London, like every big city, is a place where people from all walks of life tend to gravitate, a melting pot of life stories and interesting characters. A graphic designer in his daily life, Pete has found his passion in meeting and photographing some of these people who may otherwise carry on their daily existence unrecognized. In his spare time, he shares their stories and a small moment of their lives.
Pete comes from Detroit, Michigan, but has been in London for a long time. Read on for photos and stories of the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” man in Brixton, Bruce who left his chips cold after not eating for days because he was so excited about his “photo shoot” and Harry whose spirit came alive again in a singing and tap-dancing show in the middle of Oxford Street.
LPO: Tell us about the first inspirational experience you had with photography that made you want to pursue it as an art.
PZ: For as long as I can remember I’ve always been fascinated by photography mainly due to my father who was a keen amateur photographer himself. I remember as a young child staying at home secretly playing with his prize Zeiss Icon 35mm film camera while he was away at work.
The creative side of photography really came into play as a teenager in 1981 when I found myself fully engrossed in the burgeoning hardcore punk underground music scene which was happening in Detroit at the time. I had just formed seminal American hardcore punk band Negative Approach (I played bass) and really wanted to document what was happening around me with photography. In order to gain access to a good camera and darkroom I enrolled on a photography course during my high school senior year and fortunately had a very inspiring teacher who really encouraged my creativity and pushed me to photograph my fellow band members, friends and live gigs. I was only 17 but hanging out and playing shows in the deepest urban ghetto of Detroit called the Cass Corridor (a run down area of the city we actively played in) which exposed me to all sorts of things I never experienced in the safe suburbs where I lived. I instantly took to this style of gritty/urban photography and I used to spend hours in the darkroom after school developing my pictures and experimenting with black and white processing techniques. I loved the whole DIY ethic to punk rock and creatively really found my style (both in attitude and approach) during this era.
I slowly drifted out of the music scene and moved to London where eventually I ended up pursuing a career in graphic design. As my career as a designer developed I still kept my hand in photography (more from a studio art direction perspective) and actively started shooting again a few years back.
LPO: What sort of equipment do you use – camera, lenses, any post-processing software?
PZ: Like most camera fanatics I could talk for hours about gear but I try not to get too obsessed and, as a street photographer, keep my equipment to an absolute minimum. I’ve always used Canon (even in my film days) and my current body is a Canon 7D which is just an amazing camera with super quick focusing and superb image quality. For lenses, I use primes only with a Canon 35L f/1.4 and 135L f/2 which, in my opinion, are Canon’s two finest lenses. Both are ridiculously expensive but great in low light and offer an amazing level of sharpness perfect for my style of photography. I love the way prime lenses make you work more creatively as a photographer forcing you to really move close to your subject, and for that reason, I never use zooms. I also always carry a rangefinder style Olympus E-P1 which is a fantastic small camera and perfect for street photography especially when there isn’t room for a large DSLR. I always shoot in RAW and post process all my images in Photoshop CS5.
LPO: Favourite place to take your camera and why?
PZ: Soho, Central London. I’ve taken pictures in just about every imaginable pocket of London, but for some reason I’m always drawn back to Soho. Although it’s been heavily commercialised over the years, there is still something very unique about the area and its eclectic mix of inhabitants. It seems whenever I take my camera to Soho I always come home with some interesting photographs. One memorable photograph in particular was the street artist ‘Jonathan’ who I shot last September. While walking through Berwick Street Market I noticed Jonathan standing bang in the middle of Broadwick Street in a full-length fur coat, huge floppy hat, Keith Richards style dark shades and knee high leopard skin cowboy boots. What amazed me most were the crowds of people that walked by him without even batting an eyelid! I knew I had to photograph him and thankfully he agreed. He was so happy with the photographs he later invited me back that evening to a coffee shop in Frith Street to photograph a rooftop musical performance he was involved in. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else but in Soho!
“With her make-up applied in a war paint like fashion, Onyeka outside the Night Shelter, Hackney, East London.”
