Monday, June 7, 2010

London

A few days in London is guaranteed to make even the most hard-core urbanite feel slightly like a country rube. If you're a country rube to start with the effect is magnified. The city is massive, "a great place to disappear for a while," as one Londoner described it to us, and in fact I think part of me did disappear during our visit. Was it the rube? The blogger? The documentary actor? I'm not sure but I know three days were barely enough time to scratch the surface, although we made a decent stab at in.

Shortly after checking into our hotel (after traveling 20 sleepless hours) we were on the streets with cameras. Within twenty minutes, George and I had lost each other. That became the pattern for the whole stay. It was impossible to keep together.

The A shows roughly the location of our hotel

That first afternoon I ambled this way and that trying to get my bearings. After all the anticipation, to actually be there shooting was quite exciting and I was practically shaking as I aimed my camera every which way. Aim here? There? Near? Far? Silly country rube. I was overwhelmed. I have no memory of anything I shot that first day, and it'll remain that way until I see the film.

Ambling aimlessly, it wasn't long before I bumped accidentally into one of the handful of people I know (out of 12 million) in London, David Solomons. As David knows better than most, those are terrible odds. But sometimes the street offers improbable gifts. David was photographing a crowd near Tottenham Rd. I recognized him from his online photo and introduced myself. We had a beer with David's pal Tiffany, then I resumed shooting while they went to an art opening.

That night George and I both slept for 15 hours.

The next day we fell into routine. We ate a proper English breakfast in the dining hall downstairs (think high carbs), then packed for the day and set out. To save space I'd brought all my rolls in a large ziplock, plus 12 empty canisters for daytrips. So each morning I'd load 12 rolls into canisters, leaving the main film stash in the room. I generally brought the Leica and the Diana, saving my Nikon for indoors/portraits. I used the Diana a bit but 95% of the time it was the Leica, which with busted rangefinder and busted meter operated a bit like a Diana. I became quite proficient at zone focus and zone metering. That kid over there? 2.6 meters. Her? 6 meters. The street photographer's zone system.

I'd been warned beforehand about restrictions on street shooting and it took a bit of time at first to gauge the general camera paranoia level. It proved negligible. Not once did anyone complain about being photographed, and in fact I think you could point a camera at anyone or anything in London and not raise much fuss, just a few eyebrows. I felt I'd died and gone to street photography heaven.

Each day I packed a small box of work prints, and when I found a good spot I would leave one. It's important to note that these had no labels or writing. They weren't intended as advertisements or business cards but as absurd movable graffiti. I imagined someone would find them and lacking any easy explanation the general spell of photography on the world might be increased a smidgeon. What could possibly be the origin of a found b/w photo with no writing? Was it lost? Dropped? Did someone intend for it to be placed there? I had a great time imagining the reactions. Of course most of these photos probably wound up being ignored or stuffed in the rubbish. But that didn't prevent me fantasizing.

I placed these photos mainly in phone booths, and occasionally at bus stops or near Underground railings. I placed them with care, usually propped up, so that no one would wonder if they were deliberate. Obviously they were, but why? I thought about handing them out to passersby near the newsstands where people where distributing various broadsides, but never followed through. The one time I ran into trouble was at Photographer's Gallery, where I slipped a short stack into a rack of art show announcements on my way into the building. Twenty minutes later they'd disappeared. Someone --one of those innumerable warriors against happenstance-- didn't like them. Not impressed.

I don't know about you but after a full day of walking, I like to sit down with a good beer. Judging by appearances so do the Brits. Around 4 pm every day all the corner pubs began overflowing with the post-work crowd. They drink hard, but unfortunately the British beer is pretty meek. The selection consisted mostly of weak lagers, with a few ales in the mix and Guinness as the sole dark wild-card. The alcohol content was generally around 4%, color thin, and IBU barely registering.

Granted it was still better than what can be found in most American bars, but that's not saying much. Americans are happily beer ignorant. They expect weak beer and don't know the difference. But the British invented the pub! I thought they'd take more pride in their ales. And yes, all of this is written from the perspective of a spoiled Beervana native. And yes of course we drank it anyway regardless of taste, and occasionally to excess. Still, it was a bit of a let-down. (On the upside, at least the beer wasn't as dreadful as in Paris but I'll save that for a later post.)

