I was stopped recently by the police while shooting in the City in London by the Lloyds building. They said the reason they stopped me was due to a high terrorist alert and you’re walking around with a camera, you could be scoping out for a future attack…I was actually with my photography group. I showed them my website and said I was a photographer etc. They still put me through the police computers and advised me that if I continued to take photographs then I would potentially be stopped again, so I should consider whether I wanted to stop taking photographs. They didn't specifically say I should stop, but said I'd be liable to be challenged repeatedly throughout the night if I continued shooting.
There’s this thing called the London Street Photography Festival, a couple of years back they sent out some video cameramen with photographers throughout the streets of London, to record the interaction between the photographers and security personnel and the police. Its about a ten minute film called ‘Stand Your Ground’, it’s on YouTube.
Things were happening like this…a guy’s standing there, he’s setting up his camera and this big security bloke comes up, with the earpiece and all that, they’re huge muscle-bound individuals...
“Excuse me mate, you can’t take a picture”
“Yes I can”
“Well management doesn’t want you to”
“Well I’m sorry about that but I'm going to take a picture…I’m in a public place, I’m shooting a building”
“Well management’s worried about you shooting personnel and identifying them”
“Well I don’t shoot people so if people are coming out I don’t shoot” says the photographer.
There was this constant type of harassment, then the security bloke says “well I’m going to call the police”, so the photographer says “please go ahead and do that”.
The cop turns up, “what’s happening here?”, security bloke says “well he’s taking pictures of the building and my management doesn’t want him to” and the photographer says “I’m within my legal rights to do so, and that’s what I’m doing”. And the cop said “have a good day gentlemen, see you later!”
Now, that’s on film, that’s recorded. It’s called ‘Stand Your Ground’. It’s good for people to see that they do have rights and they shouldn’t feel intimidated.
Look, just because you have the rights doesn’t mean to say that you won’t get into difficulties occasionally. I mean the rules are one thing but people’s emotional response to you is another, but I tell my students always ask permission from people on the street, but don’t just ask for permission, because what they’re worried about is that you're either making a fool out of them or making a lot of money out of them. So tell them that you're a student and you’re doing a class...and flatter them, tell them they look interesting!
‘Interesting’ they will extrapolate their own way. Interesting to them means beautiful or handsome. They'll think you’ve praised them. You haven’t really, you haven’t lied but you've got them onside, and the other thing about it is that when they, generally speaking people will agree, and I tell my students that if someone agrees to having their picture taken and you've asked them, don’t hurry, don’t get nervous. They’ve donated, they’ve decided to donate two minutes of their life to your picture. So take it easy, set your picture up, frame it the way you want, shoot it, thank them and move on. Don’t feel flustered and don’t feel you have to rush. They’ve given you this little present. So be gracious and accept the gift.
Stairway To Nowhere - Lynn Smith
Ok so we’re approaching the end of our time, can you tell me about your future projects, what’s coming up for you?
It’s more of the same really, what can I say…
I don’t have any need to change what I’m doing. I don’t have many genres I work in. I like working at night and I’ll keep doing that. I like long exposures. I have all the equipment I need, I don’t desire any gear, I’m perfectly happy with all the gear I’ve got and I’ll be happy with it till I drop dead! I’m not a gear fetishist.
I’ve got a medium format single lens reflex and six lenses and I carry them with me everywhere in a knapsack. I’ve got about twenty kilograms of gear plus a tripod, so I’m set up for any picture I want whether it’s a close-up or a wide angle shot. Mostly I shoot wide angle.
I’ll be looking at different cities, whenever I can afford to travel. I travel like a monk, I don’t go to any tourist attractions. I’m there to take pictures, that’s the only reason I’m there…I don’t socialise, I just take pictures. I might talk to some galleries about trying to have a show there. I was talking to a gallery in Paris and one in Berlin about shows there, but other than that my whole day is built around picture taking. I’ll go out and do a recce in the afternoon…I never shoot when I’m tired or jaded, I always have a nap before I shoot because I want to shoot when I’m feeling fresh and optimistic.
So what sort of time would you go out at night?
