Faces of Our Times – Photographer Niall McDiarmid’s striking street portraits

tumblr_nk2vnn3OTX1qcwypwo1_1280

Faces Of Our Times – Niall McDiarmid’s striking street portraits show off the best of London and all its diversity


The life of an artist is a long and difficult row to hoe. Niall McDiarmid has been working as a photographer for over 20 years, largely for print publications. Recently, McDiarmid published two books Via Vauxhall (2015) and Crossing Paths (2013) that both feature portraits of people he has photographed on Britain’s streets.

McDiarmid seems to revel in capturing his subjects’ style, confidence and sartorial elegance. To coincide with Fashion Week in London, Vogue Magazine assigned McDiarmid to make portraits of young, dapper, diverse residents of London.

Hertford Street, Coventry - March 2012
Hertford Street, Coventry — March 2012. From Crossing Paths © Niall McDiarmid

Publishing books and Vogue aren’t career moments that emerge overnight. It would be nice to say McDiarmid has gone from dungarees to Dolce & Gabbana; but the truth of the matter reads more like from dungarees to Dickies. Putting subjects as ease and making piercing portraits is a lot of hard work. Here, McDiarmid gives us the scoop on his methods, motives and thoughts as he pounds the pavement.

 

Via Vauxhall, London - 2013/2014
From Via Vauxhall © Niall McDiarmid

Q&A

Cary Benbow (CB): Over your career, and as you’ve grown personally and professionally, have you tailored your work to seek out specific jobs or work — or has the work found you?

Niall McDiarmid (NM): In my teens and early twenties, I sent short news stories to local newspapers and free sheets in Scotland, where I grew up. After I left university, where I studied engineering, I got a full time job as a junior reporter working in trade magazines. I travelled around the UK writing stories, mostly on agriculture and the environment. After a year or so of this, I started to supply photographs to go with the stories. From there I returned to college to study photojournalism for a year.

I’ve worked freelance for magazines and book publishers, since then. I can’t speak for others but I’ve always found making a living from freelance photography tough, so generally I’ve taken whatever jobs I can get. I even photographed someone’s cat once as a commission. Oh, and a dog. It tried to bite me. It’s a long story.

Niall McDiarmid
From Via Vauxhall © Niall McDiarmid

CB: What do you feel makes a successful portrait?

NM: A connection between the viewer and the people in the photograph. If the photographer can add his or her own distinctive style that usually makes the photograph more memorable or successful.

CB: Why do you think people like to look at pictures of people?

NM: I think it’s a basic human trait, most people are interested in other people and a portrait is a way to explore that curiosity — the places we live, our cultural backgrounds, the clothes we wear, our family ties.

Walthamstow Town Square, East London - Dec' 2015
Walthamstow Town Square, East London – Dec’ 2015

CB: Your career has bridged the age of analogue photography dominance into the expansion of digital photography being the current standard. How do you choose to shoot digitally or work with film and film cameras?

 

NM: Most of the photographs I take every day are digital — on my phone, screen grabs, DSLR etc. Film photography is not a medium that suits the modern commercial and editorial photographer any more. Photo labs are few and far between and when images are needed quickly on a limited budget, the old system of developing film and scanning seldom works.

tumblr_mty9irqsJS1qcwypwo1_r1_1280

NM: However, I chose to shoot most of my personal work on film. It’s what I started using as a photographer and what I still get most satisfaction from using. It’s a slower, more considered process. I can also achieve colours with film that I can’t replicate in digital. I also don’t think I’ve fully explored the world of analogue film use yet, so I’ll keep shooting with it till I have.

Niall McDiarmid
From Via Vauxhall © Niall McDiarmid

McDiarmid’s photographic style can be described as ‘straight’, ‘documentary’ or even ‘street photography’. But make no mistake, McDiarmid’s stylistic approach often plays upon subtle use of color or pattern that is never arbitrary; it functions in highly sophisticated ways to connect elements and patterns in his subject’s clothing with their surroundings. In this manner, the people in his portraits are woven into the scene they occupy — an integral part of their surroundings.

As to this aspect of his work, McDiarmid says, “When I started the recent batch of portraits back in 2011, I didn’t have the intention of using colours as a base for the work. However after a few weeks, I realized that it was something I had an eye for. I began to see the way people’s clothing often matched or clashed with the colours that I found on high street shops or billboards and I tried where I could to combine these.”

