Since 2015, Andy Hall has taken his Leica Q and headed virtually every day into London’s finance district and into the centre of the British capital. During the pandemic, the photographer discovered a whole new side to these areas. In this interview, he explains what it is that fascinates him about street photography as a genre, the glass palaces of the City of London, and pictures by Alex Webb.
You are doing a lot of editorial work. Has street photography become your main field? What is the biggest challenge you face when you’re stalking about taking photos?
Being an editorial photographer, my photography for newspapers and magazines has been largely based around doing features on topical subjects, and reportage photography is what I feel I do best: spending time in a place or community; capturing people in their everyday environment; placing myself in their world but at the same time trying my best not to influence or manipulate the people around me.
In your eyes, what separates street photography from reportage?
I always take pride in working discreetly and being as oblivious to my subjects as I can. Reportage in that way, most resembles street photography. However, I’m a bit of a purist and feel that street photography at its heart is strictly candid photography, captured in a public space, without the subject’s prior knowledge. The jobs I get where I am doing just that, have been the most rewarding – those times I’ve immersed myself in my surroundings, pitting my wits against the flow of human activity swirling around me; trying to steal that unique, serendipitous split second moment. Nowadays, even when I’m not doing my own street photography projects, I find editors are giving me more assignments that are street photography-related. The biggest challenge for me lately, when I stalk the streets with my camera, is a practical one – there always seems to be somebody “official” who seems to think it’s their job to interrogate me, because I’m taking photos with a camera, not an iPhone!
Where were the pictures from your The Square Mile series taken, and when?
The Square Mile is the nickname given to the area at the very heart of the City of London’s financial district in the centre of London, and is also the oldest part of the capital. Living just outside it and starting my career there working for trade magazines based in the City of London, I’ve always had an affinity towards it. I’ve followed the boom-and-bust cycles of this dynamic area over the last 35 years.
How do you come to be focusing on the financial district?
As my career progressed and I began working all over the world, I lost touch with it a bit; but my interest in this world-renowned financial district was re-ignited after the banking crisis of 2008/9, and I soon began to pound its streets again, watching it recover in a spectacular construction boom that still seems to be carrying on, despite all other parts of society suffering economically. Now, the mixed landscape of narrow streets and alleyways next to ancient buildings, juxtaposed with big intersections overlooked by shiny glass monuments to 21st century capitalism fascinate me. Since I bought my Leica Q in 2015 I’ve been making the 15 minute journey into the Square Mile to capture its moods. It’s definitely a long-term project and, as it slowly recovers from the pandemic, I’m interested in what is going to happen to it post Brexit.
What do you focus on in particular when you wander the streets?
I always try to go for images that are striking – that jump out at you. I think above all, a photograph has to make an immediate visual impact. I love the way street photography can give you endless opportunities to make the mundane everyday into something eternal; iconic, even. I try to capture a mood – whether it’s the energy and tension from a busy populated scene, or the more desolate mood you can get from isolated figures against interestingly lit urban landscapes. When I wander the streets I look for frozen moments that combine movement and light, with the concentration on strong composition that will make the image stand out. I try to find strong light where I can, and ‘layers’ of subjects that I can build within a frame.
What body and lens/es did use for the project?
The Leica Q with the Summilux 28 f/1.7 is the perfect camera for street photography. It’s small, robust and very quick. It’s vital to have a discreet camera that is very responsive and whose settings and functions are very easy to use in dynamic, ever-changing situations. I’m planning on getting a Leica Q2, not least because it has great battery life!
You’ve mastered the use of light and shadow. It seems like Alex Webb had an influence on your approach…
You are right, Alex Webb has been a major influence on me. He is the absolute master. The graphic quality and visual complexity he brings to his images takes my breath away. I particularly admire his multi-layering of his subjects; and the way he manages to arrange the subjects within (and on the edge of) his frame is astounding. I’m always looking for strong compositions, and I try to look to make use of the light in the best way I can to make my photos as striking as possible; and in that way Alex Webb’s work has always inspired me. Other photographers I look to, especially in the way they compose their photographs, are Harry Gruyaert, Tomasz Tomaszweski and Graciela Magnoni.
Why do you prefer colour over black and white? What are the advantages of colour in your eyes?
I prefer colour to black and white simply because I want to capture life as it is. For me black and white is a form of manipulation; an alteration that is too much of a visual statement of its own. Besides, colour adds natural nuance, depth and energy to a photograph.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Andy Hall has been a London-based editorial photographer since 1988, specialising in news, portraits and reportage for regular clients such as the Observer and the Guardian, as well as for NGO’s such as the UNHCR. His commissioned work has also been published in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines including the Times magazine, The Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph, GQ magazine, Red Bulletin magazine, Newsweek, Der Spiegel and Le Monde. His photography has been displayed in exhibitions and has been published in several photographic book projects. Hall’s work on the hunger crisis in the Sahel was screened at the Visa Pour L’Image Photojournalism Festival in 2012. He was one of the winners of the Acuity press PDN-sponsored “Best of Street Photography 2016” award, as well as a finalist in the Brussels Street Photography Festival 2019, and a finalist in the Lensculture Street Photography Awards 2021. You can find more of Andy Hall’s work on his website and on Instagram.