At night we checked email and baseball scores using George's iPad through the hotel's wi-fi. My original idea was to use the iPad to blog travelogues from the trip, but this proved impractical since it does not have a keyboard or mouse. It's a good tool for quick web access but can't really be used for serious writing. Which was fine. One less distraction from photography, which is why I'd left my computer behind in the first place.

The evening of our second day was the opening at Photofusion in Brixton. We got there just in time to meet the In-Public crew on their way over from the corner bar. I had little trouble recognizing anyone. Everyone looked like their internet portraits except for me (the whole night I fielded introductions along the lines of "I didn't expect you to look so proper.")

The show itself was stunning, and the book too was top-notch (I know I'm supposed to say that but really it's true). Nick and Sarah had obviously put a ton of work into preparation and it showed. There was a steady crowd all night. In addition to the IP members I got to meet online acquaintances Joni, TomRS, and Maciej, plus many others.

Christian and Elena filming Nick at the Photofusion opening
by Nils Jorgensen

The Italian film crew Christian and Elena who'd filmed Print Extravaganza were on the scene to get footage for a street photography documentary they're making. They tried to remain inconspicuous but the sound boom kept inserting itself into situations. I got to talking with them and said that you couldn't really learn much about street photography in a gallery. To really understand street photography, I said, you had to film some people doing it. Document the process, not the product. One thing led to another --this was late in the evening after quite a few beers-- and somehow I found myself with an appointment the next day to be filmed shooting London streets.

I tried to talk George into coming along but he was having no part of it. But David Solomons was game. He and I met the film crew the next day in Trafalgar Square. The noonday light was horrible. Oh well. From the square we traced a caravan up Charing Cross and through Covent Garden. I took the lead first, with the film crew on my tail. I couldn't see them behind me but I could judge people's reactions as we approached. We must've been quite a spectacle. I have to say this is NOT how I normally like to shoot. I like to blend in, but it's that not really possible leading a film crew.

Nevertheless I tried to make the best of it, trying to act like I thought a street photographer should, aiming my camera straight at folks, not shooting from the hip, trying carefully to observe without losing my pace. The only way I can describe what it was like is surreal. I felt like I was on a set, playing a role. But at the same time it was real. I am very curious to see the film, both mine and theirs.

Halfway to Covent Garden, David took over and I was relieved to just shoot at my own pace without worrying how it might come across to others. Afterward there was a short interview aided by Tiffany which I totally mangled. I felt out of sorts and couldn't find my words, and I don't really like to talk much about process as much as I enjoy doing it. We all went out after and I was so spent and thirsty that even the English beer tasted good.

The next day we shot all morning, then hit the Tate Modern, the inside of which felt a bit like a hangar-sized pinhole camera. It's an enormous space featuring an embarrassment of riches. There was the huge show Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera which featured an amazing collection of photos, some familiar, some not. Another room was dedicated to Bruce Davidson's Subway Series. But the capper was an entire room of vintage Sander portraits. I was drooling and envious. London is really blessed to have such a museum which obviously cares about photography.

Lovers at the Movies, c 1940 Weegee
from Exposed at the Tate Modern

That afternoon we took the train to East Dulwich to wish Nick a happy birthday. David, David, Jesse, and Sarah were there along with Johanna from Thames and Hudson. I think I went a bit camera happy. Anyone who's spent time with me has seen this side of me, but it maybe came as a shock in the middle of an intimate gathering. "You're obsessed," commented David. "What do you mean?" I said, "I just went a whole half hour between photos." Oh well. So be it. It may be the last time I see any of those folks for a while so I had to shoot them while I could. We went for Thai food nearby, then George and I took the train straight back to our room, collected our things, and tramped over the St. Pancras Station for the EuroStar to Paris, shooting all along the way of course.

18 comments:

J. Karanka said...

If you got bad beer you just went to the wrong pub! (Which will look absolutely the same and therefore impossible to distinguish from a good pub). British ales tend to be in general weak-ish, warm, but very very varied in flavour. I wouldn't really care about the lagers, they are mostly large scale producers of fairly standard produce. You rather help yourself to some Czech or Polish stuff. But on the ales again, you can often find the fairly harsh stuff 5-8%, but you have to know where you're going. Anyway, my local has three choices at 99p a pint that I find acceptable :-D

Blake Andrews said...

