On The EDGE: Tony Cearns

And by look I mean feel. Actually they become the same thing. Feeling with your eyes.

© Tony Cearns

© Tony Cearns

Hello, I am a street photographer and I am here to tell you all about it. Do you see the picture above? Well, I shot it.

Q1: Please state you name and occupation, please. Where do you live?

A: My name is Tony Cearns. I am a director of a financial services business based in Liverpool, England. Before that I have lived in many places, including London, Oman and Brazil.

Q2: Welcome to The One Photo Interview, by the way. It is the TOP Interview. Do you know what that means? It means that you will only have the opportunity to show one single photograph and you will refer to that for the rest of this interview, right? Would that be ok with you?

A: That’s fine Knut. Choosing one photo is tough though, but let’s go with it! I regard myself as a beginner, so I am humbled by this opportunity.

Q3: Any particular reason for taking that picture, Tony?

A: Intuition: I somehow knew that the young woman would turn to look at me as she walked past. The eye contact is important in that it creates a tension and a moment when two worlds meet. This is recreated every time the photo is looked at again, for me but for others too.  A collective consciousness and memory is at work.

Q4: Is this your style of street photography then? Do you think you have a style? If so, what is it?

A: I am too much of a beginner to have a discernible style. I look for photos that feel right to take. In a sense the photos come to me, rather than me seeking them out (although I move around quickly when out photographing).

Q5. Tell me what is street photography? Have you got a definition? Let’s hear it!

A: Westerbeck and Meyerowitz, in their book “Bystander”, define SP as taking pictures of people who are going about their business unaware of the photographer’s presence. Winogrand famously said he wanted to see what the world looked like in a photograph. But clearly there is much more to it than this, otherwise we would not think much of Winogrand. Alas too many photographers photograph things without saying much about them. You yourself have written extensively about this.

SP helps you to see things in a new light and encourages you to really look carefully and see deeply. And by look I mean feel. Actually they become the same thing. Feeling with your eyes.

Sometimes very ordinary things re-emerge as new and fresh. Also at the moment of shutter release, new relationships are created, between subject and photographer, between the viewer and him/herself and of course between the subject and him/herself. That is why for me eye contact is often important – it brings both the photographer and the person photographed into a moment of mutual awareness, acknowledgement and collective memory. It opens a channel to the unconscious. Bergson, Kierkegaard et al have much to say about this, as does the Zen tradition. Actually the camera becomes quite incidental, as does the street. In Zen, the sword is incidental to a master swordsman as is tea to a tea-ceremony or clay to master potter. HCB recognised this through reading Herrigel’s book, “Zen in the Art of Archery”. Others too: Thomas Joshua Cooper and Minor White. But I’d better stop there in case I start to bore your readers.

So I don’t really have a definition of SP as for me it’s more a phenomenological process than a type of photography. Photography speaks in much the same way as poetry.

Q6: Give me some basics. How long have you had an interest in street photography? Do you have any mentors that you have learned from?

A: I have been interested in photography as long as I can remember. My father was a very keen photographer in the 1950s and 1960s. I became aware of HCB when I was 8 years old and when I was 15 I tried to buy an M3 with my pocket money, but could not afford it. Then photography became subjugated to career pressures and only recently have I had the time to re-investigate.

For me, Stieglitz and HCB are the giants. Both had a great eye for form. Both studied painting and composition. Both understood that form intensifies a visual experience.

But there are many others whose work I admire: Walker Evans in particular, Kertesz, Koudelka, Moholy-Nagy, Ronis, Erwitt, Klein, Frank. More recent photographers include Martin Parr’s new European colour style, the British influence through Tony Ray-Jones and Nick Turpin, the Grapevine work of Susan Lipper, Patrick Zachman. I could go on but I will stop there. I think about the work of others a lot.

Q7: Let’s talk about equipment. Some have an almost religious addiction to it. Long lenses, short lenses, rangefinders, non rangefinders, compacts. Leicas, Canons, Nikons, analog or digital. What is your opinion of this? What is your preferred gear? Don’t be boring when you answer this, please.

A: The equipment is unimportant as long as it does the job you ask of it. I use an M9 but it’s more to do with the kinaesthetic help it gives me rather than anything technical. This camera feels like an extension to my arm and eye. I like the rangefinder and I like looking through a shutter window. It just feels right to me.

Q8: Are there any particular reasons why you call yourself a street photographer? Many people picture landscapes, seascapes, birds caved in. Do you take such pictures as well? What I mean to ask is, do you in fact do much parrot shooting in the zoo? Or similar non street themes. Do you?

A: The main reason is that the street induces in me a sense of hypersensitive alertness, helping me to see universal themes and insights into the human condition and ourselves. Often, it’s a question of what to exclude. I have taken landscape photos, particularly when I was a mountaineer when younger.

Q9: Do you know what is the difference between photography and plain picture taking? If so, tell me what it is.

A: I think I do. Good photographs have the power to transform. They question the meaning of something and lead to a further cycle of questioning within a private meditation. The meaning is a shared one, recognized without rational thought. Plain pictures do not do this.

Q10: Why do you think that all the best street photos are shot in black & white? How do you explain that?

A: I don’t think that the best street photos are in B&W. However, B&W does help to simplify forms, providing a perceptual asceticism which then enables an easier subconscious identification of those factors in a photo that create this private meditation that I mentioned above.

Q11: Do you think that street photography is a serious type of photography? Can anything good come of it? How do you see this?

A: Yes it is a serious type of photography and in my view the one that has the most power to engage with people, largely because it does this in an immediate and unconscious way.

Good street photos can provide compelling insights into the human condition, particularly at a time when people with different personal histories are being asked to relate to each other more and more.

Q12: Your vision? What is your vision for European street photography? What is the vision for your own photography? I am not going to ask how you see the future, but tell me anyway.

A: To break down barriers between people. Photography, music and poetry have the power to engage directly as they work in a non-rational way. I don’t think there is something particularly called European SP anymore. The genre is truly global with so many cross currents. However, the European tradition still has much to offer – for example British street photography often offers irony, humour and a sense of quirkiness.

Q14: One last question: What is the most important thing with a photograph? With any photograph?

A: For a street photograph, to reveal a truth glimpsed and felt. For that, the photo needs to go beyond simple representation and work at a subconscious level, touching the deep self and inducing an interior monologue.

Q15: Is it true then that street photography was invented in Europe?

A: I guess it’s debatable as Stieglitz showed street credentials at the turn of the century, but my view is that Paris and London saw the birth of the genre, particularly Paris with the rise of impressionism and Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life”.

Thank you very much, Tony. Much obliged. Will you see yourself out?

© Knut Skjærven.  All rights reserved


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