Brushfield Street, London - April 2012
Brushfield Street, London — April 2012. © Niall McDiarmid

CB: The stereotypical “street photographer” aesthetic is often candid, brazen, and raw images. But your images are ones of inclusion, and not taken as if by a passive viewer. Many images have a connection that is perceived between you and your subjects… what do you feel makes your work stand apart?

NM: I’ve taken series of images that are not collaborative, ones that would be considered more conventional street photographs in the past, and I still shoot a lot of those. However, I like meeting people and if I can use that in a way to take portraits that are somewhat collaborative, so much the better.

Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea - June 2014
Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, London — June 2014

NM: When I’m taking the images, I’ll make maybe 2 or 3 shots maximum of each person. It has to be quick. I don’t want people to pose; just be as they come. A little apprehension, a little awkwardness and tension in the portrait often works for me. On a very good day I might photograph, 7 or 8 people. On a bad day, none. None is a bad day.

As regards to photography and uniqueness, I suppose there are plenty of photographers who have done work like me and will do in the future. Whether it is possible to pick out my photographs from the thousands produced every day is hard to say — hopefully a few might might stick out.

I suppose we all strive to have a unique style. Some photographers, artists… call it what you will… get there. Then I suppose editors and gallery owners call them up and say — ‘Oh, I love that thing you do, that ’style’ of work, that ’thing’. Can you do that for me?’ I’m sure plenty of those successful artists then say, ‘I’ve finished that style, can I do something different for you?’ But in the end, people want you to do what you got well known for — certainly for a period. I’m sure the smart ones know when to move on, carrying some of the old style with them and developing it into something new.

Church Alley, Liverpool - May 2013
Church Alley, Liverpool — May 2013. From Crossing Paths © Niall McDiarmid

NM: So uniqueness and my work? — I wouldn’t really know. I guess that’s for others to judge, but it occurred to me that maybe the most successful photographers or artists were the ones who had one simple idea that they stuck to through their whole career and managed to maintain an audience, keep people interested in the work throughout without ever deviating too far from their original path. Maybe in an age where there are so many new images being made, the artists who maintain a steady unwavering course are the real pioneers, the real groundbreakers. Who knows?

Couple, Peckham - 2013
Sumner Avenue, Peckham, South London — May 2013. © Niall McDiarmid

McDiarmid’s list of photography influences includes names such as Diane Arbus, Joel Sternfeld, Vanessa Winship, and British photographer Daniel Meadows. Whether it is the documentary work of Arbus, Daniel Meadow’s work from Living Like This: Around Britain in the Seventies, Richard Avedon’sIn the American West, Robert Frank’s The Americans, or Joel Sternfeld’sStranger Passing — all of these books, all of these photographers, helped define how we remember the people and culture of the times and places they photographed. Niall McDiarmid is no different. His projects have consistently explored the possibility of a collective identity by documenting ordinary people and places throughout the UK.

Rufus, Fitzrovia - Sept 2015
Rufus, From the series ‘A London Weekend’ — Fitzrovia © Niall McDiarmid

 


Two of McDiarmid’s long-term projects, Crossing Paths: A Portrait of Britain, and Via Vauxhall, were published in book format; in addition to publishing the work online in dedicated websites. Both projects are series of portraits made by McDiarmid in his encounters with people throughout the UK over the past five years or so, and specifically for Via Vauxhall in the area surrounding the Vauxhall neighborhood of London.

Via Vauxhall, London - 2013/2014
From Via Vauxhall © Niall McDiarmid

The portraits in his projects largely have no mention of the person’s name, unless included in McDiarmid’s comments. The images are titled minimally by a descriptor of where the portrait was taken. Bodfor Street, Rhyl, or High Street, Poole gives the viewer a marker in McDiarmid’s travels, but also a feeling of the documentary undertow.

Wayne Ford, the British designer and creative director, said in his review of ‘Crossing Paths’:

“The portraits that form ‘Crossing Paths’ make a fascinating and engaging survey of contemporary society in the United Kingdom in the early 21st century, that reflects the cultural vibrancy and ethnic diversity of the nation; and like the work of Meadows in the early 1970s, ‘Crossing Paths’ is a social document that stands to be a significant cultural marker of the times in which we live, both now and in the historical context to follow.”

