When I first interviewed talented street photographer Pete Zelewski just over two years ago, he was working on a project documenting some of London’s “lost souls” everywhere from Brixton to Tottenham Court Road to Hackney. But he wasn’t just shooting from a distance and running off. He was approaching his subject, starting a conversation and making an attempt to forge a connection before the camera came out.
When I found out he has an exhibition coming up later this month featuring his latest project, The People of Soho, I had to find out more. Read on for the story of Mark, a Soho tailor more or less engrained in the history of the area, a bit about Pete’s search for the perfect exhibition space nearby and his favourite Soho hangout for an unmissable traditional full English Breakfast.
LLO: Two years have passed since I last interviewed you. What have you been up to since? In terms of photography, has your style changed or evolved in any way since?
PZ: It’s hard to believe it has been two years since you last interviewed me because it seems like a century ago in terms of my personal photographic progression. At the time I was working on a project called ‘Lost Souls’ which was a collection of street portraits featuring homeless and disenfranchised Londoners. I started the project with very little knowledge of street portraiture, and probably because of my naivety, really just made it up as I went along. Having said that, I think it was the best grounding I could have had in street portraiture because it forced me to work in all sorts of difficult situations mostly with individuals who were not accustomed to being photographed. Although at the time I was still new to photography and concentrating mainly on my photographic technique, I was in turn picking up essential communication skills working with complete strangers which has been the foundation for my latest project ‘The People of Soho’.
After ‘Lost Souls’ I was keen to use all the experience I gained during the project and channel it into a new street portraiture project in an area of London that I had real passion for. It didn’t take long for me to realise that Soho was my favourite part of London and I felt the unique characters in the area would make for a fantastic street portraiture project and that’s when the People of Soho was born. In contrast to my previous work, I was keen that the photographs in TPOS would have more of a stylised look to them. I often saw the streets of Soho as a continuous catwalk with all the interesting people walking around and I wanted that to come across in the photographs. To achieve this I decided to first start searching for interesting backgrounds and alleyways which would serve as a foundation for the portraits. Because I had lost so many great shots previously to poorly chosen backgrounds, I wanted to make sure the backgrounds really flattered the individuals I was photographing. Once a few key backgrounds were selected the project took off very quickly and I was shooting most weekends and getting much more confident, not only in my technical ability but also with how I engaged with my subjects. For me this project was as much about getting engaging with people as it was about the technical aspects of photography.
LLO: Your People of Soho project is being exhibited at the Freud Café-Bar and Gallery this April – May. Tell us a bit about what to expect from your exhibition.
PZ: While shooting on the streets of Soho I would often finish a long day by having a drink in one of the many coffee shops relaxing and checking out the day’s work on my camera. As the project was starting to take shape and have a consistent feel to it and I thought it would be a good idea to have an exhibition in the area near to where I took the photographs. I didn’t want to exhibit in a soulless white gallery space but in the sort of place that people could chill out, have a drink and check out the photographs on the wall in the process. I looked into a few places in and around Soho but none really had the atmosphere (or space) I wanted until I stumbled across the Freud Café-Bar and Gallery in Shaftesbury Avenue (a short walking distance from Soho). The mood at Freud is very laid back and the large wall space will make a great backdrop for my photographs. The show starts on the 27th of April and I will be exhibiting around 15-20 of the best photographs from the project which will be on display for 30 days. The photographs do look very striking in print and I strongly encourage anyone in the London area to stop by and have a look, not only to check out the photographs but also to sample Freud’s delicious cocktails.
LLO: Why did you choose Soho as the focus of your project People of Soho? What is it that continues to draw you back to the area?
