London 82

Traverse back to London in the early 80s, as seen through the eyes of photographer Sunil Gupta

The last time I indulged in the work of Sunil Gupta was during his major retrospective at The Photographers Gallery in London last year, during which he presented his politically charged – and narrative heavy – portraits and street shots on topics such as family, race, migration and sexuality. Sunil, who’s an Indian-born Canadian photographer based in London, has become widely acclaimed for his image-making, particularly his documentary work in New York and the lensing of injustices suffered by gay men globally. He tells stories through a merging of honest portraiture, candid street photography and the more intentionally staged, which in turn raises awareness of gay rights plus the struggles and complexities that the LGBTQIA+ community has experienced over time. It was in this very retrospective that I began to understand Sunil’s career-long goal and subject matter: he’s a visual storyteller, an activist and political voice of a generation.

And now, I’m given the opportunity to observe the photographer’s work once again, this time composed as a new book from Stanley/Barker and entitled London 82. The publication marks the moment in which Sunil began experimenting with colour, a time when he enrolled at the Royal College of Art in London and started playing around with the processing facilities. With an aim of capturing gay life around the UK’s capital during the early 80s, what first commenced as an inquest into an exclusively gay subject matter soon evolved into a wider exploration of life in the city – encompassing all sorts of characters from gay men, the elderly, migrants and people of colour. Here, Sunil tells me more about this momentous collection, the types of people he sought to photograph and what life was like as a gay man when he arrived in London.

Can you describe what London was like in 1982?

I had come to London as a young gay man at the end of the 1970s from New York with an interest in photography. It felt like a cold and unfriendly place for gays. Also, there was hardly any photography scene worth mentioning at the time. And of course it was so much shabbier than it is nowadays but then so was New York City. London felt depressed, cold, dark and lonely. It was also a place where I acquired a race problem by being South Asian. There were counter cultures like punk, the left, and of course the emerging gay disco scene but most of that was closed off to non-whites. It was the time when I felt very alienated.

What inspired you to pick up a camera in the first instance and start shooting this body of work?

I was in art school and I was learning to make work by project. In between the projects, however, I would do street photography as a way of exercising my camera skills and also of discovering a new city. I had the experience of shooting a specific street, Christopher Street, in New York as the centre of gay public life. However, I could not find anything similar over here, so in the end I settled on a route between where I lived in Fulham, my classes in South Kensington and my outings to the West End. Being in college allowed for some experimentation with colour negatives as equipment and processing were available for free.

What sort of person caught your eye while out shooting?

All kinds of people caught my attention when I was out shooting; gay men, of course, Black and Asian people, various OAPs who appeared randomly amongst the better off in West London. I wasn’t really trying to make any kind of sociological commentary, just some juxtapositions and formal arrangements that caught my eye. Of course all the backgrounds were very much part of the scene.

Can you share some anecdotes from working on this project?

I’m trying to remember if there had been any encounters with people whilst shooting these pictures. Mostly there weren’t, as people really did not want to be spoken to. In that sense, it was very different to my earlier experience of New York. I had to rein myself in and not appear too aggressive whilst I was photographing, as I had to learn to approach people directly and instigate encounters with my camera. People in London didn’t seem to like that very much. One of the things that really struck me was the extremes of wealth and poverty on display amongst the people on the streets. 

How does it feel looking back on this body of work, and how does it compare to the West End today – particularly in terms of queer culture?

What I didn’t realise was that, in a way, I had had a very sheltered life in those few years centred on my very privileged life as a photo student at the RCA in South Kensington. I hadn’t seen these pictures again until very recently when they got scanned. I’m amazed at the kind of naïveté they have from my point of view, since I’m giving everything equal weight; most of my projects were heavily weighted towards some critical stance or the other. London also seems curiously white and the Asians seem to be newly arrived. Contrary to now, when that is certainly not the case, as the West End has become much more diverse. And although London never developed a Christopher Street, it does have a small, touristy version around old Compton Street – a version that was palatable enough to be shown as advertising on airlines promo videos where the city is diverse and tolerant, despite having an appalling record number of arrests of gay for cruising in the 70s.

What can the audience learn from London 82?

I hope the audience can see that, in 1982, London was much less brash and more economically mixed in the centre. People had their own styles of dressing and that seemed to be fine. The streets seemed messy and lived in but that seemed fine as well. Gay men had become clones and were beginning to emerge from the fearfulness of the 1970s. I suppose the key takeaway is that it’s the moment that Thatcher swept into power with her mantra that society does not matter, only individuals do, and that it was every man for himself. That was going to define the 1980s.

What’s next for you, any upcoming plans or projects?

There are several projects online; a new commission is underway that is being organised by Studio Voltaire and the Imperial Health Trust. I’m researching the experiences of long-term users of the HIV OPD at St Mary’s as well as people who have recently had gender reassignment surgery at Charing Cross Hospital. An edited version of this new work will hopefully be on display at those hospitals by the end of February 2022. I am continuing to work with my archives, the next publication will be a text-based one. I am gathering all of my writing on photography over the last 40 years into one publication that will be launched by Aperture in the autumn of 2022. My retrospective exhibition that was at The Photographers Gallery earlier this year is opening at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto and will run from January to April 2022.

