Thursday 9 December 2021

'Oi Mate! Take my Picture!' And the perils of running out of film

 ‘Oi Mate! Take my picture. I might look younger on that old camera!’ Was the shout that greeted me from across the street as I walked back from the Lea Bridge Road. 

‘I can’t’ I replied ‘I’ve run out of film’. My heart sank, a missed opportunity. I had promised myself that I’d photograph everyone who chatted with me or showed any sort of interest in my project documenting the Lea Bridge Road.  


I had stumbled across something that had not troubled me for years, running out of film. Shooting on digital you never run out, unless of course you shoot pictures like a rear gunner under attack. I have edited such photographers, scrolling through literally thousands of images, but that’s another story.

Roger Daltry, lead singer with The Who, lifts his eye patch to reveal his damaged left eye to the audience at the Prince's Trust Masters of Rock concert in Hyde Park, June 29, 1996. The eye patch, used after he was accidentally hit by Gary Glitter's microphone stand during rehearsals, was decorated with the blue and red bullseye symbol.


Thinking back to my film days shooting news I remember the day that I decided I would always spin out a roll of 35mm when I got to frame 32 or 33. It was June 29, 1996. The picture above of Roger Daltry was taken on frame 36, shot on a 300mm lens. I had one frame and wasn’t sure if I had missed the moment or shot it out of focus. I got lucky as it’s perfect. 


From that day on my rule would be that I’d either leave three or four frames on the roll or I’d put a new film in, immediately. After all you never knew what was going to happen. 


Fast forward 25 years, I had broken my own rule while shooting on the Lea Bridge Road so I’d missed getting a picture of building material depot worker ‘Oi Mate!’. As I am presently using a Rolleiflex I only get 12 frames per roll of film, so something else for me to work out on my journey.


The picture below of Anthony Benson is an example of what I had missed out on. A simple full-length portrait with a busy background. A gentle way into the community. I make sure that I give prints to everyone I photograph.


A man hails a bus as Anthony Bensong walks to work on the Lea Bridge Road, London, November 26, 2021.


I know it’s a bit of a cliché but I am quite happy with my picture of Murad, a barber shot through the steamed-up window of his shop, Imza Traditional Turkish Barbers. I was careful to ensure that my reflection was not seen in the face of the customer as that would destroy the image. 

Barber Murad gives a customer a haircut in Imza Traditional Turkish Barber’s on the Lea Bridge Road November 26, 2021.

I am increasingly pleased that my picture taking confidence is growing. I was able to take my time looking down onto the view finder and then up into a launderette as this scene of everyday domestic ordinariness unfolded. I had to wait until all three figures could be seen before I took my picture. I always wonder just how long launderettes will continue to exist?

People load their washing in the Launderama Launderette, 305 Lea Bridge Road in London, December 4, 2021.    

I am slightly struggling with the knowledge that the buildings are equally as important as the people as I document on the Lea Bridge Road. The visual conflict being if you shoot an image composed around the shape and structure of a building the people appear small. I tend to want to photograph people. This of course can be countered by using wide angle lens, but I am using a 75mm lens (41mm for this of you who think in 35mm terms). I've set myself this restraint to give the pictures, when seen as a sequence, a sense of continuity.

As part of this thinking I am trying to avoid shooting pictures from across the street but could not resist this as I spotted a woman who’d paused to concentrate on her phone while taking a long draw on a cigarette. What I would have given for her to stop a few inches earlier so the door framed her. 

A woman takes a long draw on a cigarette as she pauses on the Lea Bridge Road, London, to look at her phone November 26, 2021.


A detail picture can draw the eye to something that is easily missed. One can only admire the confidence of the car salesman that would allow such a large deposit of bird shit on their wares. 

Cars for sale are covered in bird shit under the Bakers Arms rail bridge on the Lea Bridge Road in London December 4, 2021.


Finally, to share my visual learning journey I thought that I’d include the contact sheets from the Lea Bridge Road as my project progresses. I've been trying to work out timing in terms of firing the shutter and also experimenting with the depth of field. What is most rewarding with the TLR is that you see what you get as long as your are careful not to run out film.

