Camberwell Beauties

I’ve been a people photographer for most of my working life. Over the years I’ve captured images of thousands of people in hundreds of places. My desire to travel has taken me to over 60 countries - in one busy year I took 53 flights. For this project that appetite that once carried me across the seas has pointed my lens to the start of these journeys, to the street where I’ve lived for 30 years in Camberwell, South London.

A “Camberwell Beauty” is a butterfly found worldwide but named after my neighbourhood. These photographs are about coming home and being open to the allure of the local community. They are not of exotic strangers whose appearance seduces through otherness, nor are they models who beguile us with their beauty. I have examined their faces with a tourist’s curiosity, a professional’s skill and a companion’s connection. Each person lives or works within a few hundred metres from my home. It’s easy to take good pictures of extraordinary things; I wanted to take good pictures of ordinary people.

The massive size of each exhibited image is important. The ultra-high-definition of the 2m. wide prints empowers viewers to see far beyond the boundaries of everyday vision. The scale reveals the topography of the face. I treat each countenance as a landscape; with contours, peaks and troughs to explore. The pictures marry this style, of vast landscape, with that of microscopic detail. On a web page these portraits might be dismissed as humdrum, but in framed prints, when viewed close up, the images offer a fresh perspective.

When bumping into someone while walking down the street we naturally look first at the person’s eyes. Artists have always used this instinct as the gateway into the familiar yet foreign land of the face. I’m following this tradition, with the luxury of exhibiting the resulting images nearly ten times larger than life. The eyes in my prints are the size of a man’s open palm. The children’s skin is flawless. In contrast, the adults’ complexions map their life histories.

Having only the eyes absolutely sharp (and the other parts that happen to fall on the same plane of focus) on a print this size makes the image as a whole appear three-dimensional. Peering at them from a few centimetres away reveals the nuances in the eyelashes and skin textures. The skin, even on a five-year-old’s face, is a more complex environment than many of us first think.

We are used to seeing oversized images as the advertising industry has been producing vast posters for decades. In Times Square, New York, some of the hoardings are ten storeys high - they look perfect from the street below but if you put your nose 3cm from a billboard it's just a pattern of dots, each one the size of a small coin. On a computer screen my photographs may appear unremarkable, however, if you place your nose 3cm from my prints it’s a different experience. When you see these images in person it’s a little like studying the brushstrokes of the Mona Lisa in The Louvre, instead of glancing at her portrait on a postcard.

The war photographer Sir Don McCullin is renowned for his searing images from conflict areas all over the globe, but many of his pictures in recent decades have been of the terrain near his house in Somerset. He showed how visual treasures could be found closer to home. Living in London I chose to study local people instead of local scenery. One doesn't need to travel to the ends of the earth to find compelling subjects.

For these portraits I used daylight. Although I have a studio crammed with every conceivable photographic light source I took them in the shade. As I’m keen to keep the images as authentic as possible I did minimum post-processing.

Their expressions are deliberately blank in what is often called a “poker face”. These faces appear impassive, as dignified as Victorian etchings. This is how we look when conveying neutrality. I asked the sitters to stare at the lens yet appear as detached as possible.

After decades of directing people on commercial assignments to adopt a specific emotion, it was liberating to let the sitter share control. This poker face adds a dash of mystery; viewers are encouraged to make their own interpretation. Although each subject’s appearance is inscrutable, in print the huge eyes become magnetic. They create an almost intimidating challenge for the spectator.

The face filling the frame offers no context, few cultural pointers and little background information - either physical or empirical. For centuries painters and photographers have festooned their portraits with signs to help us decode their images. Here the face is the only clue.

These portraits are of ordinary people who tread the same pavements, breathe the same air and experience the same seasons as I do. Some have lived here for as long as I have, others were born here more recently, and some are just working here fleetingly. We are all part of the same Camberwell community. Presenting my neighbours in this way illustrates how seeing a photographic portrait is a voyage. There are infinite nuances of texture and tone within a person’s face, just as many as there are in their character. Through capturing these minutiae on the vast landscape of the prints, these photographs chart new territory. We see the people anew. Like the butterflies, they too are Camberwell Beauties.