On the Edge: Conversations with Tony Cearns. By Knut Skjærven

“I also think that some of the best street photographs are quiet and initially unassuming. It’s like when a small photograph on a large gallery wall subtly draws you nearer to look more closely – that feeling. They invite rather than shout.”


© Tony Cearns

Knut Skjærven:
We have known each other for some years now. I was always impressed with the energy you put into what I would call street photography. What is it that you find interesting with street photography?

Tony Cearns:
Yes, I used to rush around like a blue-arsed fly. I would think nothing of walking 30 kilometres and taking 600 images in a day. Film photography has cured me of that!

Quite simply, I am drawn to street photography because of its story-telling possibilities.

There is the obvious story that we tell ourselves when we look at a scene within a frame. I call this the ‘surface story’. Street photography is powerful because it re-presents situations outside their actual contexts.  John Szarkowski’s celebrated essay in his book “The Photographer’s Eye” talks about ‘the unexpected vantage point … [giving] the sense of the scene, while withholding its narrative meaning.’ The inherent ambiguity, (perhaps not going quite as far as Joel Sternfeld’s ‘convincing lies’), opens up story-telling opportunities and gives rise to works like Wim Wenders “Once” or Stephen Leslie’s crowd-funded project “Sparks”.

But there is also, for those who care to ponder such things, a ‘deep story’ that arises from the phenomenological status of a photograph and the nature of aesthetic experience. Writers such as Roland Barthes and Derrida have written about such things. The main thing to say here is that the relationships between photographer and scene, between the surface story of the street photograph and the deep story we think about ourselves, tell us something about the nature of what experience is. Good street photography is good at sparking off such thoughts. 

Knut Skjærven:
How do you define street photography?

Tony Cearns:
It’s straightforward for me. A street photograph should be a single photograph (i.e. not a composite) of one or more persons taken in a public place in a candid way. The essence of street photography is that it should be uncontrived, taking in only what is presented, and not adding things that are not there or taking away things that are there. A purist would disallow cropping, but I don’t go that far.

So this definition would disallow for example radical photo-shopping, photographs empty of people, photographs taken in the home and posed or acted photographs.

© Tony Cearns

Knut Skjærven:

You recently acquired a Leica M-A. The Leica M-A is a 100 per cent manual camera. You don’t even have a light meter to support you. You need a certain knowledge and experience to use it.

I know that you also own digital M. This gives two very different approaches to street photography. What is it that fascinates you with the M-A?  I see you use that more than you use the digital M.

Tony Cearns:

Firstly, I predominantly use film as I like to retain mastery over the process of producing a photograph, from conception through to printing in a darkroom. I like the fact that the process is slow and open to the unforeseen – an element of chance. I like the fact that it is analogue – things judged in terms of millilitres, lumens, minutes, degrees Celsius and so on, the things that I can physically relate to because they are a part of me. The expressive use of analogue equipment and materials feels natural to me. Exploring the relationships between exposure, film, developer, dilution, temperature, time and agitation affords a sense of ‘ownership’ of the final photograph in a way that digital can’t easily reproduce. No doubt producing a beautiful digital picture can be satisfying, but the black-box nature of the equipment and its software, intervening between the moment of shutter release and the final image, robs the photographer of something precious: deep participation.

Digital leaves me feeling like a bystander. It seems to alienate us from the means of production rather than help embody photography as part of an extension to ourselves. I don’t knock digital processing, I still shoot digitally; I just prefer playing with silver and light. It’s just personal preference.

Secondly, I have always liked rangefinder cameras. My father taught me on his Zeiss Contessa 35 rangefinder in the early 1960s in Rio de Janeiro. He would quiz me on what aperture/shutter speeds to use as we walked down the road. I particularly like their bright optical view-finders which help you to see what is approaching the frame. So you would have one eye out of the frame, so to speak, and one in the frame, one eye on the subject and one eye on the world – useful for street photography.

Finally, I like that the M-A is very simple. The only choices you have are: film, focus, shutter-speed and lens aperture. That’s it. As you say, there is no light meter and so no ISO setting. It couldn’t be simpler could it? Of course, your brain has to be your light-meter. But light is our stock-in-trade and your eye is far more discriminating than any light-meter if you train it. So I like using my brain in this way. Of course, I get it wrong from time to time. 

Knut Skjærven:
By the way, what is so special about Leica?

Tony Cearns:
Well, I could talk about the engineering of the 35mm Leica, or the quality of the lenses or the heritage of the brand and so on. But in truth, my reason is more personal. In the 1960s my father introduced me to the photography of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. We used to look at their pictures together. So, I knew about Leicas from a young age. Then when I was 17 years old, I saved up some money and went to a second hand camera shop in Trafalgar Square in London to buy an M3. This was many years before the internet, so I had no idea what they cost. I think I had £15, which was all I had in those days. But I was shocked to find that I needed £125. I walked away empty-handed and empty-hearted. So, when I finally had enough money to afford one, I bought one – mainly in memory of my Dad, who would have loved to own one all those years ago in Rio de Janeiro.

© Tony Cearns

Knut Skjærven:
What ambitions do you have for your street photography? Is there any project that you are working on that you would reveal?

