Our next interview is with David Gibson, photographer based in Kent in the UK and author of several books on (street) photography, such as the ‘The Street Photographer’s Manual’ and ‘100 Great Street Photographs’. Gibson is also a member of the UP Photographers collective (formerly iN-PUBLiC). We talk about his evolution as a photographer, the difference between writing about and taking photographs, the influence of social media and more.
1. What was the first image that drew your attention to photography?
There was never one particular photograph that blew my mind as such, it was more a few photographers generally. Discovering Magnum was very important to me – the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt and Marc Riboud for instance – had a huge impact. In the late 1980s I had a very intense steep learning curve where I suddenly woke up to all these photographers doing something that I connected with.
2. Can you describe the process of first observing the world around you, to actually capturing it yourself?
Such a difficult question. Trying to simplify it I would say that I have always liked to wander — to see what is round the corner — and at some point the wandering was with a camera. Taking photographs became both a companion and the purpose but the process was very gradual. In the 1980s I lived in Australia and I was taking photographs there but when moving on to New Zealand I clearly remember a purpose emerging where I sensed that taking photographs was becoming more than a travel diary. But this was such a slow process and the feeling / purpose only took hold in the late 1980s when I did a two-year course in photography in Kent. The course was probably not so great but in the college library I discovered kindred spirits, which was a giant leap forward and suddenly photography — documentary / humanistic photography — resonated and inspired me.
My version of course was the street, though I was not familiar with the term ‘street photography’ for several years but from the early 1990s it all made sense.
“The ‘street’ is life, it is everything and the most obvious place to photograph.”
3. Why does the street attract you?
I’ve never really thought about WHY exactly. The short answer is that it’s just there, it’s free, it’s available. The ‘street’ is life, it is everything and the most obvious place to photograph.
But the better question is WHAT attracts me on the street because that becomes the WHY. So I go looking for ‘my’ photographs. And I’m still learning, my style has changed and expanded over the years.
The answer to WHY must surely be in the photographs: Was it worth it, am I still evolving or repeating myself? It’s a struggle quite frankly at times. Other questions might be WHY do you continue, or even WHY might you stop? Ultimately — trying to really answer the question — it is hope or optimism. Call it plain curiosity in a diary-like way to record what I see…. to really look and apply hopefully some creativity. Asking WHY risks getting a pretentious answer so maybe one of my photographs will suffice: The London road sweeper in 1997 picking up a WHY sign. That is both the question and a reasonable answer. That man has a proper job, he might know more.
4. He might.. How would you describe your way of behaving without the camera, on the street, in a bar, with friends and family?
That’s a hard question, which touches upon several things. I live in the countryside and it is very rare for me to visit London, or anywhere not local without my camera. I feel sort of odd, even anxious if I do because it’s a risk in perhaps missing something. I would never visit another city without my camera, that would be utter madness, a recipe for bitter regret.
Of course I have my mobile phone but I prefer a ‘proper’ camera. Regards my ‘way of behaving’ with others. That is complex but I certainly mix with two groups of people on one fundamental level: Photographers of some kind, and those who are not. It is a harsh distinction in a way but with photographers there is a shorthand for photographic conversations. With photographers I obviously talk about photography, not all the time but certainly the subject comes up… photographs, other photographers, etc.
With non-photographic people it is quite different. In fact I am much more comfortable not talking about photography, if the subject comes up I tend to push it away, or I’m a little evasive. That makes it all sound quite mechanical but it feels very normal to me. In a sense my photography — outside of the photographic community — is somewhat private. I’m interested in many, many other things. So with other people do I act differently in some subtle way? I don’t think so. Out on the street things are different but of course street photography is usually best done as a solitary pursuit. Your question, I guess, is also about switching off visually, which I do whoever I am with but back to the ‘risk’ — when I do not have my camera with me — it really does boil down to that. It does not affect my behaviour but it affects how I feel.
“I would never visit another city without my camera, that would be utter madness, a recipe for bitter regret.”
5. In your own photography, you often include textual elements, like the word ‘WHY’ in the road sweeper image. Is it a way of explaining the photographs, like a caption within the image?
The quick answer is Yes but I should make clear that these word photos are mostly in the past for me. When I started photography — in black and white — I was very keen on word photos… which developed into a project called ‘Subtitles for Life’ where the word in the photograph explains, or at least supports the image… almost like speech bubbles in a cartoon.
I am very interested in typography and I’ve always been drawn to words in some way appearing on the street. They are a starting point, or invitation to make a picture.
Of course it’s an easy option, a cliché even but like everything if it’s done well, it is worth it. I have maybe 10 or so decent word pics including ‘Why,’ ‘Last Few Days’ and ‘Lost Children’
But I should stress that I have moved on from those type of photos, ever since I abandoned black and white photography in about 2003-4. Word photos work better in monochrome I think.