Well what I usually do is I’ll recce an area, say in Sydney where I live, I will go to an area that I think might be interesting in the afternoon and I’ll have a look around, because obviously in daylight I can see more stuff. I’ll work out whether there’s interesting things there and if there isn’t I’ll keep moving. When I find a couple of setups that I think are interesting, I’ll park the car and sleep for an hour, until the sun goes down then I’ll get my gear out and I’ll shoot, because I want to shoot when I’m fresh and when I’m feeling confident and when I’m really into this thing that I’m doing. So I have that little routine…I suss an area out, I’ll have a nap then I’ll shoot.
The only other thing I might do…I started a series on abandoned pianos…
White Piano In Fog - Lynn Smith
Are there many around?
Well I found a farm in Albany, Western Australia, which is south of Perth, where this pair of farmers collects them. People keep dropping them at the gate and they just park them around their olive farm here and there. They’ve got about 20 or 30 of them now. But I’ve shot them at night just under moonlight, I went down at full moon. Some of them I’ve used light painting because it’s so goddamn dark you can’t see a thing, the exposures were like one hour!
That interested me on a number of levels. I used to be made to study the piano from the age of five and I got beaten over the knuckles by the teacher if I got things wrong, but I was never passionate about it, it was kind of forced on me. So when I saw these pianos falling apart there was this thing, this ricochet between my own background where my family are working class people and one of the most expensive things they possessed was a nice piano, my mom was a good pianist and so on. We used to sit around the piano because we were fundamentalist Christians. This valued object in my childhood, which was now rotting in a paddock getting shat on by sheep, in a sense it was metaphoric, it was me being released from the childhood handcuffs in a sense.
Also there’s this ridiculous cultural thing…you think about pianos all being made in Europe, transported by ship onto Australian docks, carted out onto these farms way out in the bloody bush, aboard trains, when there were indigenous people there making music. Why wouldn't the settlers go down the road and ask the local people what kind of music they made and join in that? No, they had to get these f****** machines sent out from Europe, to create little Germanys or little Englands in the middle of the Australian bush! It’s ludicrous, its insane! (laughs)
So there’s all that stuff going on…
And of course Beethoven wrote the name for the show didn’t he… ‘Moonlight Sonata’, right! (laughs)
I haven’t got enough pictures to do a show yet, but I might go back to the farm in Western Australia and do some more and try and talk someone into putting it on the wall.
Baby Grand - Lynn Smith
Can you talk a little bit about the idea of ‘beautiful anxiety’ and what that’s about?
Well I talked about that earlier I think, about if you’re comfortable in this world you’re either rich or mad. The anxiety to me expresses the things we have to deal with. It’s a way of being political but not overtly political, not propagandistic. I want you to be unsettled when you see my pictures, the world should unsettle you, no matter what your situation is. You shouldn’t think you’ve got it made, you’re comfortable and bugger everyone else! So that’s a kind of civic duty in a way to keep people unsettled. But the beauty for me is the optimistic strand. Its the strand of possibility, I think we can solve our problems.
There’s a Slovenian philosopher called Žižek who said that people can imagine the end of the world but they can’t imagine the end of capitalism. This is ridiculous! I mean capitalism is a fairly recent system in terms of the time we’ve existed as a species and yet people think it’s eternal. And the profit motive is destroying the planet and then future generations, so we really need to address these things. But I think it’s within our ability to do it. I think we can fix the core problems on the planet if we choose to, so I want that blend of awkwardness and hope in my pictures.
I treat light as a hero too, I treat light as a character and you can do that with night pictures. Light is so much more powerful and the colours are so much more intense at night, they’re the stars of my show.
Bridge Ogre - Lynn Smith
How do people see more of your work, find out more about you, contact you for prints, how do they do that?
Well, I don’t have a website at the moment, so because I teach and Flickr is part of my teaching tools, my pictures are on Flickr. Anybody can contact me through Flickr and I’ve also got a profile on LinkedIn. People can email me and we can talk about what size suits them and so on, I’m happy to do prints for people. They will be analogue prints, hand printed in the dark room, at whatever size is appropriate for the individual, and we can work out a price no problem.
