Mixing Prose and Pictures: An Interview with Stephen Leslie on His Latest Photobook, “Sparks”

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Editor’s note: Last time Stephen was on the blog was over 5 years ago. So it’s nice to welcome him back! This time he shares with us his latest work,a photobook titled Sparks. He also shares with us a very interesting short story at the end. Give it all a read. All photos by Stephen Leslie. Interview by Eric Kim

Eric: great to have you again after nearly 5 years ago on the blog! What have you been up since then?

Stephen: Thanks Eric, it’s very good of you to ask me back. Over the past 5 years I’ve continued to repeatedly smash my head against the brick wall that is the British Film Industry as I try to get a feature film made. So, as an antidote to my professional frustrations I’ve just carried on with street photography. Still shooting on film, maybe a little bit more medium format than before, I’ve got a couple of very long term projects that are quietly ticking away and I’m also doing a book.

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Tell us more about your book project– what will make it unique from all the other books on the market?

A few years ago I decided to tackle the enormous archive of images that I had from twenty years of shooting street but I got stuck because there didn’t seem to be any real unifying theme to my work. It was all just random things that had fascinated me. I started to do an edit and I gradually I realised that the photographs that worked best were those that hinted at a wider, hidden narrative. They were suggestive moments or sparks. Then, because I’m always writing stories for my work, I thought I’d try to combine the two disciplines and write fictional stories based on my street photography and it just snowballed from there. So what I’ve come up with is a book of about 60 photographs all with stories that I’ve written to accompany them. As far as I know, there’s nothing else like this out there.

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I find it fascinating how you’re combining your personal background in writing and your photography. How do you find the two mesh with one another?

I’ve found them to be complimentary. Most imaginary, fictional writing has its origins in reality just as photography, which people often believe to be ‘true’, is actually more of a subjective, version of reality. There’s a famous and very appropriate Joel Sternfeld quote in which he says that

“No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium. It is the photographer’s job to get this medium to say what you need it to say. Because photography has a certain verisimilitude, it has gained a currency as truthful – but photographs have always been convincing lies.” That’s precisely what I’m trying to do with Sparks, to combine my photography with my stories to make the most convincing lies possible. Hopefully it’s a mutually beneficial process and they can each inform each other.

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Describe your writing process. How did you come up with the stories to accompany your photos?

The only rule that I have is that the image always has to come first. In some cases the ideas pop in to my head really quickly, almost as soon as I see the developed photo I know what I want to write about but with others it’s far slower, it can take a year or two. I try not to force it and stay true to the spirit of the photograph but I’m also keen to be as varied as possible. So the book contains conventional third person narratives, stuff that I’ve written as stream of consciousness from the point of view of the photographic subject, some one liners, a fake insurance report, a couple of poems, a letter, even an extended story that spans three separate photographs detailing how an albino python is wrecking one family’s life but might have actually saved another couple’s marriage.  Just as I never know what my next photo is going be until I go out and see something I also don’t know what I’m going to write about until I see the developed photograph.

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Do you find it more interesting to create fictional stories, or describe “real life” stories?

Well most of the stories are completely fictional but, unexpectedly, writing the book also made me stop and think a bit more personally about the process of taking photographs and what that means to me. The only real constant in the book is myself. I’ve taken all the photographs and seen all these things, and occasionally, unavoidably I’ve bled in to the text. So a few are autobiographical – there’s one about my tragically receding (some would say absent) hair line, my dead Hungarian grandmother gets a biography, there’s something about all the photographs I’ve not taken and what happens to negatives when you’re stupid enough to leave them in a damp cupboard under the stairs for a decade. So a few deal with real, personal situations but I’m far happier making stuff up, the real ones were the hardest ones to write.

Who are some photographers and writers who have inspired you? Any other books out there similar to the one you’re going to make?

This could be an enormous list! The photography book that started it all off was probably when I got the reprint of William Klein’s Life Is Good & Good for You in New York. Trance Witness Revels. Klein’s photographs are fantastic, that almost goes without saying, but what I’d never fully appreciated before was his writing about those photographs. The original came with a ‘caption booklet’ in which he detailed his thoughts about all 188 images and I thought this gave a fascinating parallel experience. Then I started to discover other books that combined photographers writing specifically about their own photographs, so Wim Wenders has a book called Once in which he says ‘Within every photograph, there is also the beginning of a story starting ‘Once upon a time….‘  That’s exactly the philosophy behind my book except that all of Wim Wenders’ stories are autobiographical, whereas most of mine are fictional. I don’t think anyone else has done this, although I’m more than happy to be proved wrong!

As for writers that have influenced me there’s a tonne, George Saunders, Dan Rhodes, Hilary Mantel, Charles Portis, Margaret Atwood, Denis Johnson, E.L. Doctorow, Kurt Vonnegut, Geoff Dyer, Beryl Bainbridge, there’s too many to mention.