Stay safe out there. Russell 

Thursday 18 November 2021

A year on - what's next?

Saturday November 13, 2021 was a rather special day. Almost exactly a year to the day of being told that I was to be made redundant from a job I loved, I was out taking pictures on a story I had thought about for years but never got around to do. And just as importantly I knew why I was doing it. I have discovered, the passion I have for pictures and story-telling is no less diminished. 

I shot twelve frames on a Rolleiflex 75mm F3.5 using HP5. The film I processed myself, my love hate relationship with the smell of ID11 and fixative revisited. The negatives scanned on an Epson V600.  Here is the contact sheet, frame one, bottom left, frame 12 top right.

I will be the first to admit that none of the images are earth shatteringly wonderful, but the exposure is even, the composition and timing not bad. But actually, what is more important is how I arrived at this point – shooting black and white on a vintage medium format camera. I will wind my year back to explain. 


But first, my favourite image is frame two. The man wearing headphones reflected in two mirrors, I like the busy lines criss-crossing through the picture, one of which, the reflection of the padlock, points to the figure, giving the image a focal point despite the words ‘Bargain’ and ‘Sale’ fighting for attention.

After attending a Zoom call in February 2021 titled ‘Out of the Archives. Collecting Stories of Everyday Life’ hosted by Four Corners I spent weeks scanning 35mm black and white negatives I shot in 1985 that had been gathering dust in my attic. I was encouraged by Lisa der Weduwe from the Museum of Youth Culture (MOYC), who addressed the call, to scan them. We were all in lockdown so why not? I am very happy with the result, about 150 pictures of Newtown Youth culture published and archived by the MOYC. If you click here or on the picture below you can see them all. I’m also in talks to have an exhibition of these pictures in Peterborough, but that’s another story, and quite exciting.

Cleaning, scanning and removing 36 years of dust from negatives is a rather time consuming and solitary task. Although it was quite exciting to see what a wonderful archive I had, I was, in essence, looking backwards. All my yesterdays, I asked myself was I hiding? 


Britain was in full lockdown so shooting pictures of people wasn’t easy. Maybe everybody was hiding? I would go for a daily walk around local parkland to get some exercise and clear my head. The lockdown rules permitted you to walk with one other person but at a 2m distance. I noticed, as I walked past others, I’d catch a snippet of their conversation. To start to regain my confidence photographing people I decided that I’d shoot a series of portraits of fellow walkers and include what I’d overheard in the caption, I called it 'Overheard in Lockdown'. I was amazed that only one person refused to be photographed and be included in the project. The pictures are simple environmental portraits, the background determined by where my path crossed with other walkers. It was fun and I had great conversations with total strangers. I think it’s a timely document, prior to the UK’s four-step roadmap out of lockdown, that’s hopefully never to be repeated. Click here or on the picture below to see the full set.    

‘I keep cycling the same old loop again and again’. Davide Terrasi and Naiem Dakry


While sorting out the Newtown Youth negatives, I came across another small project I shot in 1985. In short, I photographed everyone who knocked on my door.  Spurred on by the success of the ‘Overheard in Lockdown’ project I decided that I’d try to track down these people 36 years later and re-photograph them on their doorstep. With the help of the local paper and the easing of lockdown I managed to find a few. The local response was heart-warming and when I did meet up with my subjects, reshooting them and giving them prints was a major confidence boost. You can see the whole series here.

I have always been fascinated by change, but change that is imperceivable until you look at it retrospectively. The corner shop that is always open until it’s no longer there, the aged owner passed on or moved away. The three old men sitting on the same seats in the pub sipping at their pints every night that for years were part of the furniture who are now no longer there; or that old factory building or row of terraced houses that is now a new mini store or block of flats. The slow decline or the gentrification of an area as the populous slowly changes, to me, is a rich area for social documentary. London is a constantly changing, hundreds of years of migration, growth and change. I want to capture London now, not the usual landmarks, high life, low life and razzamatazz that gets the attention but the imperceivable changes in ‘ordinary’ London, like a river slowly changing its banks and course over the years.


