Peter Dench is a late imitator of colour photography, best known for his projects endorsing stereotypes of the British working class. I meet him in The Alex, the pub where he now lives in a small room above the bar scratching out a living doing odd jobs for pork scratchings and the occasional leftover scotch egg. Dench, now 60 years old, looks nearer 80 and still dresses as he always has: in the tired football casual terrace style of the 1980s, a vintage, vintage, vintage, red Fila polo shirt buttoned up under his cascading chins. He is sat staring at The Alex’s impressive 6D television in the spot where he can be found during the rare moments he hasn’t s**t himself. This fecal incontinence is an unfortunate medical consequence of being brutally attacked at the 2012 Visa Pour l’Image International Festival of Photojournalism by a gang of photographers who had had enough of his formulaic photography, an action that was largely applauded by the industry. Repeats of the American TV sitcom Cheers flicker past as I introduce myself; Dench barely acknowledges my arrival and mutters an order for a litre of cider.
Dench threw away a promising career as an opening batsman for his county cricket side and, by the age of 14, had finally stopped wetting the bed and started wetting his appetite for photography snapping butterflies and coots at the local wildlife reserve in his hometown of Weymouth. From there, he pursued a routine academic path in photographic education graduating from the University of Derby in 1995 with a third-class degree and a portfolio of prints depicting himself in various stages of undress. Arriving in London, Dench was deluded, delivering his portfolio to the Reuters news agency UK headquarters where he hoped to become a regular contributor. The portfolio was lost in the Reuters system. Consequently, Dench signed on the dole for two years and sponged off his parents, spending most of his days flipping the 50 pence pieces he could muster into the pint pot for topless dancers at the Griffin pub in Clerkenwell.
After his parents tired of supplementing his slothful lifestyle, Dench momentarily pulled himself together producing a reportage on the alcohol drinking habits of the English; what was essentially a three-year pub crawl produced a significant archive of images, one he has since bled to exhaustion. Initially, the industry took notice and awarded him a World Press Photo award for the People in the News Stories category for his Drinking of England reportage; this subsequently generated a purple period of assignments from editorial publications; Frank; the Face and Arena magazines, all of which were forced to close shortly after Dench began contributing. As the editorial market declined and digital photography swept aside analogue, Dench failed to adapt and decided to take up the pen, with catastrophic results.
Dench pinpoints his demise in the photographic industry to the day his first Dench Diary was published in Professional Photographer magazine; a cringing account of his incapabilities to succeed in the industry. The diary was commissioned on the understanding that it was as an honest account of the daily life and struggles of a sometime working professional photographer. The diary begins with an entry chronicling a time Dench was forced to take a job flipping eggs in the canteen at Capital Radio to help pay for his hair regain treatment. He now sees this as a missed opportunity and believes if he had remained working in the canteen at Capital Radio, he could have achieved the position of deputy shift manager. The Dench Diary backfired spectacularly after his often shocking travails and tales of binge drinking were exposed as fraudulent. This, ironically, lead Dench to begin boozing heavily. Professional Photographer magazine sued and an industry turned its back. Increasingly desperate attempts to ingratiate himself back into favour with his profession ended in shame when Dench exposed himself during a book signing at the prestigious Arles photography festival in France.
After an uncomfortable hour in his company, I ask the taciturn Dench; “Is there anything you miss in life, anything at all?” I’m sure I detect his eyes moisten as he fixes my gaze. “I miss… I miss… I miss the cricket.”
Peter Dench is an innovator of 21st-century image-making, best known for his projects documenting important social issues in a witty style. I meet him in The Alex, the bar he now owns and from where operates his global business. Dench, now 60, doesn’t look a day over 40 and still dresses as he always has: in the revered football casual terrace style of the 1980s - a vintage, vintage, vintage red Fila polo shirt buttoned neatly under his noble chin. He is sat in the spot where he can be found when he isn’t off doing charitable deeds under the ‘Freedom of Perpignan’ plaque awarded to him after he thwarted a riot at the 2012 Visa Pour l’Image International Festival of Photojournalism, which had threatened to engulf Perpignan’s main square. Dench propels himself enthusiastically from his seat as I arrive and shakes me warmly by the hand, whispering a request for a bottle of 1989 Château Haut-Brion and two glasses from the sartorially elegant and delightfully fragrant maître d’.
Dench achieved what he set out to do as a cricketer before turning 14 and then turned his attention to photography, documenting the life of the elderly at the care home where his doting mother worked. From there he romped through academia achieving a double first from the University of Derby for his photographic reportage on upper-class English schools and a dissertation that redefined the work of Dr Hugh Welch Diamond’s use of photography in the treatment of nineteenth-century female lunatics (a copy of the paper is available on request from the British Library and The Royal Society of Medicine). Arriving in London, Dench immediately impressed and was invited to join the prestigious Independent Photographers Group (IPG), an agency that represented many photographers Dench had studied at university, photographers that are now friends and godparents to the eleven children he adopted after they were orphaned as a consequence of the civil war that engulfed Scotland shortly after it rejected independence. In collaboration with IPG, Dench would eventually complete an assignment in every country across the planet.
After Dench had paid off his parents’ mortgage and upgraded them to a house in Poundbury, Dorchester (a town built according to the principles of Prince Charles), he embarked on an ambitious three-year project documenting the alcohol-drinking habits of the English. The reportage became an instant classic, delivering the first of his 13 World Press Photo awards and was subsequently published as a book translated into 27 different languages, a book described by international thriller writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Tom Knox as: “A clever, poignant, challenging, sometimes dazzling, sometimes affecting photo-diary of Anglo-Celtic drunkenness. The result is a unique and compelling visual history, full of photography that bears a striking resemblance to the drinking it depicts: at best it is perfectly intoxicating.” Dench’s editorial career blossomed, his constant contributions to the Sunday Times, Telegraph, GQ, Marie Claire and Tatler magazines reversed a decline in editorial publications and revived an industry. As the editorial market continued to recover, Dench decided to take up the pen in addition to the Olympus, with hilarious results.
Dench pinpoints the catalyst for his global success in the photographic industry as the day his first Dench Diary was published in Professional Photographer magazine; it was a sharply observed, layered and satirical account of his life as a sometime working professional photographer. The diary begins with an entry chronicling a voluntary eleven-day stint he undertook, flipping eggs in the canteen at Capital Radio to raise money for the Save the Children charity. The Dench Diary became to photography what Kitchen Confidential is to the culinary world. The royalties enabled Dench to launch the flagship Gallery Dench UK in London’s Mayfair, a brand that has been rolled out across Europe and become a career highlight for photographers to exhibit at.