Garçon Style

In a foreword to the new book Garçon Style by award-winning photographer Jonathan Daniel Pryce, Sir Paul Smith explains why photography and fashion have always gone hand in hand for him 

Photography has always been a part of my life. My dad was an amateur photographer who developed his own photographs in a darkroom in our attic. My first camera was a Kodak Retinette. Back then, you had to look through a viewfinder and locate the image. I would save up money to buy a 36-exposure roll of film, shoot it and hope to get something good. I never knew what the result was until I got it back from the developer. It taught me how to look and see. Today, there are many who look but don’t actually see.

I am inspired by shape, shadow and texture. When taking a walk, my focus is less on the clothes that people wear and more on the bigger picture. On the street, I see shapes and angles, size and dimension, rough and smooth. When I first saw Jonathan’s photography, what really interested me was his lateral thinking. The world is there to be photographed if you want it, it’s just about having the eye to spot it. Jonathan captures the context of a location, from architectural details to the vastness of the sky. A stone staircase becomes something curious. Texture against texture, pattern against pattern.

I’ve been designing clothes for what feels like a very long time. I opened my first shop in 1970, when there wasn’t much men’s fashion around. Men were quite nervous about wearing fashionable clothes. Luckily, things have changed. At Paul Smith we have always focused on designing something ‘classic with a twist’. There’s always some kind of surprise. I’m not one for making radical or revolutionary design changes. It’s only slightly bigger – slightly smaller – slightly longer – slightly shorter.

That’s the challenge. It nudges forward, season on season, and men personalise with subtlety. I enjoy the challenge of the ‘nudge’. I like that Jonathan finds characters within each city, the men who put their own unique stamp on a look. His focus isn’t on the perfect way of dressing or obvious trends and statements, it’s about personality.

I still get excited when I spot someone on the street wearing one of my designs – it gives me goose bumps. I love it most when people are able to make it their own, adding their own twist. One of the most exciting things is when we have a sale on and I see a student from Central Saint Martins coming in to get a deal. An art student from somewhere like Japan can come in and buy one item to pair with their dad’s old kimono and the styling becomes genius. For me, the most interesting part of street style is documenting the way someone chooses to wear an item, rather than the design of the garments themselves.  

This excerpt is taken from Garçon Style, published by Laurence King

Photography Jonathan Daniel Pryce

Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs

In an excerpt from the new book on Japan’s leading photographer, Takeshi Nakamoto asks – who is the real Daido Moriyama?

‘Oh come on, get real….’ In the ten years I’ve known him, I’ve noticed Moriyama has a habit of saying this – then giving a dismissive snort. I’ve heard him come out with it on all sorts of occasions, and I realise now that it’s the photographer’s way of demonstrating that he thinks the person he is talking to is being ridiculous. Some upstart (like myself, for example) will be mouthing off about something, or making some crazy request, and rather than putting them down with something stronger like ‘That’s total crap!’, he’ll come out with this expression.

‘I’ve never felt that I should conform to any particular set of rules – and not just in photography. I have no truck with what passes for the normal way of doing things….’

Moriyama steers clear of any preconceptions in snapshot photography and he has a similar aversion to rules, standards or normal practices in any area of life. You might say that, for him, the only criterion is that there should be no criteria. And when it comes to photography, it’s clear that many things that are generally regarded as common sense are, for Moriyama, non-sense.

Perhaps the best example of this would be the idea of originality – which he rejects out of hand. As someone who has always held that photography has never been anything other than mere copying, it’s a lost cause, he thinks, to try to argue for the originality of a photograph. Hence his lack of compunction about taking shots of posters he happens to see in the street – even when that poster contains an image by another photographer. He makes no bones about publishing it either. All he is doing, he says, is taking a copy of something that is itself already a copy.

‘I’ve even considered doing away with the copyright symbol from my own photo books. Of course, the publishers would object, there’d be all sorts of problems. But basically I think everyone should be free to copy anything they want to. What else is a photograph but a copy to begin with? When I hear people getting all hot under the collar, making the argument for photographs being original, being “art”, and so on, I always think to myself, “Oh, come on, get real….”’

A person of evident conviction, the thing to which Moriyama is clearly most committed is his own desire. The snapshot epitomizes this desire. A spur-of-the-moment shot that he takes the instant that he feels the urge. Point and shoot, point and shoot. Simply, without thinking.

But, of course, there is another Daido Moriyama: the Moriyama who in Sunamachi stares into the viewfinder lost in thought, the Moriyama who on our highway photo shoot feels compelled to interrogate what he is doing. This Moriyama is definitely not so simple, and is more open-ended.