PZ: I think for any photographic project to be a success you really have to be passionate about the place you’re shooting in (and the subjects you’re shooting) so in that respect it was always going to be Soho. I see Soho as being the centre of London if not the centre of the universe. I just can’t imagine London without Soho. When I first arrived in London from Detroit many years ago, Soho was the first place I gravitated to and for me that hasn’t changed. It’s one of those rare London places that is engrained with so much history yet also still feels very modern and moving forward at the same time. It’s certainly become more commercialised over the years and it’s not as seedy as it once was but it still has a special atmosphere all of its own which distinctively makes it Soho and that’s the reason I keep coming back.
Photo: Bass Player Lewis from London band La Shark in Bourchier Street, Soho, London.
LLO: Tell us about the most memorable interaction you’ve had with someone while out shooting on the streets of Soho.
PZ: I started TPOS project in 2011 and I have photographed over 100 people in the process. To be honest there was something special about every photograph so it’s always hard to pick a standout shot. Having said that, my personal favourite from the project has to be the portrait of Soho tailor, Mark Powell. A proper born and bred Londoner, Mark Powell is an absolute institution in Soho working as a tailor in the area for over 27 years dressing everyone from The Krays to Mick Jagger to Paul Weller and Bradley Wiggins. With his modern outlook combined with old-fashioned values he epitomises everything great about Soho and it was a must that I photographed him for my project.
When it came time to photographing Mark I toyed with the idea of going through his PA first, to arrange a photoshoot, but I thought that might make things too formal. Instead, I approached him like I did most of my subjects and just walked into his shop one Saturday afternoon. Fortunately, the shop was empty but Mark was on the phone having a heated conversation with, who I thought at the time was, an unhappy business contact. I considered leaving the shop and returning when the mood was less tense but it was too late by this stage and I nervously waited for him to finish. When he finished the call he apologised for making me wait and said ‘Sorry about that, it was only me mum, she makes me call her daily and gets annoyed when I forget!’
Thankfully, he was in fine spirits now and excited to be photographed agreeing to walk to nearby Lexington Street for the shoot. Mark is without a doubt the finest dressed man in Soho so there was no need to worry about him not looking good as he looked amazing in his immaculate tweed overcoat, pinstripe suit and red striped tie. As we walked towards Lexington Street, he talked about his continuing support for West Ham, his mate Paul Weller, his love of Jazz and how Soho has changed over the years (he lives above Bar Italia in Soho). The shoot couldn’t have gone better and Mark really played to the camera clearly enjoying it as much as I was. I shot about 30 frames continually directing Mark and he looked incredible in every shot. Predictably, as a tailor who has made a living paying attention to fine detail, he checked every shot out on my camera and was really pleased with the results. Later when I sent his PA the images he commented that they were some of the best photos taken of him, which was a great compliment to me!
Photo: London’s most iconic and influential tailor who has dressed countless celebrities including Paul Weller, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and the Kray twins. It’s the legendary Mark Powell in Lexington Street, Soho, Central London.
LLO: What happens next? Will you continue to focus on Soho or is there another area of London that appeals for a part 2 of the series?
PZ: I’ve spent so much time taking photographs in Soho over the last year I think the local residents will get a restraining order taken out on me if I was to continue! Now that the project is finished I have no plans to continue shooting in Soho, but I will definitely be starting my next photographic project very soon. I have a few ideas running around in head, one being a street portraiture project of London’s elderly community. In some ways the gentrification of London’s poorer boroughs has been a good thing, but I think it’s very sad to see the way local communities seem to have been pushed to one side in favour of the latest ‘cool’ neighbourhood. I would love to meet and photograph some of the long surviving locals in places like Bethnal Green, Hackney and Brixton, people who have lived in these areas all their lives and must have some amazing tales to tell. So much street portraiture these days concentrates on youth and I would love to do something completely in the opposite direction.