McDiarmid, albeit humbly, has garnered major awards, including a prize for portraiture in the 2012 International Photography Awards for his Crossing Paths portraiture project. He has been asked to speak at numerous academic and professional lectures, and his work has been acquired by significant photo collections both private and public. The compliments even include a mention from one of McDiarmid’s own influences. In an interview coinciding with a retrospective of Daniel Meadows work, he was asked whose work inspired him as a student, and who inspires him now. Meadows listed past influences of Bruce Davidson, Josef Koudelka, and Sir John Benjamin Stone — and the short list of current inspirations included Niall McDiarmid’s portraits.

Via Vauxhall, London - 2013/2014
From Via Vauxhall © Niall McDiarmid

CB: How do you personally process the wide-spread attention your work has garnered? Has it changed the dynamic in your day-to-day?

NM: It’s incredibly hard as a freelance photographer to sustain a career over many years and it’s only getting harder. The money is very tight and there are days when you question your sanity and ask yourself, “What am I doing this for?” But after 25 years as a photographer, I have come to realise, it’s a large part of my life and probably always will be.

Jamie, Southbank, Waterloo - Sept 2015
Jamie, Southbank, Waterloo – Sept 2015

NM: One of the positives of the recent changes in photography is that those coming into the industry know from the start that it’s a challenging way to earn a living. Many photographers now have to earn a living doing something unrelated to taking pictures. In a way, that can be liberating experience, particularly where personal projects are concerned. In the past, I think there was a tendency for photographers to create a series of personal work with a view to how it might be used commercially, maybe in a magazine. Now, although the money is much reduced, the internet has given us all the freedom to do as we like without worrying so much about where the images might be used.

Jessica Road, London - April 2011
Jessica Road, London — April 2011. From Crossing Paths © Niall McDiarmid

NM: I am glad that people enjoy following my journey, but as regards to wide-spread attention, I wouldn’t know. I try to just keep going, keep getting out as often as I can. My life feels like a chaotic mix of chasing around after my children, shooting my personal work and trying to earn a living as best I can — mostly very badly. Professional is not a word I associate with myself too often, but I hope to be professional one day! With so much new photography out there and so many outlets: ­galleries, magazines, newspapers and online — it is increasingly hard to get your work recognised. That’s why I try hard to carve out a style that people can relate to. Hopefully, I’ve gone some way to achieving that. The next challenge for me is to sustain that work and continue to develop it.

Niall McDiarmid
Boys by Three Kings Pond, Mitcham, South London — Dec. 2014 © Niall McDiarmid

CB: The people and the locales in your portrait work have the common aesthetic of your eye and your style, but the people you photograph are very diverse. Is there a shift in the types of people and communities you’ve encountered over the years?

NM: I’m interested in changing population, changing communities, and multiculturalism so, yes, the people in my work are diverse. I am very interested in the idea of a large body of work that covers the whole country in­ an uncomplicated, democratic look at people at this time. I’m very interested in colour and shape and how it is present in our everyday life even though we often don’t notice it. There are noticeable differences between towns across the country I visit; ­different ethnic groups and different economic situations, but I would rather not label them.

Via Vauxhall, London - 2013/2014
From Via Vauxhall © Niall McDiarmid

NM: I’m not specifically trying to create work that defines what it means to be British; or Scottish, Welsh, or Irish for that matter. I would rather people just look at the images and make their own minds up about Britain and how it is changing.

More people from different backgrounds are coming to live here than ever before. I try to show these changes in the people I meet. Whether those who view the photographs pick up on that, I wouldn’t know. But multiculturalism and shifting demographics are at the core of the work, particularly the portraits.

English Street, Carlisle, Cumbria - Oct 2015
English Street, Carlisle, Cumbria — Oct 2015 © Niall McDiarmid

When looking at the sea of faces McDiarmid has captured in his work, it is easy to pick up on all the similarities across our global, and increasingly multicultural society. His growing collection of UK portraits has all the same types of people, whether you are in London, Chicago, Paris, or Indianapolis.

