“Inspiration mainly comes from the subject who does something crazy that you could not plan for or imagine and why I love street photography and not formal settings. I see the street as a big studio or blank canvas.”
Chris Porsz (born in 1953) is a street photographer currently based in Peterborough (England). He just released his first book called “New England”.
“I cannot draw or paint and still find it magical that I can express myself by simply pressing a button and capture a fleeting expression for posterity.”
Interview with Chris Porsz
Chris Porsz, what was your most memorable moment shooting pictures out on the streets?
In the early eighties I had taken the only known picture of a vagrant who was later murdered and this helped find his killers. On a lighter note I spotted a man sat in an armchair in our busy town square so of course took his picture. Aged about seventy, wearing only a white bath robe, red bobble hat and boots he chased me down the street. What a picture!
Why did you become a photographer? And why street photography?
Like many it started with taking pictures of my children and then to satisfy some creative urge I roamed the streets of my city in the early eighties recording the changes through it’s people. Buildings alone bored me and I had to include people to bring them alive. I found the unpredictability exciting, challenging and immensely satisfying as I still do.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to say with your pictures?
“Perhaps each image reflects my personality and take on society so if there is a message viewers can draw their own conclusions.”
Making up for lost time I spend all my days off as a paramedic on the streets so that speaks volumes. I flunked sociology so I found an easier but different way to depict society and everyday life from social class to race. In this all too often sad old world humour is very important to me and I like the juxtaposition between subjects and billboards for example. If it raises a smile then I have achieved a goal.
To reveal what we all take for granted and walk by blindly so that viewers think I never saw that when I walked down the street. I know my eighties images provoke fond nostalgia of how it used to be and I deeply regret not taking more. Sometimes they were just average shots but it is time that makes them fascinating.
So now it is vital for me to record society before it is a distant memory but with images that are strong in their own right and not just because the passage of time will make them so. Many of my images were technically poor but with today’s cameras I have no such excuse. Perhaps each image reflects my personality and take on society so if there is a message viewers can draw their own conclusions.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
Without doubt Don McCullin a decent, honest and compassionate photographer. From his Teddy boy gang and homeless pictures in the East End of London to Vietnam, landscapes in Sommerset and now back to war in Syria. His dark, rich and moody monochrome definitely had an effect on me.
What’s your favorite quote about photography?
I try to adapt to Robert Capa’s mantra:
“If your photographs aren’t good enough then you’re not close enough.”
In fact I feel I have cheated if I use a telephoto or taken peoples backs due to lack of nerve and I want the viewer to step into my pictures and feel part of them as if they were there.
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
I work instinctively and alone. I believe the great New York street photographer Dave Beckerman was right when he said street photography is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. I am a very minor amateur not technical and could never compete with the professionals. I like the fact that street photography is a level playing field and we can all take part.
So I walk for hours, cover miles in all weathers and this way capture unique image that others miss. I cannot do Photoshop and flash scares me and I know I should learn but I would rather use my time by being out there creating images. Trying to get the image right in the viewfinder first time is crucial and also minimizes post editing. My back is not good after 40 years of lifting patients so I want to walk rather than be slouching at a computer.
“I have a bit of a scatter gun approach which you can afford to do with digital.”
I like candid so as not to interfere and play the lost tourist but increasingly find by engaging the results are more sympathetic. I often sit down, chat and shoot from the chest and enjoy listening to people’s potted life stories. For me eye contact is crucial and some gesture or expression makes the difference between an average and great image. I have a bit of a scatter gun approach which you can afford to do with digital, learn from my mistakes, be ruthless in editing and just post the best.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic voice?
A strong determination to constantly hunt for that elusive and unique image and to create a distinctive style people recognize from just seeing your photographs.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
“The very nature of street photography in seizing the moment often does not allow careful composition, but I feel not missing the image is the priority.”
Not being very technical I have to keep things as simple and basic as possible. I am always aiming to capture something different from the mediocre and to try and make something extraordinary out of the ordinary. The very nature of street photography in seizing the moment often does not allow careful composition, but I feel not missing the image is the priority.
Having said that always being mindful of different angles to avoid that harsh sunlight, white van or poly bag. It is great to have a second chance by cropping later. Colour can be lush and distracting so I use it when it adds value to a photograph but mono if it confuses and distracts. I mostly use ISO 400 as I want a fast shutter speed but much higher on my camera and it becomes noisy.
What qualities and characteristics does a good street photographer need?
Before that the first priority is good shoes, waterproofs and supplies. Then patience and perseverance with the ability to not only look but to see. Quick reactions, being sociable and having a genuine interest in your subject to build up a rapport.
What does a photo need to be a great street shot?
There is nothing worse than a great photograph being ruined for technical reasons or poor composition so that is a given. Always have that camera ready at the fastest shutter speed to seize the moment.
It should make people do a double take, excite and provoke emotions from laughter to tears. It needs wow factor and if a photo is mediocre don’t post it or you will bore the viewer and dilute your good work. I am not saying I achieve this but it is a good principle and a goal to aim for.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
A local country park have commissioned me to record a year through the seasons and the positive impact on visitors lives. So I imagine I am walking the streets but with beautiful backdrops.
Inspiration mainly comes from the subject who does something crazy that you could not plan for or imagine and why I love street photography and not formal settings. I see the street as a big studio or blank canvas and ‘all the world’s a stage, all the men and women merely players, they have their exits and entrances’. So I wait patiently and look out for the social interactions on our streets.
I look for the eccentric, maverick that stands out from the crowds. It is why the eighties punks with their purple Mohicans appealed to me and still do. I am inspired by fellow street photographers and the masters such as Elliott Erwitt who is responsible for my humorous canine images.
What’s the biggest challenge shooting on the streets?
To take photographs of complete strangers. Fortunately my day job involves acting quickly and reassuring people in a crisis which helps. A smile and an explanation goes a long way to gain trust.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
I try to keep it very simple and so a Canon 60D with the flip screen and video both unused. My Canon 17-55, 2.8 lens which I recently smashed while walking and looking at the screen, is on permanently set at around 20mm.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
This sounds very pretentious but to be honest my own. It was made by an award winning journalist, film maker and photo editor Martyn Moore. It has transformed my photography and drives me to walk miles. It’s simplicity to use and for people to view appeals to me. I would love to look at more but it really is a time issue.
What book about photography would you recommend?
Any of Don McCullin’s work.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a street photographer?
I am fortunate. The long suffering Mrs P. and my work enables me to indulge myself in this hobby. If I had to make a living I might lose some of my spontaneity and passion. The images I took three decades ago have served me well as the local paper have given me a weekly column Paramedic Paparazzo where people have recognized themselves and this led to my reunions.
“My best advice is put the miles in and back them up three times.”
It rekindled my long lost passion as I hardly picked up a camera in twenty five years. Now 60 you can see why I am putting in the miles before I need a Zimmer frame to bolt my camera to!
I then started sending photographs to magazines and social media blogs of fellow street photographers. I produced three local calendars which is a great way to display your work on people’s walls for a year and was approached by the local shopping centre and museum to stage exhibitions. My book “New England” was the logical next step and I would like to do a second dedicated to my reunions and a third to new work and street photography.
To be inspired I visit many English cities and I am trying to develop a more international flavor to my website with European capitals.
To develop a distinctive style and build up an unusual portfolio so that your work is noticed. My website has been crucial in motivating me and sharing my images with the outside world. My best advice is put the miles in and back them up three times.