A Trip Down Memory Lane: The Nostalgic Photos of Peterborough from the 80′s by Chris Porsz

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Eric’s Note: Chris Porsz is a street photographer based in Peterborough and has recently published a book on his photos from the 1980’s titled: “New England.” In this interview below, I talk to him about how he got started in street photography, how he embarked on his project, and how he eventually put it together as a book. Definitely an in-depth interview you don’t want to miss!  

Chris: We share a birthday Eric but I go way back to the early hours of January 31, 1953, safe within the walls of Peterborough’s maternity unit while the worst floods of the 20th century visited our shores; ships went down and more than 300 people drowned.

Just eight years earlier, my mother, Krystyna, had teetered on the brink of death in a Nazi concentration camp. She and her two sisters, Eda and Regina, used to be called ‘the three beauties’. They led happy lives in Warsaw but the family was torn asunder by war. My mother’s father died in the sewers, her mother Sarah, Regina and her five-year-old daughter Lilliana were murdered in Majdanek concentration camp, Lublin. Eda was sent to Siberia by the Russians and that is where my cousin Vicki was born.

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Although my mother’s fiancé, a member of the resistance, helped her escape the Warsaw ghetto, she ended up in the infamous Pawiak prison and later Ravensbruck, a women’s slave labour camp near Berlin. Somehow she survived the harsh winter of 1944-45. My father, Alfons Porsz, escaped from Poland to England to join the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade. Later he fought bravely at Arnhem and married my mother in Germany.

Penniless and homeless, they came to Peterborough in 1947 and worked hard to put the horrors of war behind them and build a new life. Sadly my father a skilled toolmaker and table tennis champion developed dementia at age 47 but my mother is now 92 albeit in poor health. Defying all the odds they are a shining example of the great contribution made by migrants and an antidote to the usual negative stereotypes. I like to think much of my photography reflects that as I feel great empathy with the new Poles and other migrants who remind me so much of my parents struggle.

1. Chris, huge pleasure to have you on the blog and congratulations again on your publication of “New England”. Let’s start off by you sharing a bit about your family’s background and how you ended up in Peterborough.

Chris Porsz-1

As a very minor amateur photographer I am honoured so thank you Eric for inviting me. I am really pleased you like my labour of love ‘New England’ and in fact it is dedicated to my parents and their journey to hell and back. Some priceless images survived and are in the book and on my website. To me it is a constant reminder of the power and value of photography and perhaps one reason for my passion.

By the way I have learned the hard way so do back up your images three times as you can never replace those precious memories. Eric, I also wish I had read your excellent ‘chimping’ article before I tripped over and smashed my favourite lens!

2. Your photos of Peterborough in the 70’s and 80’s are very jubilant– you have lots of people posing and smiling for you. However at the time there was heavy unemployment, political tensions, and impending wars all around the globe. Would you say that you only focused on the positive aspects of Peterborough (and ignore the negative)? Or would you say that most of the people did have a positive attitude?

Chris Porsz-3

I guess we have come full cycle where history repeats itself but if you look at my latest images they are largely positive too. Photography is obviously very subjective and perhaps the images are more a reflection of my personality and beliefs.

I think I largely reflected everyday life and in spite of the wretchedness perhaps my images reveal resilience by people finding strength through individual expression, family, music and friendships and that is the overriding theme of the book.

3. In your book you share a combination of black and white images as well as color. What different aspects of Peterborough do you think each medium brings out?

Chris Porsz-8

The combination regrettably is largely pragmatic as I struggled to produce mono let alone colour in my makeshift darkroom. Fortunately some of my colour images survive to do justice to the punks with their multi coloured Mohicans. On the other hand colour is lush, noisy and can distract whereas mono leads the eye straight to the face and more suited to hard times on the streets.

I was certainly influenced by Don Mc Cullins dark and moody printing. The beauty of digital is to have the choice of the two mediums and today I make use of that when the subject demands it. For me I use colour if it adds value and mono if colour complicates the image.