LPO: One aspect of your work I really admire is your ability to forge a connection with your subject. There seems to be a real trust in these close-up portraits. How do you approach strangers so that they are open to posing for a photograph?
PZ: I’ve always been fascinated with portrait photography, but was always more interested in photographing real street people (not models) who had strong character in their faces and those who looked like they had a story to tell. Many of my street portraits are those who might have felt sidelined or diminished by society (many are homeless) so to photograph them candidly from behind a wall with a 400mm telephoto lens would have been both dishonest and insulting. I wanted to show them at their best with dignity and pride so I knew in order to do that I would have to establish a connection just like I would with a model in a studio environment.
“On his daily walk from Kings Cross to Piccadilly, ex-serviceman Roy smiles away
in Meard Street, Soho, Central London.”
Of course approaching a complete stranger in the street can be very daunting, but the more I did it the more fearless I became in my approach. I realised very quickly that once trust and a connection took place the great photographs just happened and it became a much more enjoyable experience for both my subject and myself. The approach I generally take when I see someone I want to photograph is just try being as honest and open as possible and it seems to work every time. Believe it or not the majority of my subjects are very bright people who know if you are being sincere or not. I always have a chat with them first before I pull my camera out and try and get to know them and their circumstances as much as possible. Most lead very mundane routine existences with society completely ignoring them so they are often very happy of the attention.
LPO: Tell us about the first time you walked up to someone you didn’t know to ask for a photo. Where were you? Was it a positive experience?
PZ: Although I’ve had varying degrees of success with street portraits in the past it all really came together one afternoon when I made a trip to Brixton in South London with my camera. I’d been to Brixton loads of times in the past but only in the evening for gigs at the Brixton Academy and never for street photography. I was completely unaware of what a vibrant and exciting area it was, and with the buzz around that afternoon, I knew I had to get a great portrait photograph to take home with me. I couldn’t believe my luck when I noticed an elderly man exiting the market area onto Cold Harbour Lane singing ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ (the Bob Marley tune) to a crowd full of Brixton shoppers. Dressed in a natty navy blue suit, crisp white shirt and black leather trilby he looked super cool and really epitomised the laid back but upbeat vibe of the area. I was still pretty nervous about approaching strangers but I couldn’t let the opportunity pass, so sheepishly I approached him, told him he looked amazing and that I’d love to photograph him. He was thankfully thrilled by the proposition and I shot about 10 frames of him while he engaged in all sorts of wonderful poses. When I finished I showed him the images in my camera display and he couldn’t have been happier and started singing the ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ song all over again! Making the connection with him was really the turning point for me (and contributed greatly to the success of the photos) and I knew from then on that this was the style and approach of photography I wanted to concentrate on.
LPO:Which shot are you most proud of at the moment and why?
PZ: I have some great memories from each of my street portraits, most with their own story to tell, but the one that I really look back on fondly is the photo of Bruce titled ‘Shelter From The Storm’. I met Bruce one rainy afternoon as he was getting thrown out of the fish and chip shop in Berwick Street Market, Soho. He had not eaten in days and was trying (unsuccessfully) to blag a portion of chips from the shop assistant until they eventually kicked him out and point blank refused to let him back in. He sat frustrated in the middle of the market surrounded by about 10 plastic bin bags, which must have contained all his life’s possessions. It was a pretty sad situation so I approached him and offered to buy him the bag of chips. He proudly raced back into the chip shop smiling away and, much to the owner’s amazement; he ordered the chips (he also cheekily ordered two sausages!).
As we left the shop I told him I was a photographer who photographed interesting London characters and that I’d really like to take a few shots of him. He was so happy with the idea he didn’t even eat his chips and said he would save them for after the ‘photo shoot’. The market was pretty busy so we found a secluded spot behind the Endurance pub in Hopkins Street, which had the perfect painted brick wall in a very deep magenta colour. I knew it would be a great backdrop for Bruce’s portraits so I began to snap a few frames just as the sun appeared from the clouds shining right on Bruce’s face. Bruce was enjoying every minute of it and really played to the camera with his huge intense eyes pulling all sorts of strange facial expressions while pulling his hoodie all around is head.
