Caught by the River

Garson Byer. In a Lonely Place

18th March 2011

Garson Byer. In a Lonely Place :: London Exhibit @ The Social, London W1, 28th March 2011 until end of June

After seeing some of the work I was doing with Herb Lester Associates (particularly the review of London country outfitters Farlows), fishing fanatic and Heavenly Recordings founder Jeff Barrett invited me to show some of my work at The Social, the bar & club that he and his colleagues run near Oxford Circus.

Of course, I was really happy to be asked, especially as The Social is right in the middle of my long term hunting ground for street photography. I’ve taken images in many places and many countries around the world but London (and Oxford Street in particular) has been a recurring theme for me for the last twenty odd years.

The images I chose for the exhibit were all shot between 1991 and 1993, mostly with the Leica M6 I bought from the proceeds of a few months working in Milan on a never-to-be-produced screenplay commission. During the time I was in Milan I shot a lot of images with my Minox 35GTE, a camera so tiny for the time (pre digital P&S cameras) that I was able to shoot close to people without them reacting to the camera. I think sometimes people expected it would squirt water. I found myself developing a distinct style, both in the subject matter and the way I shot.

When I returned to London I invested in a new Leica M6 and set about continuing the style I’d developed with the Minox. People were more aware of this larger camera (still considered unobtrusive, but huge after the Minox) and the results were photographs where the subject often looks back at me intensely as the image is taken (as in the photo above Man Reading, Shaftesbury Avenue).

In 1994 I sold the Leica to fund my move to Brazil. Film and chemicals were really expensive in Rio and processing too. In London I’d had a home darkroom, in Rio it wasn’t possible. If I’m honest, mortal danger in the streets of Rio was also a factor, especially after being held up at gunpoint by a gang of ten year olds whilst on my way to a photo shoot at the Circo Voador, a outdoor venue in the then lethal Lapa district. A number of friends were shot, maimed and killed during those years in random street violence and street photography didn’t seem worth being murdered for.

Horse Loose on Council Estate, Bethnal Green

Work and play in the music industry took over my life and the photography gradually tailed off. In the mid 90s the internet was in its infancy and I was working on the world’s first system for digital downloads of music but putting photography online didn’t really occur to me then. However, those original negatives stayed with me everywhere I moved.

Years later, back in London and having eventually ‘cured’ myself of a life in the music business, I knew that I needed another creative outlet to keep me sane. A recommendation by Kang Leong, a food blogging friend of my wife’s, that she should buy a small Leica for her food photography, led me to mention to him that I had a lot of negatives from when I shot in the streets years before. I hadn’t really told anyone about the street photography I had done in the past but the trip to buy that Leica quickly led me to buy a digital Leica M8.2. This in turn got me digging out my original negatives and start scanning them. I even bought a film Leica (as did Kang after our many discussions) and another Minox GTE (which these days is no longer such a tiny camera!) and started developing 35mm film at home again.

In the last couple of years it’s been photography that has kept me alive, creatively. Unlike the film or music business, the photographer can work entirely alone, and doesn’t need to compromise. Twenty years ago the outlet for photographers working in their own style was extremely limited outside of fashion or advertising (and not much real freedom there either) but something made me keep the negatives I’d shot carefully stored and indexed.

Now, years later they have developed something beyond any qualities they may have had back then. It’s hard to tell when many of the shots were taken, which decade in some cases, let alone which year. I’ve always been obsessed with the past (not specifically mine, but history in general) and always been fascinated by elements that are left from another time, as if the tide went out and left a rockpool behind. It’s a pet peeve of mine when art directors work on movies or TV series set in the past they seem to believe that everything was brand new in say, 1960, when the reality was that most people would have dressed in outdated fashions, most cars would have been 15 to 20 years old, and the style inside people’s homes would have been mostly pre-war. It’s this rockpool effect that I love and many of my photographs document people, things, or both that look out of context at the time. This still holds true today. Amongst all the modern elements of 2011 that get picked up when shooting in the street, it’s still possible to find those characters from another time and, if only for a moment, be confused as to when the photograph was taken.

What is interesting to me is that when looking at the images I gathered together for the book to accompany the exhibit, a lot of people had trouble telling the ‘modern’ images from some of the vintage ones. Sure, there are tell tale signs, like 0207 phone numbers or ads on buses, carrier bags for modern stores etc, and experts will spot the digital images from the film scans, but generally there is a clear stylistic lineage between the photos from twenty years ago and those of the last few years.

It’s great that some of these vintage London street photography images are now being displayed in public for the first time.

The exhibit is at The Social, 5 Little Portland St, London W1W 7JD (020 7636 4992) and launches on 28th March with a party and a vintage jazz soundtrack from music that inspired the images.

Please email if you’d like to attend and we’ll put your names on the list.

There will also be a photo book In A Lonely Place :: London available on the night and from this website afterwards. The book contains over 70 images from the last 20 years or so, all shot in London.

Exhibition prints sponsored by Metro Imaging.