Interviews:

> The Urban Portraitist

Keith Moss / The Urban Portraitist

December 2016
Interviewed by Daniel Pateman

Keith Moss has been an enthusiastic practitioner of photography in its many guises for over 30 years, after an accident instigated a change of career from butcher to career photographer. He set up his own gallery, Keith Moss Photography, in 1989 in North Yorkshire, and while his roots are in commercial and advertising photography, he is most satisfied when out capturing the vibrancy of street life.

Moss is an Ilford Partner, making him 1 of only 10 accredited photographers recommended to teach the artisan process of black and white photography on black and white film, and has also worked on advertising campaigns for well-known companies such as the BBC, Laura Ashley and Unilever. He is passionate about sharing with others the knowledge and experience he has gathered over the years. Not only has he delivered master classes and presentations to lecturers and students at institutions such as Northumbria University, Newcastle College and Photo Romania Festival, he also runs a plethora of Street Photography workshops across the UK and Europe. His decades’ worth of experience is soon to culminate in the upcoming book The Urban Portraitist; a compendium of psychological insights and body language tips to aid the practicing street photographer.

Below, Daniel Pateman discusses with Keith Moss his diverse career; whether street photography can be politicised, and modernity’s eroding effect on tradition and community.

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DP: Hi Keith. What projects are currently occupying your time and inciting your enthusiasm?

KM: I’m just about to finish a project I’ve been working on for a number of years called The Urban Portraitist. The aim is to produce a book explaining and taking the viewer on a journey of how I work when stopping strangers in the street and photographing them and telling their story. The focus is on how I communicate, create the right environment in strange places, help them to feel very comfortable and get a great portrait that shows their personality. As well as technical information from a photography point of view, it will also explain the psychological and body language tips I use. 

DP: Could you elaborate on how you work with your subjects in a street setting? What sort of techniques do you use to get the best result?

KM: If I see somebody I want to photograph I get eye contact with that person first; I maybe raise an eyebrow or nod. How that gesture is returned will tell me whether I can photograph that person.  From there I enter into conversation with them. Usually I talk about what attracted me to the person – maybe a fantastic jacket or their hair or looks – but I never bullshit or lie, we can all smell bullshit. As we’re having a conversation I’m watching their body language; what hip they stand on, how their hair is parted, and so on. This lets me know how I can photograph the person without pushing them out of their comfort zone. Once you push them you have lost them, so it’s crucial to keep within it. The clues are always in their body language and how they respond.

DP: You obviously have a deep affinity for Street Photography. What was it that first inspired you in this direction? 

KM: I’m very passionate and fascinated by people and the environments in which they live and work. It’s something that has always been there even before I picked up a camera in anger, so to speak. I guess one of the episodes that pricked my fascination was a trip to Africa – Lagos, Nigeria –  when I was 13 back in ‘73.  I spent a lot of time in the bush photographing natives with my dad’s camera; it was both very scary and enlightening. Other situations that interested me were family weddings and surprisingly funerals. Coming from a large family there were a lot of them to attend, especially the latter. I found how people behaved toward each other fascinating; I’m a people watcher or maybe just one of those nosy inquisitive people. 

DP: What makes this kind of photography preferable to you as a means of expression than say, traditional documentary photography or conceptual/fine art photography?

KM: I think I do a bit of all of the types you mention. I have been labelled as a street photographer but I just see myself as a photographer. I use the camera to create an image that expresses what I feel in my heart, sometimes that will be about the person I’m shooting or the environment I’m in or both I guess. The point is I don’t think about a label, I just shoot what I feel strongly about and have a connection with.

DP: You’ve photographed a number of famous names in the past.  Could you provide a few examples?

KM: Lesley Crowther, Matthew Kelly, some of the old Coronation Street and Emmerdale cast, Darren Gough, Alan Shearer, to name a few and more recently Ant Middleton from Channel 4’s SAS Are You Tough Enough. [Prince Andrew, Cheryl Cole and Pixie Lott are just a couple more that could be added to this list].

DP: Do you find your approach when portrait-taking for celebrities differs from your work capturing the ‘average’ person in the street? What qualities are you looking to draw out from each?

KM: I treat everybody with the same respect and dignity, my approach does not change at all as all I want to do is to make whoever I photograph feel comfortable, to connect with them and capture their personality. 

DP: What caused you to transition away from the commercial and advertising world of photography?