But my pictures, I like them to be large…I never have shows with small pictures. In my shows the pictures are all a metre wide because I want you to be able to sort of swim in them. The average price of a print of the size that I think is optimum for my work at the moment is $1500 Australian dollars, which is probably about 1100 USD. They’re in editions of five so if a person orders a print there'll only be another four made of that size.
Final question, what advice would you give to someone who wants to try night photography and what tip would you give to someone already taking night photographs to take their work to another level?
Well I think people need to photograph things in a variety of different lighting situations and then decide for themselves which time of day turns them on. I don’t think there’s any prescription for that. Most street photographers for example shoot in low light situations, either the morning or the afternoon, but not all do, and some shoot in the middle of the day when there’s very harsh light. So the first thing is, people need to find which kind of light they have an affinity for, and that’s a very personal thing. You can’t say early morning or night’s better than the other, it’s not better, it just depends on what the individual responds to. So people should try a variety of different situations then ask themselves ‘ok which kind of light do I prefer?’
Now I prefer the night because of the level of mystery involved with the night and because the colours are incredibly intense. The other advantage, and it’s a practical advantage, is that at night everything is exactly the same every night. With daytime photography the sun is moving across the sky, therefore the time of day affects the way things look. Shooting in the city at night, if you’re shooting on street corner A, in suburb B, it’s gonna be exactly the same every night you go there. Alright there might be a bit of fog some night or it might rain another night but the light will be identical, so you’re able to study a situation.
This is an advantage if you really want to think about your work. You can study a situation, knowing you can return to it, and return to it and return to it, so you can interpret it in a number of ways and the material will be there, just as you found it on the first occasion. It doesn’t change. Well, it changes over time in the sense that people will change the colour or things will be damaged, but fundamentally those structures and those particular streetlights will be there every night. So it gives you the chance to study a situation more and to return to it if you choose to.
Ripped Artwork/Darlinghurst - Lynn Smith
For people who want to develop their night photography, I think the most important thing is a point of view. Photography is really not about technical things, it’s about having a point of view and knowing what it is you’re after and that’s also very personal. People obviously should study night photography, look at other night photographers and find out who floats their boat, and then try and work out the stylistic elements that that person has and try and emulate them, and out of that your own style will grow.
Every artist stood on the shoulders of other artists. Everybody in every medium, whether it’s ballet, music, photography, painting, sculpture or whatever, we all have our heroes. You need to find your heroes and then build your work out of that. That’s the only suggestion I have really, to accept that you've got heroes and try and work out what they’re doing and your stuff will grow organically out of that.
But point of view is pretty important. It’s how you see the world, it’s not how you see pictures, it’s how you see the world that’s fundamental I think.
It’s been the biggest pleasure to talk to you. When you see someone’s work you might have a mental picture about what the person who produces that work is like, or how they go about making the work, and then talking to you it’s interesting how your work is such a true representation of your views, and I guess any artist wants to produce work that is true to themselves and true to whatever representation of themselves they are trying to put out there. It’s been an amazing experience to speak to you and to hear your thoughts and I think you do a great job of translating that into what you produce.
The artist should be wrestling with his or her own demons. If you’re not wrestling with your own material what the hell are you doing it for?!
Thanks so much for your time, I can’t tell you how much of pleasure it’s been to speak to you.
Thanks Justin, I appreciate your time and all the best in your own work.
A massive thank you again to Lynn for giving so generously of his time and for sharing his insights into photography and his own work. Personally, it was a privilege to speak to someone who's been so influential in the way I see image-making and I'm very grateful to him.
To see more of Lynn's work or to contact him for print or exhibition enquiries you can find him on Flickr
He's now also sharing his work on Instagram
You can see a video of Lynn discussing his work, here
Since this interview was recorded, Lynn has edited or been otherwise involved in the publication of a number of books, which are certainly worth taking a look at. These include:
He's also considering embarking on a PhD so we may return to hear more from his about his developing projects in the future.
Coming next on the blog is a chat with another talented photographer a lot closer to home. Till then, as always...
I’d like to talk about books, because you’ve published a few and you’ve got one that’s coming up. What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about publishing their work?
