Friday, 14 September 2012

In Conversation With Homer Sykes

I’m sat in the local Camden pub of international thriller writer Tom Knox (Sean Thomas). We are drinking a second bottle of rosé discussing success; his father is the critically acclaimed English poet, translator and novelist D M Thomas; he lives in a decent house in Cornwall with his current wife who is younger than us both; we think that is success. Knox has defeated heroin addiction, is a best selling author of archaeological and religious thrillers published in over 25 countries; he owns a flat, drives a mini cooper and has lent me £1000; we agree that is success. Success for me at the moment would be finding a way to say “Hello” to the fancy flock of young women that have settled around the adjacent table. I’m about to turn 40 years old and Knox is strutting towards 50; we take a rosé-tinted moment to suck back the idea of success.

The following day I’m on a 25-stop Northern Line underground train odyssey to meet a man; a successful man? I arrive early at the lines southern tip to take the edge off the previous nights imbibing and search for a bar. I can’t find one so I opt for a can of Carlsberg Export and a ‘grab bag’ of Quavers and sit on the wall of the Saint Martin’s Way Methodist Church; the ‘Brewers’ decorating materials shop mocks me with it’s title. As I watch the children’s club depart from the church, I think of what questions I should ask Homer Sykes; an independent documentary and portrait photographer of over 40 years. He has also produced one of the most extensive and comprehensive visual archives on the British. I’m visiting for two main reasons; there is something I want to ask and something I want to buy. The anticipation of achieving both in one day is making the can shake. Probably.

The semi-detached home of Homer is situated on a quiet quintessentially British suburban street. The trees are starting to bud and purple recycle bins present their neatly flattened offerings on the edge of clipped lawns. There are no clues that a photographer lives behind door number 51. Four chewed tennis balls are scattered around the pampas grass plants gesticulating at the entrance. Pampas grass!!! Isn’t that the plant used by swingers to advertise their presence to other swingers? I dismiss it as a widespread urban myth and rattle the knocker that hangs next to the bamboo wind chime perched over an old Collins road map of Britain.

©Homer Sykes

Homer Sykes looks like one of those people you expect him to look like. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he arrived in the world with his shock of white hair. His demeanor is warm but firm and his manner comparable with a Victorian explorer. I follow him past some of his most iconic prints from the 2007 Tate Britain show ‘How We Are : Photographing Britain’ the first major exhibition of photography at the premier gallery for British art. Arriving in the kitchen I present a bottle of Italian red wine and suggest a tipple; “Serious photographers don’t drink alcohol during the day or on a job.” Ah.

We take a coffee to the south facing garden and a seat at the table amongst the spiky plants an thorny roses; singing from his Greek neighbour plucks at the crisp spring air. Homer can track his first ‘proper’ photograph back to a camping holiday in 1966. While his friends watched England beat Germany in the football world cup final, Homer, who has never really been interested in watching sport, walked the backstreets of Nice. A shot that captured a woman washing clothes in an enormous stone tub that squatted among the tenements, won him a Birmingham Post photo competition.

Arguably best known for documenting British pursuits and customs, Homer never shied from gritty assignments. I ask about his time as a conflict photographer which saw him dispatched by hard news magazines to Israel, Lebanon, West Africa and Belfast where he found himself jumping in a car with Black Star photographer, James Nachtwey, before racing towards The Troubles. Homer balks at the modern term ‘conflict photographer’ and explains with a shrug that he was simply fulfilling a magazine commission that was paying him to take pictures. Toby, the chihuahua he is looking after for his daughter Tallulah vigorously humps my foot.

©Homer Sykes

Homer is a disciplined man. He rises at 7am, usually alone (the wife is ex, children Theo, Jacob and Tallulah have all grown and flown) and dresses smartly. Today his coral tank top compliments the thin lines running through his blue cuff-linked shirt that is tucked into faded jeans; a red elastic band fixes his watch in place. His constant companion, is Brendan, a Jack Russell X Smooth Haired Fox Terrier who is then taken on the first of three or four daily walks; Homer is breakfasted and at the computer screen for 9am, diligently checking Google Analytics through the screens dust; 160 non-bounced visits a day would satisfy his stat-lust.

He admits his commissioned days are behind him; the era that saw him regularly board a plane for TIME, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Telegraph and The Observer are gone. His last magazine commission was over three years ago; a photo illustration of a bereaved family for a German magazine. At 63 years old, Homer has taken stock of his options and his options are stock, a keyword or theme will be enough of a nudge to get him out taking pictures; laugh; laughing; laughter.

