Richard Jinman: A Look at English Life

Born in London and raised in Chandler’s Ford in southern England, Richard Jinman studied English Literature and had a long and distinguished career as a print journalist in Australia and the UK before his early interest in photography was rekindled as a passion about six years ago. He’s currently working on a photo book documenting contemporary English life inspired by Ian Berry’s classic, “The English” published in the mid-1970s.

Q: What camera equipment do you use?

A: I use a Leica M9 (recently traded for a younger M9-P) and 35 mm and 50 mm f/2 Summicron lenses.

Q: What particular features or characteristics of the Leica M9 (or your recently acquired M9-P) do you find especially useful in your kind of photojournalistic work? Do you believe, as many have stated, that Leica lenses have a distinctive or identifiable way of rendering the image — the so-called “Leica look”?

A: I don’t think you can overstate the importance of the Leica M9 camera’s (or M9-P’s) diminutive, unthreatening form. In an age when big DSLRs are synonymous with press intrusion, the Leica’s quiet shutter and retro aesthetic provoke the minimum amount of interest from wary subjects. I also love the simplicity of the M cameras and the way they force you to focus on the essential elements of photography rather than over-finessing exposures in a way that can make you miss the moment. On the subject of lenses, I certainly notice that the Summicron lenses produce distinctive images compared to, say, a Canon DSLR, but how much of that look is due to the CCD sensor and how much is the lens is hard for me to say. I love the Summicrons because they are tiny and they are pin-sharp at f2.

Q: Can you provide us some background on the portfolio you submitted?

A: About two years ago I returned to the UK after living in Australia for 20 years. I felt I was seeing England with fresh eyes and a book that was very important to me at the time was Magnum photographer Ian Berry’s 1970s photo book “The English”. He spent much of 1975 traveling up and down England taking pictures of English people in hospitals, factories, at dances, art exhibitions, etc. I emailed Berry to tell him how inspirational his work was and he suggested I could follow a similar path. 2015 will mark 40 years since Berry took his pictures so I’m hoping to have a similar survey ready by then.

Q: Can you tell us how Ian Berry and “The English” influenced you and what stood out for you about this book?

A: What I loved about “The English” – besides the beauty of the stark, grainy black-and-white images – was that it reminded me of a world that was half familiar. I was only 12 in 1975, but I can recall something of the drabness of ’70s England. I also think the way Berry’s images managed to say so much about class, manners, and the English character is extraordinary. In some ways the country is radically different now; in others it is very much the same.

Q: What are some of the changes in English society that you noted with fresh eyes after having lived in Australia for 20 years? Also what do you feel are some of the enduring characteristics of the English way of life that have pretty much remained the same?

A: From a photographic perspective, the most important change is ease of access, or rather the lack of it. Berry wandered in and out of hospitals, schools and other institutions, shooting whomever and whatever he wanted. That would be almost impossible nowadays, partly because of the rise of the ubiquitous media/PR department and privacy laws and partly because people are inherently more suspicious of cameras and photographers. In terms of English society, I think it’s clear that the harsh class divisions captured by Berry have softened to some extent. They haven’t disappeared, of course; neither has the gulf between rich and poor, an aspect of English society that I have yet to explore in any meaningful way.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography?

A: Firstly, I think it’s important to see photography as a form with a history, albeit a relatively short one. I find great inspiration in a photographer like August Sander, for example, and regularly look at his work. For my own work, I like photographs to be (mostly, but not always) the result of an interaction with the subject. It means more to me as a journalist and a photographer if I’ve spent some time understanding the people I’m photographing. The most useful thing about spending years as a journalist is that I’m completely comfortable approaching strangers and asking to photograph them. It’s not that I’m wildly gregarious or outgoing (I’m not), but when I want to photograph people I’ll do just about anything to persuade them to sit for me.

Q: A number of the most compelling images in this portfolio were evidently taken at an amusement park or carnival. Were they all shot in the same area and can you please comment about what you were seeking to convey about that environment, people’s experience of it, and English society in general?

A: I have sought out funfairs and carnivals partly because they seem quintessentially English and partly because Berry found inspiration in them. One of the pictures was taken at Winter Wonderland, an annual event held in London’s Hyde Park, where traditional attractions like ghost trains and dodgem cars draw families from across the capital. Funfairs are gaudy and raucous, qualities not usually associated with the English. As such, they’re a chance to see reserved Anglo Saxons letting their hair down, dropping their sense of decorum and simply having fun.