 

stephen-leslie-squirrel-landlordWhat kind of advice would you give to someone who would want to make their own book?

I think there are 4 main things to keep in mind.

  1. Test it out but wait until your certain. It’s easier than ever now to make books with Blurb and other platforms, so use these to help you figure out what works and what doesn’t without spending a fortune. Experiment like this beforehand or just print your shots out and stick them to your wall. I think it’s vital to have a good idea idea of what your physical book is about and what it will look like before you start contacting publishers or trying to crowd-fund.
  2. Show it to others you trust and get their opinion. I’ve found other people’s opinions and advice to be really useful while putting together Sparks. A fresh set of eyes will always help.
  3. Clear some time, it won’t be a quick process. Sparks has taken 4 years to get to this stage and, if the funding campaign works out it will then take the best part of a further year for design, editing and printing. So be prepared for a marathon.
  4. Find the right people to make it with. This is vital, you can’t do it all yourself, you’ll need expert advice and good collaborators. I’m really happy with Unbound because they specialise in funding books so I’m confident that the finished product will be something special.

Any shout-outs you would like to give?

Charlie Kirk, Jason Reed, Marc Fairhurst, Aaron Alexander, Clifton Barker, Matt Obery, Blake Andrews, Alex Soth, Jesse Marlow, Peter Dench, Paul Russell and everybody that’s read the book this far and given advice and especially to all the good people at Unbound who are helping to make it a reality.

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You may order/support Sparks here : https://unbound.com/books/sparks

 


Pity, the Balloon seller. 

(A short story by Stephen Leslie)

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Pity, the poor balloon seller seriously considering a vasectomy due to the horrors of his job. Every weekend at party upon party he witnesses the worst behaved children imaginable, miniature armies of spoilt Jaydens and Callistas whose parents are seriously trying to raise them without ever using the word ‘no’ lest it damage their rampaging egos. He has been punched in the testicles by a four year old boy for not inflating a giant lion balloon fast enough. He has stood agog as a six year old girl screamed at her mother because she wanted ‘a rainbow balloon arch like Vinessa’s but bigger‘ and, unbelievably, the mother apologised to her child and then paid him extra to make it happen.

His wife wonders why their sex life has gone off the boil? Why, when they’re making money, he seems so unhappy and exhausted? He feels he is being worn down. The other day, between jobs he fell asleep standing up. Each arm was raised up by a handful of balloons so that he resembled a slumbering Christ. He only snapped out of it when an angry parent rang his phone wanting to know why his precious offspring was being kept waiting?

And so it is we find him this Sunday, resigned to his fate and contemplating having his tubes snipped (or tied off, like a balloon?) rather than risk adding to the shrill carousel of modern childhood. And this next party promises to be a humdinger, they have ordered 100 balloons. He sighs and takes the first 25 from the van, he has learnt from bitter past experience never to turn up without having inflated some in advance, and crosses the street. It is a beautiful sun dappled day yet he fails to enjoy it, does not even notice the play of green, white and yellow against the tarmac that has turned him in to a walking stained glass window. He finds the address and rings the bell. After a moment the door is opened by a tiny woman in her eighties. The Grandma, he assumes.

Hello, I’m here for…..‘ He checks the name on his order sheet ‘Arthur?‘  

The old woman smiles and gestures for him to come inside. He follows her down the hallway, slightly bemused by the lack of noise. There is no screaming of children at play, no music or any of the usual party sounds. The old woman reaches a set of double doors and slides them apart. He stops and almost lets the balloons slip his grasp. In front of him are at least 30 other pensioners and there, in the centre of the room surrounded by wreathes, is a coffin. He stares until the old woman taps on his wrist.

Please could you tie them to the casket?‘ she asks.

In a daze, he carries out her instructions. There’s a cheer from the assembled ‘mourners’ although none of them seem too distressed or unhappy.

Do you think one hundred will be enough?‘ asks the woman as he ties off the first twenty five.

Enough for what?‘ He asks, utterly bemused.  

To lift him of course‘ she replies, ‘Arthur’s dying wish was that he wanted to fly, so I thought we could at least get him floating across the living room. Everyone here’s chipped in and he didn’t weigh much at the end, so we hoped one hundred should do it.’  

He nods his head and mutters something about he thinks that should be sufficient, then goes out to the van to fetch the helium cannister. Without realising it he breaks in to a excited trot. In the end it only took eighty seven. He got a standing ovation when the simple pine box broke free of gravity and started hovering. He felt like a magician looking out at an appreciative crowd, their wrinkled faces full of wonder and genuine delight. Arthur’s widow hobbled over and gave the coffin a push then watched it float smoothly over to a where an old man was waiting to bat it back. He watched them for a few moments then slipped away, leaving them playing ping pong with a floating coffin and feeling happier than he had in months, his spirits actually lifted.   

 

By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher