John Kortland waits patiently in Trafalgar Square, amid tourists and pigeons and Londoners with a trained eye on life unfolding around him. Timing is everything. There’s a moment when a street photograph comes together perfectly. And suddenly, with a blink of a shutter, that moment is captured. And many of these moments come together and begin to unfold a story of millions of Londoners living the high life, scraping by or wandering through. John’s collection is a small glance at Londoners on pause, but there are a million stories buried in these images.
John has taken some time away from his camera to have a chat with us about his regular photography “hunting grounds” around London and the biggest challenges he faces when trying to capture that perfect moment on camera. He’s shared some fantastic shots throughout the interview. Enjoy!
LLO: You’re now retired and photography is a major focus for you in your spare time. Give us a bit of background on your life before retirement and how that led you to enjoy photography today.
JK: I worked for Ford Motor Company for 37 years, starting as an apprentice, then an engineer, and spending the last 13 years in IT. When I was still an apprentice, a guy I worked with belonged to a Photographic Society. I went along one evening, got the shutter bug and was addicted.
I used to shoot black and white images, street photography mostly. I used to love Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday. I developed and printed the results in my loft darkroom which was like a furnace in the summer and an icebox in the winter. I entered and won a few competitions. Eventually work took me away from home so photography took a back seat until I retired. I then took the plunge into the digital age, and I am enjoying every moment of it.
LLO: In which ways does London influence your creativity and how?
JK: London is so influential. I love it because anyone can walk down the street dressed in the most eccentric manner, or in nothing, and nobody takes a blind bit of notice; there are so many great characters, and wonderful locations, the narrow cobbled streets in the City of London, the public squares, and the great street markets. You can’t fail to be influenced by such a diverse range of subjects.
LLO: Which area of London is your favourite to take your camera and why?
JK: I have a few regular “hunting grounds” – normally Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, Somerset House and in and around the City of London, especially around the Bank of England. Trafalgar Square is my favourite.I like the Square as you never know what is going to happen next or who is going to stroll through, anyone from Grayson Perry dressed as his alter-ego Clare to desperate people whose life is lived on the street; to me it’s London in a nutshell.
LLO: Have you ever had an adverse reaction from someone you’ve photographed in the streets?
JK: I can honestly say I’ve never had a really adverse reaction from any of my subjects. Some of them turn away or walk away, but if that happens I just move on. All my photographs are shot in public places, on the street, so as far as I’m concerned anybody is fair game. My view is if someone wants to dress flamboyantly or act in a eccentric manner in public then they are saying “look at me”, so I do, and take their picture.
LLO: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome as a street photographer and specifically to get a great shot that you really wanted?
JK: The biggest challenge I have is being patient. The most frustrating thing in London are tourists and sightseers who inadvertently stand right in my line of view or walk between me and the subject just as I fire the shutter. Thanks to the wonders of digital cameras you can normally take several more, but I have missed numerous good shots this way. I do ask people to move sometimes, and I have found that the scariest looking people are often the most cooperative, loving the attention I give them.
LLO: Tell us about your camera equipment.
JK: My equipment consists of a Nikon D90 camera and a Nikon 55 -200 zoom. I used to use fixed focal length lenses in my film days, as zoom optics were not as good, but these days I can’t fault the image quality and the range of the 55 – 200 covers all I need for street work. The purist street photographers shudder at this, as they all sing the praises of prime lenses but honestly, I don’t care. It works for me.
LLO: What are the most important elements of an image for you when composing a shot?
JK: Subject matter is the number one element for me, closely followed by composition and lighting, also backgrounds. I try to get as clean a background as possible although it’s not always possible with street “grab” shots. I do love using backlighting, especially for black and whites this time of year, when the sun is low in the sky, I am always aware of the strong shadows the bright winter sun casts – something to watch for if shooting a portrait.
LLO: Share your favourite London photograph from 2011, tell us the story behind it and what it means to you. (photo below)
JK: This is my favourite photograph of all my London pictures. It reminded me of the film Brief Encounter, with the two strangers briefly passing at St Pancras Station. I love the row of old lanterns and Victorian brickwork. it all worked for me. It was pure luck I shot it, I only went to the station to avoid the rain as it was one of those days I was gullible enough to believe the weather forecast. Sitting waiting for the rain to stop, I took three shots. This was the best of them. Also, it was the start of getting back into taking more black and white images.
LLO: What do you hope to communicate through your photography? Do you feel you have accomplished this to date?
JK: I hope to convey the vibrancy and eclectic nature of the people whom I meet on the streets of London, the fascinating characters, the eccentrics, the street performers, and all the people that make up the buzz of London. I also want to show its darker side, the lost and homeless, the sheer contrast between the haves and have-nots, trying not to exploit them but illustrate their plight. I don’t know if I’ve achieved that; the viewers of my photographs will decide.
LLO: Which London-based artist do you most admire at the moment and why?
JK: I love the work of Stephen Wiltshire, the autistic artist who does fantastic cityscapes, all from memory in the most infinite detail; I find them truly awe-inspiring. His observational skills are phenomenal, a true genius. I do like the work of Edward Hopper, not London-based, I know, but great pictures. I particularly like The Nighthawks, the sort of picture I would love to take.
Keep up with John’s photographic adventures around London on his Flickr page.
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