Well I’ve done two books. I did a book with the first degree and it was A3 size, it cost me $600. I got two copies and I submitted it as part of my first Masters degree. That was using e-publishing, you could order one or two copies if you wanted to.
I was talking to a gallerist the other day who is also a fine art photographer and a very successful commercial photographer. He had a book printed in China, with 200 pages, quite a large book…he shot these urban scenes on 5x4 film and it cost him twenty bucks a copy in China, but he had to order a thousand so we are talking about twenty thousand Australian dollars for this book, which filled a room then!
This is not a simple question because there are a couple of strands to the publishing thing. If you want to reduce your unit costs and sell via bookshops, because they want to make 100% profit, if you sell them a book for forty bucks they’re going to sell it for eighty. But if you sell it for forty then you’ve got to get it for twenty. Now you can’t get it for twenty if you use Blurb or any of the online people ‘cause their unit costs are much higher. So if you’re using electronic publishing you’re out of the bookshop market.
Now you could have a show, and you could have books available at the show and you could take orders for those books and then you could order them from Blurb or whoever and then deliver them to the people. You’d make a lot less but you’d be cutting out the middle man. Unless you’ve got lots of capital, unless you’ve got twenty grand up your sleeve…the traditional publishing route which is a thousand copies, lower your unit costs, that’s off the table.
The only other alternative that I’ve found, which I’m exploring with this Flickr book, ‘cause I’m doing a book based on that Creative Street Photography group that I set up, that will be done via Amazon because Amazon has their own book software and they list the book as well, so they are both printers and retailers. That’s another way of doing it. Amazon will distribute and they’ll give me an ISBN number and so on, so I’m going to try that process, because I don’t have twenty grand to get stuff printed!
London Canal - Lynn Smith
Is it cheaper doing it via Amazon?
Well the thing is that you’re only obliged to buy one copy, you don’t have to print a quantity. The book goes out there, it’s published, anyone that orders it buys it… there’s no stockpiling of books. Amazon’s got all the software, they’ve got the PDFs… so you want to order my book, you contact Amazon, they print it, send it to you, charge you ‘x’, I get ‘y’, and then the whole thing just sits there until the next person orders, so there’s no stockpiling. So you’re only obliged to buy one book, that’s the interesting thing about it. All you're obliged to pay is your fifty bucks and your book’s in circulation.
That’s potentially quite an attractive option for people considering publishing their work. Ok, a few more questions… you shoot on film, have you always shot film?
I think digital is one of the biggest marketing cons in history!
I never shoot digital, ever. Only with my phone, that’s all.
If you look back at the history of photography, relatively recently, say from the 1930s…you had the emergence of the Leica in the early 1930s, so suddenly cameras were off the sticks, they were very small, and candid observation was possible. The people on the street didn’t necessarily know what this little thing in your hand was, ‘cause Leicas are quite small. Their viewfinder cameras are only about the size of a phone. So the Leica changed the relationship between photographer and subject. Digital has not changed any relationship between photographer and subject, it’s just an easier way of recording the information. There’s no fundamental change between the artist and the environment.
Now Google Glass will change that relationship utterly, because your head then becomes the camera. That’s really fascinating. But anything in the middle…all digital’s done is, like CDs…CDs are shit! They’re nothing compared to LPs. There’s been a big resurgence now of people buying albums and putting them on turntables.
Look I can’t summarise it better than a Czech philosopher called Vilém Flusser. He was a Jewish Czech émigré who went to live in South America in the early ‘30s because of Nazism, and he did philosophy at university. He only ever wrote in Portuguese or German, he never wrote in English, so his books are not widely available in English although some are translated. He became a bit of a media philosopher, he writes about television and about photography. He did a book called ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ in which he says cameras walk around in possession of their photographers, that the industry’s programmed us to produce the kind of pictures it needs for its development…which is really interesting. He says that the only pictures that are worth taking are those that fight the camera.
Thats a really interesting idea, it kind of goes back to what you were saying about a) not taking a picture that you’ve seen already, and b) not following the crowds...
