline.
“I design and lay out the book myself. A photographer can reclaim authorship through a book or an exhibition. You have to make it yours.”
On featuring the photo of his mother’s funeral in England, My England
In the book, the photo is placed next to a photo of flowers.
“I have photographed a lot of dead people in my career and published them. I thought that applies to myself as well.
“My brother doesn’t like it. But it’s my book.”
Looking through the book after the talk.
On the Photographers’ Gallery
“I don’t hate the Photographers’ Gallery. I just think it’s shit.”
“Once it was ethical, but now it was hijacked [content-wise].
“It hijacked money available to photography in this country. It represents a narrow set of interests. Galleries at Newcastle and Liverpool can’t get money from the Arts Council; it all goes to that tub of lard. And then they feed us a diet of crap. I am offended by them, not because I am a photographer, but because they have got to show the best of photography.
“They could have done many great shows. The shows at Tate Modern and the Barbican are much better. It seems that any bad conceptual work, they put it on. But if you look over the spectrum (of works displayed), they’re very poor. Also, cripples are not allowed in. [At the gallery's launch] they could have put up a big show about Soho [where the gallery is based], but they threw it away. That was rubbish.
“Because The Photographers’ Gallery is there, it doesn’t mean we have to say ‘Wow, it’s The Photographers’ Gallery’. They get £1.2 million in funding, and what are they doing for photography?
“Sometimes they got it wrong and they put on a real good show.”
On doing what you love best
“The Teddy boys was the subject I covered for The New Society magazine, which ended up being a three-year project. [On occasions] something gets to you and you really get into it. Then you can produce some of your best works.”
“Ninety nine point nine percent of the time, I don’t set pictures up but that [picture of the music band] was set up. Once you do portraiture, your subject is pretty much set up anyhow.”
On the thought police
A response to Sojournposse’s question on the restrictions in photographing children.
“It’s a surveillance society. It’s unbelievable but it’s there and it permeates society, especially with regards to kids. It’s sad, I think. Not all people are perverts. But it’s so easy to put a whipping stick in. This situation is perpetuated by the tabloid media.”
“Photo editors? They just want to avoid getting into trouble. There’s a kind of movement towards the depiction of more static people in photography. It’s perhaps related to this in a way. Photographing people is more difficult than it used to be.”
Advice to new photographers
“I’d make videos.
“Just stick at it. You’ll find a way to do it if you care enough about it. If you don’t believe it enough, it won’t get done.
“It is important that when something gets to you, you go for it. That’s what makes a good photographer.”
England, My England is available on Amazon.com and at selected book stores.