Homer is a salesman and has always had to be; marrying at 24 and raising a family made it necessary. Driven by the thrill of making a sale, his business is the business of making a living from flogging his archive. The past six years have largely comprised scanning; burgeoning his online archive to 12,000-13,000 images. He is currently shooting a digital colour project and trying to promote his rock and pop archive which includes intimate shots of the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney with his band, Wings. For Homer it’s all about income streams as is it for many photographers trying to sustain a living; a fine art print sale here; a book or stock sale there - it all adds up. The solitary day suits him; despite 15 years with Network Photographers, he is no longer interested in being part of a group and generally avoids bouncing around in the photo industry bubble.

©Homer Sykes

This famous photographer of Britain arrived from Canada aged five years old in 1954 when his mother remarried (his father was killed in China before he was born). As an only child at the co-educational Quaker boarding school in Somerset he built a darkroom, consumed copies of Camera Owner (later Creative Camera) and permanently lost hearing in one ear. In 1968, the calling of photography was unabated and he enrolled for a three-year course at the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication). He continued to be inspired and formed a friendship with Magnum photographer David Hurn who lectured there. On his first summer vacation he visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York and witnessed the accepted ‘art of photography’ by modern masters; Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank and Burk Uzzle; Homers career was cast; four decades later he completed his own Iliad and returns occasionally to LCC to teach a new generation of potential modern masters.

Homer suggests we move up to the bedroom, I peek out at the pampas bending in the breeze. He reaches under the bed in his spare room and pulls out boxes of prints from his great British archive. There are are 40 mounted prints from his book; Shanghai Odyssey, (Dewi Lewis 2002); a stack of “16x20” fine prints from his self published book; On The Road Again, (Mansion Editions 2002); and a box of Rolleiflex-shot square format work from his book; Hunting With Hounds, (Mansion Editions 2004).

He lifts the lid on what I’ve waited an adult life to see, work from his book; Once a Year - Some Traditional British Customs, (Gordon Fraser 1977). The photographs were taken in the 1970’s at more than 80 of Britain’s most fabulous, dark, historic and plain bonkers traditional annual practices; a large straw effigy known as ‘Bartle’ is carried in procession through the streets of West Witton, North Yorkshire; Blacked up Britannia Coconut Dancers stand on a rain-soaked street, smoking in their barrel skirts, Bacup, Lancashire; manic crowds surge forward during Hare Pie Scrambling and Bottle Kicking, Hallaton, Leicestershire.

England Uncensored is my own book attempt at documenting Britain; I ask the question I have come here to ask; “Is there anyone currently documenting the English in a way that interests or inspires you?” “No.” That’s that then! Then I ask to buy what I have come here to buy; a copy of Once a Year. There are copies of various prices of varying quality; copies Homer has reclaimed over the years. I reject the one that has a library stamp in the front and the mint conditioned one which is out of my price range. I flourish a (post dated) cheque and choose the one inscribed; “from Rachael and Nigel Xmas 1978.” The Christmas I unwrapped Star Wars toys to the sound of Bony M’s Mary’s Boy Child - Oh My Lord.

At 5pm Homer declares the afternoon is over and it’s time for wine. We push my passion for his work back under the bed and I’m waved into the lounge to be presented with his; modern British painting from between the wars. When Homer wines he does so with gusto; two bottles of Stamford Brook Chardonnay are quickly sloshed back as he tours me through the art. There’s an Eric Malthouse portraying a naked woman held aloft and paraded down an urban street (Malthouse can be seen in the foreground taking a photograph). Homer hooks his infected plaster-protected thumb towards an Anna Zinkeisen; a blind cherub carries a bloody arrow. There’s a John Armstrong; a Hans Tisdall; a Sine Mackinnon; a painting of Christ by Tom Nash; a John Elwyn and a painting by self-taught artist Francis Coudrill bought for £200 from a shop in Marlborough. Coudrill is perhaps more fondly remembered for creating children’s comic character ’Hank the Cowboy’, the subject of Homer’s painting is a little more adult; Coudrill’s wife as a mermaid with her breasts thrust out.

As I unscrew the red wine; lamb chops, mushrooms, potatoes and carrots are cooked. Homer would usually eat a meal then head over to The Chelsea Arts Club for a pint of London Pride and chat with fellow photographers; Roger Hutchings, Neil Libbert or Leo Mason. The chat would not be about photography; the talk would more likely be what it is likely to be by men in bars the world over; women, clothes, beer. Weekends may often find him selling Fosse Meadows Farm free-range chickens at a farmer’s market in Kensington on behalf of his son Jacob. The perfect date with his girlfriend would be a visit to an out of the way old English church, light a candle, maybe say a prayer, walk around the grounds looking at the architecture then a pint in the pub.