My students machine gun everything, you know, they don’t have to think because it doesn’t cost them anything, so they don’t think! But photography is a process. There’s only three things, there’s the quality of the glass in front of your face, there’s your mind, and there’s the choice of subject. They’re the only things that matter really. The recording device is immaterial. You know, like whether it’s film or digital…that doesn’t matter. If you don’t have to think you don’t, you see.
19 - Lynn Smith
Okay but you shoot film, you shoot medium format, so the process of medium format photography is different than someone like myself walking in the streets shooting handheld, using a digital camera at high ISO… I can just shoot like that (snaps fingers). You can’t do that, you have to take your time, to compose, measure the light etc. Do you not think that process itself feeds into the sort of images you create, because by definition they are going to be more considered than someone like me walking around firing off high ISO handheld shots?
You're hoping the law of averages will save your arse! That’s not a very good way to proceed. Would you proceed in medicine like that? So why treat photography any differently?
So I guess my question to you is, if I gave you a digital camera now and said go out in the same way as you go out with your usual camera, do you think that would significantly change the way you approach what you’re doing? Do you think your camera is a fundamental part of how you approach your work? Or would you still be as considered about what you are doing, using a digital camera?
No I can shoot high ISO. I’ve got a roll of 800 ASA in my camera at the moment, and I can push it to 3200, so I can shoot handheld if I choose to. But I shoot on a tripod because my exposures are long and I shoot with available light, because that’s the way to get good pictures at night. I mean If I were shooting during the day I wouldn’t need a tripod, I could still shoot as fast as you do. Well except it’s going to cost me more. It costs me two bucks a frame…a roll of film costs me ten bucks basically and processing costs me ten bucks and there’s ten shots to a medium format roll, so each frame costs me two bucks.
So I’m often in the situation where I’m looking at something and I think ‘is it worth two bucks…er, no!’
We have a joke in Australia…why do dogs stand in the middle of the road licking their dicks? It’s because they can! Why do people take a thousand pictures, because they can…it doesn’t mean they ought to. Especially if it degrades your thinking.
There was a gallery in the States that did an experiment. They wanted to test out the relationship of shooting pictures of something and seeing it and thinking about it. They weren’t too sure whether there was an overlap or not. So they did this test where they sent a hundred people to a particular gallery, fifty were given digital cameras and were told to photograph the pictures they thought were interesting, and the other fifty were not given any cameras and were asked when they came back what pictures they thought were interesting. And the people that took the pictures had no idea what was interesting, they couldn’t remember. So in fact cameras can degrade memory, can degrade seeing, so when deciding to be a photographer you have to work out ways of elevating your seeing of the world as opposed to degrading it. The great evil of digital photography is it’s too f****** easy, therefore you don’t have to think, therefore you don’t, therefore you don’t contemplate, you see… you just machine gun.
And your work won’t get any better until you stand in front of something, look at it for a while and think ‘ok, well, is there a picture here?’. You mightn’t even shoot it then, you might think about it for two days then go back once you’ve thought about how you might approach it. Good photographs are not taken, they’re built. Built by photographers.
That’s a beautiful idea. I couldn’t agree more. I’d like to think you can achieve that same degree of thought even with a digital camera…
Well if you do I’m not going to launch war against you, if you do that’s ok! (laughs)
The other thing is, in terms of the way things look, there’s no question now that digital cameras especially the high resolution cameras - I had a student in Melbourne a few months ago, he’s a wedding photographer and he shoots with a 50 megapixel Nikon, and he said "I can shoot a wedding group in a hall and not worry about having to get close-ups because I have such enormous files, I can pull close-ups out of the scenes with 20 people in them" - Now there’s no question that those cameras with very high resolution can get incredible detail, there’s no question, but there is a difference between a high resolution digital image and film image.
I found out from my lab what the difference is…I asked the guys who process for me "Is a grain on a piece of film equivalent to a dot in digital?"
And they said "Well, not really, digital is a mathematical unit whereas film is organic. If you were to pick up a handful of sand on the beach, you’d have thousands of grains of sand but not one of them would be the same as any other grain."
