Interview With Street Photographer Paul Russell (In-Public & Street Photography Now)

Paul, like many I know your work from the book "Street Photography Now" which has always been a big inspiration and I can’t tell you how great it is to feature you on Street Photography London!

You’re based in Dorset, please tell us a little about you:

Well, I was born in London in 1966, grew up in Sussex, and after university moved around the country quite a bit for various publishing jobs. For the past dozen years I’ve lived in Dorset and done mainly freelance editing and writing work, although for the past couple of years I’ve concentrated on photography and, of course, my performance art pieces.

I’ve been interested in street photography since my teens but was only really aware of a few of the very famous street and documentary photographers back then. I’ve been photographing off and on since the 70s – mostly in black and white with cheap SLRs, going through all sorts of subject matter. I had a big gloomy graveyards phase. My interest in actually “doing” street photography took off when digital came along. Having gone from taking a couple of rolls of black and white film every month, in 2003 I bought a 2-megapixel digital camera and took thousands of photos in the first few months. Looking through all the dross and using the instant digital feedback, it seemed that the pictures that worked best were generally the candid people shots. Straightaway in 2003, I set up a website at www.paulrussell.info for my new digital stuff.

I generally take my photos on “day trips” out from Weymouth, and I now have an extensive train ticket collection.

In your eyes, what’s so special about the British seaside?

I’m interested in the fact that locals soon get bored of living by the seaside and ignore it, so for a lot of the year – in the “out of season” – it’s deserted. I’ve tried to show the seaside as a quiet but pleasant place, to redress the balance of two ways that it’s often been shown photographically – either very gaudy, bawdy and tacky with the colours ramped up, or else tatty and down at heel. I think those two ways have become easy cliches.

A lot of my seaside series was carried out between 2006 and 2009 but I still find material now that fits in with the look and feel of the other photos. I don’t want it to be just a bunch of pictures that happen to have been taken at the seaside. In general, it’s out of season shooting (i.e. not August!).

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My seaside photos seem to be quite popular in part because they tap into a collective feel-good experience – most people have good memories of seaside holidays.

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It’s easy to see you have a great sense of humour. Photography doesn’t just reflect what’s around us but our photos also define who we are through what we choose to shoot. Do you agree?

I don’t know. I am not a particularly “fun” guy but somehow I seem to have quite a few humorous pictures – that’s just what I seem to see. Of course, humour is just a funny way of being serious, as they say.

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When I lived in Bath, I used to see Van Morrison around quite a bit, always looking and sounding the grumpy old sod of legend. I always used think it incongruous that someone so seemingly morose could produce all that joyful, transcendent music. But maybe it’s not so strange.

My favourite joke is the old classic – Q: What’s the difference between a duck? A: One of its legs is both the same.

Your Brighton series is both very real and absurd in some of the moments you capture. Am I right in thinking the Tourist Office hasn’t yet approached you to use them to promote its seaside life?

Well, it’s another view of Brighton rather than just what the beach looks like on a nice day in summer, which is what many photos and stock TV footage shows. Typing “Brighton” into Google images brings up a whole page of sunny beach vistas with the occasional Pavilion. Like the seaside series mentioned above, this is a resident-eye view not the tourist-eye view – what you see on the trudge to work on grey days. I shot the series within very strict limits – all during 2013 with a compact camera fairly unsuitable for street photography.

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The photos were taken during 35 (very long) day-trips from Weymouth to Brighton but also drew on my experience of living in the town for several years in the 1990s, and being a regular visitor since the beginning of time. I tried to capture the seedy, dilapidated glamour that I associate with the town but haven’t seen addressed via photography. The Brighton that Richard Attenborough inhabited in Brighton Rock, if you like. Some of it is still there. As the project evolved, I found myself coming back to Keith Waterhouse’s phrase that “Brighton is a town that always looks as if it is helping police with their inquiries”.

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Don’t get me wrong – I do like Brighton a lot – there’s always loads going on and all the different areas – London Road, North Laine, Kemptown, Seven Dials, Western Rd, the beach and so on – have distinct characters. The series is not packed full of standalone winning shots but I caught the atmosphere and sense of place that I wanted to convey. I also recorded all the GPS data from my wanderings, which I plan to do something with. I’m sure a lot of people will find that more interesting than the photos.

Looking at most of your photos, what I get is that you seem to manage to put some order in the chaos that surrounds us. Is it the case?

I am really a formalist at heart – I like photos to be fairly neat and “conventionally” composed, although I don’t mind if the very edges of frames are messy with people cut off. Some of Winogrand’s stuff is too wild for me. Form versus content? – form is very important to me. My eye is immediately drawn to ugly clashes in an image, where possibly other people would notice the interesting bits first. I also hate white sky – draws my eye straight away from the action.

You have a series of London street photos. Do you manage to spend a lot of time in our capital? Do you try to or are you just as happy shooting anywhere?

London is probably my favourite place to shoot in terms of the experience, if not the results. It’s nice to be able to shoot a bit more freely.

The quietness of the beach and the busyness of London are two scenarios at the opposite ends of the spectrum, and present different challenges. For example, if I’m walking along a quiet beach in winter, and I know the surroundings, it can mean long periods of semi-boredom, waiting for something interesting to happen. In that case, I’m looking for a chance event or an element of physical change – some sort of a temporary blip in normality to relieve my boredom.

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At the other extreme, in London, the crowds, the size, the ever-changing nature and the fact that I generally only have a few hours to get results represents a visual information overload where it can be hard for me to filter it all down, slow down and really look at what’s going on.

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If the Brighton and seaside series are the residents’ view, the London series is the tourists’ view – all shot in famous parts like Piccadilly Circus, or focusing on tourists themselves, or ironically illustrating some cliched aspect of London life. I only get up to London half a dozen days a year. It would be nice to go more often, as on my rare trips I usually come away with something but the train fares are expensive…

You’re a member of In-Public with whom you regularly exhibit internationally and you also have shows through Street Photography Now (which is for many a big source of inspiration). Do you plan any solo show anytime soon?

You missed them! I did have solo shows of the seaside series in the South Hill Park arts centre in Bracknell and the Clotworthy in Antrim, and a big Gallery 435 show in a warehouse in Slough. Those were all a few years ago now, and were organised for me. I don’t have the drive to initiate anything like that myself at the moment. A book would be nice but again I don’t have the chutzpah – if that’s the right word – to do all that Kickstarter type stuff so I’m just waiting to be approached by a major publisher, which is bound to happen any day now. My mood changes but at the moment I’m focusing on taking photos, not the “career” promotion activities, at least not in the conventional way.

I do have a box of cardboard mounts and prints that was sent to me after the Antrim show that I occasionally use to put on lo-fi shows, for example in Housmans Bookshop in London. The venue has to be right for that though – I’m not interested in showing prints in cafes or bars or that sort of thing.

Going back to your question – it was great to be involved in the Street Photography Now book and to be accepted into In-Public. I think that many people have been inspired by both of those. There seems to be some new photographers coming through who are producing good portfolios very quickly, and I’m sure that having good role models and online feedback helps in this.

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Finally, if you could turn back time and give yourself one piece of photographic advice what would it be?

Always carry a simple photography business card – the one time you don’t have one on you will be the one time you need it. And don’t spend too much time looking for funny juxtapositions, as you will find many of them contrived in a few years.

Thanks very much Paul!


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All photos © Paul Russell