I dab the lamb juice from my chewing the chops, pull on my coat and ask Homer if he is pleased with how photographic history has acknowledged him and if he considers his career a success? “I’m not finished yet!” On the the tube train home, the northern bound passengers play games Tetris and Angry Birds on their phones; I flick through Once a Year; there’s a newly penned homage from Homer. I must be cackling like crazy and the eyes of the carriage level at my contorted face. I meet the gaze of my inquisitors, raise the book aloft, jab a finger at the cover, and much to their surprise, and mine; shriek out loud; “SUCCESS”!

More of Homer Sykes extensive archive can be found here

A version of this feature first appeared in issue 7 of Hungry Eye magazine available to buy here

Thursday, 24 May 2012

In Conversation With Marcus Bleasdale

There is no greater love than that between two heterosexual men. The silver screen is testament to this; the eponymous Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis); Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford); Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in Midnight Cowboy; and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in the Star Wars franchise (assuming Chewie is a chap).

From slaves on the road to Rome, to cowboys on the run in Bolivia; from surviving on the streets of New York, to a galaxy far far away; platonic man-love flourishes. If I was to spring from the trenches across no man’s land, it would follow a man’s order to CHHHAAARGE!!!!!! If I was to pirate the seven seas, it would be as an able seaman in an all-male crew. My luxury item on the BBC Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs, would be a man; and that man would be Marcus Bleasdale.

I first met Bleasdale in the London offices of the Independent Photographers Group (IPG), where he was formalising his membership to the agency I had joined two years previously. I assessed the newbie; his legs a little short; his hair a little long. Bleasdale had just self-published One Hundred Years of Darkness; a photographic journey into the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I assessed the work; dark, dense, moody images, present a raw, threatening world of dark, dense, shadowy characters. Out of necessity, the photographs were often shot from the hip; often out of focus. I suggested a ‘welcome’ drink in The Fox next door. Four bottles of wine later, a bromance was born.

 © Marcus Bleasdale/VII Photo

It’s the annual family Dench winter vacation and Norway is our destination. Norway: a country where state-run liquor stores open less frequently than a nun’s nightgown; where kindergarden kids play outside in temperatures touching -14C. Norway: a country where unemployment is counted in single-figure percentages and which, according to a UN report, has the world’s highest living standards of health, education and income. I hit the tarmac tired, hung-over and broke, having maxed out on the duty-free maximum.

On the journey from Rygge's airport, Moss lufthavn, to Bleasdale’s home, I’m no longer curious why the VII Agency photojournalist chooses to live here. Arguably best known for his work with Human Rights Watch, and for his images taken in the DRC (one of the least desirable places on the planet to live according to the same UN report), the Norwegian capital could not be more different. Pushing the apartment buzzer where he lives with his wife Karin Beate (KB), I’m a little nervous. I have a new haircut and wonder if he’ll notice. Bleasdale answers in his underpants; Norwegian underpants: full-length black thermals. A student assisting him with a multimedia piece on HIV and tuberculosis cross infection in Tanzania takes our arrival as his cue to leave.

As Bleasdale excuses himself to dress and freshen up, I take the opportunity to have a nose around his office. It’s impressive; an Ian Berry print is propped on the desk; a poorly ‘fixed’ Paulo Pellegrin lies on the floor. There’s a pristine platinum American Express card and a bowl of grubby Congo currency. There’s an Olivier Rebbot award, a World Press Photo award, two, Days Japan International Photojournalism awards and a Unicef Photographer of the Year Award. I count up to 11 POY and NPPA awards before a zesty and scrubbed Bleasdale returns to take over the tour. He pulls down his prized possession: a first edition of Vietnam Inc. by his great friend and mentor, the late Phillip Jones Griffiths. He marched PJG down to 99 Judd Street in London and the premises of Photo Books International, where Bleasdale had located a copy to purchase and for PJG to sign. Randomly pulling books from the shelf, there’s a signed Cartier-Bresson and a host of signed Eugene Richards; a legacy of when the noted American photographer popped round for lunch. 

There’s an unopened copy of Don McCullin’s In England, and a copy of iWITNESS by Tom Stoddart. It’s signed: “To Marcus. Mate thanks for your support and friendship since you joined IPG. I’m proud that we are in the same team. Tom 2004.” (On return to my flat in London, I check my copy of iWITNESS. It’s signed: “To Peter. With best wishes and a reminder that it’s your turn to buy the beers! Hic. Tom 2004.”) I fit in the chair that Ron Haviv couldn’t, as Bleasdale shows me his £325, 22/50-numbered, limited-edition Magnum Contact Sheets book complete with a Renni Burri contact sheet of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, 1963.

We take a tour of the rest of the apartment; it’s impressive. The rooms wrap themselves around a central sauna big enough to contain my ego. If you flung all the room doors open, you could run a full circle around it. I resist the urge to slap Bleasdale on the arse and shout, “You’re it!” The apartment is in the Frogner district of Oslo, Knightsbridge would be the equivalent location in London.

