For this week, I had the pleasure of interviewing street photographer Chris Porsz from Petersborough, England. His work has spanned over several decades, and his images are iconic and classic. When I first saw his soulful black and white images, I knew that I had to feature him on my blog. I hope you enjoy his images and words as much as I did.
1. Chris, you have an incredible collection of black and white street photography that has spanned for several decades. Can you tell us the story of how you first got started in street photography and what drew you to it?
Like most people I started taking pictures of my children but was unhappy with the results from my Kodak instamatic. So in my late twenties I progressed from Zenith, Praktica to Canon. Some creative urge drove me to roam the streets recording everyday life in my city. As I cannot draw or paint I found it very satisfying and magical that all I had to do was press a button to capture posterity.
Not technical, I struggle with using flash or posing people and so found it easier to use the streets as my studio and take candid shots. Unpredictable and exciting as you never know who is coming round that corner. It was also a good way to relax from my thirteen year stint as an A&E porter.
My negatives from the early 1980’s gathered dust for over a quarter of a century. Only two years ago I sent some of these grainy images to the Peterborough Evening Telegraph. From that came a weekly column Paramedic Paparazzo and readers wrote in identifying themselves. As a result we have my reunions in the same locations which are not easy to achieve but the outcome is immensely satisfying.
2. How do you think that street photography has changed over the years?
Despite such issues as rising security paranoia supported by jobs worth officials I think it has got easier. In our digital age people are more use to seeing cameras. Personally I have become less shy, more sociable and happier to approach complete strangers. Automatic digital cameras are a great boom and I have great respects to the masters like Bresson who had to focus and expose his decisive moment. To get instant results and to be able to take loads and delete is fantastic.
The biggest change from 30 years ago were the empty streets and now white vans and polythene bags get in the way of a good photo. I cannot photshop so I try and get distracting backgrounds right first time.
3. What do you wish to convey to your viewers through your photography?
To share with my viewers everyday mundane street scenes in a different light and to see something extraordinary in the ordinary. To witness society changing through my teds, skinheads, punks, Goths and emo’s along with the architecture.
I was more interested in people and I cannot believe I deliberately blurred the backgrounds out. Now it’s wide angle to put it all in a social context. You will rarely see a picture of mine of just a boring building as people bring them alive, give scale and date the picture.
I am trying to capture snapshots of time just by fleeting expressions on a face and to provoke the viewer’s emotions. It was pleasing at my exhibition or on one of my calendar’s when people touch the image and smile with fond nostalgic memories of a bygone age.
4. Tell us a bit about where you take most of your street photographs, and how are those places unique?
Asked why he robbed banks the prolific US bank robber Willie Sutton replied ‘because that’s where the money is.’ So I go mainly to the town centre and surrounding streets. Particularly the more socially deprived cosmopolitan areas that are vibrant, buzzing and rich with characters as opposed to quiet middle class suburbia. The great melting pot with people up against adversity which reminds me of my parents struggle as refugees to Peterborough in 1947 from the horrors of Nazi occupied Poland. I have a few precious, priceless images of my family that survived and perhaps one of the reasons why photography is so important to me.
5. When you are out on the streets taking photos, what inspires you to capture a certain scene or image?
I am always looking for people who are different and stand out from the crowd such as my 80s punks. Often the elderly with weathered faces, flat caps and walking stick battling against the elements. Or to observe and record the interaction of a group and trying to get the composition right.
True to say we can make rather than just take photos. I often set my stage, such as a big billboard and patiently wait for the right actors to enter. Humour is crucial to me and I recommend trying those juxtaposition shots. See ‘It bites’ I like candid but some of my favourites now are when people react to me and my camera in some totally unexpected and spontaneous way. They duck or do a little jig for example something that my imagination would never dream up in a posed studio setting. It is why I have this passion for street photography especially when the actor’s ad- lib and do impro.
6. Who are some photographers that you look up to, and how have they affected your work?
One of my heroes is brave Don Mc Cullin an honest, compassionate and modest photojournalist with his haunting Vietnam images. I was a lousy printer and ruined many but his dark, rich, gritty monochrome printing influenced me. His colleagues too, Eddie Adams and Phillip Jones Griffiths The ‘gentle eye’ of Jane Bown and the reportage of Chris Steele-Perkins. Over the pond Elliot Erwitt and Vivian Maier’s newly discovered treasure trove. Other inspiration comes from today’s New Yorkers such as Jo Wigfall, Dave Beckerman, and James Mayer and of course you Eric!
7. Describe the favorite street photograph you’ve taken. When and where did you take the photo, and why is it special to you?
One of my favourites is ‘Good Neighbours’ that I took three decades ago. It says it all and sums up perhaps how I would like to see society. Black and white, young and old getting on. From my parents struggle I know that racism and hatred inevitably leads to one thing, gas chambers and crematoria.
8. What type of camera and which lenses do you use for your street photography? Also, how do they help you capture the decisive moment?
I am a very minor amateur that just dabbles at it so I have to keep it simple. The best camera is the one in your pocket. It helps to have good gear but mainly it’s being there and seeing potential. To quote the great Beckerman, photography is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. I walk for hours with a rucksack of supplies and often return with average stuff but just occasional a little gem shines through and it makes the effort in all weathers worth it.
I had a Canon 1000D and just treated myself to a 60D as I thought the swivel screen would be good for candid but not used this feature or the video yet. My Canon 15-85 is an excellent lens but I wanted to stick to 400 ISO inside so the Canon 2.8 17-55 is great and I keep it on all the time. One of my biggest mistakes was under exposed faces so remember open up a third or two and always revert back.
I have changed my style and ditched the telephoto which gives that artificial compression. As Capa said ‘if your photos are not good enough then you are not close enough’ (D Day beeches!)
I shoot mainly at around 20mm with fast shutter set ready as you want the unexpected sharp. I mostly shoot blind from the chest and the wide angle, great depth of field and auto allows that. Also often pointing the camera up to get a dramatic building backdrop. You will see many of my characters on the edge of my frame as it makes candid much easier.
Avoiding eye contact with the lost tourist approach and if it becomes tricky a smile and an explanation goes a long way. I like candid and shoot a few off so as not to interfere with the flow but then I engage It is this social interaction of chatting, eye contact and some gesture that separates the mediocre from the fascinating image. I do feel my job as a paramedic dealing with patients does help me get a more sympathetic image. I also love listening to peoples potted life stories and snap away but not through the viewfinder.
9. What do you think is the future of street photography?
I like to think the dawn of the digital age has just begun and it can only get better. It is easier and more democratic and we can all now take a half decent picture. The trick is to take something unique and memorable.
10. What tips would you give to aspiring street photographers in the community?
With the benefit of hindsight I regret not taking more but you took it all for granted and film was expensive. So at 58 I am now making up for lost time and at every opportunity recording the ever changing face of my city. My advice would be to simply get out there and start snapping. Take plenty, it’s cheap but whatever you do backs them up three times as I have lost precious memories and learned the hard way.
11. Thank you for this personal interview. Are there any shout-outs that you would like to give?
Thank you very much Eric for allowing me to share with you and your viewers my thoughts and a few of my favourites.
http://www.thecandidframe.com/ to hear my podcast with the great Ibarionex Perello.
What do you think of Chris’ images? Leave a comment below and tell us how they made you feel!