that’s it, focus: jonathan turner’s street studioBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
We took the 36 bus to Chapeltown to meet Jonathan Turner at East St Art’s Union 105 gallery and talk about Street Studio, an exhibition that has been years in development and features portraits of Chapeltown’s residents.
Jonathan is kind, personable, and speaks from the corners of his mouth so that you can hear him smiling. He has spent the past fourteen years in Chapeltown and can’t imagine living anywhere else. He loves talking to people – he likes when they ‘witter on’ and can spend hours just listening to their stories; sometimes he photographs them. Jonathan enjoys the immediacy of digital cameras, but has become fascinated by film photography; all of the Street Studio photos were taken on a ‘large format’ camera, a process that he describes as cumbersome and nightmarish. It has also allowed him to produce a collection of portraits that remind us that a city is much more than its centre, and Chapeltown is more than a road and a Carnival.
“Chapeltown is a really warm place,” Jonathan says, after we sit down to talk. “It’s gotten a lot of bad rep over the years, and it has done historically. People have described it in all sorts of negative terms, but I’ve always found it a really vibrant place to be.”
This sense of vibrancy inspired Jonathan to create the project brief that would eventually be taken on by East St. Arts and Leeds Inspired. He wanted the photos he produced to feel honest, communal, and celebratory.
“I hope it shows people in a positive light,” he tells us, looking around the room as if for affirmation from the walls. “I’m always very aware that there’s a responsibility when you’re portraying people. When people are allowing you to take their picture for a project, you want to do it right.”
Jonathan wanted to do something that felt more deliberate than your old ‘point-shoot-click-laptop-filter’ — and remember, he really just loves to talk to people. After studying techniques from his favourite portrait photographers, he came up with an idea – in many ways, an experiment – to revive the itinerant photography techniques of the nineteenth and early twentieth century in contemporary Chapeltown.
“I decided I wanted use this crazy old-fashioned camera,” he says. “It’s essentially a lens and a film plane and a bellows in-between – the design hasn’t changed since the very first cameras were made. It’s really basic, but there’s something really beautiful about that simplicity.
“And you know,” he continues, “people are curious. If you’re standing on the street with your head under a dark cloth and using this Victorian-style thing, people are interested in what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Rather than crossing the street to avoid you, they’re actually crossing the street to come and see what you’re doing.”
He was only too keen to chat with people about it.
“You just have to explain what it is you want to do, and why you want to do it,” he says. One woman featured in the exhibition was wary of the photographer who had talked his way into the Roscoe Methodist Church to take her picture.
“She wanted to do the picture, but she didn’t want it to end up being used in some inappropriate way. I told her it was for an art project, and then I had a really interesting, wide-ranging conversation with her about photography, the power of photography, and the history of photography — and finally, after a whole forty minutes of talking, she wanted me to take her picture.”
Jonathan’s work feels nostalgic, as if the pictures were taken directly from a place of memory. The subjects seem to feel familiar, like we’ve seen them somewhere before.
There’s the woman with bright red hair and a yellow trench-coat, standing against a white-bricked wall, her peep-toed sandals revealing orange painted nails.
Then there’s two children – one in dark sunglasses and the other with a bright blue jumper, clinging to their caregiver – maybe it’s their mother – who smiles, closed-mouthed, at the camera.
We don’t know them, but it feels like we do. The composition lends itself to this; for each location – never much more than a wall or doorway – the distance from camera to subject to background had to be replicated over and over again, measured and shot with an exactness we’ve abandoned for the reassuring click of our iPhones.
“The exposure itself is only a fraction of a second,” Jonathan tells us, “But once you’ve set up the shot the person has to stay still or they’ll go out of focus.”
That’s it, focus. But Jonathan’s focus goes beyond film, lens and bellows.
“If you point a digital camera at somebody, they often give you a photo face that we’re all used to doing; it’s just habit. But when you’re staring into this mechanical device, and they’re looking at an inanimate object, that somehow changes the way they look into it. I feel like the connection between subject and camera goes just a bit deeper than a digital SLR.
“Identity is a fluid thing, and it’s not possible to distil that into one picture, but you can capture elements of it.”
What have you learned? we ask. What have these photos taught you about Chapeltown?
He pauses to think, and then smiles. “Well, it’s just reaffirmed what I already thought. It’s a cool place, full of cool people, and I’m happy to live here.”