This Photographer Captures Discontent on the Streets of London

“I probably have quite a pessimistic outlook on the human condition. But there’s also a great deal of beauty alongside ugliness, so I try to find that too. It’s interesting to me to portray ugly or sad or broadly negative things in a formally beautiful way.”
– Max Barstow


In a series of black and white photographs, Max Barstow portrays the intersection and contrast of tradition and modernity, youth and age, childhood and adulthood. Londoners II, the second of two series inspired by William Blake’s poem “London,” features white backgrounds to its greyscale subjects. Despite being caught unawares by the camera, they still somehow appear studio-like. Their faces betray hostility and anxiousness, and their dynamic forms speak of the city’s rush.

Max is not your average photographer. With a degree in philosophy – which he pursued in order to learn to think well and expand his view on life – his thoughts on photography and human nature are piercing and direct. His photographic skills are largely self-taught and he draws inspiration from giants in the field. In this work, Barstow juxtaposes the beautiful with the ugly, the negative with the positive, and tempers despair with a dash of hope.


We got together with the photographer to discuss dogs, aesthetics, and the human condition.

THE PLUS: As a photographer, why did you study philosophy?
Max Barstow:
I chose to study philosophy because I wanted to do something academically rigorous which would train me to think well and also, as vague as this sounds, expand my outlook on life. I think it’s helped my imagination and creativity a great deal. Philosophy is excellent brain-training. It’s also just very interesting, and probably fits my turn of mind. I’m inquisitive and argumentative and I feel very at home with words and language.

I chose not to study photography because one can learn a lot of the technical side just by practice and reading and looking at photographic work by other photographers. In addition to this I’ve worked for commercial photographers on and off for the last six years, which is a really good technical training (far more so than a university photography course would offer).


TP: What are some of the ways in which philosophy has fed into your creative work?
I suppose I’m very concerned with how things look – I care deeply about the aesthetic of my pictures. That ought to be a trite statement, but it seemingly isn’t, given that a lot of work I see at the moment focuses just on the subject matter or some aspect of identity politics, without much consideration given to beauty or formal considerations.
I like to have a sense of mystery and sometimes angst, or darkness, in my pictures. That’s not deliberate, it’s just what comes out – it’s something about my personality. I probably have quite a pessimistic outlook on the human condition. But there’s also a great deal of beauty alongside ugliness, so I try to find that too. It’s interesting to me to portray ugly or sad or broadly negative things in a formally beautiful way.

Maybe it’s misleading to say I have a pessimistic take on people – I don’t think ill of people in any general way; I think what I’m getting at is that I think the human condition is tragic, and that manifests itself in various ways which are visually interesting to me. I also like to find ways of making images which are technically hard to decipher; I give myself visual puzzles to try and solve.


TP: How did this come into the goal for the Londoners project?
With my Londoners project it was fun for me to try and make images which looked like they were made in a studio without posing people. I’m also pretty sure it’s an original approach to street portraiture, which is important to me. I’m quite careful to try and do things that have at least some degree of originality, which involves looking at a lot of past work in whatever genre I’m working in, so I know what not to repeat.

TP: How did you start out in photography?
I started photographing when I was thirteen years old. I didn’t have any major reason for doing it, I just picked up a camera at home and it kind of grew on me. I think I liked art as a school subject, but again, I couldn’t say why.Lee Friedlander really inspired me early on, then lots of Magnum photographers – classics like Eugene Smith and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Bruce Davidson and Elliott Erwitt, too. Too many to name really – I have a big collection of photography books which is always growing. Having visual references is very important to me. People like Irving Penn and Bill Brandt grew on me a little later, and have been big influences.