You're probably right, Joni, although we did try several pubs with the same result. Next time you can be my beer guide.

Tiffany said...

I'd wager the rack stack of prints you left at Photographers Gallery was taken away by one who thought they'd found treasure. If only you could review the CCTV footage...

Stan B. said...

The last time (eight yrs ago?) in London I did see a couple of people drinking... Bud Light! They were young Conservative types within the city center perhaps trying (and failing) to look "cool" drinking American. I'm hoping that particular cultural degradation hasn't extended to the local neighborhood pubs. Stick to their varied, traditional, "hand pulled" local brews and you'll fare much better...

benroberts said...

hey blake, great to hear you had such a good time shooting in london. sorry i couldn't make it up to the in-public show.

next time, i'll try and be on hand to make sure that you go home with a more favourable opinion of our WONDERFUL beers!! haha... as joni said, its all about the right pub, although these are, unfortunately, becoming thinner on the ground...

thanks for you prints by the way - my return gesture should be waiting for you back home (or maybe you are back already?)

re. shooting on the streets - i've been stopped a couple of times in the banking district, but have never had hassle anywhere else. i've always felt london is pretty tolerant of street photographers, and that maybe, just maybe, the people who find themselves in confrontations bring it on themselves just a smidgeon, and in some instances even revel in the drama of it all...

Stephen McLaren said...

I can't wait to see what you made of London which by now sometimes feels too familiar to me. It's always great to be an alien with a camera in a big bad city. Please develop and post your survey at the earliest opportunity.

Good to meet you and George, albeit briefly.

Anonymous said...

next time find somewhere that serves Adnams, preferably from the barrel. . . You've ruffled the feathers of british beer drinkers now ;-)Joni, bitter is supposed to be warm, that way you can taste it ;-)
I look forward to your London shots.
Sounds like you had fun.
Jon

Richard Bram said...

Blake, It was great to meet you and George, even if for far too short a time. I hated to have to disappear so early the next morning for Germany. While the trips were productive, (show in Mannheim next year and possibly Frankfurt) For the most part it was all business, not fun. I would have much rather taken you guys to The Grapes for a pint or two sitting on the Thames in Limehouse Reach. Oh well...

David Solomons said...

It was great to finally meet up with you Blake. Central London is quite compact and I've always been amazed that I don't bump into fellow street photographers I know more often. But yes it was an amazing piece of luck that I managed to bump into you and indeed George at the exact same spot the next day. I did suggest the Belgium bar in Clerkenwell, but it was a little far from where we were and I've got a pretty awful beer palette so I'm afraid I couldn't have been of more assistance. Would be great if we could all get together again on a more regular basis.

Paul Russell said...

Nice to meet you briefly, Blake, and thanks for my print of the Meadowview East Apartments, Portland! I bumped into Maciej the next day, which also seemed like quite a coincidence...

vicky said...

your excitement is infectious :)

Nick Turpin said...

Glad you enjoyed London Blake, we were honored to have you and touched that you came to support us.
I look forward to an in-public pow wow States side in a couple of years.

Sorry about the beer ;-(

TomRS said...

Re: Beer in London, it’s always provocative when one comes to conclusions from a small sample, especially when, and I’m assuming now, that you spent your time sampling London’s pubs in tourist areas.
Anyway, It was good meeting you at the IN-Public exhibition and I’m eagerly waiting for some images to be posted that you shot in London. It’s always fascinating to look at where you live through someone else’s eyes.

Blake Andrews said...

Didn't mean to ruffle feathers with the beer comments. Probably just hit the wrong pubs.

Thanks to everyone in London for your friendliness and hospitality. I had a blast.

Fred Up said...

You missed a great opportunity to leave a big steaming pile of feces on British Petroleum's doorstep.

David Gibson said...

Blake,
It was lovely to meet George and yourself in London.

Blake Andrews said...

Fred Up, your comment reminds me of a Richard Brautigan story from Tokyo-Montana Express.

Kylewis said...

An absolute pleasure to read your entry, wonderful! Living in London can be quite an experience, it was interesting to get a viewpoint from someone who doesn't live in this sprawling urban delight!