Tony Cearns:

Well, I have not been taking street photographs for very long – about 5 years or so. It has actually taken me 4 years to be clear about what I am trying to achieve. In that time I have gone through a few phases looking for certain things such as eccentric people, minimalist scenes, window reflections, street signs and so on. I got caught up in what is known as “I get it” photographs – photographs that combine aspects of a scene that creates an “Aha moment”; for example, an old man walking under a shop sign that says “old geezers”. We have all done this kind of thing I’m sure and I think these phases are necessary steps in learning how to look.
© Tony Cearns

But I wanted to get beyond these “I get it” photographs. I wanted something more subtle. “I get it” photographs got boring. I think the most powerful street photographs show some psychological or social truth. They have a strong underlying narrative – Tony Ray-Jones’s work on social class, for example, or Gus Powell’s exploration of spaces between people.

I also think that some of the best street photographs are quiet and initially unassuming. It’s like when a small photograph on a large gallery wall subtly draws you nearer to look more closely – that feeling. They invite rather than shout.

So I started to incorporate Gestalt principles into my compositions in order to find an underlying form that presents a whole from its parts, something I have learned a great deal about from your workshops. The whole becomes “other than its parts” – (a phrase often misquoted as “greater than its parts”). You have written at length on this matter. This is an on-going effort.

Now I am trying to take street photographs within a ‘fine art’ context. I select a place and try to compose its poetry. The “decisive moment’ is not what I am about. I prefer to think in terms of ‘aesthetic moments’.

I take my empty white frame and try to fill it with silver. I look for shapes and spaces and relationships that entice me in and build the stage for the narrative. The aesthetic appeal of the view is very important for me, whether it be beautiful or ugly. Once I have built the stage I look for people passing through that pose questions about the relationships of those people to those surroundings. Obviously, it’s very different to the spontaneous approach that characterises most modern street photography. But there is still a big element of chance involved in getting people into the frame in such a way that they and their backgrounds synergise each other. Days can go by before I even take a photograph. Sometimes for a particular location it never comes.

My main inspirations lie in those Landscape and Portrait photographers who are exceptionally good in the use of space – for example, Sugimoto, Richard Avedon, Jonathan Critchley. There is much to learn from them.

So it’s early days. I will not be publishing any of these photographs until I am satisfied that I have a portfolio that stands together as one.

Knut Skjærven:

Do you have any heroes within street photography? Photographers who have inspired you and will continue to inspire you. Reasons why please.

Tony Cearns:

In terms of street, of course Cartier-Bresson appears at the top of the list. I get lost in his photographs. They draw me in and then quite a lot later, spit me out again! Each photograph has the quality of a movie-film.

I like some of Alex Webb’s photographs – his use of colour and his control over lots of activity within a frame, a form of maximalism, are difficult things to pull off.

And a particular favourite of mine is Tony Ray-Jones who was himself greatly influenced by Robert Frank.  Ray-Jones didn’t till new soil – he planted where others had already ploughed, people like Cartier-Bresson, Frank, Brassai and Brandt. But what he did very successfully was to explore the contradictory symbols that constitute social class. And he did this in a very humanistic way. It goes back to what I have already referred to – the use of street photography to uncover psychological or social truths, to imbue street photography with meaning.

For me, street photography is not a game in finding ever more sensational images. There is a quiet form of street photography that works with an altogether different rhythm, which conveys meaning not through the antics of its subjects but as a result of different facets of the photograph working in sympathy with each other. But you yourself know this well.
Knut Skjærven:
Apart from photographers, could you point to specific photographs that you find particularly excellent?

Tony Cearns:
Three photographs come to mind straight away:

Tony Ray-Jones’s photograph “Beachy Head”, about which I have written. Its composition tells a powerful external story which also invokes an internal one.
© Tony Cearns

Cartier-Bresson’s image taken in Valencia in 1933 at a bull-ring; the one with a man in a hat wearing a monocle. This is HCB at his surrealist best.

Finally, a quiet photograph by an anonymous photographer taken c.1962 reproduced on page 74 in ‘London Street Photography 1860-2010’ published by Dewi Lewis.  It is of a simple scene with a man in a bowler hat and pipe flanked by a London bus with the Houses of Parliament as a backdrop through the London fog. It is beautifully composed, unassuming and ‘grows on you’ the more you look at it.

Knut Skjærven:

Are there any of your own street photographs that you particularly satisfied with? And why?

Tony Cearns:
I am not yet satisfied with my photographs. But there is one I would single out for its quietness.

© Tony Cearns

It might be argued that this kind of photograph has been done before, that it expresses nothing new. Well, yes, it has been done before but this argument misses the point as it does not follow therefore that it does not express something new. What is a ‘new’ thing anyway? This photograph is an example of the approach that I am adopting in setting an unknowing actor onto a predefined stage. Nothing new in that, of course. But new for me.
Tony Cearns Biography:
Tony Cearns has worked as a waiter, a packer, a salesman, a soldier, a teacher, an accountant, a company finance director, an operations director, an auditor, a counter-fraud and security consultant, a change management consultant, a financial services governance director and an outsourcing consultant. He has served on the board of directors of a stock stock exchange quoted food business, a college of further education, a financial services business and a photography festival company.

He is glad to have left all this behind and now spends his time thinking about thinking, fly-fishing on remote streams, making photographs and writing about it. His written work can be read at his blog at ‘mystreet’.

He is currently engaged on a Masters programme in Philosophy and is a member of the Aristotelian Society.
Knut Skjærven is a Norwegian photographer, blogger and researcher in visual communication. He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. He runs, among many others things, New Street Agenda, where the full interview was originally posted.

Read the full interview: On the Edge. Conversations with Tony Cearns.

Copenhagen, October 26, 2016.

© Knut Skjærven: The Interview.

© Tony Cearns: Photographs.

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