Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Bright Eyes - Street Photography

This interview was first published in the September 2010 Photography Monthly Magazine

Peter Dench likes to have fun, but doesn’t like to waste time. He enjoys getting out and shooting, but dislikes simply wandering around without purpose. He prefers instead to photograph events and places that, by their very nature, will guarantee colourful and arresting images. He’s not an obsessive photographer who always has a camera slung around his neck. In fact, he won’t get his camera out of its bag for weeks unless he’s being paid and before setting out he has to have a strong sense of what he’s trying to achieve.

Take for example the image of a boy diving into a swimming pool. This was taken in a small US town on the weekend of American Independence Day. Peter knew in advance there would be celebrations and situations that he could visit that would have the potential for some great shots.

“I have a very naive way of shooting and chase primary colours. I’ll run after a girl in red shoes or shiny pants or holding a yellow umbrella. It’s a simple, childish and boyish enthusiasm I have for shiny things. Never let me walk past a La Senza shop.”

Peter grew up by the seaside in Weymouth, Dorset, just two minutes from the beach, a setting he feels has had a big influence on his style today. Having studied photography as a teenager, he decided to become a professional photographer because he was fired from every other job, which at the age of 16 ranged from till boy in Asda to sales assistant in Top Man. He knew early on that he wasn’t particularly good at being told what to do by an authority figure.

­­It is perhaps this anarchic attitude that informs his work. His approach maybe targeted but his aim is to capture the funny side of life. “I’m always looking for humour in my pictures. Charlie Chaplin is a big influence and I often try to address serious subjects in a humorous way when appropriate. My aim is to make people laugh, make people think. Looking through the books of Elliott Erwitt and Martin Parr is the reason I got into photography. If you can travel the world making people laugh and making them think, then to me that’s a fine way to live.”

Peter was 14 when he started taking pictures, shooting things such as butterflies and plants. Eventually he turned the camera towards people and began to take it seriously as a career at the age of 18 after looking at photography books in the library of Bournemouth arts college.

“I knew in 1992 that I wanted to be a professional photographer, when I enrolled in a degree course in photographic studies at Derby. By the end of the degree Jonathan Worth and I were the only two photographers who didn’t photograph our friends or ourselves naked. It was that type of course where Cindy Sherman and Jo Spence were held up as the inspiration. It was very academic, which helped me enormously because all I wanted to do was get out and shoot people and see the world in photographs.”

This direction helped him to pick his subject. He had become class conscious for the first time at the age of 18 when he arrived in Bournemouth and realised that there were people in the world with double-barrelled names.

“I found this time fascinating and during the three years I spent in Derby I tried to visit as many public schools and country houses as I could. I got invited to the Duke of Devonshire’s tercentenary celebrations [at Chatsworth] because I told him I was doing my dissertation on historical representations of the aristocracy, but I just wanted a free lunch, some good quality wine and a great subject to photograph.”

In 1995, the week after he graduated, Peter headed to London and went straight to Reuters. His plan was to make it big. Armed with three portfolios he walked through the doors of the news agency expecting to get signed up immediately. The portfolio he left was immediately lost in the system; he was forced to sign on and spent the next two years on the dole.

“I soon realised the portfolio I had wasn’t up to scratch, so I started applying for press passes to events such as Ascot and Epsom, and turning up at Henley [for the rowing] – classic summer events – and I got picture editors involved quite early with what I was trying to do. I’d go and see Aidan Sullivan at the Sunday Times Magazine and he would reject everything I was showing him, but I’d take his advice on board and go back three months later to show him that I’d listened and my developments, which he’d also reject.”

This cycle continued until 1998 when Peter had finally progressed to a level where Sullivan was able to give him a commission. Shortly afterwards he was also asked to work for GQ magazine.

“I think there are two ways to become a professional photographer. Either you assist and then try to make it on your own or you try to make it on your own from the beginning, and that was the route I chose to take, but there’s no right or wrong way. It was two years of persistence and knocking on doors, which I still have to do.”

Shortly after getting this break, Peter joined the IPG agency for which Tom Stoddart was shooting stories on AIDS in Africa and Zed Nelson was photographing gun culture in America. Peter was encouraged to pick a subject as well and with the project drink UK he did exactly that.“There’s an underlying theme in my life. Drink is my passion. I grew up in a brewery and my family were all involved in the industry. My home town was a violent place to grow up in; there was a Navy base and 180 bars with holiday makers. It was a mess, but an enjoyable one too, so that’s the culture I wanted to document.”

Peter’s long-term aim is to document England and to understand the country. He does this by breaking it down into manageable chunks with a specific theme or title, a method which also mean he can raise money for his projects.

His drink UK project earned him a World Press Award and 11 pages in the Sunday Times Magazine, which really fired his enthusiasm. The next section he concentrated on was ethnicity in the UK, followed by rain UK and then love UK. Peter treats each subject in the same way and believes you have to be classless. He doesn’t have any tattoos, doesn’t wear any religious symbols and doesn’t even want people to know which football team he supports when on a job.

“I just try to be a blank canvas because it’s not about you when you’re shooting. I try to be as unremarkable as possible. When shooting I wear no logos, there are no allegiances anywhere, so the subject can project on to you what they want to be. The best asset I have is this unassuming presence where people aren’t afraid of me, I behave accordingly and they don’t judge. Generally people get on with me and let me shoot what I think I need to.”