 © Marcus Bleasdale/VII Photo

Bleasdale plops on his timeless four-cornered hat - a recent purchase from the J.J. Hat Center on 32nd and 5th, New York - and suggests we grab the girls and pop out for pizza. Over bottles of La Raia Piemonte Barbera, with the Norwegian predilection for 1980‘s pop ballads playing in the background, he talks about his experiences in the Congo. Experiences of being kidnapped in the capital, Kinshasa, where he was dragged from his car and robbed of cash and phones by men he suspects were government soldiers. Of nearly overturning a car when escaping from direct gunfire with a dwarf polio victim being tossed around in the back; and of delivering the vehicle, riddled with AK47 bullet holes, back to it’s owner (an alcoholic priest). Of hiding in ditches from young child soldiers who should be playing hide-and-seek. And he reports on the rape; so much rape. As Gloria Estefan and Miami sound Machine's Anything For You plays, I stare out into the soft snow flakes that dust the beautiful women walking by in seal skin boots. Why would he leave? Why choose to spend half of your year travelling thousands of miles away from those who you love with the very real possibility of death (Bleasdale already has malaria). Television presenter and former pop star Ravi (Ivar Christian Johansen), interrupts to say hello and I pay the bill. It comes to £235.56. For pizza! Maybe that’s the reason he leaves.

Bleasdale grew up with a brother and sister in Brindle and Preston in Lancashire, UK. His parents split when he was 10 years old. He remained with his mother; a mother from a sibling stable of 16. Times were tough and the tough young Bleasdale often chipped in to help pay the bills with money earned from odd jobs. His part-time jazz musician father advised him against going to art school in favour of business, money and security; advice Bleasdale heeded. By the age of 30 he was being paid half a million pounds a year, owned several properties and drove a 1968 Porsche 911. He packed it all in for photojournalism. Why would he leave?

Back at the house of Bleasdale, in the company of Rioja and the music of Norwegian rock band Madrugada, he answers the question. The reason is because he is angry and the driving force behind that anger are the statistics: “More than 5.4 million already dead from conflict in the Congo since 1998; the largest death toll since World War II. Photography is a tool; a method to inform people what is going on in the country. It could be a pen or a telephone. I want things to change and the tool for me to do that is a camera”.

I ask him about a photograph that shows him sitting with four camouflaged DRC government forces. He is wearing a pink shirt. “It’s a red shirt, and I will wear anything that will distinguish me as a non- combatant”. Over the four days spent with Bleasdale he plays affectionately with Luna, his Toller breed dog. He takes my daughter Grace on long walks, he takes her sledging, he takes her ice skating; always patient, always calm, never angry. On one occasion, at the Tabernacle Bar in London, cocktail infused and bored, I suggested we have a scrap and relocated to the waste ground opposite. I punched him in the face. He had not been punched in the face since the age of 11, when Ian Wheeler wheeled his furious fists. Bleasdale calmly guided my head-locked face into a wall. We returned in good humour, to continue imbibing. In over a decade, I have never seen him angry.

Is there a future in photographing human rights abuses? There is for Bleasdale. He expects to be documenting in the DRC for another 20 years. Does he crack? There are clues. Those clues are in what he views. Bleasdale confesses to cry during episodes of CSI, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and the Harry Potter films, all eight of them. He loves photographer David LaChapelle, but wants to be John Stanmyer. (Bromancing behind my back!) His favourite films are Casablanca and The African Queen. His superpower would be to, “Spread love around the world.” 2012 is shaping up to be an exciting year. He will be working on a first direct commission from National Geographic magazine, it’s not in the DRC.

After a Sunday morning of skiing - well, of Bleasdale taking my daughter skiing - we do what most of Norway is doing after what most of Norway has just done: watch Lycra-clad competitors fighting it out on the slopes in skiing contests on television. His adoring and adorable wife massages his shoulders; homemade brownies are baked and nibbled. I flick through his 2010 book on the DRC, The Rape of a Nation, and assess the work. Across the black pages, bodies are taken for burial, people mourn, drunk soldiers carry weapons, money is being counted and strong men mine for gold. There are bones of the victims of violence.

© Marcus Bleasdale/VII Photo

Time spent photographing in the DRC has allowed Bleasdale’s camera to move up from the hip to focus. I stop flicking on the image captioned: "Refugees flee south after rebel attack on Bule and Fataki, north-eastern Congo, 2003." I look over at Bleasdale wiggling his toes as he sucks noisily in disgust as the French team triumph over Norway in a shoot and ski biathlon; it’s the most angry I’ve seen him. The image in the book is the only photograph of his own hanging in the mainly painting-adorned apartment. It hangs by the front door. The photograph is a metre high and two metres wide. It’s an appropriate image and an appropriate size; an image than reminds one on entering, this is the home he retreats to; a refugee from the intense horrors he has witnessed. It is also the last image one sees when leaving the apartment; an image of fleeing, of transit, of movement and change.

