A Novel Approach to Street Photography

In his new book In Your Face, British photographer Paul Trevor presents a collection of close-up street portraits captured in London between 1977 and 1992. Shot in Brick Lane and central London, the photos speak to the tense class divide of the Thatcher era and Paul purposely focuses the spotlight on ordinary people over the elite.

The closeness of the black and white images creates an element of intimacy that can almost feel uncomfortable for the viewer. However this was partly Paul’s motivation, to share a person’s intimate story using caught-off-guard close-up portraits – to tell a person’s story without using language.

The series was featured in The Martin Parr Foundation exhibition in 2018, with Martin himself saying: “This series is a new twist on the street photo, but totally unlike anything I have seen before or since.” We spoke with Paul to find out more about the series and its connection to our current moment…

THE PLUS: In Your Face is a collection of photographs you captured in the 1970s-early 90s. What is the relevance of the content in our particular moment and how has this changed (or remained the same) over the past few decades?
Paul Trevor: In Your Face is about Britain’s perennial class divide. As long as that persists, interest in the subject is likely to persist. I wanted to see if it was possible to approach it visually in a new way – just through a series of close-ups. 

TP: What are some of the recurrent themes in the images for you?
PT: The project involved photographing strangers surreptitiously very close-up, without engaging with them. An unexpected and fascinating theme emerged – the tension in the photos between physical intimacy and emotional detachment.

TP: What relevance does black and white vs colour have for your work?
PT: It’s only ever been a financial question. When I was shooting personal projects like In Your Face I could only afford b&w film; while for commercial work I was using colour paid for by the client. These days where things are more digital, I work in colour.

TP: How does the book’s narrative develop on your previous book Once Upon a Time in Brick Lane?
PT: In an age of celebrity culture, both books attempt in their own small ways to redress the balance by ignoring the rich and famous and prioritising ordinary people.

TP: You have been praised for the combination of street photography and portraiture that was new at the time. Can you say a bit more about this style and why it worked for these shots?
PT: Shooting-wise In Your Face was an experimental departure from what I’d done before and what I did afterwards. It was a kind of ‘crossover project,’ a hybrid blend of street photography and portraiture. The idea was provoked by two things: Thatcherism’s polarised debate on market forces versus community values, and my long-time neglect of the 50mm lens. Could I tackle the first by using the second? The style materialised from that question. 
TP: How did the camera you were using influence your work?
PT: It enabled me to work with minimum negative buoyancy – a 35 mm film camera with standard 50mm lens proved to be ideal.

TP: What is the role of photography for you today?
PT: The role photography plays in my life has always been the same: it prompts personal projects, motivated by curiosity, which leads me to make photos as a way of questioning the world and myself at the same time. 
TP: Is there anything you hope people will takeaway from the series?
Yes, the book!