Certain motifs appear and reappear. White earbuds hang around necks, people of all different skin colors travel to and from work. Subjects gaze into phone screens of devices the same the world over, and they carry shopping bags or wear clothes with identical labels. We can point to common threads in McDiarmid’s growing “family album.” We live in a global village and these faces reflect the richness of the fabric of society in London, in the United Kingdom, and in some sense, the world.


Niall McDiarmid is a photographer based in London. His work is primarily about documenting Britain and has been published and exhibited widely. His work has received such recognition as one of Vogue’s Best Spring Photobooks 2015, a number of his prints featured in the Crossing Paths book have been acquired by the Sir Elton John Photography Collection in Atlanta Georgia, and his work has has been featured by Time Magazine, BBC, Vogue Magazine, and The Independent.

Follow Niall’s activities on Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram.


Originally published in January 2016 in Wobneb Magazine and Vantage

All photographs © Niall McDiarmid, used with permission.

Interview with photographer Kevin Faingnaert

Antoni

Cary Benbow (CB): How would you describe your work to someone viewing it for the first time?

Kevin Faingnaert (KF): Social documentary combining portrait, landscapes and structures to tell in depth stories which are both analytical and emotional. I have a sensitive and aesthetic visual approach.

CB: Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?

KF: It’s quite simple honestly – it’s a way to share what I love. Making photo stories is the only way I’m able to share my ideas and feelings on a certain topic. When I’m traveling, I need friends around me to share moments with. It’s the first thing I miss when traveling alone. So making pictures is a way to fill this gap and share my moments.

803f4fbd838515a5-Matavenero_17

CB: You spent one month photographing and living with the people in Matavenero, in the region of El Bierzo, Spain. What is the idea behind this project?

KF: In spring 2015 I ventured to Matavenero, a remote eco-village high up in the isolated mountainous region of North West Spain, to document the lives of its inhabitants. When I heard about Matavenero and their independent lifestyle, I was hooked immediately. They turn away from the way of modern life, based on efficiency and consumption, to live according to their beliefs. They built their own village in the middle of nowhere and are dependent only from their own gardens. I was extremely curious to see how they live, who they are, what they do, and why they abandoned their old life.

I consider myself a social documentary photographer, so this project relates to my other projects that it focuses on sub-culture and communities that are removed from the mainstream.

It’s a totally different story than Banger Days, my series on a merciless full-contact demolition sport where drivers use scrap cars to race, crash and destroy.

174775e7839dc947-Matavenero_1

CB: Your projects include editorial style shots along with portraiture – Why do you think people are so interested in portraiture, and how do you feel your work meets that need?

KF: People can find feeling and connect on a human level to a portrait and what they see in the person in the picture. This is impossible with for example a landscape. People don’t relate as much to a landscape or a structure, than another person.

I like to make landscape photos to show the environment, to show where people live, but it in the end, it are the persons in the photos who make the story.

7d53821000c578e1-Matavenero_13

CB: Why do you present your work on your website without statements, or commentary about the project?

KF: I like to save the stories for interviews or to talk about it in real life. I also don’t like the make any big statements. I want to create a visual story where viewers can step into, explore and analyze without the need of commentary or statements.

CB: What/who are your photography inspirations – and why?

KF: There are so many and honestly, it chances every day. Alec Soth is a constant though, as well are Diane Arbus and Sally Mann. I love the work of Rob Hornstra and especially his Sochi Project. He’s a great documentary maker and storyteller.

2db188fceb45a6cb-Matavenero_4

CB: How do you approach your personal work differently than editorial or commercial photography?

KF: I wish I had more experience in editorial photography to answer this question. Lately I’ve been putting a lot of effort and time in personal work. I do it slowly on my own pace. For example, when light conditions are not good enough to make the picture I want, I can just try again the next day, and the next day after,… This is not possible in editorial photography. It’s more fast-paced and you only get one chance to do it right.

04c88ef0d267f775-Matavenero_20

To view the Matavenero project, and other projects by Kevin Faingnaert, visit hiswebsite or view his Tumblr


 

This is an edited version of the interview originally published in F-Stop Magazine

Interview with photographer Laura Konttinen

LauraKonttinen03

Cary Benbow (CB): What is your approach to photography or image-making as a visual artist?