I don’t know where Bleasdale’s anger resides. Perhaps he leaves it festering in the DRC, to collect on return with his camera from beside the rotting corpses and rape victims; or perhaps it lives in the eyes of each child who levels their gun at him. I’m glad that Bleasdale is angry; angry enough to help fund the St. Kizito orphanage in Bunia, eastern DRC, and angry enough to keep shooting his photographs; photographs that won’t allow us to stop noticing, that show us how we can fail so spectacularly as human beings and what we must do to correct it.

It’s time to go. I squeeze the arm of this contemporary Spartacus - an arm that bears the tattoo, ‘Inner Peace’ - bid him farewell, and assuming the role of Antoninus, singer of songs, I turn home:

“Through blue shadows and purple woods...
I turn home.
I turn to the place that I was born...
to the mother who bore me and the father who taught me...
Iong ago, long ago...
Iong ago.
Alone am l now, lost and alone, in a far, wide, wandering world.
Yet still when the blazing sun hangs low...
when the wind dies away and the sea foam sleeps...
and twilight touches the wandering earth...
I turn home.”

Make a donation to the St Kizito orphanage here.

A version of this article first appeared in issue #5 of Hungry Eye magazine available to buy here.

Bleasdale's book; The Rape of a Nation - can be purchased here.

Dench's first book; England Uncensored - can be purchased here.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

In Conversation With Martin Parr

I am looking at cakes. There are many cakes to choose from: coffee and walnut cake, chocolate fudge cake, lemon roll, chocolate roll, even a Colin the Caterpillar cake. I ask my wife: “Which cake do you think Martin Parr would like?” “All butter Victoria sandwich!” we say in unison, a little too loudly. Martin Parr has invited me over for tea; a Parr tea if you like. I asked my Twitter followers advice on what gift to take. Cake was the winner; well that and “Something Gaddafi”. There is no Gaddafi-shaped cake.

It is 14 years since I last made the journey to Parr’s house in Bristol, where he has been resident since 1989. I first bumped into him at Royal Ascot. He’d just shot the frame that would feature in the book Think of England, of a man in a grey top hat speaking on his mobile phone next to a red telephone box; so very Parr. Two years out of university I was finding my feet as a photographer and shuffled over to say hello. After pleasantries were exchanged, he opened his wallet, gave me his card and suggested I pop over sometime.

I check Twitter again for answers to the question: "What question should I ask Martin Parr?" The response is disappointing and some suggestions simply rude. I heave the 17-page curriculum vitae I printed from Parr’s website onto the train table and begin to read. At home, when I pressed print, I nipped to the shops for a bottle of Cava, returned home and poured myself a glass; it was still printing. I make a note to plant a tree to compensate. There is also an accompanying five-page FAQ’s which I’m determined not to ask a question from. Towards the end of the journey I’m so Parred up, I’m convinced the announcement says: “We are now arriving at Martin Parr,” rather than Bath Spa.

©Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Martin Parr has so many visitors; a prepared ‘getting to’ memo arrived via email. The taxi driver asks: "Where to?" “Martin Parr’s house?” I reply. He looks blank, I give the address and read from the printout: “Along Cumberland and up Joy Hill.” I’m early so nip into the Adam and Eve pub for a glass of ‘Managers Choice.’ A fantastically gauche tray with a smiling woman beams across the customer, I suggest that would be something Martin Parr would like to collect. The manager does not respond.

Knock Knock. “Who’s there?” “It’s Peter Dench, author of the Dench Diary and contributing editor to Hungry Eye Magazine.” “Hello Peter, come in.” Casa Parr is busy. I exchange the all butter Victoria sandwich for a cup of tea with a Garibaldi biscuit and take a seat next to the glass display cabinet crammed with Obama objects and listen. The six-way chat swings from Shakespeare’s King Lear, artist Jack Vettriano (Parr is not a fan), to the use of ‘s’ instead of ‘z’ in the spelling of words.

With the guests dearly departed, we decide to check out his exhibition, Bristol and West at the M Shed; a collection featuring 60 images selected from the last 30 years of Parr’s career. Our plan is thwarted. His wife Susie, has the car and there is only one bike. It would have been nice to cycle down together. Heading up the darkened stairs I ask if Parr can turn on the light. The walls are an exhibitors feast, hung with great photographs by great photographers: Tony Ray-Jones, Paul Fusco, Garry Winogrand, Alec Soth, Josef Koudelka and my favourite, an August Sander. And that’s just one flight of stairs in the towering town house. (Parr doesn’t have any of his own work on the walls.) Entering his office is familiar; not much has changed since my first visit in 1997. I had sat on the floor under the enormous Chris Killip portrait of a boy on the shoulders of a man and showed him my work on posh schools. The verdict: “Not bad.”