That’s one of the differences between the film and the digital look. Film can get amazing detail but also a strange kind of softness at the same time, because the material is organic. Digital can get incredible detail, but it’s brittle, it’s kind of got a brittleness to it. It doesn’t have that little touch of ambiguity that we’re used to with our eyes for example. I mean digital cameras, really high end cameras, are capable of much greater detail than your eyes but it’s a special kind of detail. Now you might like that, I don’t happen to like it, and a lot of digital photographers use a filter to make it look like film which is pretty stupid…shoot film in the first place! (laughs)
But this is not a closed debate, this is just a point of view. I’m not saying that to shoot digitally makes you a bad photographer.
I’m not a Luddite, it’s not because I’m old-fashioned or an old bloke, it’s the look of the medium which to me is eternal, film’s going to be with us forever.
Quadrants of Light - Lynn Smith
Have you ever had any risky or unsafe moments while out shooting at night?
Lots of them, I’ve been attacked.
Do you think being a night photographer automatically makes you a target?
No I don’t think I was attacked because I was a night photographer. I was photographing this small hall in a suburb in Sydney and it had a banner out the front and these guys were teaching martial arts. It was like learn karate or jujutsu or whatever it was. In front of this hall there was a row of concrete posts about a metre high, and they were wrapped in bubble wrap. And I thought to myself ‘this might make an interesting picture’, as it may say that they turn out such little thugs from this bloody martial arts hall that they have to protect the concrete pylons from them! I wasn't sure if it would work but I thought I’ll photograph it and see.
So here I am with my tripod, on public land on the footpath, photographing this building with this sign and these posts… This guy comes out in his martial arts gear and says “You’ve got to stop taking photos”, and I said “No I don’t, I’m on public land so I can shoot what I like”, and he said “I want you to stop” and I said “Well I’m not going to, ok!”
So he went back inside and came out with another guy and they said “We want you to delete the images…”
“Well too bad, because they’re on film.”
So they said “Well we want your camera” and they started swinging me around trying to get my camera off me. Luckily there was a guy walking past at the time who wasn't connected to the martial arts outfit, just a bloke in a suit, and I said “Mate, excuse me, can you stop!” He stopped and I said “Can you ring the cops and don't go anywhere till they turn up”.
So these martial arts guys backed off a little bit. They stood there and weren’t too sure what to do. The cops turned up in about two minutes flat.
I was within my rights, as you are in the UK, to photograph anything in a public space at any time that you choose to, without asking any permission. Unless you're making a lot of money out of it, unless its a commercial project. But I was a bit bolshy, I was asserting my rights fairly directly.
I get annoyed by cops all the time. The later I shoot the more annoying they are, because there’s nothing else around so they’re bored shitless right! This bloke’s doing something they don’t understand so they have to try and stop him, and its very interesting because there's a kind of routine that happens. I’m there with my tripod photographing something on the street, a police divvy van pulls up, and I get “Are you ok mate?”. Now I dunno what the correct answer is cause when I say no that doesn’t seem to satisfy them!
So they stop, they get out, and they ask what I’m doing…
“What am I doing? I’m skinning a f****** elephant, what do you think! I’m taking a picture…”
“Er, what’s in front of the camera…”
Then they look at my ID and they get on the computer, and they check with the bloody head office and all this kind of shit…
I’ve had similar experiences with the police using almost the exact same words…
The last time it happened to me, when they’d finally cleared me I said to them “When you guys go back to the station you have to fill out notes on what happened tonight, and all the stations are connected because there’s the internet, so what you fill out in your reports, all the other stations can get it, they can look at it right?”
They said “Yeah”
“Why don’t you tell ‘em there’s this older bloke, he goes around taking pictures, he’s completely harmless?”
You know what they said..
“We don’t know that’s what you're doing!” (laughs)
Thanks again to Lynn for taking time out to share his insight and experiences with me.
Since this interview was recorded Lynn has published his most recent book, Aftertaste. Click here for details or to purchase.
You can see a video of Lynn discussing his work, here
To see more of Lynn's work or to contact him for print or exhibition enquiries you can find him on Flickr
He's now also sharing his work on Instagram
In the next and final instalment of this interview, Lynn outlines some specifics about how he approaches shooting at night and offers some advice for anyone considering night photography. So stay tuned, and till then keep it interesting!