When I first started this Blog in March 2016, I wanted to interview some photographers I really like. I wanted to know more about them, may be just to see that besides the fact that I loved their work, they were just ordinary people like me. I interviewed very interesting people and I kind of gave up on this exercice because I felt like that I was asking everytime the same questions. Lately I wanted to do something different by turning it into some kind of conversation with a friend. I needed my guinea pig and unfornunately for John Harper, he would be the first one. I called this Blog “John Harper revisited” because he already participated to this Blog a few years ago. Like revisiting one’s work, I found it interesting to interview people again a few years after.
Hello John, you are one of the first street photographer I interviewed on behalf of my Blog at the beginning of 2017. I was already impressed by your work at the time, but in these almost 4 years, it has changed a lot and in a good way. We were able to meet and discuss during my visit in early 2019 near your home between Bath and Bristol. I was able to follow in your footsteps and see with my own eyes the places you walked and photographed tirelessly. I wanted to talk to you again about various topics related or not to street photography, to life in general.
We are in the middle of a new lockdown no matter what country we are in. Europe is once again hard hit by this second wave. Restrictions are being put in place by governments to contain this pandemic. What is your daily life as far as you are concerned? Is it a light lockdown compared to the one at the start of the year? How do you manage to document these moments (Street Photography, Life Photography, Photography in general)?
I’m really not sure what wave we’re in sometimes, but for the most part life is the same. At the time of writing we’re having Lockdown-Lite in England, the children are allowed to attend school this time and that aids to some sense of normality. Of course I would like to be in the city making photographs, I know from the previous lockdown that it’s pointless, it’ll be literally and figuratively a Ghost Town. For now I keep practicing, especially when we walk in the countryside with the dogs, the camera is with me every day. Believe me, when those streets open up again I should be on my game with all the practice I’ve had…I hope. There are no weddings or portrait clients to shoot, for me photography on that level has finished.
It’s terrible, but we’ve been living with this virus for a year, which we discovered last November. Looks like it’s going to last a long time. Vaccines are well announced for soon, but not much is known about the protocol yet. Vaccination every year? Duration of immunity? Side effects ? Moreover on this point we do not have enough hindsight with a vaccine developed so quickly … I am not against vaccines and see them as a solution. But a vaccine developed so quickly with such economic stakes raises questions. It reinforces the anti-vaccines and makes them even more suspicious. Do you see this vaccine as a blessing, as a solution to the problem? What will be your position on this? Will you vaccinate your children, your family?
I have no qualms about being vaccinated, I’d be first in the queue. Although of course I won’t be, first stage will be the vulnerable, over 70’s and essential workers. I expect to be in the next phase, over 55’s. I’m not sure when the children or my wife will get the opportunity to be vaccinated, if there’s enough to go around I would have no problems with them getting a jab. When Edward Jenner invented the vaccine for smallpox by initially using cowpox there were lots of protests. The chief claim was that it would turn people into cows. In its last 100 years of existence smallpox killed 500 million people, fortunately not everyone believed the stories, had faith in science and it was eradicated. The benefits far outweigh any risk, in gambling terms it’s what’s known as a “no brainer”, a guaranteed payout.
Humanity has experienced other pandemics and will experience more. We seem to forget quickly. It’s kind of human nature. We are living in an important moment in this century and we photographers are supposed to document this period. Personally, during the first very strict confinement, I did not go out to photograph this period, preferring to stay at home as we were requested. My parents are elderly and I didn’t want to take unnecessary risks to take pictures. Many photographers felt the need to document the streets during this period. What is your take on this?
If the infection levels are low then I don’t see too much of a problem with being on the Streets. During the spring when the virus was ripping through communities it wasn’t the time to be out there. There were a few excellent documentary photographers who recorded it all, probably best left to them. What we tend to see is a huge amount of photos depicting people wearing masks, walking along, with no story whatsoever and that looses its appeal pretty quickly. If that’s all they can come up with then I’d say stay at home. The antithesis of the vaccine conundrum, lots of risk, no benefit at all to photography, documentary or street.
You shared with me a photo that you are going to submit to a contest that I wrote about in one of my recent Blogs. You had to submit a photo and write a few words about the story behind that photo. The photo you are going to submit is a photo of your father and it is just exceptional. The text you produced to accompany the text is very touching and you can feel the admiration and love that a son has for his father.(By the way, I won’t submit anything…) That brings me to another point that defines you. Besides being a talented photographer, you have writing skills that make your Blogs truly a treat to read. As a blogger myself, I’m curious about your process. How do you find ideas?
