People rarely know what being a photographer is about. What people don’t necessarily know is that the activity of a street photographer is very different from that of a fashion or commercial photographer. It is the profession of celebrity photographer that Phil Penman knows very well, having practiced it for many years.
In his series “Paparazzi”, he turns his lens towards his colleagues, and thus shows a reality far from the glitter and glamour that could be associated with this profession. With this series, Phil does justice to these often abused photographers and documents their daily lives.
Phil talks here about his career, his vision of the street photographer’s profession while denouncing the injustices to which photographers can be exposed.
Hi Phil, can you introduce yourself for those who don’t know you?
I’ve been a professional photographer for the past 23 years amongst many other jobs that I have done in the past, including having been a garbage man, a milkman, a newspaper delivery guy, street cleaner, salesman amongst other things.
At the age of 18, I got a job as a chief photographer working for a local newspaper in the UK learning how to deal with any situation that was thrown at me. I then went onto working for a PR agency handling corporate accounts such as Microsoft and Orange. This largely entailed shooting corporate headshots and marketing campaigns.
From there I moved to Los Angeles and started working as a celebrity photographer before moving to New York. Over the past 15 years, I’ve covered some of the worlds biggest news stories including the World Trade Center attack in New York.
“There really is stuff around every corner, it’s just a matter of if your eye is seeing it on that particular day.”
How did your passion for photography begin? How did you get into street photography?
My passion for photography largely came from watching my father in the darkroom as a child. At 15 years old he bought me my first camera, a Nikkomat and a Weston light meter. I would travel all over, largely photographing the English countryside.
After many years working in the industry as a celebrity photographer, I was starting to get burnt out. My work was suffering and my love of taking pictures for myself was diminishing.
“I have my viewfinder set to black and white, so when I am taking my images its recording and letting me view everything this way.”
Around 2004 I bought a Leica M7 off a friend and got hooked very fast. I then went through a succession of Leica R bodies and lenses before settling on a Leica M9 rangefinder camera. Having a camera shooting film, and not the same camera I used for work made a difference. It separated my work from my passion for street photography.
As my eye and love for photography started to come back I found myself photographing the celebrity photographers I was around more than the celebrities.
Riding around the streets of Manhattan all day you would come across all matter of great subjects to photograph. There really is stuff around every corner, it’s just a matter of if your eye is seeing it on that particular day.
You work mostly in black and white. Why this choice?
A purely aesthetic choice for me. I’m drawn to images that look timeless and I strive to achieve this. Far from easy as many things can date an image. Some of my work I take purely for how it will look in twenty years or more.
I have my viewfinder set to black and white, so when I am taking my images its recording and letting me view everything this way. There is something surreal about walking around viewing everything this way.
For all my client work it’s in color so it’s nice to take a break from that and concentrate purely on the raw form that is black and white.
“These days the photographers have to market themselves.”
What subjects attract your eye?
Certain things trigger my eye. Silhouettes, beams of light striking a pavement or building. I then try to incorporate this into an image. I love the use of space around an image and am drawn to epic landscapes but then use people to show scale.
People also really interest me. I have been shooting an ongoing series of New Yorkers for a few years now. Just people that catch my attention. A lot of the time people are shocked to be asked to have their picture taken.
“[Paparazzis] live in a hypocritical society where they are knocked as being scum and animals by the same people who buy the magazines or watch the very programs that pay and support this industry.”
I like this because, with everyone else obsessed with selfies and Instagram fame, they’re still those that do not even know what Instagram is.
For photographers, we now know that these social media platforms are how we now get business and have had to adapt to this. In years past you would have an agent that would do this for you. These days the photographers have to market themselves.
“With news photography you are largely working for a corporation that is being funded by a political organization.”
Your series on paparazzi particularly left its mark on me. You clearly show how difficult this job is. Is that why you did this project, to show the reality of this profession?
This was my profession for a long time and can, without doubt, say these are some of the hardest working photographers you will ever meet in your life. They live in a hypocritical society where they are knocked as being scum and animals by the same people who buy the magazines or watch the very programs that pay and support this industry.
Most of the content you see these days is controlled by the celebrity and most work with celebrity photographers in shooting and controlling their public image. This is a multi-billion dollar industry and one of the U.S. biggest exports to the world.
“When we see these images in the magazines, we are largely unaware that someone might have spent two weeks waiting to get that image.”
Of course, there are going to be photographers that get carried away but I have seen this in all matter of industries that I’ve worked in.
With news photography, you are largely working for a corporation that is being funded by a political organization. I’ve witnessed this first hand and its tough to come to terms with. You go into the business wanting to fight the good fight and document the truth but then find that your image is being used as a push for war or a political agenda.
The body of work was to show what goes into an image.
When we see these images in the magazines, we are largely unaware that someone might have spent two weeks waiting to get that image.
In your opinion, is that the ultimate goal of photography: To restore a certain truth?
I like the way you say “Restore the truth! “, I really hope as photographers we can do this. Its definitely getting tougher and tougher to do.
As photographers, we have a responsibility to show life as it is. We are not here to put our spin on what we want to convey. It is different for different aspects of photography, however. An artist might want to convey a vision or something that is dear to them.
For street photography, we are here to just document history and let the viewer decide.
“When I was picking up cigarette butts off the ground in the rain whilst sweeping up a market floor, I know I definitely was not saying “Boy I love this “.”
What do you think is the ‘best’ aspect of your job?
To be honest, I love all of it, we are blessed that we can make money taking photographs. Not many people can go out and say you truly love what you do. When I was picking up cigarette butts off the ground in the rain whilst sweeping up a market floor, I know I definitely was not saying “Boy I love this “.
“Do not be afraid to experiment and try new things […]”
You are one of the most influential street photographers in the world. What advice would you give to those who would want to follow your path?
Just go out and take pictures. If you truly love taking an image the passion will come out in your work. We all have down periods when we are just not feeling it.
Do not be afraid to experiment and try new things, some of my favorite images have come from this.
Do you have any ongoing or future projects you can tell us about?
I’m currently in the process of putting a book together about celebrity photographers, as well as a few ongoing projects.
For the last few years, I’ve been photographing 42nd Street and the different walks of life that make this such a diverse slice of life.
This interview is also available in French