Q: “Elvis” is an engagingly animated but enigmatic image that is at once funny and disturbing. What’s going on here, and what does this image mean to you?

A: These Elvi (Is that the plural of Elvis?) were dancing at a street festival in Soho, central London. They were dancing to a DJ who was playing heavily dubbed reggae, not exactly the sounds you’d expect ‘The King’ to get down to. Since I took that picture I’ve seen them at other music events. They appear to be three genuine English eccentrics who simply like dressing up as Elvis and dancing in public. I like to imagine that they’re friends who get dressed up together and take the bus to whatever event takes their fancy.

Q: If there is any image in this portfolio that embodies the continuity of English culture it’s “Glyndebourne”. The wine bottles, classic wicker basket, teapot, white cloth tablecloth and serviettes, are all classic touches. Where did you ever find these people and what’s the story behind this nostalgic and amusing image?

A: I shot at Glyndebourne specifically because two of the most memorable images in Berry’s book were taken there. For the uninitiated, Glyndebourne is a stately home in England that hosts an annual opera festival. The audience members wear tuxedos and ball gowns and eat picnics in the gardens during the intermission. I asked the couple in the picture if I could take their picture because I was at a private event. They agreed and I let them get back to their lunch before starting to shoot. Glyndebourne is one example when the pictures taken in 2014 could easily have been taken in 1975 (or vice versa). Another of Berry’s pictures shows musicians from the orchestra playing croquet during the intermission, a tradition that continues to this day.

Q: “Snow Runner” is a beautiful image that perfectly captures a moment in time. It is almost monochromatic but the verdigris on the Victorian streetlight and railing, and the skin tone of the subject’s extended hand, enhance the effectiveness and visceral sense of reality conveyed by the falling snow and boot marks on the snow-covered ground. Where was this lovely image taken and what’s the story behind it?

A: Thanks very much. The picture was taken at Alexandra Palace in North London. I’d been inside taking photographs of visitors to a model train exhibition and as I got ready to leave it began to snow. As I stood in the entrance of the Palace working out how I was going to get home a young boy saw the fresh snow, whooped with delight and began running in front of my camera. The snow was undisturbed so his feet left fresh marks and as I pressed the shutter he jumped and turned to yell out to his father. It’s capturing moments like this that make photography so utterly compelling.

Q: “Up To Nature” is a striking and powerful image of considerable psychological depth. The young man and woman in the foreground are clearly interested in each other and the young boy and girl in the background (at right) are clearly interested in exploring the world of nature. It’s like the juxtaposition of two of Shakespeare’s “The Seven Ages of Man.” What does this image say to you, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: The situation was slightly surreal because it occurred at a performance art festival in the countryside called Up to Nature. The woman in the red dress was preparing to be hoisted into the tree. Once there she read pages of poetry before attaching each page to a string that winched them back to the ground. The composition fascinated me because the man and woman are clearly collaborators in the midst of a deep conversation while the two children are exploring their environment free of any concerns about safety or the impact of their performance. The colors are important too: red and black for the adults, red and white for the children. They seem almost codified against the sea of green nettles. I love pictures that are mysterious, that are open to interpretation.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years and do you have any other projects in the works you can talk about, or any other locations or identifiable groups you plan to document?

A: I’ve recently returned from a trip to Calais, France where I interviewed and photographed some of the thousands of migrants who are trying to stow away aboard a truck or ferry to make it to the UK. I also had a chilling encounter with the 20-year-old leader of the far-right anti-migrant group, Sauvons Calais. I want to do more of these projects: clearly defined exercises where words and pictures combine to tell a story. In commercial terms, they’re a hard sell, because journalists don’t traditionally take pictures and vice versa. I suspect there’s an assumption that you either do one of these things badly, or both. That doesn’t dissuade me, however, because I love the process.

Q: Have you considered exploring other genres such as landscapes, fine art abstractions, or architecture? And since your work appears to focus primarily on people, have you ever considered, or actually done, portraiture?

A: I think I’m a terrible landscape photographer (wonky horizontals!) and buildings aren’t my thing. I’m fascinated by people – a cliché, but true – and can’t imagine photographing anything else. I took a portraiture course at Central Saint Martins in London and really enjoyed it. But once again, formal portraiture is not as exciting to me as the idea of taking pictures of people out and about in the world.

Thank you for your time, Richard!

– Leica Internet Team

Connect with Richard on his website.

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