That’s extremely kind of you Jeff. It’s interesting that your opinion of my writing is so different than my own. I sit down at the keyboard, I already know the photos that I’ll be showing and just begin typing. There often isn’t a plan, a very rough theme perhaps. Let’s face it my blogposts are almost like a stream of consciousness sometimes, they rarely make any sense as I read them back. A photographer friend said to me earlier this year; You should change your blog name from ‘Leica Biker’ to ‘What was it I was saying again?’. I do try to make a point though and usually when I’m walking the dogs an idea comes to me. Esprit de l’escalier is the phrase that springs to mind when I do re-read my blogposts. There’s always so many things that I wanted to say, a little wittier, put more succinctly…I know I’ll be reading this interview when it’s published on your blog and wanting to change every answer. A really good idea is to write the blog and sleep on it before publishing, the next morning it can be edited, in my case it usually will be.
It’s typical of you ! It’s the same with your photography, you’re being hard on yourself. I like this because it shows that you have a critical eye on your work. It’s been a little over a year since I created my YouTube channel. I found it interesting because I didn’t have time to share my photos in my Blogs anymore and since I love music a lot, associating photos with artists that I liked seemed fun. And I also feel like I’m sharing with a different audience than the one who frequents my website. You also got started a few weeks ago by creating your channel to share slideshows. What did you like about this new way of sharing your work?
The jury is still out on the YouTube channel. I’ve posted about six slideshows so far. I like music too, but seem to be stuck with the free theme tunes from Apple, I use “Photos” on the iMac to make a simple slideshow. I’m not ready to spend money on it just yet. Slideshows aren’t really the best option for YouTube presentations, that said one of my posts had 1.3k views, perhaps it’s the way to go. There’s a rumour in our house that Father Christmas might be bringing me a GoPro. If he does then I’ll do a Vlog, it won’t be as polished as Tim Huynh
’s though, he’s a very accomplished film maker. A few POV street walks definitely and possibly do some of my trips on the motorcycle. Well just fragments of the journey if there’s anything interesting and then a POV of wherever I happen to be photographing.
To continue talking about photography, I have seen over the past four years your style of photography change. Even if you always keep that rigor in the composition that characterizes your style, the fact that you adopted 28mm instead of 35mm, did that change a lot of things in the end? How did this transition go, after so many years spent photographing with 35mm?
I don’t think it changed hugely. Definitely I can get closer with the 28mm than the 35mm and retain focus throughout the frame. The 28mm has been glued to the camera for 10 months, okay, before that the same could be said for the 35mm. It’s a slightly wider feel to the frames and that’s what I wanted. The 35mm is certainly more of an all rounder, but I’m enjoying this 28mm immensely. Actually this week, as we’re in another lockdown I’m using or forcing myself to use the 50mm, the dust has been blown off. I’m not sure I like it very much at all, really hard work to manually focus and very tight framing. I’ll write it up in the blog.
If you had only one lens for your work on the street and in everyday life, what would it be ?
That’s such a tough question Jeff. For me it would have to be the 35mm, the ultimate all rounder. If it was purely for Street then I’d choose the 28mm.
During the first lockdown and in the midst of big Brexit talks, you talked to me about leaving Great Britain to live elsewhere. Was it due to the heavy context of this troubled period that brought you to this thinking? how about today? Is this still an ongoing project?
The vote was held and a democratic result returned, there can’t be any division, we have to get on with it. I don’t agree with Brexit by the way, that makes no difference to the fact that I’m proud of my country, patriotic and grateful for the opportunities it has given me. We would like to emigrate, a change of lifestyle…let’s face it, some better weather. We discussed it only a few days ago. Perhaps what we and probably most other people really wish for is freedom to travel for extended periods. Just need a plan to make that happen…I’m sixty next year and haven’t come up with one yet!
When you haven’t seen friends for a while, they are always amazed at how the children have grown up. It’s true that living with them, you don’t pay attention to that. We are in everyday life. It is the same for photography. We do not necessarily see the changes that take place in our photography on a daily basis and yet it also evolves over the years. Make this introspection. What has changed in yours? Do you feel like you’ve changed? How do you see the John Harper from 3 or 4 years ago?