TP: Which factors were most formative in bringing you to this type of project?
Londoners came about quite organically. Having said that, I think it’s a product of my equal interest in studio and non-studio photography. Lots of photographers do one or the other, but aren’t particularly oriented towards both. I’m as familiar with studio photographers as I am with documentary and street and reportage and landscape photographers (and any other variety of photographer you can mention), so my aesthetic is an unusual mixture of the two. I do some studio work of my own, but that’s in its early stages still – I haven’t got anything in that vein which is as developed as Londoners, but it’s still had an impact on how I approach things when I’m shooting out and about.

TP: Londoners I is shot in colour, while Londoners II is black and white. Tell us a bit about the contrast between the two projects.
More important than Londoners I being in colour and Londoners II being in black and white is that the first half of the project is lo-key and the second half hi-key (i.e. the first half is all shot against black and the second half against white). The colour versus black and white contrast is just an outgrowth of what I think works best aesthetically for lo-key versus hi-key images. I really like black and white on a white background, but think that colour often looks cheap or a bit tacky against white; conversely, colours often look very rich and gorgeous against black, and converting lo-key colour images to black and white often takes lots of character out of them. These are only generalisations, but I think they hold true a good deal of the time.


TP: What kind of themes emerge out of the project, for you?
I think themes which emerged in the project revolved around religion and innocence and childhood as contrasted with adulthood and a kind of experience which perhaps engenders cynicism or at least a less pure, more tainted view of life. I also tried to contrast an old, traditional view of London with the modern, multicultural and youthful side of it which is more and more dominant.

As I’ve said, all of this emerged quite naturally, but I did take a good deal of inspiration from William Blake’s illuminated book of poems, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The project is named after London, a poem from this collection. I think it’s relevant to this that the project was mostly shot while I was still studying and was in a transition from childhood to adulthood myself (which isn’t to say that the boundaries of this are clearly defined).


TP: In general, would you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? Why?
I think people I know would probably say I’m fairly pessimistic. It’s probably a fair appraisal too. As I’ve said, I think the world is full of beauty, which is the basis for a certain kind of optimism, but even so, life seems pretty bleak to me a lot of the time. What I’d say is that in aesthetic terms the world is a wonderful place, but morally it seems, at the very least on a superficial level, utterly depraved. Having said which I’m not sure that many individuals are to blame for that – the human condition just seems bad to me; people treat each other atrociously and are often hardly capable of doing any better.

TP: Among the many pictures of people in the city, Londoners II also features two dogs! Tell us about why that is.
Who doesn’t like dogs! They’re light relief amongst quite a grim set of pictures. There’s also a strong tradition of dog photographs which I’m happy to pay homage to. And dogs are Londoners too, so it felt important to include them. For very similar reasons I included a photograph of a horse in Londoners I.


TP: What role do you see the gaze (or lack thereof) of your subjects as playing in this photo series?
I don’t entirely know. If someone looks at me while I’m photographing them, for me to want to include them in my final edit, they have to engage with the camera in a way which says something interesting about them. They could look anxious or benign or hostile, for instance, and any of those responses might be interesting to me – anything which is emotionally engaging I suppose… I’d rather catch subjects off-guard however – there’s just something intriguing about observing people as they are, without their knowing that they’re being watched. I’m a voyeur…

TP: If you were to describe the people of London in three words, what would they be?
Anxious, cold, lonely. But of course I meet people who are none of those things! It’s just how I see a lot of the time when I photograph – it represents something about London, but it’s far from being a complete picture.


TP: Your subjects all seem to be on the go. What role did movement play in the idea and execution of Londoners II?
I was trying to catch people unawares and in the middle of whatever they were doing – no posing or interaction by me – so it’s natural that the subjects of my pictures are often caught moving.

TP: What’s next for you?
Again, that’s hard to say. I’m finishing printing another project at the moment (Reflections), after which I want to carry on shooting still-life work which I began last year. I’ve also got landscape work which I want to print and new things in that vein which I want to shoot. I’m trying to shoot more Londoners images too, albeit with a slightly different aesthetic to the pictures made so far. I’d like to do more straight, studio portraiture as well. There’s probably more I can’t think of off the top of my head…