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Interview with Alias Johnny Stiletto

This pic of Francis Bacon- his favourite portrait- is just one of the more famous photographs in Johnny Stiletto's genre defying collection of photos and mini-essays: Shots from the Hip

I found the book a fascinating and refreshing take on photography- very inspiring for anyone at all interested in street photography- unique and utterly memorable photos and far and away the best writing on the subject. Johnny kindly agreed to be interviewed- here are his answers to my questions...

Q1: Your unexpected and quite brilliant photographs in Shots from the Hip amount to a kind of intellectual autobiography; it becomes a revealing diary but also a series of autobiographical essays touching on the two wars, women, film, London, ageing. It really is 'another way of looking through the camera'- why aren't there more books like this? Are there any you can think of?

A: What I try and do with my photographs is tell stories, quite often the story isn't particularly clear at the time I take the shot, I might have a feeling, or the circumstances might be interesting or even exciting so I try and shoot as intuitively as possible. Afterwards the shots are there and the circumstances have settled into some sort of logic or story and that's the point at which I look at the shot, think about what was happening at the time, what I was thinking about and what I was going through and write round it and through it. Like most people I suppose my thoughts are all over the place a lot of the time. Shots From The Hip took over ten years to shoot, photographing on a very regular basis. Commissioning editors are quite brutal and they want to see a proposal of somewhere between 120 and 160 shots that exist now and not in the future. They want to see photographs that are immediate, original, or to put it another way photographs they like. They also want to see something you’ve written and had published. They don't buy hopes, maybes, bluff, excuses or it'll be alright on the night. The photographs have to be taken by one person, if you include other people’s photographs and describe how they shoot them, you’re writing fiction. You just have to be very focused to do these kind of books and you're rather held to ransom by the quality of the shots you get so this may account for the fact that there aren’t many or any books like Shots.

Q2.I notice you mention that you shouldn't be a slave of the camera- which is something Daido Moryama also says, were you influenced by his street photography at all? If so, how?

If I'm completely totally honest I don't know Daido Moryama so that really slices the top off the question. Sorry about that. All I can say, though, Don't be frightened of the camera, don't be in awe of it, it's just a machine, a technical slave, feel comfortable with it, press the button when you see something you like or interests you and let the camera do the work. Cameras aren’t children, they’re grown ups, they can look after themselves.

Q3. I'm interested in the way words and pictures work together- something that is really effective about Shots from the hip- how far into taking the pictures did you plan it is as an essay/manifesto?

A:It was always going to be about words and pictures and again, I think goes back to telling stories and I think pictures quite often need a bit of help. Also if you think about it, words and pictures slide naturally together. Think about press ads, films, posters, comic books, editorial. Words and pictures are working partners, words can do things that pictures can't like setting a scene and a time and pictures capture emotion. When you add words to a picture you quite often add a layer of excitement that isn't there in the picture alone. With words you can direct people into a photograph, get them to look into it, see it your way, linger, enjoy, I hope. Putting words and pictures together just seems a natural thing to do.

Q4. You used an OM SLR (I think) for 'Shots', digital makes it easier - or does it?

A:They're two different things and they're both brilliant. In practical terms shooting digital is much cheaper, no negs, no prints. Also you can shoot a lot more on digital and you don't really have to worry about reloading, flicking the winder or the noise of the shutter. Digital is faster and quieter, the only thing I'm very careful of is using small memory cards- if you get stopped or somebody gets upset about a shot you might have to hand over the card, (the Paris police are particularly excellent at this and 75% of them are plain clothes) so if you've got a weeks of work on a memory card you risk losing a lot. What I like about film is that you can force it to the limits and does some very interesting things by accident. In a way I'm always looking for small accidents in the shots I take. I don't like them fixed and perfect, again it goes back to the story telling thing, if everything's frozen and perfect there's nothing left to read into it. It's much harder to bend digital, it's do-able but more difficult. I think that’s the overall problem with digital, it’s often a bit too precise everything’s there and that’s not really how we see things, in reality eyesight is a series of slightly imperfect impressions. You can give digital a slightly more narrative filmic look by under exposing by two thirds of a stop, in other words by making the exposure slightly darker than the camera’s programmed to do and it’s forced into doing a bit of dancing in the dark. On balance, if I'm completely honest I think it's archaic in 2015 to be shooting film.

Q5. What other photographers are there that mean something to you and you have learnt from, and what you have learnt from them?

A:Robert Capa is the photographer who I really first became aware of and who influenced me most. He photographed the D Day landings and most of the film was destroyed in excitement by the lab, about 12 shots survived and one of them is a very blurred image of a GI in the water struggling to the beach, you know nothing about the detail or the man and everything about everything else. That for me is when photographs stepped out of the phone booth and became superman. If there's a point the point is that you don't need to do crisp perfect to tell a story or take a great shot, always try and leave something to the imagination.

Q6. What is the most useful encapsulated advice you have for street photographers?

A:Blend, be part of what’s going on and switch off the auto focus light.

Q7. The second most useful?

A:Shoot your life. The best photographer's photographs are all about them. Hello Me. They photograph the times they live in, the places they inhabit, the people they come into contact with the events that surround them. It’s a sort of universal rule, doesn’t matter what you’re shooting, interiors, fashion, war, reportage, it’s the personal bit, the interconnection with what’s happing in front and around the camera. Good photographs are autobiographies.

Q8. Anything else on mixing writing and photography that comes to mind?

A:Final last thing is a thought: if you're writing to a photograph it's often very nice to write to music.

Johnny Stiletto

Many Thanks.

Johnny Stiletto' s excellent website can be found here.

Shots from the Hip can be bought here on amazon

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