Today I’ve been upgraded to a chair and sit tight as Parr flings an array of books my way and peppers me with information about what he’s up to. There’s the publication of an Australian book, No Worries; the publication of a book (by Contrasto) on the American city of Atlanta and summer show at the Atlanta High Museum of Art; another book on world beaches is in discussion. Commissions are generally booked up about six months in advance. There’s a project on sports in Minneapolis and an ongoing project in the Black Country. A show on the Scottish is ready to go. The next stage of his John Hinde project will be soon.

Parr is collaborating with Nazraeli Press to publish ten books of Argentinian photographers he has discovered. I flick through the sixth title in the popular series La Crieciente by Alejandro Chaskielberg, the photographs of a rural community living on the banks of the Parana Delta (river) are all taken during full moon with a combination of flash and torches. I can see why, by the third image in Chaskielberg’s folio, Parr was convinced of his inclusion in the series. Latin photographers are his current passion, a dehumidifier gently sucks away in the room where his burgeoning book collection on the continent resides. The books at my feet start to mount. I leaf through the much anticipated, The Latin American Photobook; the culmination of a four-year, cross-continental research effort led by Horatio Fernandez. The book presents 150 volumes; Parr was part of a committee of researchers. I set the book aside, which he thinks “charmingly indifferent”. He hopes the 12,000-plus collection of his books to be acquired by a UK museum or gallery.

©Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Martin Parr gets up early to deal with internet and emails; three are inevitably from students asking for something or other. He doesn’t have an afternoon nap. He likes the odd beer or wine when it suits, but rarely during the day. He’s a big BBC Radio 4 fan and doesn’t know the brand of the clothes he is wearing. He is a nosy person and there is nothing he is not interested in, even cricket. Surprisingly, he can’t speak a foreign language. His favourite seaside town is Tenby, where he has a house. He thinks my home town of Weymouth “a great town in general”, and likes to stay on the Georgian facade that gently cradles the arcing bay. He uses a Canon 5d MKII but has never shot HD video with it. Since winning first prize at his camera club, he has never submitted work for a competition or consideration for a festival. Prizes are bestowed; inclusion in festivals requested. He never wrote a university dissertation; you didn’t have to do that sort of thing then. Martin Parr loves being a photographer and thinks it a privilege.

I take the opportunity of a lull in ratter-chatter to ask him to sign issue #1 of Hungry Eye magazine in which I wrote about my visit to New Brighton, 25 years after the town inspired his photographs for the book, The Last Resort. He signs: ‘Martin Parr was here'. I ask if I can handle his 1986 edition of The Last Resort while he signs my 1998 edition - which he does - and I ask him to sign his book Objects, which he signs: ‘To Peter, one cake = one book'. We talk about Jocelyn Bain Hogg and Marcus Bleasdale, he looks at the VII Photo Agency website for the first time and is impressed by Interrogations, by Donald Webber. Talk of internal Magnum Photos politics is off the record. He didn’t go to Philip Jones Griffiths funeral because he didn’t think it would be right. Griffiths was bitterly opposed to Parr’s membership and famously wrote a letter in which he wrote of Parr: “Let me state that I have great respect for him as the dedicated enemy of everything I believe in and, I trust, what Magnum still believes in". He refused even to speak to Parr after he was finally allowed to join.

While at the computer, I click on the link to my three-minute 19-second film on Vimeo about the War & Peace Show in Beltring, Kent. Parr chuckles; dare I say snortles. Verdict: “Not bad.” Emboldened, I click on the link to the latest Dench Diary video update where basically, my shot footage at the 59th International Ballroom Dance Championship plays along to a song about wibbly wobbly jelly sung by BBC TV Play School presenters Derek Griffiths (no relation to Philip) and Carol Chell. It seems preposterous to be stood here in Martin Parr’s office as Carol belts out: “Jelly for breakfast and jelly for tea, so wibble wobble wibble, wibble wobble wibble, wibble wobble wibble with meeeeee.” I think I detect genuine amusement and a slight wobble of the Parr noggin.

© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Two hours and nine minutes after arriving it is time to go, I want to go. I’ve seen more photographs in this period than I would normally in a month. My eyes throb. I find myself apologising for appearing indifferent. Parr explains how laid-back it has been and how laid-back he is in general these days. Now, I know laid-back and this is not it. One can only imagine full-throttle Parr. In fact, one doesn’t have to; it is all too evident in the work, the books, the CV and the collecting; so much collecting. His book, Objects, is not laid-back; it’s testimony to a manic collecting gene. There are Thatcher mugs plates and a spoon; Lenin and Stalin clocks; ABBA soap; Bin Laden urinal anti-splash mats. There is Spice Girl chocolate, crisp packets and body spray; a Saddam Hussein pen knife; board-games about the motorway; a Gaddafi watch; a Jesus watch; a McDonald’s watch; and trays - so many trays.