That said, he makes no attempt to conceal the fact he is a photographer. Before switching to digital, Peter shot exclusively on Mamiya medium format cameras for almost 10 years. Shooting wide and as close as possible with such a cumbersome camera meant the last thing he could be was discreet.

“If I walked into a pub I’d either have people saying ‘don’t point that f***ing thing at me’ or ‘come and join us.’ I make no disguise about being a photographer. The thrill I get is shooting real people doing real things in a certain style that is very simple. There’s a drive to see things such as girls changing backstage. Who wouldn’t want to see that and who wouldn’t want to be there with a 6x7 camera? It’s the access to the ordinary, but for me they are extraordinary situations.”

His realistic approach is also the reason he is in demand with advertising clients. They like the fact that his work looks so natural. Even when it is all set up and every element and detail has been approved, Peter will try to make it look like a grabbed, humorous moment, because that’s what clients want him to recreate. They are looking for him to produce something that will make people smile.

In 2007 Peter was approached by FIFA – football’s governing body – to shoot a 15-month project, 26 stories across 20 countries. The choice was between two photographers. Both were asked if they shot digital. The other photographer said no, Peter said yes and got the job.

“I immediately ran home, bought one, called the photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale and he took me through the digital menu on the back, and it’s stuck. I still look at websites for 5x4 handheld cameras and I’ve still got film under my bed; in terms of commercial work film is a non-starter, but for personal projects I still shoot a few rolls.”

Today, Peter shoots on a couple of Canon EOS 5Ds but, as many professional photographers maintain, he believes that kit is not the key to success. “For me it was just what I was comfortable with and knew how to shoot, and then sticking with it, but in making the transition from film to digital I had to make sure I could continue with the style that I had developed.”

Hopeless at shooting in low light, Peter always feared that when it came to developing his shots he would see nothing, so he would blast them with flash or shoot only in bright sunlight so something would burn on to the negative.

Today he still uses fill-in flash, two stops under, with a Metz 45 flash gun clamped to the side of his camera. He works with two cameras, one with a 35mm lens and the other with a 28mm lens, but also carries a 70-200mm lens in case he needs to get a bit closer and is unable physically to do so. Peter always shoots on ISO 400 so he can move from outside to indoors and deal with lower light. He carries a light meter and takes a general reading, continually checking to see if there is any change. Usually he shoots at either f/11 or f/16 and dials the shutter speed to match.

“I can always recognise a good image of mine from just a thumbnail; I don’t have to enlarge it, because it’s so bold. Tom Stoddart once said to me that if you photograph a girl in a yellow dress you just see the dress, but if you photograph her in black and white you see her soul. I don’t buy into that, I just see a picture without colour and it depresses and disappoints me. I don’t think enough photographers consider the colours that go into their shots any more. It’s a real consideration of mine.”

Good street photography is about interesting lines, shapes and angles, and Peter is obsessed with clean lines, clean spaces and verticals.

“I live my life in a ridiculous way, any photographer does. You’re trying to make sense of the world through a rectangle. Composition for me is about roving your eye around the whole image and it just works, so first you look at the rectangle and then there are elements within it. I like regimented shots; perhaps it’s a rule I should break, but wonky lines upset me.” Take the shot of the elderly couple kissing in the bus shelter. The most important bit of that shot for Peter is that the ‘lost children centre’ display to the left runs parallel to the edge of the frame. Things have to work like that.

“With 6x7 and 6x6 you are more aware of what is happening at the top, bottom, left and right, but less so shooting in 6x9, where you read the image from left to right, so maybe the top and bottom aren’t so crucial. When you’re shooting 6x7 or 6x6 I think you have to be more disciplined. In 6x9 things can happen towards the edge of the frame and you can get away with a lot more, but when it’s penned in more every corner counts. That sounds like a game show for photographers, ‘every corner counts’. All my books at home are in alphabetical order and everything is square and I think this translates to the way I try to compose shots. Top, bottom, left, right, parallels, everything has to work where possible.”

Peter’s next project is a sort of road trip across UK, called Carry on England, which will look at the clichés that may or may not exist. It sounds fun and he is clearly excited by the idea, and why shouldn’t he be? Photography is about enjoying your subject, seeing the world differently and capturing the not-so-obvious. He may not take his camera out of its bag that often, but when he does it is plain to see Peter is excited by the simple things, events and situations that have a universal appeal. This is the key ingredient to any successful story and the draw for people from all walks of life.

By being selective, Peter has succeeded in creating strong images that have elements familiar to everyone. By being unobtrusive he is welcomed into disparate worlds and invited to record those elements in an engaging, humorous and sympathetic way. What more could a street photographer want?


Based in London, Peter Dench works primarily for advertising and editorial clients. In 2010 he came second in the advertising category at the Sony World Photography Awards. His studies of international cultures have been exhibited the world over. Football’s Hidden Story, his project for FIFA documenting 26 stories across 20 countries, received six global accolades, including World in Focus, AOP Open and PDN Photo awards. www.peterdench.com


Tom Stoddart

Elliott Erwitt

Martin Parr

Cindy Sherman

Jo Spence

Marcus Bleasdale

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