The Dave Lewis Interview

September 3, 2009

Back in the late 1980s Dave taught me photography at the Hammersmith and Fulham Community Resource Centre. At the time I was still in secondary school. Dave lived locally, in fact just down the road from my Mum and Dad’s. He continued to school me in photography, encouraging me to go out there and practice taking photos and think about photography.

He was also instrumental in my successful application to study photography at degree level at the University of Westminster (formerly Polytechnic of Central London).

I passed Dave Lewis recently on an escalator in the London Underground station at Chancery Lane. He was going up and I was going down. It’s quite a funny situation when you pass someone you haven’t seen for years like this because conversation is so obviously short!

I since looked him up on the net and through the wonders of E-mail asked my old mentor and friend to contribute an interview to this blog.

1. For you, what’s it all about? with reference to the field of photography and your practice in it.

For me photography was initially about trying to decipher or deconstruct the world from my position i.e. as a black subject in the world but specifically London. Most of the images I had seen from day to day tell a story largely from a white middle-class European/North American perspective. You could argue that little has changed. Therefore photography was a tool that I could attempt to be literate with and explore other stories about individuals and place. My practice until relatively recently has therefore concentrated on the ‘constructed image’; images that are largely created within a photographic studio or in a site that has particular relevance to the issues I am discussing with an audience. I like to think that 20 years on my practice has changed. My approach is more sophisticated and subtle. Because of the college I attended (Polytechnic of Central London) I consider research to be a vital strand in my photographic practice. Here I’m not talking about research and theory in terms of photographic technique (which is vital to learn) but rather in terms of semiotics, psychoanalytical theory, visual studies etc. I try and use these disciplines (if and when I choose) but not be stymied by them. So I like to consider my work as adding to the visual language of contemporary social and historical issues although I also make photographs just for the sake of making photographs.

2. Can you supply 3 images and tell me something about why these ones. (favourite ones, significant ones).

This image of this door handle is important to me. It is one of a series of images from an exhibition called ‘Wall’. The concept of a ‘Wall’ is used as a metaphor for a social/political structure that you cannot pass through. The images center around the Stephen Lawrence Report and the sites featured were all involved in the public hearings in London. The door handle is the entrance to the Crown Prosecution Service building in Ludgate Hill. It is a ’wall’ in that it is an obstacle to rights and justice – at least in this particular case at a certain period in British social history.

I photographed the building a few times before focusing on what I thought was significant in terms of a referent. Seeing this handle (we all know) is more than likely to be a public building than a private one and hopefully, within the series, the implications of law, justice and race, in this case as well as others, will provoke the viewer to think about the relationship between the individual and the State.

The image of the golly in the snow was from a series called ‘In the Palm of My Hand’. The images consider the collection of black figurines (negrobilia). I have tried to recontextualize them through additional text. This image is called ‘Second Worst Nightmare’. I used the figure to play around with the idea of a being a black policeman and representing a non-negotiating force no matter what the circumstances. Throughout my youth, like countless other black people, I was stopped and searched constantly. From the few black policemen at the time the experience seemed so much worse to be ‘pulled’ by them. I’d like to think that this image within the series enscapulates many different ideas to do with race, authority and assimilation. When it was reproduced on the cover of Artists Newsletter I had a little chuckle to myself.

This image of a black man lying naked on a table, ‘Untitled, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland’ beneath a portrait painting was in a group show at The Photographer’s Gallery, London. I visited post the private view night just to see attendance and how it looked amongst the wider exhibition. I ended up standing next to two men. One was explaining to his friend what the picture meant. It was something on the lines of the modern black person turning his back on the establishment. Which wasn’t a bad attempt. His friend burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the statement and said ‘it’s taking the ****ing ****. How is it art?’ Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion I supposed.

The image was made in the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. The portrait is of A.C. Haddon who was a president of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. The model is my mate and fellow photographer Ajamu. I wanted to explore the site of ethnographic production by having black subjects explore the archives where ‘their images’ were held, classified and archived. I hoped it would make viewers think about the history of representation and colonialism as well as ongoing debates about who has access to archives and artifacts and who determines the future of these objects.