Where does the energy come from? Not the all butter Victoria sandwich that we pass unopened on the kitchen counter. Perhaps he’s more a coffee and walnut man after all. Parr calls me a cab and offers to walk me down the hill. We stop to say hello to his wife Susie, who is planting black tulip bulbs in the front garden. I wish the passionate outdoor swimmer good luck for the launch of her book, The Story of Swimming, published by Dewi Lewis. I suggest to Parr I come back in another fourteen years. “But I’ll be old then.” Exactly, then perhaps I may finally be able to keep up.

On the return train I filter what I’ve learnt through cans of Strongbow and l consider the acquired books. Instead, reach for a discarded copy of Grazia and tuck into the feature ‘What you didn’t see at fashion week'. In the morning, I click open my email and there’s one forwarded by Parr from a student at Roehampton University asking: "What is a photograph?" "What do you think the purpose of a photograph is?" and "What do you think really makes a photograph?" After two-hours and nine minutes with Martin Parr, I think I might just have an answer.

A version of this feature first appeared in issue #3 of Hungry Eye magazine available to buy here

ENGLAND UNCENSORED my first book; Advance and collectors editions now available

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

In Conversation With Jocelyn Bain Hogg

Jocelyn Bain Hogg (JBH) is sweating. He reaches for a small bottle of Trumper's extract of lime and depresses a cooling mist. A polka-dot Paul Smith handkerchief is flourished from the pocket of his Adam of London suit to dab the beads from his lofty brow. I sip my can of Heineken. It's touching 28C in Le Couvent des Minimes, where we both have an exhibition as part of the 23rd Visa pour l'Image (VPL) festival of photojournalism held annually in Perpignan, France. I'm representing England; JBH, Wales and Scotland. (He has never felt English, ever, and admits to sniffling with pride watching the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.) Together we are flying the exhibitor’s flag for Britain. Waiting to be interviewed for French TV, pleasantries are exchanged in the way that British men do. Our respective journeys to this privileged position has been very different.

The Family
©Jocelyn Bain Hogg/VII Photo Agency

Solely his mother brought up JBH, an only child, after his adopted father died when he was a baby. The young JBH applied himself early to the theatrical, playing Robin Hood aged seven, and later winning the prestigious House Colours for his portrayal of Phyllis the Maid in the George Bernard Shaw farce, Passion, Poison and Pretrification, performed at the equally prestigious Lancing College (that he describes as a bear-pit). A youth of reciting Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot unravelled before unearthing his fathers old Rolleiflex persuaded JBH to turn his back on successful applications to the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and the University of Oxford. Like many photographers before him, the Siren sounds of the click of the shutter and turn of the film winder had lured him to a lifetime behind the lens.

Five years his junior, while JBH, aged 18, was having his work published in Harpers and Queen and on the cover of the British Journal of Photography, I was still throwing chewed soggy paper to the ceiling of Mr Speedy's math class. Magnum Photos Agency photographer David Hurn, had already insulted JBH; a right of passage that would take me another 23 years. He advised JBH put his pretty pictures in a box and show them to his girlfriend. Perhaps Hurn played a hand in JBH’s unsuccessful application to Magnum. The criticism seems unabated. In 2010, at an exhibition of JBH’s project, Muse, at Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff, Hurn greeted him with the words, “Love the shirt, hate the show.”

©Jocelyn Bain Hogg/VII Photo Agency

I first became aware of JBH attending my first VPL festival in 2002. I had a screening of my project, Drinking of England. On arrival, the talk of the town was still about the stately Brit who had entertained the crowds the previous year with photographs from his book, The Firm. First published in 2001, the work documented the criminal underworld, from exile in Tenerife to the broad spectrum of activity in the UK. Images of topless girls, gripped guns, grabbed buttocks, knuckle-duster neck chains and 6-inch cigars introduce us to the fierce world of the celebrity thug. The book has since become a cult classic. The question everyone asked was: How could this man, take these types of photographs?

The interim decade have seen our paths cross many times. We have briefly shared a commercial agent, exhibited at the same gallery, reciprocated nods across the dance floor at parties, bowed our heads at the funeral of Princess Diana and traded advice over email. Occasionally, I've been victorious competing on commissions; JBH has crushed my ambition for others. After a decade of friendly competition, a few weeks before the VPL festival we meet for a drink, to declare a truce and say, “Well done us, we are still doing it” and agree to form a coalition. I can't help thinking I've been allocated the Nick Clegg role.