4. When you photographed in the people of Peterborough, how did you approach them and interact with them? I see a lot of the people you were drawn to were the punks and rebels– people I would assume weren’t so happy getting their photo taken.

Chris Porsz-10

Back in the day they turned heads and the older generation were shocked but now no one bats an eyelid. I have actually taken pictures of their teenage children who are tame by comparison but they are no different from their parents and usually happy to be photographed. But only once trust is gained and you get past suspicions that you are the ‘feds’ or just ‘weird.’ A short film on my website is called ‘A Smile Goes A Long Way’ for that reason and along with an explanation and promise of copies it helps allay fears in the subject. Rejection is one of the main reasons given why photographers are put off by street photography but the worse people can do is say no.

I try to blend in as the lost tourist and adopt Capa’s advice that ‘if your photos are not good enough then you are not close enough.’ So I get in close with my Canon 60D and a 17-55, 2.8 at 20m and ditched the artificial compression of a telephoto. I feel I have failed if I have to resort to the latter. Available light of course as flash scares me and the subject.

I like to place the subject in their social context and where the viewer feels part of the picture. Most of the time I walk and shoot from the chest as raising the camera creates delay and makes subjects self conscious. I like candid but I am increasingly finding sitting down and chatting with the subject using this technique often works well in capturing some gesture and eye contact that makes the difference between an average and strong image. I get lots of wonky pictures with heads and limbs cut off but it mainly works for me. My role as a paramedic involves reassuring complete strangers during a crisis in their lives so that helps me engage with my subjects in this way.

I am not technical or good at formal studio work by posing people so I like the blank canvas and the street as my studio. ‘All the worlds a stage’ so I wait for the players to walk on and I look out for potential images to emerge from their interactions. I was always looking for interesting characters that stood out from the crowd like the punks with multi coloured Mohicans, teds, skinheads, rockers, drunk people, happy people, sad people, amazing people, or the elderly battling against the elements with a Zimmer frame. I am trying to grab something unusual out of the usual and also like to create humorous juxtapositions between billboards and people. I love street photography as I could never invent or replicate what people will do spontaneously when they see me and my camera.

I went the popular route of a Zenith SLR, then Pratika and Canon. I was inspired by the reportage work of Bert Hardy, Chris Steele Perkins and my hero is the great photojournalist Don Mc Cullin. I must admit I am always hopeful for that exclusive special news picture so always to carry my camera primed and ready. Of late street photographers such as Matt Stuart, Nick Turpin, Vivian Maiher and Joel Meyerowitz.

5. Your images from 30 years ago were stored away for many years collecting dust. How did you introduce your photos to the public and how did it gain the mainstream attraction that it has as of late?

Chris Porsz-16

In fact, because I was busy with work and family I hardly picked up a camera for a quarter of a century. In 2009 I sent some of my eighties images to the local paper and was pleasantly surprised when they gave me a weekly column Paramedic Paparazzo. People started recognising themselves and loved the nostalgia of the old streets. This was followed by three local calendars, magazine and blog features, exhibitions in our local art gallery and shopping centre.

My website has been a great motivator for me to roam for miles on the streets again and of course a fantastic way to share with a wider audience such as yours.

6. For your book “New England” you collaborated with your publishers and design/editors. Can you describe the process of putting together the book from beginning to end?

Chris Porsz-13

It started with a dream and without the help of some genuine people who took leaps of faith in a minor amateur it would have remained just that. I struggled to find a publisher and by chance a former Peterborough lad and talented London based graphic designer Dominic Rutterford said he would help as he just wanted to put something back into the city.

Likewise a great photo editor and award winning journalist Martyn Moore believed in me and not only built me a beautiful website which this old technophobe promptly broke but edited the book. It restores your faith that there are people out there who are not just motivated by self interest but genuinely believe in my photography and want to help me get it out of those shoe boxes!

