June 14, 2021
Photography by Streetmax 21
Interview by Melanie Meggs
As we live in a world that is becoming increasingly designed and governed by rules, it can often feel like the individual is an automaton within the system. The streets are filled with people, all seemingly going through the motions of their lives without much thought or emotion. Streetmax 21, a renowned street photographer, uses his lens to capture the beauty of this seemingly mundane world in his candid shots. He observes how our present circumstances govern our behavior individually and in crowds, and has captured scenes that beg the question – are we self-absorbed passersby uncannily playing out parts in isolation, or have we been conditioned to act in a certain way? His photographs are often taken in a half light with a muted colour palette, creating an atmosphere that speaks to our current state of affairs. But while at first glance there may seem something sad about these corporate scenes, Streetmax 21's intention is to transcend the mundane and make comical comment on our environment. Through his photographs, we can gain a unique perspective on how our circumstances shape our behavior.
“I think it’s imperative to be aware of trends impacting upon the human condition and to have a ready means of translating or alluding to these aesthetically. For example, It’s become very obvious today that technology has caused behavioural change in both overt and subtle ways. It connects us, but it has been instrumental also in disconnecting many from real society. I’m conscious of letting these polarities inform the images I make.”
IN CONVERSATION WITH STREETMAX 21
THE PICTORIAL LIST: Streetmax please tell us about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?
STREETMAX 21: I was born in Dundee, Scotland. I shuttle between London, where I’ve spent most of my adult life, and Norfolk, where I live now. I became interested in photography by degrees, at first using it as a means to assist in painting which I studied at art college. I’ve taken photographs ever since, working professionally for a while as an architectural photographer. My foray into street photography came about almost accidentally as a sideline to the large format architecture I was shooting for clients. I began to realise slowly that it was something I could do on my own terms.
TPL: Where do you find inspiration to photograph?
SM21: It’s difficult to pinpoint where I find inspiration but I like to think about what it is I’m trying to do. I’ll have several ideas fructifying at any one time, most of which I’ll later discard. The important thing is to find something that works on a multiplicity of levels. In a world awash with imagery, it’s necessary to strike up a signature style and augment it with relevant and recognizable add-ons.
TPL: What do you want to express through your photography? What are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?
SM21: I think it’s imperative to be aware of trends impacting upon the human condition and to have a ready means of translating or alluding to these aesthetically. For example, It’s become very obvious today that technology has caused behavioural change in both overt and subtle ways. It connects us, but it has been instrumental also in disconnecting many from real society. I’m conscious of letting these polarities inform the images I make. Although I predominantly photograph figures, both minimalism and conceptualism are forms which I have in mind always although I don’t necessarily work with their rigour. Photographic layering is less important to me than layers of meaning. The meaning of separated figures as a metaphor arises. Do they play with shifts in meaning yet evoke different analogies? Would it have been possible to make this work in another era? I don’t have answers, only questions made manifest by enigmatic imagery.
TPL: What happens when you go out with your camera? Do people respond positively to you, or do you sometimes get negative reactions? If yes, how do you handle it?
SM21: I try to use techniques that ensure I don’t draw too much attention to myself when shooting. For instance, on taking up a position, I often shoot from just below eye-level at chin height, lowering my eye to the viewfinder periodically to check the framing. This enables me not only to better see what’s about to enter the frame by looking over the camera, but gives the impression that I’m not shooting at all, merely considering it. Bar the occasional passer-by who’ll enquire about the camera I’m using, I don’t get much response either way.
TPL: When you take pictures, do you usually have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both?
SM21: Very occasionally images come to me but usually I adopt a watch and wait approach. I keep a number of locations in mind that I can return to when conditions are right. Some, I’ll visit several times. I’m looking for rhythm in moving figures and to have them separated visually within plastic space. Even though I’m working in a real environment, shooting figures in this way can give them an unreal look. It’s this kind of dichotomy that I find interesting. I photograph people because they’re more interesting than ideas, and I see figuration as a casing or a vehicular language capable of externalising concepts.
I photograph people because they’re more interesting than ideas, and I see figuration as a casing or a vehicular language capable of externalising concepts.
TPL: Do you have any favourite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?
SM21: My visual cues derive from a variety of media, mainly painting. Favourites here would be Nicolas Poussin, Holbein drawings, Ingres drawings, Eadweard Muybridge, Futurists, Photo-realists including Howard Kanovitz, Conceptualists Opalka, Darboven, Kawara and LeWitt. I like the idea of continuity in art - one artist/photographer laying the groundwork for another to follow and reinterpret. The best example of this was the British post-war sculpture movement, the most authentic to come out of London in recent times. In photography, being able to use light like Ray Metzker and having an eye for colour like Fred Herzog are things I aspire to. That said, I prefer to perceive what may be relevant artistically/photographically without looking too closely at the work of other artists/photographers. It’s enough to be aware of the cannon so as not to commit the sin of repeating it.
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?
SM21: I work with Fuji x-series cameras with 35mm equivalent lenses. I use a Nikon with wide angle lenses also. The only attachment I have is a spirit level mounted on the shoe - useful if I want to shoot from the hip or when I can’t see the on-board camera spirit level. Depth of field is always a concern for me given the complexity of what I’m attempting to photograph. In changeable London weather conditions, x-series cameras are pretty good when it's sunny, but at wider apertures they can soften badly at the image edge.
TPL: Do you have a favourite place to go photograph?
SM21: The bulk of my street photography has been done in London and particularly the City of London, often referred to as “The Square Mile”. I lived on the fringe of the City for over a decade and it became my photographic playground. Few live in it and it’s often deserted at weekends. The richest borough in the world surrounded by some of the poorest boroughs in Europe is a place like no other. I’ve referred before to it’s robotic formality, which I find compelling. It’s forever in an amoeba-like state of renewal. As well as the Portland Stone and metal clad corporate environment, I often photograph figures amidst the graphic devices of scaffolding and temporary hoardings as a nod to this continual regeneration.