KM: It’s what I earned a living at. Not everything you do commercially feeds your soul, therefore some of the work bores you, often you don’t want to do the shoot but then you need to earn a living.  Street, portrait photography is my passion. It’s the yin to my yang, you have to have a balance otherwise you dry up, lose your spark.

DP: Your work has been described as “raw” and “honest”, yet so has Martin Parr’s and the results couldn’t be more different.  There is a generosity and warmth evident towards your subjects often lost with Parr’s more critical, objective approach.  In photographing ostensibly ordinary people, what is it you personally hope to express about them or of your worldview generally?

KM: All I am trying to do is to capture the personality and character of the people I photograph. To show a small snippet as to how they feel at that moment and to offer the viewer a small insight into their lives. 

DP: Do you consider your work, and street photography typically, to be apolitical? Or is the street the place where the personal and the political collide in the most colourful ways?

KM: I’m not a political person at all, I just see the person and their surroundings and want to capture that…that’s it, there’s no agenda, no hidden messages.

DP: Do you not think though that street photography can be a force for social or political change? Or rather does it at best evince the fleeting and ephemeral aspects of human nature, being somehow a more existential mode of photography?

KM: Probably, maybe in the right hands. I’m only interested in the now, the person’s emotions, their story and surroundings.

DP: What purpose do you believe photography serves, personally or on a wider social level?

KM: Personally it’s everything. It keeps me sane, drives me, fulfils me, gives me a voice. On a wider social level it’s a window into the world, it’s an informer, its tomorrow’s history. It all depends on the photographer and what they want to say.

DP: At a time in the industrialised West when we are seemingly more and more disconnected from ourselves and others (evidenced in the growing prevalence of technology in our lives and the self-serving attitude of Brexit), do you feel your work provides a refreshing antidote to this disconnection? You seem to relish those intimate encounters with strangers that street photography helps facilitate; meaningful engagement with people who, under ordinary circumstances, we might merely brush past in the street.

KM: Yes I do…in my opinion society has lost something that’s so precious and that is the ability to talk and connect with people. Local shops were the hub of the community, it’s where people used to meet and have conversations, get to know each other and help each other, it’s how great communities were built. But the advent of supermarkets and out of town shopping centres has decimated villages and towns, adding to that technology and online shopping. We are all connected but yet more isolated than ever. Fundamentally connecting with other people is so important for our wellbeing.

DP: You organise street photography courses in cities all over the UK, such as Manchester and Edinburgh. The absence of any in London however appears a curious omission.  Why is this?

KM: Firstly London is so expensive to stay there and the other reason is that I don’t know it. I know the main tourist areas but not the areas where locals live and that is what I like to show when I visit a city. For me it’s the locals that make a city. That’s it really; it’s that simple.

DP: You’ve recently started running a photography workshop in Malamures in Romania. What was it that appealed to you about taking people to shoot there?

KM: The warmth of the people, their lifestyle and the location. It’s an amazing place. The people are wonderful and are very passionate about keeping their traditions alive. As the Lonely Planet put it “You’ve found one of the last places where rural European medieval life remains intact.” It’s a different way of life and it’s one that will be all too soon lost.

DP: Who would you say are your photographic influences?

KM: Jeanloup Sieff [French fashion photographer] and Robert Doisneau [French photojournalist].

DP: What is it about the aforementioned artists that have helped shape you and your work?

KM: I love the way they capture their subjects, the emotion and tone.

DP: Do you foresee the current socio-political climate (such as Brexit and evidence of increasing extremism in Europe) having a direct impact on your international street photography workshops?

KM: It’s possible I guess; only time will tell.

DP: Where do you see your work and practice going next?

KM: I have found that I love passing on my experiences and expertise that I’ve learned honing my craft over the last 30 years working as a professional. So teaching through the medium of doing workshops and lecturing at photography festivals, universities and colleges is definitely my future and the future for my business. Teaching and offering workshops also allows me to work in some wonderful locations and meet amazing people.

DP: I just want to refer back to your earlier use of the phrase “picked up a camera in anger”.  Given the life-changing accident you had when you were working as a butcher, would you say that adversity has had a hand in turning you towards photography?

KM: Yes, without a shadow of a doubt. I do believe that I am on my true path and without the accident I would have just gone to work, come home and had an existence of a life, a life unfulfilled. The accident was a positive thing that happened. It allowed me to take the path I should have been on.

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 – interviewed by Daniel Pateman

For further viewing, workshops and courses: Keith Moss’s website www.keithmossphotography.co.uk