I cashed in my life savings to pay for this self publishing venture which went some way to have the badly scanned and damaged negatives sorted out and to have it printed, bound and distributed. It was hard to fit in the day job and took a year but when I saw New England roll off the press it was a proud moment and well worth it.

I am not very good with social media but publicity in a national newspaper website boosted sales here and overseas and slowly reviews are appearing in photography magazines. It is doing well locally and I was delighted when The Photographers Gallery, Koneig Books in Charing Cross Road and Tate Modern loved the book and are to stock it.

7. One of the things I would find most difficult is editing the book (from nearly two decades worth of images). How were you able to choose which photos to add to the book and which to leave out?

Chris Porsz-28

You are so right Eric and it was one of the hardest parts as they do say most photographers make poor editors of their own work as they are too close and do not want to let go. I submitted potentials and after much heated discussion through email which is not ideal, I largely left the selection to the designer who had a much clearer artistic vision and a simple theme in mind.

8. Can you share your 3 favorite photos from your book and share the stories behind them?

"1980.  Good neighbours. Annie Gertrude Blunt and Jim Shahid Shah. Both departed" - Chris Porsz

Good neighbours Gertrude Annie Blunt and Shaid Shah speaks volumes for me and encapsulates the sort of society I would like to see. It is the polar opposite of what happened to my family, where hatred, racism and intolerance can only lead to suffering and destruction. The boys in the derelict house not only because I like the image but thirty years later one of then called for an ambulance and by chance got me as a paramedic which led to a reunion.

Chris Porsz - policeman-1

The policeman and the boy whose lives were worlds apart but the boy made good in the end and now has six children and is a very successful businessman.

Chris Porsz - railway-1

The railway lovers as it is such a candid romantic image and people are surprised when they hear they are still together with children of that age.

9. You have shown many people that you photographed from 30 years ago their old photos. How do people react when looking at their past selves?

Chris Porsz-11

The reunions are often quite emotional and feel like you have found long lost friends. Their faces of disbelief are a picture to see but memories are often bitter sweet tinged with fond nostalgia but sadness for those departed.

Many of my subjects have not fared well because of the hand life has dealt them and I worried about the response from surviving relatives but was reassured. Parents said it was a shock at first but they were so pleased to see images of their loved ones in happier times and were pleased I took images that they never knew existed.

10. What is the main impetus that drove you to document Peterborough?

Chris Porsz-29

Perhaps some creative urge as I cannot draw or paint and to be able to capture a fleeting expression on a face for posterity by simply pressing a button was and remains a magical process to me. My city was changing rapidly and perhaps sub consciously I was trying preserve the past by recording it.

I cannot believe I deliberately blurred out backgrounds for artistic effect and I now realise that social context is not only very popular but crucial. You will rarely see my pictures of mine without people as they bring those buildings alive and capture the spirit of the time.

11. When you first started documenting Peterborough you used film, but now use digital. How has shooting digital changed how you photograph, and what are some of the positives and negatives?

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Digital has rekindled my long lost passion and I shoot with abandon now that I am free from the constraints of film which was expensive and time consuming. I love seeing the instant results which really helps getting it right in the camera particularly as I struggle with Photoshop.

However to get a second bite of the cherry with say cropping is great as unlike landscapes the very nature of street photography often negates careful composition. Despite my darkroom problems being replaced by IT ones digital wins for me. I know I should go on computer courses but I guess I am happiest not just talking about it but roaming the streets and snapping away while I can and before I need to bolt my camera to a Zimmer frame.

It is good not to have to worry about separate films for colour, mono or ISO and to be able to take thousands at no expense. As long as we learn from our mistakes, be very self critical and ruthless in our editing and in what we post. Otherwise it becomes boring and devalues the good stuff. This is an invaluable lesson that my friend and mentor Martyn Moore has tried to instil in me. I worried about my scatter gun approach and there is an argument that it makes us less skilful. However I think whatever works for you and the proof is always in the pudding.

12. In the book it mentions how you ruined many of your photographs due to technical errors such as using the wrong aperture, developing chemicals, etc. Do you have any regrets about any photos that may have been great?