Laura Konttinen (LK): What drew me to photography was realizing what a clever double agent it is; a photograph pretends to be an invisible window into an objective past, but is of course a deliberate point of view and often not that different from, say, a painting. I have this deeply rooted desire to reveal photography’s ‘fakeness’, somehow catch it in the act. At the same time, I can’t escape photography’s comforting link to the past.

My work process is a sort of ritual that quenches my thirst to preserve the past but at the same time cleanses me of its burden. The creation of each image involves multiple stages: browsing pictures I have taken on my travels, printing them, cutting, and making miniature arrangements. Photographing these staged landscapes gives a comforting finality to the vague experiences they are based on. They are now meaningful and they have a shape.

CB: What is the concept behind your portfolio images in this issue? How do they relate to your other projects, or how are they significantly different?

LK: Early on I realized that all of my artwork is somehow connected to nostalgia and memories. The portfolio I submitted features work from ”The Memory Project” (2010-2013) and ”Islands” (2014-ongoing). The images in ”The Memory Project” are based on my actual memories. I wanted to try and visualize the vagueness, the mutations and incoherencies that are a central part of memories. The series originated from my simultaneous frustration and fascination with photography’s connection to reality. It is easy for a photograph from a long gone place to replace the actual memory from that same place. I wanted to explore the visual possibilities to challenge that connection – to break apart the photograph and rebuild it as a more accurate representation of the surreal aspects of memories.
With ”Islands”, I have gone further, to the realm of imaginary. Each island is only loosely based on real places, and most of their character and story stems from mythologies, folk tales and symbols. In a way, the islands depict archetypes – they are places of fear, dreams, denial, isolation or sorrow. In history, literature and everyday life islands often become representations for different parts of the human psyche, as is demonstrated by their role as prisons, holiday paradises or untamed and harsh tests of survival.

LauraKonttinen08
CB: In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?

LK: I am drawn to pictures that seem to be rich in symbolic meaning and melancholic undertones. In my own work I tend to be obsessively attracted to symmetry, overly saturated colours and a shallow depth of field, but in general I enjoy seeing work that is visually different from mine. I am in awe of the ”capture the moment” kind of photographers. My own work is very staged and there is little space for happy accidents, so an eye for fleeting moments is something that I admire.

CB: What are you inspired by?

LK: I am inspired by places, but only after they have started to fade in my mind. I only like to look at pictures I take on trips after I have started to forget the exact places and situations. The past is veiled in a new kind of glory when it’s affected by imagination and even fallacies.
I enjoy creating handcrafted illusions where an element does resemble a slice of a possible landscape, but is still obviously just a set-up. I feel this approach is similar to theatrical set design. In a theatre, set pieces can be just subtle symbols of real spaces, and the inherent fakeness is still accepted by the audience by default. I like playing with this same idea of things looking like something else, but still obviously looking like what they are – sugar is sea foam, but still just sugar.

LauraKonttinen05

CB: What or who are your photography inspirations?

LK: Rather than photographers, I feel more inspired by conceptual artists. Even though my own work has a very different approach, themes and medium, I am fascinated by work like Yoko Ono’s instruction pieces, Joseph Beuys’s performance with a coyote and Sophie Calle’s journey secretly following a stranger from Paris to Venice. To me, the most interesting art gives a shape to the invisible oddities of human experience.

LauraKonttinen12
CB: How would you describe your work to someone viewing it for the first time?

LK: I would invite them to explore the strange and the familiar in my work; to look beyond the softness and the bright colours.

To view more work by Laura Konttinen, visit her website athttp://www.laurakonttinen.net


 

Originally published in F-Stop Magazine

Photographer Malcolm Lightner

Malcolm Lightner’s work, as seen here from his new book, Mile O’Mud, will be shown at the New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery through the end of May.

Watch for my upcoming review of Mile O’ Mud – as I slog through his images of Florida mud racing culture and portraits of the people connected to it.