In this scrupulous commitment to his desire, Moriyama never stops questioning the world he is shooting, never stops questioning the photographs he takes, and never stops questioning the self that is trying to take those photographs – even as he relentlessly continues to do so. The questions he asks go on well beyond that tiny split second – the 1/250 of a second – in which the shutter opens and closes. In every shot he takes, in that one brief moment, there lies an eternity of questions, and conflicting points of view, and journeys back and forth. Small wonder, then, that he refuses to waste his time or energy fretting about common sense or convention.

Excerpt from Daido Moriyama: How I Take Photographs by Daido Moriyama and Takeshi Nakamoto, published by Laurence King

David La Spina

An exclusive portfolio by photographer David La Spina explores the hidden patterns and intimate moments of New York street life

All you need to know about David La Spina is in the first picture of this portfolio. He is motivated when the light is hot and strong and the contrast is high. He frames chaos within chaos. He picks up on signifiers of how we live. Two women grip cell phones with ferocity. Are they hostage takers or hostages? One of the women listens intently to one phone while holding another. What does it mean to have two phones?

La Spina’s photos are full of everyday mysteries and nuances. The uncanny waits for him. With quick reflexes he snags the splatter of light and shade on their faces. The smudgy shadows tumbling down the side of the woman’s face as she steps into sunlight could not be more perfect if he drew them in with a charcoal stick.

As the women come towards us, La Spina also registers the back of a man walking towards them. And then he re-raises the ante by lassoing the leafy shadows on the gentleman’s shoulders, and then the shadow of yet another person falling across the man’s back. Is it La Spina’s shadow? Can this be the portraitist inserting a self-portrait among the pedestrians on an ordinary day of extraordinary Manhattan light? The man’s bent fingers at the edge of the frame add to the choreography of hands. A ‘Parking’ sign descends in the background, testament to La Spina’s love of vernacular typography. La Spina is the equivalent of a studio musician laying down all of the tracks in a song, all at once.

La Spina’s images savour the urban elegance of stairs, wrought iron railings and fire escapes. The angles, edges, reflective surfaces and intersecting shapes of urban buildings inspire and delight him. His eye owes its rigour and discipline to his love of architecture. Later on in the story, laundry hanging behind two buildings stands out. The clothes hang from a grid of bars that echoes the grid of windows in the background. One can imagine the windows and bars aligned and matching perfectly. Does every walk La Spina takes down a city street on a sunny day result in a moment of visual ecstasy?

After years of working with sophisticated cameras, La Spina started shooting with his smartphone, liberating him to make pictures quickly – usually when he is in transition: on his way to the subway, heading to work or pushing his daughter in a stroller. At first he was “very insecure about these pictures and thought they were second fiddle”. Then he realised “they were getting better than the pictures I thought were my serious pictures.” These vividly beautiful, impatiently captured and elegantly rendered photographs are proof of the irrepressible power and pleasure of great street photography.

Kathy Ryan is director of photography at The New York Times Magazine

Garry Winogrand – The Street Philosopher

Writer Geoff Dyer reflects on the prolific genius of America’s foremost street photographer

Image courtesy of University of Texas Press

Garry Winogrand had found it relatively easy to break free of the established idea of what constituted pictorial decorum. He achieved his own photographic style early on, with a minimum amount of agonising and fretting, through the simple expedient of going out and photographing a lot. People who at first were resistant or sceptical came to understand and appreciate what he was doing. They gathered round to see his work, came to admire the way he would not be confined by earlier paradigms of picture-ness.

“It’s all a question of how much freedom [you] can stand,” he once said, confident that his own appetite for freedom was so immense that any kind of shackle served as a stimulant and incentive as well as a restraint. But then he came to suspect that it was possible to become imprisoned by the idea of freedom he had established. Liberty in itself inevitably grew constricting. What to do? Set himself new challenges? Find new ways of wriggling out of a way of working which had itself become routine?

Like many of the sights recorded in Public Relations – the series Winogrand began after he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph ‘the effect of media on events’ in 1969, and published as a book in 1977 – the image here is of a performance or enactment, a photograph of something intended to be seen, to attract a crowd. The onlookers look on in the style of rapt boredom or disinterested fascination that street performances tend to generate. They know the escape artist is meant to be able to free himself but to really get their money’s worth – so what if it’s free? – they’ll have to see him fail. Ideally, he’ll still be there struggling, caught in his self-imposed bind, when they’ve wandered off to see something or someone else.

For photographer Thomas Roma, Winogrand, at this late stage of his life, was involved in the dangerously radical enterprise of “allowing himself to fail constantly”. Like John Coltrane, Winogrand fell sick, became terminally ill, before he was able to see if this enterprise might itself yield a breakthrough, a breakout. 

The cuddly panda, head propped on the money bucket as though slurping water from it, is a symbolic escapee from the pictures Winogrand made at zoos (published in his book The Animals), when he succeeded over and over again.

Geoff Dyer’s book The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand is out now from University of Texas Press