I’ll be speaking (via Zoom) at the ‘Progressive Street & Art Photo Festival’ in Milan, Italy On October 11th at 5pm UK time
There’s a short interview at the Progressive Festival site: https://www.progresfestival.com/john-gill
Interview with John Gill
Your photos are very precise in defining a particular geographic area, the city where you were born and raised and the surrounding towns, once home to thriving coal mines. It seems that you are documenting the change and continuity of your ‘land’, but you do not define yourself as a documentary photographer.
It seems to me that you are a social photographer, able to document your reality, not because you follow patterns, but because you know very well what you intend to photograph and transmit with your images.
I think there’s a lot of overlap between street, documentary, and social photography. If you are shooting candidly, as I do, then you are pretty much by definition creating a documentary image. I’m happy to go with the ‘social photographer’ tag.
You are correct about documenting a particular area, although this is partly through necessity as I don’t travel well 🙂 f course, being familiar with a particular area helps. Not particularly in selecting locations but more about ‘reading people’ – I was born here, live here and it perhaps helps in knowing how people react in certain situations. Street photography is as much about psychology as photography.
I still see myself as an outsider though, perhaps this helps as a photographer.
When my wife Bridget and I started the After the Coal Dust project it was intended to be a more ‘documentary’ endeavour. We photographed the environment as much as people. I think we soon came to realise that it’s all about the people rather than where they are. It still seems strange that the images seem to have an appeal outside the local area. I always felt that they were peculiarly Northern English but, of course, the human condition is universal to a great extent.
I’m not sure ‘I know very well what I intend to photograph’, I think it’s more a case of being able to get the photograph when something catches my attention. I rarely go out specifically to take photographs; I take photographs when I’m walking the dog, sitting in a café, or just walking the streets. I like the looseness. I think sometimes there is a tendency to try too hard in looking for the ‘decisive moment’ – every moment has the potential to be decisive.
In your opinion, the street is often suffocated by clichés, such as not photographing poverty, and your answer is very similar to the philosophy of Progressive: in street photography the way in which you photograph is important. The dignity of the subject also concerns the dignity of the photographer. Do you agree?
Absolutely. I try very hard to have empathy, but a certain dispassion is essential. I think it comes back to the outsider looking in.
I think photography can be too constrained by rules. Many of these so-called rules are created to fill up copy space in books and YouTube tutorials. This is where the cliches come in.
Photographing the homeless and poverty is a delicate subject. Many suggest that it is exploitative and shouldn’t be done at all, others seem to specialise in it. I’m somewhere in the middle. I photograph what I see. Unfortunately, poverty and homelessness exist, not photographing unfortunate people at all doesn’t make the problem go away.
I am not naïve in thinking that photography can change the world, but I think it can highlight things that need changing. It’s a question of balance, an accurate picture of society unfortunately must include a representative cross-section. Of course, there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed, and it is up to the ethics and
dignity of the photography to decide where those lines are. I hope I manage to stay on the right side.
Social media has changed the depiction of society in images. We are in an age where we want to show ourselves in a contrived way. We have mobile phones that seem to manipulate our image by default. I just want to show the way we are rather than the way we would like to think we are.
Your project is to be able to create a wall with a hundred photographs of people’s faces.
Photographing the face is like looking for the soul or spirit of that person. What do you think?
I’ve always said that photography is a three-way operation, the photographer, the subject, and the viewer.
The faces project is perhaps less documentary that the traditional street work, even though they are photographed in the same way – all unposed candid images. By removing the background completely, it removes all sense of place – all there is the face. No titles or captions, no information other than what is shown in the eyes or expressions of the subject.
I don’t think a single photograph can really capture a lot of the subject. Shooting candidly helps but it is still just a moment in time. So, in that sense, no, I don’t think it does reflect the soul or spirit of the subject. What it can do, hopefully, is to say something about the soul or spirit of those looking at the photograph. The reaction a photo elicits in the viewer is the important thing. I have shown pictures that have made people laugh or made them cry – sometimes it can be the same picture. In a way it’s no longer a photo of a person, it’s more a photograph of an emotion or mood. Or at least I hope it is. It doesn’t really matter what someone feels as long as they feel something. If a photo (or a painting, a piece of music, literature etc) draws an emotional response then it works.
Obviously, the b/w of your works is striking, which once again confirms itself closer to reality and the chronicle of reality than colour. What do you think of colour photography? I’ve seen you use it for landscape and atmospheric photographs.
I’ve no problem whatsoever with colour photographs, even though I’m predominantly black and white. An exception is those ‘colour pop’ effects – I really hate them.
I think colour has to add something extra to an image otherwise it can be a distraction. We tend sometimes to notice colour before we notice anything else.
We are influenced by other photographers; it can’t really be avoided. Even before I started taking pictures, I used to be drawn to news photographs that were always black and white back then. Then, once I started to become interested in photography, I found myself liking photos by people like Bill Brandt or Don McCullin. I set up a darkroom at home and although I printed both colour and BW, black and white was far easier to control. You could see the images appear in the trays, with colour it was in closed tanks and far more technical. Probably the main reason was black and white chemicals and paper were far cheaper!
Black and white allows you to get away with more mistakes too. No need to worry about colour balance, grain can be a benefit so higher ISOs are ok, and you can always hide the clutter in the shadows.
It’s all digital for me now but the post-processing is pretty much just what I used to do in the darkroom; dodge and burn, adding contrast etc. After a while you get to see in BW, it seems to come naturally to me now.