3. Photography can make you scared. It’s almost akin to being in a running race. Can you comment on the demands, the fears of being a photographer.

I think you can get over precious about taking a photograph – not that it should not be taken seriously but you also need to relax and enjoy the act. Whole canons of theory and criticism have grown around photographic practice – not too mention curators, galleries and collections. I also realized some years ago that too much research and ‘theory’ can freeze spontaneity and you can become quite fearful about what you are putting ‘out there’. I recalled one reknowned writer and lecturer saying to me ‘ your desire, you can edit it later’. So I just try and shoot whatever I feel I need to and put fear aside until later. Easier said than done I know.

But it’s funny you mention ‘being in a running race’. In some ways this analogy works on different levels. One is fear of being ‘beaten’ by your competitors. That is seeing others being awarded commissions and exhibitions that you have gone for but have not been successful in attaining. There are only so many commissions and jobs out there (especially now) so it’s something you have to come to terms with. And sometimes these competitors are close friend’s. The other thing (in my personal experience of athletics) is that there’s a deep psychology involved in running against a field of athletes who have personal best times whose differences are a second or less. In other words there are great photographers out there all producing wonderful images – all having prepared themselves. So, I think all you can do is prepare as well as you can by being ready and equipped to shoot and mentally having thought through what you want to do.

The demands of being a professional photographer can be stressful especially if there are no other forms of income like teaching, a part-time job or a private income. It can also be lonely and calls for constant vigilance in pushing yourself – just like any other business. However, I also believe that photography is so myriad in it’s processes, forms, applications, content and reception that there is enough space for everyone to enjoy the act of making photographs. This is of course very different from the ‘business of photography’. It is also differs to the fears of producing exhibitions. You are probably only as good as your last show and fear of some sort pervades the everyday working life of the photographer/artist. It may be just a personal fear in not achieving what you believe you can or a desire to have positive criticism of your work. I’m sure there are some who have few qualms such as these working in photography but I haven’t met them yet.

4. What’s left for you to do?

I don’t feel I’ve really started yet! I don’t expect to fulfil my picture making desires until I reach my mid 50’s! When I look through the grand photographic bibles and see the same names coming up again and again I realize I’ve done very little and have a lot more to accomplish. I’d like to travel more and take on issues that are important to me world-wide making images in any form that I think best suits the subject. Lately this has included working in video from an ethnographic perspective.

I wanted to be a fashion photographer when I started photography and have always looked up to corporate photographers because they deliver high quality products for a client on time. I would like to pursue these areas and see if I can use these techniques to comment on issues I care about. For me it’s all about learning more and more in order to express myself.

5. Do you have any regrets in your life as a photographer?

Yes. I would like to have taken more pictures growing up in 70’s Britain. It wasn’t pretty (and I was fairly young) but it was an important time in terms of recording growing black consciousness in black British youth. Definitely less arguing (in obviously no-win situations) about the essence of photography, how it should be shown, where it should be shown etc. Although sometimes it’s necessary and fun! I regret not going for the ‘edge’ enough but I suppose there’s always time to do that now.

Dave Lewis

September 2009


Today I conducted my first ever phone interview. It was with New York City based photographer Albert Watson. I managed to record the 30 minute conversation with my new phone’s voice recorder and embed it within this page for instant playback. (Another first)!

So please, click play below, turn your speakers on, sit back and prepare to gain an insight into the mind of an extremely serious and successful photographer with close to 40 years experience in the business.

With Thanks to Aaron especially for making it happen and of course, to Albert himself for going on the record.


Monkey With Gun, New York City, 1992

Monkey With Gun, New York City, 1992

Jack Nicholson, New York City, 1998

Jack Nicholson, New York City, 1998

Driveway, Las Vegas, 2000

Driveway, Las Vegas, 2000

For you, what’s it all about? with reference to the field of photography and your practice in it.

