I keep trying to kick my habit of buying photography books but occasionally a book comes along that you feel you absolutely have to own. So was the case with Peter Zelewski’s recently published book The People of London. Peter is an American who has lived in London for 30 years and spent the past five years photographing the people of his “favourite city”.
I first discovered Peter’s work last year as he was the 3rd place prizewinner in the 2015 Taylor Wessing Portrait competition which is displayed at the National Portrait Gallery from November onwards each year. His image of the drama student Nyaueth was taken as part of his Beautiful Strangers project. Even getting selected for this exhibition is no mean feat so to actually get third place is a tremendous achievement.
Peter’s photographic approach is to take his images out of doors – his portraits all being of people he meets whilst he is out and about. He has quite a distinctive style, his portraits are nearly all head and shoulder shots taken with quite a large aperture to throw the background completely out of focus. This allows him to close in on just the subjects face and in particular their eyes which themselves seem to tell so much about the person in front of the lens. Peter gets his subjects to look straight down the lens, right into the back of the camera and their eyes are often piercing and, you feel, looking right out of the pages straight at you. He sometimes supplements the image with a brief biography or a little back story about something significant that has happened in the persons life which is a nice little touch to give you a bit more insight into their life and background. My only complaint about this book is that he has not done that with all of his subjects but guess that’s quite an overhead when you are a one man band having to chat to your subject as well as trying to photograph them.
You might think it would be a bit boring to have over 100 images of people who are not well known film stars, politicians, artists or other celebrities all essentially striking the same pose and in similar environments however this is definitely not the case with Peter’s photographs.
Each and every image in this book manages to reveal a unique insight into the person which is a clear testament to the skill of the photographer making the picture. As a portrait photographer myself I know the most difficult aspect of any shoot is not dealing with the lighting or camera settings but how to interact with the ‘sitter’ especially if they are a little bit incalcitrant or reluctant to have their picture taken as is often the case with street photography. The skill of the portrait photographer is to entice, coerce, flatter and even seduce the sitter to reveal their true inner self. As Edward Steichen said “a portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” This is something Peter Zelewski clearly knows how to do and is eminently skilled at.
Here are a few more spreads from the book showing a little of the cultural and ethnic diversity of the people Peter has photographed for this project. All images are used with permission of the photographer and publisher. Click on an image to get a larger view but to get the best view go and buy the book.
As well as the great photographs which appear in this book I love the words Peter says in his introduction which I think should resonate well with any photographer who has lost a bit of creative direction:
“I loved the freedom the digital camera allowed and I rarely left home without it. However, I didn’t have a clear direction – I wasn’t sure what I was trying to capture. This is when I met the elderly Jamaican man [the subject of one of Peter’s first images] and finally everything started coming together.”
People of London is published by Hoxton Mini Press, an East London publisher who makes beautiful, collectible photography books. I almost ordered the book via Amazon however I’m glad I didn’t. The price through Hoxton is exactly the same as with Amazon and you get free delivery and you get the book nicely gift wrapped in their own distinctive paper and you get a nice gift card about the author and you don’t hand over your money to a large multi-national corporation with a dodgy tax status. What’s not to like.
People of London is definitely one of those books that not only looks good on your book shelf but is one that you’ll definitely want to keep looking at. As inspiration for your photography it’s definitely up there with the best and I really do recommend it.
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