Chris Porsz-19

I could have a best seller with that one Eric but I think the important lesson is to learn from those regrets. One of the best ways to improve your composition is to see how that white van or a polythene bag has ruined a favourite picture. Being self taught I ruined the majority in the camera or darkroom and fortunately some little gems survive for the book. My eyes are poor and so many were out of focus, blurred or badly exposed and mediocre images. But given three decades that is often forgiven as they are now of social interest.

I have no such excuse now with the efficiency of today’s camera which is ideal for street photography and allows you to just concentrate on the subject. I want the images I take now to be seen in years to come as being not only technically correct but aesthetically pleasing too.

13. Would you call yourself more of a street photographer or a documentary photographer?

Chris Porsz-7

Good question Eric and I know you graduated in sociology whereas unfortunately I did not really survive fresher’s week in the same subject. I guess I found it much easier and enjoyable to depict social class and race photographically in a reportage way. The cosmopolitan Gladstone St area which I still go back to was much more interesting and productive than middle class suburbia.

In fact as a result of some of my traveller images appearing in the book I have been invited to return and photograph their children and I look forward to returning to my roots. Back then I worked instinctively but in isolation and I am not sure if the term street photographer was even in common use. Now of course it is a very popular genre and I see myself as part of that community.

I love the spontaneity, creativity and unpredictability that is street photography. I like the challenge of not knowing what is around that next corner, reacting to it and producing a unique image. As a very minor amateur who dabbles at it I cannot possibly compete with the professionals but what I love about street photography is the level playing field and we can all capture that unique image by walking in all weathers the extra mile.

14. What do you want your readers to ultimately get out of “New England”?

Chris Porsz-27

To look at those faces and think who were they and what became of them and why they were in those circumstances. That my images provoke mixed emotions ranging from an occasional nostalgic tear to even laughter. Humour is very important to me in this all too often sad old world and if my images raise a smile then I have achieved an important goal.

To see how society has changed in such a short time and to not only imagine what the next three decades will bring but more importantly to capture it. I regret not taking more as I took it all for granted so to inspire a new generation to get out there and record your streets before they are gone forever. Not only is it crucial part of social history but also challenging, immensely satisfying and most of all good fun.

15. Who are some people you would like to give thanks to, and what are some projects you have up your sleeve?

Chris Porsz-14

Having just turned sixty I am very conscious of wasted time and now trying to make up for it by roaming the streets again whenever I get a day off. My website really drives and motivates me and in 2013 I want to add to its international appeal. O n the bucket list are Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Edinburgh and more of London.

I am not a wildlife photographer so I was surprised when a local country park have commissioned me to stage an exhibition. Apparently they liked my street photography people and style so want me to capture the positive impact the park has on it’s visitors. I am really enjoying this project and I am approaching it as if I am walking the city streets but with beautiful backdrops from the four seasons.

After New England I would like to dedicate a book two to my ‘Then and Now’ reunion pictures of characters I took in the eighties. To complete the trilogy I dream of a book on street photography with my new images. Inspired by another hero Elliot Erwitt I also have a crazy idea for a children’s book which features Mr Curly Wurly a giant poodle in different locations. Well you have to dream.

I feel guilty that my family has suffered for my ‘art’ and I hope this book goes a little way towards making up for my long absences and of the sacrifices the long suffering Mrs P and my children have made.

Finally special thanks to my fellow street photographers such as yourself Eric who have not only inspired me but have been very kind and generous with their time and support. But most of all thank you to the subjects of my photography who have made this all possible. These images belong to you.

“New England” by Chris Porsz

Chris Porsz-1

If you want to take a trip down memory lane and support Chris’ amazing self-published book, make sure to pick up a copy of Chris’ book for just £15.99 plus postage and packing.

You can pick up a copy of the book here.

Chris Porsz: “A smile goes a long way.”

A lovely 14-minute documentary on Chris and his photography in Peterborough:

Follow Chris