“Documenting life in contemporary cities is what I love doing most and it’s my way of way of getting to know the world.” So says Nick Turpin
, the photographer with a “double life”, who works as a commercial shoot and ad campaign photographer (with customers, such as IBM, Toyota, Barclays Bank and Jaguar), but whose artistic passion is street photography. Turpin prefers to define his passion, not as street photography but as candid public photography, or better “unstaged photography in public places”. His shots, in fact, come from a wide range of places that include, but are not limited to the street and portray people who are usually not even aware that they are being photographed. On the day we conducted this interview, Turpin’s Instagram hashtag #canpubphoto
, launched to encourage professional and amateur photographers to endorse candid public photography, reached a hundred thousand posts.
From the series The French, photo taken by Nick Turpin in Grenoble, France
Turpin believes that when anyone decides to use photography to document the world, they are faced by at least two technical and aesthetic choices. The first is colour, as “obviously the world is in colour,” explains Turpin, “also, black and white has a historical baggage that I would like to separate myself from, a little bit. I don't want to take the same pictures that photographers took 50 years ago; I want to take my own.” To keep his own intervention to a minimum, in his candid public photography projects, Turpin avoids adding any extra light to the natural or artificial light that is already present.
“After all, I also shoot commercial portraits in the open,” adds Turpin, “and I often turn the street into a photographic studio. In those cases, I work with assistants holding a flash. For two of my projects, Youth and The Bridge, I shot portraits by illuminating the subjects with small lights. I got the idea when I was living in New York, as there I would shoot the small patches of light that are created in the street at dusk when the sun is reflected in the glass of the skyscrapers and lingers for four or five minutes before disappearing. In my portraits I have tried to recreate those small patches of light.
Photo taken by Nick Turpin in London
The decision not to use a flash imposes a curiously “natural” rhythm on candid public photography when it involves activities in large metropolitan centres. “A street photographer is always extremely aware of light direction, intensity, angle and temperature,” says Turpin, “because they literally determine where you can shoot and where you can’t.” Consequently, as the day progresses, the photographer will probably have to look for places that are even more open and where the sun is less hindered by the buildings or where the buildings can reflect the last rays of the sunset, as with the skyscrapers in New York.
In the evening, the ball starts rolling again, thanks to artificial light: “At dusk and at night I am attracted to the places that are best lighted, as I can work there,” says Turpin. “Sometimes, if the street lighting is strong enough to create shadows and a little atmosphere you can take wonderful photos.” At other times, the lighting depends on advertising screens, like in Piccadilly Circus, in London. You can shoot all night with those lights.”
Photo taken by Nick Turpin in London
At dusk and at night I am
attracted to the places that are best lighted.
The flipside, says Turpin, is that the total lack of control over the light conditions can be frustrating: “I often see incredible scenes that are too badly lit to be photographed.” In one of his more recent projects, however, darkness has become an ally. On The Night Bus is a collection of portraits of commuters sitting on buses behind steamed-up windows taken by Turpin over three consecutive winters: “As I was outside in the dark,” he explains, “I could see the people inside the bus clearly, but they couldn’t see me. This meant I could take numerous intimate photos. The lights inside the bus were always different, too. Sometimes fluorescent, other times tungsten or LEDs. And they were different colours too.”
For Turpin, candid public photography is something more than an art form. “It’s a kind of meditation. When I take photographs on the street, I lose myself completely. I can spend six or seven hours roaming a city without ever thinking about myself and I love that sensation.” “Street photography is a mental process,” he adds. “Taking the photo is only the last step that records the end result. Anyone can do that. I use a small camera with a standard lens, but you could use a smartphone too. I like the technical simplicity of street photography, but the fact that it is so simple is why it is also so difficult; the most difficult thing I’ve ever done with a camera.”