From Glass Plates To Digital: 60 Years As A Street Photographer

John Spencer has been a Street Photographer for longer than many of us, here is some of his work and some of his hard earned wisdom during his 60 years as a Street Photographer.

Please tell us about yourself?

I have been very lucky to have been employed in photography for most of my life. After a couple of Summer seasons in a Kodak processing laboratory as a printer, I managed to obtain employment in 1955 with a professional photographer, Ken Bastien, on the Isle of Wight. His studio camera was a very heavy Thornton Pickard Ruby Reflex using quarter plates for most work.

I was told the secret art of putting the plates in the dark-slides the right way up. The emulsion sticks to moistened lips while the glass side doesn’t. The camera had a massive 8 inch f2.9 lens by Dallymeyer which more than covered the large format used. Some time later I went on to photographic school and learned about the nuts and bolts of photography.

I am now retired and still taking photographs every day. The buzz of excitement when I capture an image has never left me.

What inspired your photography?

I was inspired by a museum catalogue during a trip to Israel about 1958. I was on a photo-shoot with David Bailey, not the famous photographer but one with the same name though. We were covering the tenth anniversary of the State of Israel celebrations.

The catalogue I had purchased earlier in Tel-Aviv was from an exhibition titled ‘The Family of Man’ opening during January 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition travelled the world for some eight years at least. Looking at this publication changed all my ideas about photography and what direction I intended to take.

In Jerusalem I had a free afternoon and loaded a new roll of film. Wow, twelve exposures to use, needs some thought all that film! I took the full roll of film and on the contact sheet I’ve managed to obtain at least two really good ‘street photography’ images. The die was cast, I now had a mission.

What lesson or philosophy have you learned or still rings true 60 years later?

I suppose the lesson I have learned over the years is to be observant and if possible involve yourself with the situations that are happening as you watch.

Keep calm, keep on taking photographs at all times, think invisible, think invisible again, people are more concerned about their private conversations and thoughts rather than the wanderings and observations of a street photographer.

How do you define good street photography?

My ideas change about what is good street photography all the time. I have several favourite photographers from years ago and was recently surprised that I was operating in the same place and time as Marcel Bovis and Robert Dosineau in Paris during the 1960’s as well as the well known Henri Cartier Bresson.

I’m not too happy about some street photography that is all about long lenses and more like outdoor studio work coupled with excessive contrast. HDR and street photography, well it’s just not on. I just can’t see what motivates some photographers to fill their ‘Flickr’ pages with every single image they take, even family pictures.

Did you see this standard evolve during the years?

The standard of street photography has improved technically over the years. Now it is possible for anyone that’s interested in photography with a reasonable camera, given the right location and subject to produce excellent results.

This is reflected by the stunning images in InspiredEye magazine. My favourite street photographers at the present moment are the Swiss photographer from Zug, Thomas Leuthard, having had a front cover of Inspired Eye recently. Another favourite is the French photographer Rudolphe Sebbah and the man from Dublin, Peter O’Doherty.

Another very ‘quirky’ photographer I like is Ilan Ben Yehuda. There are so many to choose from, I see someone new every day.

Any advice for novice shooters?

Novice shooters are really lucky that recent advances in technology have helped them to achieve excellent results. Some people ‘rave’ about Henri Cartier Bresson and his Leica and how he used a 50 mm lens for most of his work. In in a publication he said that he couldn’t afford a wide angle lens until much later in his career and had to use a 50mm lens for all his work.

I used a Leica for years and it was very easy to operate but loading the film was tricky, also the viewfinder was a very small aperture in the rear. On the plus side there was nothing really to compare with the Leica at the time, being a very small and compact camera. It was easy to operate with one hand while talking to the subjects.

My advice for novice shooters is to keep it simple, with both equipment and technique. I go out with a camera and two of three SD cards with two batteries, that’s all I need for a day. No need for masses of equipment and gadget bags or a wheelbarrow. Just your pockets.

Any closing comments?

The present moment I have the theory that backgrounds are the answer to everything. Given a really good background all you need is a subject to wander by, even if it takes for ever. I have tried this out in theory recently but not in the field. I picked a large City, I used Paris and the Michelin fold up street map. I scanned the map in about thirty parts, giving me a good scale images to work with.

I had a good look at the map and noted the interesting infrastructure, steps, flyovers, open markets, canals, railroads, bridges and I used Metro and railway stations as well. I then put the little ‘Google Man’ in the street view mode, aptly named and had a virtual trip around my chosen area.

I discovered lots of very interesting backgrounds and by means of ‘screen shots’ collected the images. These I can look at before making a photographic excursion and gives me possible locations to use.

Quote by Wayne Gretzky a Canadian hockey player, really sums everything up. “You always miss 100% of the shots you didn’t take”

Inspired Eye is the premier resource for all things street photography. See the guide here:

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