Derby Format 2011: Right Here, Right Now

9th March, 2011

Talks by Richard Kalvar, Chris Steele-Perkins and Grant Smith


Richard Kalvar, a Magnum photographer talked about his formative years in New York City under the tutelage of a fashion photographer. Realising he wasn’t going to enjoy working as a fashion photographer, he took to the streets of New York and ‘found’ images. As a street photographer, he maintains that it is about observing. Photographs are not made, but found. ‘You have to feel curious and make connections with human beings.’ Kalvar argues that unless photography is difficult, there is no credibility in it. As he doesn’t crop his images, he has to get it right in the camera. Using a Leica with a 35mm lens, a camera, ‘…because it’s perfect and you don’t have to about the equipment, it allows you to concentrate on picture taking’, he went in close and captured images that juxtapose people, expressions, attitudes and street paraphernalia. He composed images with a prescient anticipation of circumstance.

Chris Steele-Perkins another Magnum photographer has spent his life travelling the world making connections with people. Blessed with courage and an eye that captures undisclosed tensions in his images, he has documented conflict and war zones. Back home in the UK, he documented the English. A memorable image taken in colour at Blackpool beach depicts picnickers, sunbathers, children astride a donkey and a dog urinating, all woven together in this improbable scene by splashes of red fabric. It was unusual for Steele-Perkins to work in colour, but it gave him an alternative way of portraying his homeland. Recently he has photographed Mt. Fuji in Japan, using the iconic mountain as a backdrop to the activities of Japanese citizens in the foreground. Fuji becomes a significant part of the iconography of the image by virtue despite its background role. Looking at his images, it’s not clear what has happened before, or will happen afterwards. Perhaps the whole scene will collapse. The ambiguity in the images poses many questions in the viewer and I think this is one of his objectives.

My talk concerned photographers’ rights, especially regarding shooting in public places, following the recent end to section 44. I illustrated the talk with examples of my work and the harassment I have received from private security guards. Anecdotal stories regarding police response and questioning highlighted the confusion resulting in this broadly and indiscriminately deployed law. Culminating in the PHNAT mass photo-gathering in January last year, after the ECHR ruled that use of s44 was illegal, the event drew attention to the number of citizens adversely affected by s44.

Covering the right to take images in public of people, buildings and children, I emphasised the legality of taking such images. The climate of fear and suspicion breeds a mistrust of photographers as observers. While the state is and private companies are monitoring the citizens with the largest number of CCTV cameras in the world, the innocent citizen is made to feel suspicious and guilty, and the photographic observations of the citizen are discredited.

Questions from the floor highlighted the uncertainty that is still evident concerning the legality over photography in a public place. Members of the audience asked about photography of children in public, and what is deemed a public place. One question asked whether a public library was a public place. Like many interiors, the public library is not a public place, it is a privately managed space that is made available to the public. This also applies to public transport.

A successful day that addressed many of the issues concerning photography in public, and promoted the case of PHNAT.

Later I made contact with organisers of the London Street Photography Festival, taking place in the summer, who are keen to run workshops in around the theme of street photography during the festival.

The exhibitions on show during the Format festival all used the subject of street photography as the theme. A striking display by several Magnum photographers in the city square showed images from New York, Australia, Istanbul and Italy. All taken on the streets and capturing candid, life-affirming moments that awoke new passions in this viewer.

Elsewhere in Derby venues showed images from highly productive workshops, as well as work from member organisations like Hardcore Street Photography and In-Public. A fascinating film, made by Nick Turpin titled In-Sight, looked at the work and working methods of four of the In-Public photographers.

The Derby Museum displayed work commissioned by Format, shot by Bruce Gilden, of people on the streets of Derby. Large black and white photographs that put the viewer in conversation and direct confrontation with the subject.

Format has delivered a stimulating and inspiring festival, from the exhibitions to the talks and workshops on offer. Using the theme of street photography is relevant and timely. The city of Derby has embraced the festival, and well posted signage directs you around the city to experience the festival. Though most of the activity takes place at the Quad, the rest of the city plays an accessible and welcoming host to the other activities.

The continued culture of street photography is under threat, and Format is a powerful reminder to us that we shouldn’t let this discipline of photography become a victim of the suspicion of photographers that is now so prevalent, and the indiscriminate application of the terrorism law. In the catalogue from the festival, an article on ‘Rights and Wrongs of Shooting in Public’, by Diane Smyth, mentions Jules Mattsson’s farcical encounter with police over photography of army cadets.

For the next month there are activities and talks over the weekends, so don’t miss the chance to be inspired. Next weekend (12 March) Paul Lewis and Roger Tooth will be talking on photojournalism and the public realm.

© Grant Smith 2011

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