To me the Lea Bridge Road (A104) is such a place. It runs between Hackney and Waltham Forest, through Leyton. It was named after a bridge that was built over the River Lea in 1745. Over the years I have spent hours stuck in slowly chugging traffic looking out of my window watching life go by. I have decided to photograph people and places along the length of this road. To me it encapsulates the unseen changes that London is going through, people, commerce, leisure, faith and architecture. My ambition is to capture the everyday ordinariness today that in the future will be so special as it will no longer exist.


Long gone are the halcyon days when you can go into a pub, factory or institution, ask the boss if you can take pictures and they’d decide yes or no within minutes. For example, for me to photograph the Woolwich Ferry it took over a year to get all the permission I needed. But to me it was well worth the time spent.

The Woolwich ferry story is a good example of what I am trying to achieve. The three boats that I photographed in 2015 and had been crossing the Thames since the 1960’s are now no longer in service, forever gone. Most of the staff, retired. 


Also, a question that troubled me was technically how to photograph the Lea Bridge Road? I could dust off my Nikon FM2, click in my trusty 35mm, wind on a roll of HP5 and push it two stops and wear a keffiyeh as a neck scarf. But wasn’t that what I did in 1985, all my yesterdays? I could use my Canon 5D that will produce technically wonderful images in low light. As a news photographer, editor and manager I have always advocated the use of colour, pure commercial sense once the business had changed to full colour, especially with online digital. But, the perception of most is that people who produce 35mm cameras with no apparent good reason, such as a wedding, are predators and up to no good. It would be hard to integrate into the community of the Lea Bridge Road with continual cries of ‘What you taking pictures of?” Or ‘Oi paparazzi’ or even as I was once told when shooting a simple feature ‘If you took my picture, I will ram that camera up your arse!’  As a side note I assured this gentleman that I did not take his picture and was able to safely return my camera into a bag. 


These days people tend to be suspicious of photographers.


A chance conversation with a friend provided the answer. He told me casually that he was being given a Rolleiflex and would need to learn how to use it. This was the solution I was looking for. 


First, the new visual challenge of composing in a square format, with the added complexity of everything being back to front was very appealing. Secondly, focussing manually, no motor drives and only having twelves frames per roll of film all restrictions that, I believe, leads to more creative thinking. Another friend wisely said to me recently when I asked him why use black and white film when digital colour is so perfect, ‘the perfection and beauty of using black and white film are the small imperfections it throws up’. I was sold.


So after two bad online shopping experiences trying to get the right camera I bought a wonderful camera from Robert at the Vintage & Classic Camera Company. Not cheap, but excellent condition and fully working. The last thing I wanted to do was struggle with the mechanics of a camera when I was struggling with everything else involved in taking pictures. 

Once purchased I then had to learn how to use it. I quickly discovered that I needed more time than I imagined. After a few rolls of the long-suffering family and a few frames of the neighbours I decided to put the Lea Bridge Road project on hold and embark on something a little easier. Today, I shot the final picture of this sidebar project that I started in June 2021. Although I see this project very much as a learning curve, that I will share once complete, it has been amazingly rewarding shooting it. 


What I have gained by taking my time is the confidence to actually start my Lea Bridge Road project, which brings me back to the beginning of my post. Using the Rolleiflex has intrigued people enough to ask me what I am doing when they see me on the street. On the first day of shooting, two people who had cycled past, stopped and returned to talk to me about the camera and what I was doing. I am not a threat.

I am also learning a new way to look as I take pictures. People allowed me stand for ages waiting for shapes and lines to change as they carried on with what-ever they were doing. I think it’s about eye contact, I can look down at the camera to compose and focus, then look up to engage with what or who I am photographing, something that had never occurred to me. Luke below for example described himself being in another world as he took a break from work and ignored me as I waited for him to mentally drift back to this other world. 

Once the dialogue is started, I feel that people come to believe that photographers, are people who can be trusted. Especially when they return with a nice print.  


I will continue shooting pictures on the Lea Bridge Road and update this post when I have more to offer.


Russell Boyce