Back in Le Couvent des Minimes, the television crew questions JBH; "Are you a gangster?" No. "Are you an expert on British crime?" No. “Did you constantly find yourself in danger?” No. "How does someone like you get to take these types of photographs?" The questions are understandable and the rumours are delicious. One recounts a man owed money, tired of waiting to be paid, presented the debtor with a copy of The Firm, indicating that he knew the author. The debt was immediately honoured. Another anecdote: A woman at her wits' end after the relentless bullying of her daughter at school asks if JBH’s ‘friends’ would be able to help? The bullying ceased.

I leave the French exchange and stride into JBH's exhibition. The first thing I notice is his contributor photograph, credited to fellow VII Photo Agency snapper, Seamus Murphy. A sartorially crafted JBH sits perched on a bar looking every bit the dandy, a cigarette dangles between the fingers. My contributor photograph is a self-portrait, urgently requested by the Dorset Echo, I had hauled myself out of bed hours after returning from assignment to Kirkuk, Iraq. The result is a baggy eyed, unshaven Dench, with what looks like an enormous Mohican.

The claustrophobic sweaty room suits the content of JBH’s photographs. Big men tilt their big shaven heads for whispered conversations in Knightsbridge bars. Jewels sparkle, caught in the cut-through-the-dark ring-flash. Personalities clash, the clothes are brash, men snort coke through cash. Women touch tongues and tattoos tell tales of gangs. The images are from his new project, The Family; IT IS NOT A FOLLOW UP TO THE FIRM!

The Family
©Jocelyn Bain Hogg/VII Photo Agency

The VPL press office is working us hard. In between my own dense itinerary, I try to catch up with JBH for an interview. I turn up for scheduled talks of his that he hasn't and stand alone as others are rescheduled. Journalists text me to ask if I’ve seen my British chum. We cross paths briefly in Cafe de la Poste, the unofficial festival HQ for a few grabbed words over Pastis. At one point during the week, he kicks me up the backside and I capture video footage of him calling me a w****r. The cracks in the England, Scotland-Wales coalition start to show and the sparring is welcome.

Back in London, battered but not beaten, I recoup, regroup, and head down to the home of photojournalism, the offices of Foto8 near Old Street in London. How lucky am I? The home of photojournalism, just down the road from where I live. It could have been in Nantucket; or worse, Grimsby. I'm meeting JBH at 3pm and have arrived early to look at a PDF of the The Family and chat with Foto8 director, Jon Levy. I ask the question. "How does this man take these types of photographs?" Levy explains: “It's the demeanour of JBH, he's not trying to be someone he isn’t, the bon viveur, pushy-in-a-good-way, Errol Flynn character of our day you see, is the man you get.”

JBH arrives around 4pm after a prolonged meeting with his bank manager and folds himself into a chair. The anthropologist explorer of British society explains the villains of The Family are guys who just know who they are and they don't mind being photographed; the police already know who they are. If The Family is not a follow-up to The Firm, the style certainly is. The continuation of grainy black-and-white pictures delivers the feeling of a sequel. Given the opportunity for a career in movies as a young man, JBH had opted for stills photography; his “Passport to move freely and document the world without the intervention of camera crews, set designers, bulky equipment and, above all, the necessary contrivance of film-making.” With the development of lightweight HD video cameras, would JBH now consider shooting footage? He would, but this would not have been possible shooting The Family, those silent conversations caught by the stills camera, need to remain just that.

The Family
©Jocelyn Bain Hogg/VII Photo Agency

The images in The Family, introduce us to the world of villainy post Joe Pyle Snr. Pyle, from South London, was the head of a crime family who counted the Kray twins among his friends. He died of motor neurone disease in 2007. The work documents the four ‘brothers’ bequeathed the Pyle Snr. crime patch; where these scions of the Pyle family compete with international gangs and comply with others to maintain their heritage. Along with images of paying respect at the cemetery, wakes, communions, and unlicensed boxing matches, we find the protagonists relaxing at home in suburban Surrey: watching Chelsea on TV, fooling about with the kids, playing basketball in the yard. Photography is JBH’s family and books his children. Books matter, they are lasting; his legacy. They make a statement. Two more books are planned for 2012. The joke is that if The Family isn’t published before Christmas, JBH would not be celebrating it; but no one seems to be laughing. I lighten the mood and suggest that Foto8, who will publish the book, release the slogan, “Publishing books, saving lives”. But no one seems to be laughing. Back home, I check my bank balance, Christmas list, and pencil in for all my friends and relatives, 'a copy of Jocelyn Bain Hogg’s The Family'.

Jocelyn Bain Hogg will be exhibiting  
The Family at White Cloth Gallery, Leeds UK, Spring 2012.

Copies of The Family is available to buy from Foto8 publishing including limited editions.

A version of this feature first appeared in issue #2 of Hungry Eye magazine, copies available to buy here.