Capturing icons is a tricky job, be that humans or landmarks. An icon is an icon for a reason, people know what to expect, they can usually picture the image in their mind’s eye as soon as they hear the name or phrase uttered. Which is one of the many reasons that Phil Penman’s work is so refreshing, he delivers the unexpected. His New York series is an ode to the iconic sights of his chosen hometown, seen through the lens of a native and not a tourist. Phil has lived in New York City for over 17 years, he’s seen the city go through many changes and has captured those with his camera while riding around town on a fixed gear. His work is characterized by a love for the city, which exudes out of every one of his images, as well as a lot of patience. He spends his days riding around town, enjoying New York City’s unique characters, capturing them with his Leica SL while he waits for that perfect beam of sunlight to hit the next architectural landmark. Born in the charmingly named village of Briantspuddle in the county of Dorset, the veteran photographer has made New York his home while it has also become an import part of his work. Below, we caught up with Phil to discuss his photography and his singular view on one of the most iconic cities of our time.
When did you first pick up a camera?
I picked up my first Nikkomat camera when I was about 15 years old. Back then I was obsessed with fine grain so I was going around on a bicycle (I was still too young to drive) with a tripod strapped to my back and 25 ISO technical pan film. At the time, I was largely shooting the monuments and castles around the Dorset countryside.
How did your passion for photography develop? Is there anyone in particular, who influenced or inspired you along the way?
My father was a photographer, so I learned from him about the darkroom. He had turned our car garage into a darkroom. I would spend most nights into the early mornings printing. You lose track of time in the darkroom and I remember one morning my mother banging on the door. I had gone from 7 pm until 7 am printing with no concept of the time. You forget to eat! All I was concerned with, was getting that perfect print.
When did you move to NYC? And how did this move affect your photography?
I first moved to New York City in January of 2001. I had spent the last six months living in Los Angeles, working for a photo agency and they were looking for someone to help open up their NYC office. I wanted to move to New York after having visited as a 16-year-old with my parents.
I would say it was a while before my photography really started to take shape. I was just in the groove of working. I was doing a lot of investigative journalism. Tracking down murderers in Brazil, hunting down pedophile priests, and also a lot of celebrity work as this is where the money was at the time. The job was far from boring. Every day was a different challenge and I learned a lot.
Living largely out of a suitcase, I traveled all over the world. After five years with the agency, I went freelance. I wanted to be able to dictate when I traveled and what I was going to photograph, not on a hours’ notice by someone else. Many times my phone would ring and I would have to leave.
Once a friend of mine flew over from the UK. We were together for about an hour in a bar before I got a call saying “You’re off to Argentina in two hours’ time, you have a portrait shoot in Buenos Aires tomorrow morning”. I left him with my keys and off I went. This can get old very quickly.
Around 2004 I bought myself a Leica M7, then a Leica R8, Leica R9 and a bunch of lenses. I was determined to get back into photography. Work is work, but photography is my passion and I wanted to re-discover it.
I found shooting with my Leica film cameras helped me separate work from shooting for myself.
When did you first start shooting your on-going “New York” series? What inspired you?
In 2004, I really began to shoot this series. I would spend every minute of everyday riding around the city on a fixed gear bicycle, largely for work looking for celebrity stories to work on. My bag would consist of a large telephoto mounted on a Canon for celebrity shots, and then I would have a Leica with a 35mm F1.4 lens in another pocket. Every time I would see an interesting character or moment, I would jump off my bike and pull out the Leica.
If the weather was foggy or I knew it was going to be dramatic, I would ride the bike to a particular landmark or place that I wanted to capture.
Your images speak to the close relationship you have with the city, how does that influence your work?
The city is very dear to my heart, you can feel it like a pulse. This city has been very good to me and given me opportunities I do not think I would have had anywhere else. However, I definitely have a love/hate relationship with her. The same as in any relationship.
Recently I was angry about something that was happening with work and remember walking down to the lobby of my building and looking out to see it really foggy. I quickly checked the weather forecast and thought, sod it! I’m going back to get my camera. I grabbed my Leica SL and headed to the “Top of the Rock” at Rockefeller Center. I’d never been there before. When I arrived there were no huge tourists lines and I was warned that there was zero visibility at the top.
