December 1, 2021
Photography by Peter Chelsom
Interview by Melanie Meggs
Born in Blackpool, England and based in Los Angeles, Peter Chelsom is a life-long photographer and acclaimed filmmaker. He trained as a photographer, but then won a place at London's Central School of Drama. For the next ten years he worked as an actor, playing leading roles in television series, films and in the theatre for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre. It was while his acting career was flourishing that he chose to turn to writing and directing. Some of his films include Serendipity, Shall We Dance, Funny Bones and most recently, Security.
Peter attributes becoming a filmmaker to a single moment in time – his thirteenth birthday present was a used Kodak Retinette 1B. Suddenly everything became a photograph to him – “I don’t draw a line between my still photography and my films. One is always feeding the other. It’s always about the place where humanity meets photography. Still photographs tell stories just as much as films.”
Peter continues to photograph today. The series of photos that Peter has chosen to share with The Pictorial List are about the photographer and not the filmmaker. It is with great honour we had the chance to interview Peter to find out more about his visual approach to his photography.
“I think I have a subconscious rule to my filmmaking – when I’m setting up a scene to shoot, I ask myself – “Is this working as a still photograph before anyone has started acting?” Sometimes I would cast an actor not necessarily because of his/her talent but because of what I call ‘the inescapable power of the still photograph of that person’. Sometimes no level of great acting can overrule the effect of that ‘photograph’ on the viewer. It helps to understand photography.”
IN CONVERSATION WITH PETER CHELSOM
TPL: Peter please tell us about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?
PC: I was born in Blackpool in the north of England. These days, I live between Los Angeles and Italy. I can trace my passion for photography back to one single moment – just before he died, my father gave me a Kodak Retinette 1B for my thirteenth birthday. Suddenly, everything became a photograph. I was obsessed. And, of course, it became his legacy.
When I became a film director, I realized very quickly that I don’t draw a line between my still photography and my films. One is always feeding the other. It’s always about the point where humanity meets photography. Still photographs tell stories just as much as films. Or at least they should.
I think I have a subconscious rule to my filmmaking – when I’m setting up a scene to shoot, I ask myself – “Is this working as a still photograph before anyone has started acting?” Sometimes I would cast an actor not necessarily because of his/her talent but because of what I call ‘the inescapable power of the still photograph of that person’. Sometimes no level of great acting can overrule the effect of that ‘photograph’ on the viewer. It helps to understand photography.
TPL: What does photography mean to you? Describe your style. Where or how do you find inspiration?
PC: When I first stepped into the school photographic darkroom and saw that first image emerge in the developing tray, it wasn’t just magic, it wasn’t just amazing – it was something else. It justified a feeling I had always had. A hunch. A longing. A belief that there was more to this world than meets the eye. It was as if the photo saw it all clearly, it was like the photo knew more than I did. An alternate reality. I still get that same feeling. It’s what drives me.
When I made my first short film, I remember my brother seeing it and saying “It’s like your living room wall, but moving.” He meant my filmmaking images strongly reflected my style in stills. It set me thinking. It has been said about my films that there is a ‘signature look’ to my work. But it’s very dangerous to become too conscious of that. At its best, your ‘signature’ look should be something you can’t help, rather than something you strive for. It should be who you are.
Other photographers inspire me! Sometimes I look at their wonderful work (including recently on The Pictorial List, I swear!) and I think “Wow, they are taking the photographs I should be taking, if only I pushed myself.” I never copy, it’s not like that. It just gives me so much pleasure to see other photographers’ work when it is honest, authentic and personal to them.
And, of course, faces inspire me.
TPL: Talk to us more about your photos that you sent to us. Do you photograph predominantly in black and white? What do you want the viewer to experience when they look at your work?
PC: Black and white was how it all started for me. I still shoot predominantly black and white. It helps me attain that ‘alternate reality’ that caused me to fall in love with it all in the first place. That sense of the abstract.
In the photos I have submitted here, I purposely avoided my photos of any famous actors I have worked with. That would have felt like cheating! I’m very lucky to have been privy to certain worlds and situations in which, honestly, it was impossible not to take a good photo by virtue of the subject. I have chosen the photos here precisely because they are about the photographer and not the filmmaker.