There is a deeper answer perhaps in that I am slightly disdainful of these photos now. They belong to someone starting out in street photography, which I definitely was. So for a few years it was stimulating, I was continually looking for words on the street. It was an important stage but now, well… I’m trying for something else. My photography has grown up a little… I hope.
Another aspect of the word photos is that they are mostly humorous, visual puns if you like and people respond to them. I should not dismiss that. Besides some work on a different level maybe, ‘Why’ for instance is a philosophical question. ‘Last Few Days’ is funny but a raw truth.
6. If you look at your learning curve, having moved on from a certain style, where do you stand now with your photography? And does the (expected) response from your audience influence your photographic / editorial decisions or evolution in any way?
Good question. I’m not entirely sure where I stand with my photography at the moment. In fact I feel at some sort of crossroad, as if I should make a firm decision regards my direction. It’s a half-crisis where suddenly the questions or doubts are more urgent. You mention “my audience’ — essentially social media —and that is the heart of my current unease. Because, like everyone else I’m caught in the world of chasing ‘likes’ and if I’m honest the pangs of resentment towards other photographers who are more ‘successful’ with likes and followers. I refer especially to Instagram, a merry-go-round that is hard to get off. So the “expected response” — seeking approval — takes its toil by sometimes pushing me in a certain direction.
This sounds a little dramatic but I am increasingly aware of trying to keep up and compete. Social media is essential — arguably — as if the ‘audience’ out there knows best. A photograph that takes off and is popular is heartening, but the opposite, when a photograph bombs is confusing and has you questioning your judgement. It’s not as black and white as that but Instagram can make you hesitant, always trying to second-guess what will ‘work.’
So yes, it’s a slight problem for me, trying to stay on course and just take photographs for myself.
Another example is curating online. Recently I was doing a takeover on the Up Collective’s Instagram page on the theme of music. I found it quite surprising that a well-known photograph of Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim hardly made a ripple. I know it ain’t ‘street photography,’ which invariably gets many more likes but for the me the photo is a kind of perfection. It had me thinking: “Come on everyone, can’t you see that this is truly great?”
But what do I know? The conclusion is, just plow on, take photos that you enjoy and choose photos that inspire you.
I should add that one of the pleasures of writing books on photography is that everything is slower, there is no instant reaction because the ‘audience’ is pushed back somewhat. I like to think that the photo book provokes a more considered and fair response.
7. Talking about social media, how do you feel about the repetitive character of (street) photography, that can be seen mainly on Instagram? Also in relation to your work, as some images by others are inspired by yours, what is your take on that?
With so much photography out there it’s inevitable that much of it looks the same or more likely becomes a poor imitation of something better. You just have to wade through some of it and try to pull out the best, which is often very disheartening.
A specific repetition that I notice is the ‘Saul Leiter homage’ and a few people do it very well. It’s like a tribute band, you can’t have the original but it’s good to see more of it. It’s mostly achieved through apps I guess which feeds on a nostalgia for that 1950s look, that particular kind of saturated or muted colour. In many respects it’s wonderful but I have some doubts about the motivation because after a while you feel like saying: OK, great but what about your photography, do you just mimic the best or what? This is very debatable. Some people mimic Pinkhasov or Alex Webb.
But the best photography, which is original, refreshing and inspiring is still there. It’s personal taste of course but I can certainly still be surprised. Every now and then you find something new, which is somehow different / original. You have to hang on to that possibility.
I remember Joel Meyerowitz giving a brilliant impromptu talk at Street London a year or so ago. He touched upon this, lamenting that those new to street photography did not stand out, much seemed uniform and few could find their own distinct voice.
So everything does not need to look the same, like an adequate but average meal.
Is that possible on Instagram, which is a vast sea awash with imaginary? I don’t know but some of us try to hold close what is precious. Hope that does not sound too elitist. Basically all this revolves around aiming high, and not looking down. Instagram can be a great platform but it’s ultimately fleeting, a quick ‘like’ and then moving on. But how refreshing that photo books feature on Instagram, so it’s a fine resource too, which encourages a slow off-line appreciation of photography.
Regards the other part of the question… my work being copied, or maybe giving inspiration. I find that hard to answer. As I’ve mentioned earlier my style — or signature style — has shifted, or broadened, so I’m not so sure now. Besides I’m swimming in the vast pool of photography with everyone else. I don’t know what gets truly noticed sometimes. Or ignored. But hey, not every photographer has a website, or personally does Instagram! Trent Parke and Tom Wood for instance. Robert Frank doesn’t bother with Instagram, why should he? Joel Meyerowitz does.
Another aspect of this question is repeating yourself. Perhaps that’s the bigger issue — which could be called competition — in the social media world. It’s a fine balance, inspiration verses being overtly influenced.
Thank you David!
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