Barry Lewis, photographic alchemist

Last week, I took a look back at my early pictures, to discuss whether my creative peak came right at the outset of my photographic career. A time when my work was generally driven by personal inspiration rather than professional considerations.

This week, I’ve invited Barry Lewis photographer to join in the debate. A quick perusal of his website, showcases the talents of a man who has literally “been there, done that”. From documentary to portraiture, fashion to still life, landscape to street photography. The success of working for Life, National Geo, winning a World Press award, among numerous career achievements, has in no way gone to his head. He remains humble and generous, and it was a pleasure to get this feedback.

Barry shooting on the Reykjanes peninsula

Q: To what extent do you agree with the view that as creative practitioners, we produce some of our best work, right at the beginning of our careers?

A: Maybe I’m biased, bien sûr, but having spent a lot of my time recently in France, I think that photographers mellow with age like wine: young, sharp, hard and vigorous when young but maturing with age. So now, at the age of 72, I’ve probably passed my “sell by” date! It’s never easy to shoot good work, and it shouldn’t be. After two years teaching chemistry in a small school, I found myself repeating the same jokes in class and thought I had better follow my heart and pursue a photography route. So I took a job as a photographic technician for a year and was then lucky enough to get a scholarship to the Royal College of Art with Bill Brandt as my tutor! I have sometimes thought back to the time wasted by my late start but of course that is ridiculous: the techniques involved in taking a photo are fairly simple, it’s the much harder consideration of the important questions of how, when and above all, why. I am eternally grateful for the rigour and weekly critical reviews that were given by the RCA staff.

Family living in the room where Van Gogh painted the Potato eaters © Barry Lewis.

In the early 70s I had so much conviction, I wanted to change the world with photography. I had the zeal of a zealot but the technical skills of a child. I thought my image making was unique when often it was a weak echo of the masters of photography. Later, when I started working in colour for magazines I was confronted for the first time in my lack of knowledge and how difficult it was to make a photo that corresponded to what you saw in your mind’s eye. Having worked digitally for over 25 years, I am aware of how much of the technical thinking is being done by the camera, but looking back, at my early colour work, entirely on transparency film, I shudder to see the myriad of mistakes missed in my naive self-confidence. My early career was helped more by the kindness of others, teachers, patient subjects, and picture editors, who actually paid me to learn on the job.
When I started working professionally there were so many magazines, newspapers, companies, advertising agencies all needing photographers and there were far fewer of us! I think that I thrived in the form of assignment photography, the excitement of a new story, sharing research with the writer (remember, no internet to help!) and hitting the ground running as you had to make those pictures.

Confederates on memorial day, Indianapolis. © Barry Lewis
Schoolchildren celebrate the anniversary of the Vietnam war © Barry Lewis.

Q: In what way did a certain naivety or fearlessness help you starting out ?

A: I’m not a brave photographer. The picture was everything for me and it took me time to appreciate the value of the context. I wasn’t as attuned to the news as I should have been but happenstance led to my covering many aspects of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. I photographed Romania in late 1989 for the Sunday Times just three months before the end of Ceausescu’s regime and I had no idea that a revolution was around the corner (though I must say the journalist, who was in fact a spy, had no idea either!). Luckily, Peter Howes the photo editor of Life (who sadly died this month) called me to spend a month making a story wherever I wanted in the Eastern Block in January 1990. I got the first flight into Bucharest and started there straight away. There were excited demonstrations every day and a huge hatred of the Securitate, the secret police. Apart from the freezing cold the other problem was lack of street lighting so making images of demonstrations in darkness – as any news photographer would tell you – is a bad idea. Plus I was shooting with low speed Kodachrome slide film!

During the demonstration a huge military fire engine was driven into a scattering crowd with a man firing into the air with a machine gun! Perhaps now I would run away but I was so focused on getting a photo I plunged forward into the darkness towards the chaos. I was lucky… I think in retrospect it was just someone drunk firing off a Kalashnikov but at the time I just pushed in close with a wide-angle lens!

My essay involved returning to some of the places I had discovered during my previous visit two months earlier, including Copsa Mica, one of the most polluted places on earth. The shoot went well, and eventually won the Oscar Barnack prize.

Worker outside the Carbosin plant⁣, Copșa Mică, Romania, 1989. © Barry Lewis

Q: How has the relationship you have with your past work changed over time?

A: Well, put it this way : whenever you lose a transparency, it gets better and better in your mind…. Until you find it!

Joking aside, in the late 80’s I had a wonderful commission from the Sunday Times magazine to work with the writer Norman Lewis on a story about the isolated villages of Northern Spain as part of a series “The Last of The Old Europe”. I mainly shot colour in those days but thought it could work in black and white so I brought 20 odd rolls along, as well as the masses of colour film.

Norman had already been to the area but I was following his routes, on my own. He was very excited on the phone before I left and sent me pages of notes on interesting places and people to visit. As soon as I arrived I realised black & white was the only way to shoot this story.. to give it the sense of being the last days of an earlier time. The story in the magazine, which I shot in about a week, ran over 15 pages and was later taken up by lots of other magazines including Life in the USA. The grainy BW images suddenly looked exotic against the sea of slicker colour lifestyle pieces that filled the magazines: they had a raw, melodramatic, ‘other’ quality perfectly reflecting a rapidly disappearing way of life.

By chance during the last few weeks I have been looking through the work for a small book and was astonished to see first, just how blurred and contrasty so many pictures were, and secondly, how at the time of editing and submitting the images, I was so looking for the ‘money shot’ …magazine melodrama and double page spreads… that I had missed the quieter, more story-telling images that have emerged to the older me after four decades. Here are these new re-discovered images.

Q : Any final thoughts on the subject, how have your views of photography matured over the years?

A : I was probably more pushy when I was young. I really wanted to change the world and believed photography could do it. I was less worried about photographing strangers in the street, bobbing and diving, believing I was invisible. Things have changed through the growth of the internet, the world has shrunk, there is more concern about how the pictures will be used.

I think as I have got older I have just as much ambition. The difference is that when I was young the ambition was for success, fame, money, love, etc. whereas now it’s just to take great images (” just one more”!) and to be able to keep walking long enough to find them!

Barry and his wife Hannah in the South of France.

Barry is a true raconteur. His responses to my questions ran to twice the length I have extracted here ! So many wonderful anecdotes – such as lending his car to William Klein while on assignment in LA- that I have unfortunately had to leave out, for lack of space. His story shows that each photographer has their own journey to make, a mixture of talent, luck, chance encounters, perseverance. Creativity ebbs and flows, and each step along that path should be appreciated in its own right.

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