In spring of this year I decided to enter an international photography competition, which was offering a multitude of prizes as well as opportunities for exhibition and online exposure. The bait of industry recognition and a professional career boost, at a time of pandemic isolation and dwindling work was difficult to resist.
The competition theme being very broad, I simply resolved to select ten of my best street photography images. Although I was not presenting a “ series” as such, I aimed nonetheless to show coherence and an overall recognizable vision. I whittled down my choice to 15 colour shots, including some recent pictures (as below) as I wanted to prove (mainly to myself) that I was up to date and offering something new and fresh.
In order to finalise the selection, I solicited the advice of a friend and colleague whose judgement I trust implicitly. Having started the process on the selection provided, she then asked why I had not included certain black & white photographs which she was particularly fond of.
I retorted that these were old pictures, taken 30 years back and therefore in my eyes no longer relevant. Not true, she re-affirmed, these are your best shots. Just because you’ve lived with them for so long, does not mean you cannot present them anew to a judging panel that has never seen them before. I followed her reasoning, and even though my entry was not rewarded, I do not regret the decision.
Six months on, I’ve decided to delve a little further into the matter. Are these black and white photographs, shot on film, really my best pictures or is my friend’s affection for these images, just some misplaced nostalgia for the styles of a bygone era (given that her career has been almost exclusively a digital one)?
I certainly don’t disown these pictures. Far from it: I am proud that they have stood the test of time and delighted that they continue to attract new admirers today.
THE VITALITY OF YOUTH
The real question for me is whether there is some unique spark and freshness to one’s early work, that is never really reproduced later on in a professional career. I am reminded indeed of Woody Allen’s semi-autobiographical character in the film ”Stardust Memories”, who is constantly trying to assert his new arthouse credentials, while his fans exclaim “ we prefer your funnier, early movies”.
There is no doubt that when I started out in my early twenties, I was completely enthralled by the magic of the whole photographic process. I had few references, and enjoyed an almost childlike excitement of going out and trying to capture a bit of the world within the four corners of my viewfinder. I loved spending hours in the darkroom, my hands deep in chemicals, trying get the best out of each day’s haul.
I was excited about each new discovery. Inspired by a Winogrand exhibition, I spent the next six months making regular trips to London Zoo, hoping to emulate the charm of his pictures in New York.
Dare I say it, having spent so much of my life up to this point pursuing academic excellence, I found this new photographic path came to me quite easily and instinctively.
Barely 2 years out of university, I was suddenly the recipient of the David Hodge jury prize, organized by The Observer, for a set of pictures taken of a steam railway in North Wales.
Buoyed by this early success, I embarked on other social and documentary projects, trying to learn the trade and build a body of work that I could then tout to influential figures in the business. I saw picture editors of national dailies and while my portfolio was somewhat naïvely assembled, I generally received positive feedback.
Armed with my pictures of refugees newly arrived in London from the war zones of Sri Lanka and Bosnia, among others, I then set up a meeting with Network Photographers, a UK agency established along the lines of Magnum.
Again there was appreciation of my pictures and encouragement to produce more and come back later; when the projects had progressed and matured. I never did go back. Somehow I lacked the courage and drive to kick on. I sidelined into other work, less challenging.
It has taken me three decades to rediscover something of that original wonder and excitement about the whole medium. A desire to learn anew and pick up new challenges. While I accept that this early work has a unique quality, I am confident that many of my best photographs are still to come.
So though there may be some truth in the assertion that one’s initial creative output has an energy that is rarely matched, each photographer’s views will be shaped by their own personal and professional life story.
BARRY LEWIS – A CAREER SPANNING FIVE DECADES
To get a more objective overview of the question I therefore sought the opinions of Barry Lewis, one of Network agency’s founders and a photographer who has definitely been round the block. A World Press Oskar Barnard award to his name, regular commissions for National Geographic and other prestigious magazines, as well as notable forays into filmmaking, Barry has never rested on his laurels. He continues with drive and passion beyond his 70th birthday and is currently shooting, among other projects, an assignment on London lockdown – begun of course back in March when Covid-19 first disrupted normal life.
With such vast experience to draw on, Barry has many thought-provoking and insightful comments to make about the subject of creative energy, and the different stages of a photographer’s career. The full in-depth interview to follow next week.