Photographs by Christian Hayes
What is the City Project?
Most of the photographs I had been taking were during my travels. These were personal, colourful, picture postcard digital images that allowed me to learn about photography. There were periods of time where I would put my camera down on returning from a holiday and not pick it up again until I was heading for another airport. This is a common problem amongst those who photograph for pleasure. It's the exotic, unknown and different that qualifies for a photograph to be made and not the boring street where you live.
Yet as I walked around London, the city where I have always lived, I wondered how could I take a 'good' photograph of this messy, ugly place. There were lots of things I would have been interested in seeing in a photograph. Shop windows, signs, people, architecture. I have no problems taking photographs in Paris, Lisbon, Florence - these cities are photogenic. But in London high streets are covered with plastic facades and brand names - streets are lined with cars - and there are crowds and crowds of disorganised, messy faces and clothes.
In 2012 I acquired a film camera, a Pentax K1000, and bought a roll of Ilford HP5+ black and white 35mm film. I had no idea how the images came out but with a 24mm lens, perfect for taking in buildings across the street, I walked around town after work for several hours, taking pictures of whatever took my interest. And cities change when you have a camera in your hands and your only purpose is to photograph. You have no real destination, instead just a visual curiosity that leads you down roads and sidestreets. And you start to notice things you would have never seen before. One of the key things I spotted very quickly was how the past was still clearly present, that buildings and streets have had a long history before you ever approached them. Shops open and close, people move in and out, and the cityscape sluggishly changes.
That first roll came out really well. I was astonished by the character inherent in black and white film, how the grain and tone of a black and white image added a level of visual interest that was not present at the actual location.
I had chosen black and white film to try and keep everything as simple as possible. And then I realised that working in black and white makes you rethink colour and how colour is perhaps a distraction to an image. Striking colours can end up being the subject of the photograph rather than the place, person or object you had intended to frame. And I discovered another thing, that London suited black and white. The sky here is almost always grey. It makes the buildings grey and the people grey. It's this greyness that is captured so well in black and white images of London.
You might ask why don't I just take digital photographs and convert to black and white? It's something we've all done. But ultimately there's something inauthentic about doing so. You could very likely make a digital photograph look identical to a black and white film frame using software such as Silver Efex Pro and not actually know the difference. ut the photographer knows that it's not actually a black and white image, it just appears to be one. With a roll of black and white film you no longer have the choice of colour.
And then I bought a Leica. A used Leica M6 to be precise. And a single Leica lens, a 35mm F2.5 Summarit. After saving for a long time I ended up getting a great deal on it. Together the camera and lens are so compact that I can carry it in my coat pocket. It's discreet and precise. Unlike my electronic DSLR I'm happy to take out my mechanical Leica in any types of weather. Since it's discreet I can take photos in public without being too conspicuous.
And I was very interested to find out what I was drawn to. Buildings. Perhaps buildings that would be of little interest to anyone else: barber shops, laundrettes, hotels and cafes. Trying to find the past still on show in unexpected parts of the city.
And then there are problems. Some buildings are too large to take images of. Others are inconveniently placed in front of a bus stop or lampost, or parked cars. But one of the greatest challenges is people, the mass of bodies passing through your frame when you're trying to get an image of an empty street. I've found myself waiting for ten minutes with my feet fixed to the ground until the frame is clear. Yes you will see some bodies in my shots but when photographing buildings or streets I like the atmosphere of a quiet, empty location.
So in 2012 I set out to take images of London on film. I will keep shooting and see what happens...
See the City Project.