Malcolm Lightner: Mile O’ Mud Through May 29, 2016 Churning the buttery muddy water at the Florida Sports Park, swamp buggy races keep Florida’s frontier heritage alive. With Mile O’ Mud, 4th generation native Floridian Lightner shows us his home’s beauty; scarred and raw, surrounded by lush blue sky and restorative greens and we witness…

via Malcolm Lightner @ New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery — F-Stop Magazine

Book Review: Ikinga by Stephan Würth

 

IMG_4332

In late 2013, Stephan Würth embarked on a whirlwind road trip, winding his way across Burundi, a small landlocked nation in the heart of East Africa.  Discreetly capturing images on an iPhone during his journey, Würth portrays everyday life in the impoverished country, from the bustling open-air markets of its capital, Bujumbura, to the plantations of sweet banana and coffee deep in the country’s foothills.

The photographs highlight the integral role the bicycle, or ikinga, plays in Burundi’s culture. Würth’s images of this commercial bicycle culture are presented as a symbol of how the nation of Burundi is striving to overcome the decades of civil war and economic hardship since becoming an independent country in 1962.

IMG_4333

 

The book is bound in yellow cloth binding, with bright pink endsheets inside the front and back covers. Opening the book reminded me of when I used to work for a publishing company – when we got shipments from co-workers based in Chennai, India, the inside of their manilla envelopes had thin layers of brightly colored cloth with beautiful, printed patterns. Much like ikinga, once past the outer colorful display, there are materials needed to complete a project, materials needed to get work done. Würth’s scenes of life in Burundi show people living and working in impoverished areas, with few paved roads. Their bicycles are sturdy, and sometimes cobbled together with various repaired parts from different bikes. The goods transported via bicycle are crops like bananas and coffee, as well as building materials.

IMG_4331

Even though Würth consciously tried to avoid it in this project, one cannot completely ignore the political aspect of Burundi’s ethnic conflict and economic struggles, or the fact that Würth’s photos are that of a Western eye viewing a third-world country. But these ‘outsider’ portraits are similar in regard to those of Robert Frank, a Swiss photographer whose iconic images of America and Americans were taken in the 1950s. Frank’s images revealed a country quite different than what was being depicted by most American photographers at the time. Sometimes an outside viewpoint is exactly what is needed.

IMG_4334

In the book’s essay, Joseph Akel addresses the visual aspect of what Würth has accomplished in ikinga:

“Drawing from a conceptual lineage that traces back to Dziga Vertov’s ‘Man with a Movie Camera’, Jean Rouch’s ‘Chronique d’un été’, and August Sanders’ encyclopedic survey of Germany’s population at the turn of the century, Würth’s images manage to succinctly – and with little artifice – depict day-to-day life in Burundi. In perhaps one of the most striking images to come out of the series, a young mother with her baby strapped to her back, is seen riding sidesaddle on a bicycle-taxi. The image is remarkable, not so much for the amazing balancing act the mother seems to achieve on the back of the bicycle, as it is for the beautiful, warm, and direct smile that she has on her face. Ultimately, what comes across in the photographs that make up Ikinga is the resilient human face of a country that has, for too long, occupied a place in our collective imagination as a land of inhumanity.”

IMG_4328

These muted color photographs of the people of Burundi are a far cry from a leisurely weekend bicycle ride Westerners might enjoy. There are no images of people dressed in Lycra with colorful helmets, and energy bars. Whether it is a utilitarian bicycle capable of moving hundreds of pounds of goods, or a bicycle-taxi decorated with brightly colored reflectors, streamers, and handgrips – Würth’s book ikinga shows a culture of people who are strong and determined.


Stephan Würth is a photographer originally from Germany who grew up between Munich, Texas and California.  His work has been featured in international editions of Vogue, The New York Times, Porter Magazine, GQ, Playboy, Esquire, Galore Magazine, Treats Magazine and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition among others. In 2011, Stephan released his first book “Ghost Town” published by Damiani.

Joseph Akel is a New York based writer and editor. His non-fiction writing has appeared inThe New York Times, Vanity Fair, Interview, The Paris Review, New York Magazine, Artforum, Frieze, and V Magazine,  among others.


IMG_4330

Stephan Würth – Ikinga (with essay by Joseph Akel)
Cloth, 9.5 x 9.5 in. / 72 pgs / 31 color
Published by Damiani – May 2016 (U.S. publication)

For more information on ikinga, and other projects by Stephan Würth, visit his website. Purchase the book via Amazon: ikinga


 

This is an edited version of the review originally published in F-Stop Magazine