For me, Photography in all its forms is a beautiful way of expression and to show someone exactly what was going through your mind the precise second you snapped open the shutter. Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the decisive moment is of the utmost importance for me as somethings just cannot be recreated in postproduction, although the Photoshop and CGI boffins have pretty much nailed it! Photography will always have a place though I feel.

I shoot both commercially for clients and project work for myself and what I try to do is convey my ideas through the imagery and my passion for image making.

Can you supply 3 images and tell me something about why these ones. (favourite ones, significant ones).

I’ve selected 3 images, each with a significant point in my life, career and train of thought. Something of the past, present and future.

The first photograph I ever took, which I talk about very briefly in the biog on my website, was when I was 8 or 9 in Venice with the guidance of my mother and her old Kodak 110 Ektra. Standing in the middle on one of the amazing bridges looking straight down one of the canals, the buildings all very characterful , decrepit, historic and significant is actually a memory I can still remember incredibly well, I remember that I lined up the shot perfectly centered on the bridge with the buildings all lining up symmetrically around the canal and a little blue sky to the top of the frame. The water was remarkably busy with gondolas and the sides of the buildings messily dressed with ramshackle steel balconies with hanging washing drying in the sun. The concrete of the houses was dirty and decaying. Although this photograph is lost to many a house move or may never have even been developed, the memory of this image is burnt into my brain, although, it only came to significance to me a few years ago when I was thinking about how things started. I have always been fascinated with the scene of a city, the architecture,  a lot going on, a human element, symmetrical in form, but a sense of something else going on that you can’t necessarily see. I realised the way I took the image in Venice is pretty much how I look at taking a photograph now 20 years on!

It is unfortunate I cannot include this image as I could draw upon many comparisons with with many of the projects I’ve done over the years, through college and beyond.

Image 1  (Selfridges Manchester, 2002)

selfridges manchesterii

Fresh from Graduating from Falmouth College of Art in 2002 I moved back to the Midlands with my parents to find my feet and more importantly eat some proper food! I did a little assisting for a few photographers around and quickly got bored
with everyone else clicking the shutter while I was holding a few 5×4 darkslides or a polaroid back. It might have had something to do with the small pool of credible Midlands that was available at the time, mainly industrial and school
prospectus work was never going to get me excited at that opportunity after what I was looking at in Uni. As with all BA graduates I thought I deserved better so I started ambitiously sending my college work out to people. After a few weeks I got an email back from Robert Thiemann, the editor of Frame Magazine in Holland to which I massively admired in design and photography though strictly an architectural publication aimed at the more creatively minded, congratulating me on my work and comparing it to that of Andreas Gursky! and offering me a possible editorial. I was amazing and of course accepted even before hearing what that project was. I didn’t know it at the time but it turned out to be the most important 10 shots I would take, The job was to shoot the new Selfridges Manchester store for a 10 page feature. Didn’t seem much at the time but Selfridges’ Press office had caught wind of this and eventually called me down to London for a meeting to discuss a project also, that turned out to be a few shots of the ‘not yet open’ Saatchi Gallery on the South Bank. 7 years on I still shoot projects for Frame Magazine and Selfridges every month. The image below was the first image shot of the Selfridges store in Manchester, published in Frame in October 2002 and in Creative Review later on. It still remains in my portfolio today and probably forced my hand in moving to London. Off the back of that work I have shot for Chanel, Fortnum and Mason, Hermes, Elle Decor Italia, Kurt Geiger, Mark Magazine, worked on a number of internationally published booksand magazines including Vogue and Harpers Bazaar.

Image 2 (Santiago, Chile 2008)
1-room window, santiago

Though all the commercial and editorial photography work has treated me very well and helped me take serious steps up in the world I needed, and I guess, most importantly the money to keep on going and living, I always thought there might have been more to what I was looking for out there. In college all I had done was make photographs that pleased me and fitted my projects, so leaving that bubble was a great challenge to make work that had a use, whether editorially, advertising or promotional, it was always for a tailor made purpose. The pros to this was always when something got published – the idea your work can be seen by thousands of people was mind-blowing and therefore had to be in itself very well done to catch an eye or two which I always tried to do to get that all important foot in the next door.