I proceeded up to the top and spent four hours chatting with a security guard before watching the fog lift and have the sun striking down on the Empire State building. It was a very epic moment, watching this magnificent building strike through the fog as the clouds opened up.
It was my own personal moment with the city. Nobody was really up there yet. It’s moments like this that change your entire day or years to come.
How does your view of the city, as a native, differ from that of a tourist?
I would say it has to do more with how we all see the city. Everyone sees something different, it’s simply whether we capture it in this way. These days I will be shooting a scene and next thing I know someone has stopped behind me to take the same shot with their cellphone to post on social media.
Sometimes people will shoot the same thing, just because they believe that it is the way its supposed to be captured or that the other person with the fancy camera is a better photographer than them, so if they copy what they are doing it will be good.
We tend to shoot a lot of images these days to please our crowd or following and get “likes”, and depending on how many “likes” you get, dictates how good a picture it is. This, however, is not the case.
Social media algorithms dictate how many views or “likes” a picture may get, or you can simply just buy likes and a following. I have always shot pictures for myself and if I see that everyone is doing one thing I go and do the complete opposite. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it does not. However, if there are 50 photographers in one place and none on the other side, what am I missing? All I’m going to get is the same as everyone else has.
I was told early on by my father that whenever you travel somewhere, “Start shooting immediately or your eyes adjust to your surroundings. What you first believed to be different or interesting is now not so much. It’s not that it changed, but your perception of it has. It’s become normal to you.”
Can you tell us a little about your process? How do you go about capturing your images?
These days I largely use a Leica M and Leica SL. I first fell in love with the Monochrom, largely because when using the Eye-Res adapter I could view the world in black and white. I would focus up using the rangefinder and then frame my images with the adapter.
Something about seeing the world in black and white just takes you back in time, but also I find it pulls me out of reality. I find myself being much bolder with my images and get so much joy from being about to really see how my image is going to come out. Recently I discovered I could view the Eye-Res in the Leica SL in black and white as well. It’s become my drug of choice.
When I shoot I’m planning everything in black and white and have found that being able to see my exposure change whilst viewing in the Eye-Res has allowed me to come up with ideas I had not necessarily thought of before. I’m very fond of trying to capture different takes on iconic New York structures. Easier said than done, but if you do not try you will never know.
Which of these images is your favorite? And why?
To say I have a favorite image is very hard. I do however have moments that gave me such joy shooting that I found myself pressing the shutter just for the hell of it, knowing full well I already had the shot.
One of my favorite moments was photographing people chatting under the FDR Drive with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. It was a foggy morning and I was off, ready to go on my bike looking for celebrities. I noticed the fog was low on the East River so I decided to head along the bike path until I found this particular moment. I used my Leica M camera to capture it. It was almost like I was on my own movie set, watching little silhouettes chatting in front of me with the fog moving along the river behind them.
Which camera did you choose to shoot the series with? And how would you describe the experience of using this particular camera?
I’ve been shooting with the Leica SL and the Leica M. Both have their own respective qualities. The SL is a professional camera that allows me to shoot color and view in black and white through the Eye-Res viewfinder. It also allows me to use long lenses for shots I cannot get with the Monochrom because I simply do not have the lenses.
The Monochrom allows me to be discreet. I can get into moments that I might not be able to do with a big camera. Also when I do a lot of my street portraits, people are not asking me which magazine it’s going to appear in.
Apart from more of the fantastic “New York” series, what can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
My New York series is a lifelong project, I’m also interested in capturing a lot more New York Characters that are of great interest to me.
I have a lot of things in the works. I’ve been lucky enough to shoot a lot of celebrity portraits over the years and recently I have been doing a lot of authors and artists such as celebrated cartoonist Art Spiegelman and author Robert Caro for the New York Review of Books.
I’m also looking into doing a series of young, contemporary artists in a kind of homage to one of my hero’s Arnold Newman who did a great series on artists.
I’ve also been working on a book about my days as a celebrity photographer. A behind-the-scenes look at what goes into getting the shot.
If you could offer just one piece of advice to your fellow photographers, what would it be?
Don’t try to please the crowd. Go out and shoot what you want to shoot and what brings you great joy.