I am also toying with the idea of shooting the project in film (medium format). I have recently been inspired by some great film portrait photographers such as Kenneth O’ Halloran, Shannon Richardson and Niall McDiarmid. Niall is a particular favourite with his recent Crossing Paths project. He shoots in a completely stripped down way using film with no post production. His photographs of local people throughout the UK are very inspiring and honest and a constant reminder to me what great portrait photography is all about. I have never met him but just by looking at his photos, you can see what an incredible connection he must have with his subjects and his compositions and background selections are always perfect. Moving across to film might seem like a step backwards (in terms of technology) but in some ways, I see it as a necessity for me to move forward.
In addition to continuing my street portraiture work, I’ve recently been approached by the Royal Photographic Society and asked to run a series of street portraiture workshops in London this summer. This is something I’m really excited about, as it would be a great opportunity to meet some of the people who follow my work to help them improve their street portraiture techniques. I’ll be posting details of the workshops on my website very soon.
LLO: You can tell that people warm to you before you photograph them. How long do you spend with your subjects? What do you say when you approach to ask permission?
PZ: I have always maintained that the success of any portrait (whether on the street or in a studio) is based on the connection you make with your subject and that is something I have continually tried to improve on since I first got into street portraiture. I am not a big fan of the 30 second shoot and run method of street portraiture and always try and spend as much time as possible with my subjects getting to know them long before I start shooting. I can sometimes spend 4-5 hours in a day (if not longer) walking around London without spotting anyone I want to photograph so when someone has that special something that really catches my eye, I am usually pretty excited about the possibility of photographing them. I think that passion must come across in my approach as most always agree to be photographed. When I first approach someone I normally just tell them that they look great and I would love to photography them for my project. I find that an honest and respectful approach works best. Even when they agree I still take the time to explain my project in detail and show them images from the project on my iPad so they know exactly what to expect. If someone I approached was working in a shop (which happens quite a bit these days) I always speak to their manager to get their agreement too. Again, it is all about being respectful of the time they are giving up for you.
Since the backgrounds/locations were quite a big part of my TPOS project, I would often have to walk with my subjects to a location that was 5 -10 minutes away. I found this really gave me the chance to get to know them as much as possible and ease the tension before the photography starts. To get the most out of the shoot I would continually direct and never let things get dull, keeping the momentum going at all times. Recently I have been spending as long as 10-15 minutes on some shoots if I felt my subjects were really enjoying it and had the time to spare. Once the shoot is finished I always give my subject a business card (with web address and email details) so that they can keep in touch and check out the final image on my website. I also try and supply a selection of JPEGs and a print to show my appreciation for their time.
LLO: Time for some more general London questions. Which part of London do you call home and what’s the best thing about living there?
PZ: Since I arrived in London in1986 for me home has always been North. I am one of those Londoners who breaks out in a rash if I am forced to cross the river South! It might have something to do with my mother having been brought up in Kings Cross, my wife being born in Tufnell Park or my love of Arsenal! Either way, I have lived in most parts of North London over the years but now Belsize Park is where I call home. It is probably my age talking but I really appreciate having the wide open spaces of Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill on my doorstep which is a great haven when things get too chaotic in the city. I also love the village-y feel to NW3 and the fact that I can walk into the West End in around 30 minutes. I spent some time in New York last summer which really made me appreciate the small villages of London, which is something you just don’t get in Manhattan.
LLO: I’m looking for somewhere tasty to eat and drink away from the tourist trail. Any recommendations?
PZ: Hands down it has to be a delicious full English breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, chips and beans (and a large mug of milky tea) from Bar Bruno on the corner of Wardour Street and Peter Street in Soho. It is one of the last true vestiges of old Soho which I have been frequenting for over 20 years now. Not only is it the perfect place to fill your stomach (and clog your arteries) with a delicious breakfast, but an ideal place to people watch from the cool green 70’s style leatherette booths. The atmosphere is brilliant with continuous loud banter from the Italian staff who can sometimes be rude, but it has a certain charm you won’t get anywhere else in London. If there was ever one reason to avoid the long queues at the overrated Breakfast Club (two streets away) then Bar Bruno is it!