My dear friend, Jonathan Higbee, first brought Stuart Paton to my attention a couple weeks ago. In the days since I’ve become somewhat captivated with his images. Just take a look for yourself – ah, see, I told you. Great stuff. I wanted to know more about the photographer himself, however, so I sat down (virtually) and chatted up a storm with Mr. Paton. Here’s our conversation:
Michael Sweet: Stuart, how did you first begin in photography ?
Stuart Paton: Well….. take one overly intense youngster growing up in the harshness of Thatcher’s Britain, add a Joe Strummer riff and you have the basic prequel. Later, on a teenage road trip around America, I bought a little Agfa110 in San Francisco for souvenir snaps. But I was stunned by the searing inequality in America and once I reached New York I spent more time wandering around Harlem and the Bronx than Times Square and Central Park. I remember shooting a picture of three old-timers sitting outside a rundown building playing a trumpet.
The year after, I spent three months in South Africa while it was really kicking off against apartheid and I saw all sorts of mischief. On the flight home I was seated beside a French photojournalist, Thierry Secretan, who was returning from a reportage of clandestine ANC training camps. We chatted, drank beer and my world widened once more.
When I got back to Scotland I bought a dodgy starter kit from ‘Dixons’ and started photography proper. My step-dad taught me how to print in his tiny darkroom under the stairs. I’d use spare coins from my unemployment money to photocopy pictures from Don McCullin books at the local library and stick them to my walls for inspiration. Then I went out and shot my ‘Hoi Polloi’ set.
Michael: Why photography do you think, rather than, say, painting or some other visual art ?
Stuart: I suppose the immediacy and impact it can share with a 3 minute pop song appeals to me. Also, I’ve always been a walker and a watcher and for me a camera is, in part, a sociological metering device and trumps painting on several counts. I mean I reckon Bruegel would’ve made a brilliant street photographer but wasn’t it George Bernard Shaw who said he’d swap every painting of Jesus Christ for one snapshot of him ?
Besides, the wealth doesn’t ‘trickle down’ but the ideology does. That in turn has a direct effect on every city street and a camera is a handy tool for documenting it. Martin Parr wasn’t being totally flippant when he described his local supermarket as the ‘frontline’. Ultimately, there are a few good souls around but too many clowns have bought into a self-destructive system so it can only end in tears and therefore the raw material for serious street photography is all around us. However futile, my own reaction is to engage with that raw material.
Michael: Most of the work I’ve seen from you is in colour – vibrant almost larger-than-life colour, why ? What made you leave monochrome behind ?
Stuart: Alex Webb. Previously, I only had eyes for black and white. Plus the fact there’s a social spine to Webb’s work – something I think most of the street photography greats share – made it easier for me to make the transition. Between you and me, I plan to crack his genome and start a lucrative sideline in farming it out to stud. I was lucky enough to meet him in Milan several months ago and despite me having necked too much of Leica’s wine he was a real gentleman so I’m confident we can shake on it. Anyway I suppose I find colour more articulate although any colour vibrancy is purely circumstantial. I’m usually looking beyond that to my true target which might just as well be played in a minor key.
Michael: Many street photographers are told to get in closer. Certainly I’m guilty of this tactic in my own work. You, however, seem to move back and capture much wider scenes than would normally be engaging in street photography. Yet, at the same time, your work is unquestionably engaging. Tell us a little about this vision for the wider scene and perhaps, if you can, offer some advice to photographers who would like to capture great photos with a little distance.
Stuart: Street photographers are told all sorts of things but a camel is a horse by committee. Until recently I led a reclusive, Maier-esque photographic existence and missed out on many of the dos and don’ts. But advice to ‘get closer’ regardless of context is as much use as Anne Frank’s drum-kit. I’ve no problem being whites-of-eyes close but I don’t make a virtue of it as if I’m somehow proving my street credentials. I think what’s important is to be at the most effective distance and that varies depending on the situation and how you choose to depict it. I suppose we all have our own range, our own personal depth-of-field that’s determined by a mixture of temperament, imitation and the needs of what we’re trying to convey.
I’m just another clown with a camera so I don’t feel qualified to offer much advice. My pictures tend to revolve around themes like loss of self and social dissonance therefore a certain amount of context often serves my purposes. Whenever possible, my approach is to articulate the essence of what first caught my attention then include those elements of the scene that underscore that and exclude anything that doesn’t. That determines my distance for me.
Talking about shooting proximity, I’d like to quantum-leap a simple pedestrian version of Bruce Gilden from a parallel universe and see how he reacted to Mark Cohen setting off a flash in his face? I reckon Cohen would need excellent camera and dental insurance. More seriously, I suppose we have a collective responsibility to try to leave the streets as we find them so that other folk can carry on the tradition in our wake without being burdened by restrictive legislation i.e try not to piss too many people off. Amen.
Michael: Your work displays an uncanny skill for composition. Are you self-taught ? What is your educational background ? I sense that there may be some formal training either in photography or arts in general. Did you paint in this lifetime or perhaps another ?