However, what was missing was the release of creating my own projects, the creative freedom to experiment and explore. I wanted to get back to my old way of thinking. I tried a few ideas, touched on a few projects but nothing caught my imagination long enough to last more than a couple of shoots. It wasn’t until 2008 when I was in Chile for a friend’s wedding and also shooting an editorial out there at the same time that I realised what I was actually missing, I had never been travelling after college unlike many of my friends, choosing instead to slog my guts out consistently for 6 years in London. I was stale, and I needed to see a fresh perspective and to start to think again. I used the 4 weeks we had out in South America to travel around villages, climb live volcanoes, explore the vast cities, talk to the people and eat a hell of a lot of steak! All with my Hasselblad strapped round my neck. I documented all that 60 rolls of 120 could while I was there.

The image above was the view from the window in the first place we stayed in Santiago, Chile. Everything was surrounded by the Andes, it was great and just what I needed scenery wise as London had gotten so samey. Fresh from buying Alec Soth’s photobook Dog Days in Bogata, I realised it was a similar path finding for me in Chile – this was to be my project! Something to get my ideas flowing again and my inspiration for a fresh perspective.

Images from this series ‘Excursions’ were Longlisted for British Journal of Photography’s projects assistance award, the Terry O’Neil award and exhibited at London’s Photofusion Gallery and the PM Gallery in group shows.

Image 3 (The Slaughtermen)
To represent the future of my work in brief will be to carry on with a project I was initially commissioned in 2009 to create by OnOffice magazine on a slaughterhouse as a notion of a workplace. I stumbled upon a place in Coventry who very kindly allowed me all access for the day, what a day, the things I saw! Images of this project ‘The Slaughtermen’ have been published in OnOffice in Feb 2009, Longlisted for BJP’s project assistance award, category winner and Best in Book for Creative Review’s Photo Annual 2009 and will be exhibited at The Printspace Gallery in October 2009.

Photography can make you scared. It’s almost akin to being in a running race. Can you comment on the demands, the fears of being a photographer?

I’m not necessarily scared of photography, I used to be because of the constant competition and fight for a job, but now I feel relatively secure. In these very difficult times of financial mess everyone is in, its hard not to be a little anxious as to where your work is coming from and the ever dwindling shoot budgets I think all you can do is put into a shoot all you have to offer and give the clients a reason to remember you by. My ethic right from the start was to go the extra mile, explore all avenues of work, I no longer specialise in architectural and interiors work but also in portraiture, landscape and product photography. I think diversity is the key. I think these days it seems easier for a client to use one trusted photographer who can shoot everything they may need within their budget rather than one guy who specialises in just one discipline. It’s the reason a lot of people are currently scrabbling for work. Another important note of key is to keep incredibly proactive and prominent in peoples thoughts. I’ve never stopped working hard ever since I became freelance.

Photography can very much be like a race in many ways, but I see it more like running up to the top of a block of flats, with each floor you get to, there is another one, and then another after that, and you have to be patient and full of stamina to get to the top. Somewhere I hope to be one day!

What’s left for you to do?

Everything! I don’t think my personality will ever let me be finished as there is always something there to strive for and to give my all to achieve. I would love to work in New York on commissions and shoot projects in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Russia, Cuba, Iraq…..I could go on! But ultimately I see a step up being advertising work. A lovely fine art book of my project work wouldn’t go a miss too!

Do you have any regrets in your life as a photographer? Anything you wish you’d done differently?

My regrets are not coming to the conclusion that I needed to think hard to create a project, sometimes taking a step backwards will reveal the full picture and its no good hoping the answers will come from someone else, you don’t get anything for nothing. Travelling through South America helped me realise some of this and entering competitions was something that only came to me a few years ago – ‘you gotta be in it to win it’.

Andrew Meredith : Photographer
+44(0)7968 780927

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