Like many serious street photographers, Ian wants to remain anonymous (hence the screen print instead of his lovely face above). If that’s what it takes to snap up shots with such wit and narrative as his portfolio shows, we’ll let him stay in hiding. If you decide to track him down, he’s best found with a camera, surveying the scenes on central London’s streets as they unfold around him. He has an eye for that certain perfect moment in time.
Read on to find out why Ian prefers to shoot in black and white and how he would approach his art differently if he lived in a small town. He also lets us in on a stage play based on the lives of one of his great heroes that he’s been researching in his spare time.
LPO: Tell us a bit about your background.
IB: I’m originally from Newcastle-on-Tyne and came down to London nearly 20 years ago in search of warmer weather and a few other things. Mostly my career has been in marketing, which is still the day job and one that I very much enjoy. I first started taking photography seriously in 2009 when I bought my first Rangefinder and I’ve been hooked on street photography ever since. Last year my work started to get a bit of attention which is nice and hopefully I can progress that this year and have an exhibition to build on the press coverage I’ve had recently.
LPO: You’ve said in the past that London is one of the best places to be a street photographer. Can you elaborate on that?
IB: Obviously London is one of the most diverse cities in the world and this is one of it’s greatest attractions. From a street photography perspective, large cities are easier to work in than small towns as it’s much simpler to be inconspicuous on a crowded avenue in a city where no-one is surprised to see someone taking photographs. Working the way I do with candid shots in a small town where everyone knows everyone and someone taking a photograph is a rare site would be a lot more challenging. I think you can still be a street photographer in a village or a small town but if it’s the place where you live all the time it’s more sensible to take a documentary, consensual approach to your subjects.
LPO: Ted Grant once said, “When you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.” Your photographs are shot in black and white. Do you agree with him? Why the decision to shoot completely back and white?
IB: It’s a nice turn of phrase and I can see where he’s coming from but it’s probably stretching the virtues of black and white a bit. A great photo is a great photo regardless of the format; souls can be captured in colour too. I choose to work in black and white for a few reasons which are mostly based around aesthetic preference. Nearly all the photographers I most admire have worked primarily in black and white and personally I prefer its neutrality when photographing candid street scenes. In terms of applying a recognisable style to my own work, I have also found that easier to achieve in black and white. Though I have no plans to abandon black and white, I certainly wouldn’t rule out working in color in the future.
When I did take pictures regularly in color, I found it much more difficult to compose an interesting frame free of any distractions. If someone in the background of your frame has pink hair, then the viewer’s eye is inevitably drawn there, whether they are the focus of your shot or not; working in black and white obviates this. If I’m honest, working in color did also skew my choice of shots. If you’re not careful, you spend your time waiting for people that stand out from the crowd purely in terms of colour: a lady with red shoes, a couple of pink poodles, etc. and ignore more interesting subjects because they’re wearing dull colours.
LPO: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome to get a great shot?
IB: In London, it’s usually poor light rather than bullets whizzing past my ear, which is probably a good thing for the longevity of my career…
LPO: What’s your photography motto? What words of wisdom keep you motivated and inspired?
IB: My motto would be ‘If you see a shot, take it’. If you think about your shots for too long, they tend to disappear. Motivation has never been a problem. I love taking candid shots and it’s pretty much second nature for me now. Inspiration comes from all around; I do view a lot of other photographers’ work especially on Flickr and there’s always someone new coming along who raises the bar with their work. I try and use that to push myself harder. There’s still a lot of things I would like to improve on in my work.
LPO: What makes your shots so incredible is your impeccable timing or unending patience. How do you know when to shoot? Which are the most important elements that need to fall into place when you’re composing a shot?
IB: Patience I don’t have in abundance. I very rarely stand around and wait for a specific shot; timing is all important. I guess it’s down to practice in reading the scene around you and spotting something interesting, which of course is different for everyone. Like every other photographer, I miss plenty great shots by a split second! I’m a Virgo by star sign, key traits being tidy and orderly and many of my compositions are, perhaps sometimes too much. I try and work in a good backdrop and good dark-light contrasts as well as a compelling subject. That’s the ambition anyway!
LPO: Share one of your images that you feel best demonstrates the style of photography you strive to achieve and tell us why.
IB: (photo above) The light on this day was beautiful. I took a lot of photographs that afternoon. For some viewers the image may be a bit of cliche, but it’s one of my own personal favourites. As soon as the pigeon settled on the boy’s arm, I knew there was a great image there to be taken. I’m usually more interested in photographing people full on, but here the silhouette told much more of a story. I’m keen on striking images with a classical composition as well as an interesting narrative and here I think I managed to get all three.
LPO: What have been the most positive and negative reactions you’ve had from people who realized you were taking their photograph?
IB: ‘If you take my photo I’ll smash your face in’ (he didn’t) was possibly the most negative reaction I have had to date, but generally I have no problems with adverse reactions from my subjects. Usually I get indifference, bemusement or amusement and of course some people do actually love having their photo taken – they tend to be the most fun! I do approach all my subjects with respect and I think that’s important.
LPO: What are your main objectives as a photographer? What do you hope to accomplish or communicate through your body of work?
IB: Like all photographers I want my work to be seen and appreciated by a wide audience and to develop a following. Hopefully if I can raise my profile with an exhibition, it will open up the opportunity to travel more and do some international documentary and reportage work which I can’t afford to do at present.
LPO: Share something about yourself that you haven’t told us yet.
IB: I spent several years in prison for armed robbery. Well, no I didn’t, but I did used to write comedy for a living – Spitting Image amongst others, for those of you with a long memory! If photography wasn’t my prime focus right now, it would probably be writing; they both offer the opportunity to share your observations of the world seen through your eyes with a wider audience in their different ways. In fact, at the moment I’m doing some research for a stage play about one of my heroes, the black actor and political activist Paul Robeson and the time he spent in England in the late 1920s. One day I’ll get round to writing it. He’s a truly remarkable man, but because of his politics he’s all but forgotten in his native USA.
For more interviews with photographers, have a look at the archives.