Filmmaking involves hundreds of people. Stills photography is a beautifully solitary affair at the end of which I can stand back, look at a photo and say to myself “I did that. And no-one meddled!”
As for what I want the viewer to experience, the three photos from my New York Bench series might be the work by which I could best define my intention. Some of that series are very ‘sad’ and it raises the issue of the ethics of photography. Are we sometimes exploiting our unknowing subjects for personal gain? (They were taken using a 90 degree mirror attachment to avoid them knowing I was shooting). But that question may well be the reason I waited 32 years to share them (on my Instagram page), guaranteeing that the subjects had long passed. I don’t know. But I do know that the litmus test is your own compassion for the lot of the people you portray. Is it real or is it opportunistic? Some of them seem to be about the burden of life. Dread. Dissatisfaction. I trust that, even in the saddest of images, we are able to reflect from a place of ‘there but the grace of god go I’. May it ultimately shine light, evoke compassion.
TPL: What have been some of your favourite memories or moments in your photography journey? What have you personally gained from your experiences?
PC: I have every single negative from the age of 13. Scanning some of them after so many years has given me enormous pleasure. They just don’t deteriorate! They are pristine! And basically I realize I’m the same photographer as I was at that age.
A highlight in photographic adventures for me occurred about four years ago. I was shooting a segment to the film ‘Berlin, I Love You’. I had made the central character a photographer largely because I knew I wanted to do all the stills for the film as well. Stepping out into Berlin streets like some wannabe Cartier-Bresson, giving myself a precise mission, precise themes – it was about as happy as I’ve ever been! Some of those I have submitted here – Berlin Chimney Sweep. Berlin Man in Café. Eating Alone. Loneliness. Lunch Envy, Berlin.
TPL: Do you have any favourite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?
PC: My choices here are very obvious. Henri Cartier-Bresson blew my mind when I was young. Huge influence. Framing. Humanity. Even humour.
Then recently, the work of Vivian Maier. Strangely, her work seduced me into the idea of using a flip screen – I realized that most of her work was taken using a Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex, therefore looking down into its waste level screen. I think it enabled her to be even more invisible in her street work. But, oh my god, her timing and her eye.
TPL: When you are out shooting - how much of it is instinctual versus planned?
PC: Knowledge is power. Technical knowledge. Readiness will be rewarded. By which I mean I try to ‘plan my unplanned shots’. I suppose I’m talking mostly ‘street’ here. The photo entitled ‘Attitude Italian’ was taken by the canals of Milan a year ago. I knew the girls were heading my way and I predicted there would be a perfect spot to shoot them. I had one chance. And I was shooting with a f0.95 lens, wide open, focusing manually on a moving target! So it’s a balance between experience and letting go.
And then, sometimes I plan a shot completely. But always trying to leave room for it to ‘breathe’. Even with the planned shots, it should feel like ‘catching’ it, as opposed to ‘staging’ it.
Black and white was how it all started for me. It helps me attain that ‘alternate reality’ that caused me to fall in love with it all in the first place. That sense of the abstract.
TPL: What are some tips or advice you would give yourself if you started photography all over again?
PC: Shoot more! Believe in yourself more. Give yourself more assignments. Set yourself tasks. And carry a camera as much as you can, but make sure it’s portable and not a burden.
TPL: Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?
PC: I have ditched my very heavy Canon range in favor of the more portable Fuji X system. I love my Fuji X-E3. It has the same sensor as the X-T2 but is much smaller. I still have my X70 (Lunch Envy, Berlin. Berlin Man in Café). Modern capabilities, old school analogue feel.
In the past I had all kinds of beautiful film cameras that I should never have sold! Especially my medium format gear. But I recently bought a Bronica S2A which shoots 6x6 square. It has rekindled my love of shooting 120 film. I was recently staggered by the resolution of some scans from it – I mean I couldn’t see any evident grain or pixels at quite sizable enlargements. I strongly believe in forcing yourself to work with a fixed prime, either 35mm equivalent or 50mm equivalent. It really does make you a better photographer.
TPL: What are some of your goals as an artist or photographer? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
PC: I would like to publish a book (who wouldn’t?). I’m not known as a photographer and it would give me a lot of pleasure. The book would be photos and the stories behind the photos.