Stuart: Cheers. I do get a real buzz out of the composition part. Early doors I was flattered to be offered a place on quite an exclusive photography course but I went home, put on a Ska ’45 and by the time it finished playing I decided not to accept. I’m too much of a loner and after a stretch working in the docks then traveling, the idea of a return to the classroom didn’t appeal to me so, yeah, I’m self-taught. I know it’s common to draw comparisons with the likes of Rembrandt and Goya but, given my themes, I feel more resonance with the bittersweet psychedelia of Radiohead and The Fall. But yeah, as a kid I was always drawing because in my previous life I was a dwarf in a suitcase.
Michael: What kind of equipment do you use? Are you an analog, digital or combo type of guy ?
Stuart: A head and a heart. Aided and abetted by an X-T1, sunglasses and ice-cream money. All in perfect alignment. As for black and white, I’m not nostalgic but, just in case, I’ve a analog body under the couch somewhere. I cut my teeth on analog so I’m not starry-eyed about it any more.
Michael: A lot of your work has a distinctly non-western feel to it. What country or countries are you working/living in presently ?
Stuart: Apart from those first pictures shot mainly in Scotland and the later Istanbul set, most of my website was shot last year in Milan. Until recently, street photography opportunities were as rare as rocking-horse shit but fortunately my camera comes in for more punishment these days.
Besides my street wanderlust, I’m shooting a long-term story of a group of Pakistani refugees who were bused up to a small village in the Italian mountains. They have an admirable bond and camaraderie for people in that situation and just thinking about them cheers me up when I’m sad. If all goes well, with the help of some locals we’d like to stage a benefit event around an exhibition as a two-fingered salute to the slack-jawed Neanderthals out there.
Michael: New York City, my city, can be a very challenging city to capture in colour. New York is very drab in terms of colours when compared to Europe, for example. In fact, New York City is often called the “black and white city”. Your own singular New York image here seems to attest to this fact; despite its intrigue, it is nearly monochromatic. Any advice for colour photographers who find themselves working in such colourless environments ?
Stuart: In fact it was shot in Paris where there’s a small replica of the Lady Liberty the French pimped to America. I grew up in a place specialising in gun-metal skies so I can sympathise with New York street photographers…. to an extent. But I’d backstroke across the Atlantic to have a playground like that. Advice ? Keep your hands inside the vehicle – make that drabness part of your theme. Alternatively, shoot at night when a different city emerges. If all else fails, drop some acid and board the next flight to Honolulu.
Michael: Ah, that’s why I couldn’t figure our the composition. It looked “off” to me, but I never even considered that it was shot at “another” Statue of Liberty, despite the fact that I do know they exist (there’s one across from my apartment building, actually!) Moving along, you refer to your website as temporary. What is next for Stuart Paton when it comes to photography ?
Stuart: Sitting defiantly astride a unicorn at the head of a planetary army of street photographers; Donald Trump’s severed head held aloft; my every new photograph received with a rapturous, Viking thunderclap. Or, more probably, these will be my infamous last words. Either way I’m on the cusp, like the silhouette at Saint Lazare jumping over a puddle into the unknown.
Generally speaking I’d like to widen my experience so I’m open to opportunities along those lines. Maybe working in association with like-minded people in some way. If not, then I’ll crack on alone regardless. My life is in a state of flux, I’m slowly digesting loss and betrayal but hold out hope that photography has the same redemptive healing powers as Tamla Motown. After my death, my stunning monograph will be published and become an instant, cult classic with my grandchildren.
By the way, Michael, you wrote an article a while back saying ‘street photography has no clothes’, but that’s not strictly true. The ‘quirky’ strand of street photography sports a red nose, floppy shoes and a revolving water-pistol bow-tie. Personally, I see street photography as the third lane of a motorway – separate but parallel to photojournalism and documentary. But this fixation with the ‘funny’ has veered off down a slip road and crashed into a bouncy castle. I mean, if street photography is about documenting the everyday life of society is that the extent of their reaction and all they have to say ? It’s the equivalent of your daft cousin thinking it’s a good idea to bring along a fart cushion on a visit to Uncle Albert in the palliative care unit. I suppose, to an extent, street photography has become a victim of its own popularity and that dialectic risks capsizing its credibility.
Michael: Stuart, I believe you are bang on about the “story” element that it missing from so much of today’s street photography. Indeed it is, perhaps, “the” element that separates the amateur from the master. When it comes to your own work, do you think you’ve already made your best photography or is it still to come
Stuart: That street kids shot was on my 7th roll of Tri-X but it’s been downhill ever since. So, yeah, I fear I’m on an inverted, Benjamin Button type trajectory and turning magic into the mundane. Listen…. taking pictures of a riot a few years ago kick-started my old instincts and now I’m more besotted with photography than ever. Fifteen seconds of Meyerowitz in full flow usually gets me over any soul-searching and, like everyone else, I believe the best one is just around the corner. Fueled by a mixture of love and revenge, I feel all the urgency of an absolute beginner. OK, it’s only a lightweight bout with little of significance at stake apart from myself but nonetheless, the gloves are off.