I shot away for about 10 minutes as he danced around the pavement and then I became aware that his chips were probably going cold so decided to let him rest. Afterwards, we sat on the pavement together as he ate his chips and he told me about his tough East London upbringing and how he had been forced to take to the streets almost 15 years ago. Bruce had obviously taken many hard knocks in his life but amazingly still had so much strength, spirit and charisma and that’s what I really hoped to capture in the final photograph, which is a personal favourite for me.
LPO: You choose to shoot people who have a lot of character in their faces, often rough sleepers or perhaps loners. Talk a bit about the faces that have made it into your portfolio and what you find so attractive about street photography.
PZ: As a graphic designer, a large part of my job is working with imagery and I often art direct studio photo shots where every last detail is accounted for. Before I enter a studio for a shoot, models will have been chosen, clothes choices made, props purchased and agenda for the day organised down to the exact minute. Because of budget constraints from a paying client, it’s hard to work in any other way but it does sometimes compromise on the creativity and spontaneity of the shoot. Street Photography (especially street portraiture) is the exact opposite, which is why I find it so exciting. Before I hit the street with my camera I often have no idea of my intended location, what the weather will be like, who my subject will be, whether there will be anything interesting to shoot and every other distracting variable which forces you to work in a completely spontaneous and reactive way.
A good example of this is my portrait of the homeless man Harry titled ‘Street Spirit’. I met Harry in Argyll Street, Central London on a very busy Saturday afternoon last October. I spotted Harry from about 10 yards away as he sat in a dishevelled way on the pavement attempting (unsuccessfully) to roll a cigarette. His hair was slicked back and he wore a crumbled pinstripe suit with a red shirt and paisley tie. He was obviously a proud man who had somehow fallen through the cracks, which is why I was so appalled by the hoards of Saturday afternoon shoppers who were literally walking over him as they charged towards the shops to make their purchases. I approached him immediately and we struck up a conversation and he eventually agreed to let me photograph him. The conditions couldn’t have been worse with heavy rain developing and thousands of shoppers in the area. I wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass to photograph such an interesting man so I found a semi-secluded spot by Oxford Street tube and started shooting Harry as I weaved in and out of the afternoon shoppers attempting to make focus.
Earlier Harry told me how he was an ex-showman and I persuaded him to sing me a song and before I knew it he was tap dancing and singing a show tune in the middle of Oxford Street. I fired away frame after frame while the crowds of shoppers looked on in absolute amazement. Although it was technically really difficult to shoot in that type environment it’s the excitement and looseness of the whole situation, which not only made for a great set of pictures but was also an extremely enjoyable experience. After that experience I remember fondly looking through the pictures I took that day thinking I could never be a landscape photographer!
LPO:Which other photographers do you most admire and why?
PZ: The types of photographers I’ve always admired are the sorts who have their trademark stamp on every photo they take. The ones where you can tell it’s their work a mile away before you see their name. Examples would be my two favourite American photographers Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston. Both captured the gritty urban social landscape that really summed up middle America in the 60’s and 70’s. In a way it was a form of street photography before the term existed. From this side of the pond no one comes close to Donald McCullin who is hands down my favourite photographer of all time. A born and bred Londoner who was completely self-taught, he photographed Britain (especially London) like no one else. I find it impossible to look at any of his photographs and not be completely inspired. His photographs of 60’s London and the homeless in Whitechapel and Aldgate are breathtaking as are his photographs of the Bradford families he photographed in extreme poverty during the 70’s. He is an amazing photographer not only creatively but also because of the respect and compassion he has for his subjects.
Although I have great admiration for the photographers of yesterday there are an equally great number of modern day London photographers who continually inspire me including Nick Turpin, David Solomons, Matt Stuart and my favourite London photographer Tony Day. All have this very unique ability to capture London as few can and, when I look at their pictures, I’m always inspired to get my camera out and take a great photo.
For more of Pete’s work, see his Flickr photostream.
For more interviews with photographers, have a look at the archives.