Older, but not necessarily wiser is the short answer. It’s precisely as you say, difficult to judge your own work. Earlier in this interview you asked about YouTube, I told you that one slideshow had 1.3K views, it was mostly made up of my older photos, the slideshows containing my newer work get just over 100. Never be influenced by social media, likes and followers are irrelevant, if you want to be “popular” then it’s easy to produce crowd pleasers or glory shots. That doesn’t constitute photographing for ourselves, doubtful that any photographer will evolve continuously producing formulaic images. Somehow less popularity is a good thing in my mind and I know that goes against the mainstream, that’s fine because I can sleep at night in the knowledge that I’m not making images for others, purely for me. Then, if others do enjoy viewing my photography, that’s far more gratifying. I liked that older work at the time, photos from six or so years ago now I see differently. Then it was more pictorial and two dimensional. Now the emphasis is on the candid and there’s often a depiction of a busier scene. Photographs with layers or movement are essentialy my aim.
I recently learned of the death of Bruno Barbey, a photographer at the Magnum Agency. Actually, I only discovered him a few weeks ago, after buying a “Magnum Streetwise” photobook. I was immediately blown away by his photos and told myself that I needed to put some of his books on my Christmas list. I was caught up in the news when I learned that he passed away not long ago. There was a golden age of Street Photography. We all know names of photographers who inspire us and whose books we own. What about today ? Who are the contemporary street photographers that publishers can bank on? I think there have never been so many quality street photos produced. And yet all this remains confidential. Social networks have changed that.
Yes, Bruno Barbey and so many more utterly brilliant photographers we all know so well or suddenly discover. There’s plenty of great street photographs on social media, really superb stuff, mostly from photographers I’ve never heard of. There’s a few big names that get a huge following, often I’m not entirely sure it’s one that’s deserved. I won’t name them here, I certainly wouldn’t buy a book of their work. There are street photographers who are out of that sphere entirely, they simply have a website and blog and possibly not even that. Occasionally I see an LFI (Leica Magazine) article featuring a photographer that has no online presence whatsoever and it’s absolutely fabulous work, fresh and not influenced by the formulaic images we see so often. I suppose any publisher would insist on a photographer having a huge social media presence to give some guarantee of sales. I suggest the really outstanding street photographers out there we’ll possibly never be aware of.
Short answer: Jeff Chane-Mouye springs to mind! (Thanks John, Give me you PayPal account …)
2020 will have been a special year. Some would say a very bad one. How did you live this year made of confinements, deprivation? How did you live with this frustration of not being able to go and make pictures as you wanted? In the end, don’t you come out of this experience growing up. In fact, we have not yet come out of it even with the arrival of future vaccines. I have heard that it would protect us from severe forms of Covid-19, but would not prevent us from being contaminants … After years of tasteless photos with people with smartphones, here we are again with people with masks.
We live in interesting times, which is the title of a book from one of my favourite authors, Terry Pratchett. As he says “Let’s hope the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an oncoming train”! Well, 2020 hasn’t been great, but at least we’ve lived through it…so far. My aim is to survive until one of those vaccines begin to take affect. After that I strongly suspect something else will get me, at least it will eventually, in the meantime I want to enjoy every one hundredth second of Life, specifically Street Life. My wife has promised me a New York trip in June 2021, we cancelled our last visit in March of this year, I hope that won’t happen again. I’ll be sixty years old and that’ll give me plenty of excuse to disappear for a quiet beer in Bryant Park whilst she looks after the children. I’ll sip that beer with my camera, I’ll be a very happy man. I suppose looking forward to these things are what keep us all going whilst we struggled in the dark days of lockdown. I also managed by constantly making snapshots of the children as we walked in the countryside every day. Anyway, I’m looking forward to enjoying some freedom: To be on the streets, I don’t mind if it’s Las Vegas, New York, Rome, Abu Dhabi, Bath or Bristol. I want to see people, I want to see scenes, I want to see it all and simply make photographs, that’s not much to ask for. Actually, let’s throw Reunion in there, man, that would be fantastic. I suppose 2021 won’t be hugely different than any other new year we look forward to. I always think that next year I’ll be a better photographer, I’ll be able to see more clearly, refine my craft.
Thank you very much John for these wise words shared with us. The photographs in this Blog are only monochrom and that was on purpose. John shoot now a lot in color, but I kind have a preference for his monochrom work. These photos were chosen by me among a very good selection that John provided me. These photographs speak to me and I don’t know if they can be considered as the best ones he has made. He’s a very prolific photographer and I urge you to subscribe to his Blog to be notified when new articles are available.