John Lynch pictured at Camden Lock
DOCUMENTING infinity – a task that the photographer Paul Scane takes on with joy every day. The photographer’s first book London unseencontains nearly 200 images spanning decades of a city he knows well – and a city that, as his beautiful work shows, never stops evolving.
Based on the “extraordinary everyday life” he mapped the streets, buildings and people of the metropolis.
“My work examines the architecture and people that define London, taking in famous and obscure locations, faces of young and old, parades and deserted streets, the time worn and freshly contemporary,” he writes.
Originally from Paddington, Paul once made a living restoring houseboats on the Thames and it was his river-bound lifestyle that first inspired him.
“Living on a houseboat on the Thames in the early 2000s, I would wake up early in the morning to scenes of light and fog that were surreal and haunting,” he recalls.
All of Paul’s work is recorded with a conventional film camera.
“The light or the fog could be otherworldly, and at that moment I decided to buy a classic camera,” he says. “I’ve always preferred older things to modern ones. I chose a Leica.”
His entry into the world of street photography also came from working in the antiques trade.
“I would buy French antiques at rural auctions and bring them to Paris,” he says. “I started collecting used photo books at flea markets – the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Marc Roboud and others: a crash course in composition and a patchwork of photographic history. If you want to take photography on a more serious level, study photographers you like and understand why their images work. After all, they were good enough to stand the test of time. The same goes for all arts – past artists leave us clues.”
Paul says he’s “a full-time photographer in the sense that I always have a Leica with me.”
That means his bike rides are full of unplanned stops.
“Readers will be able to spot hidden spots that pop up,” he says. “As the natural landscape below shines through at the urban surface, so can the past: versions of the city that have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing beneath layers of constant change. London unseen it’s also about them.”
As development has transformed and rehabilitated some areas, others are in clear decline.
“Many neighborhoods that were once rich in eclectic character have quickly eroded their rough edges with the flood of new money and people,” he says. “We can no longer stop these processes if we can expect to change the weather. We can mark them and in some cases mourn them. It’s become in part what London Unseen became when it took shape: a collage of memories of the life I explored through my cameras.”
Paul’s first camera came from Aperture Photographic in Museum Street, Bloomsbury.
“I started wandering and snapping,” he writes.
And then came the task of what to record.
“It wasn’t easy and I missed a lot of good pictures,” he says. “I wanted to keep the locations as varied as possible. I wanted to show that I had explored the whole city.”
By using four different types of cameras and two types of film, he has created a varied collection. His theme is recognizing the easily overlooked quirks of living together – and ones we all do on a daily basis – and visually recognizing their power. His photos range from an aging punk in Camden Town to architectural oddities, the abandoned, unloved, unwanted debris left on our streets, the shops, homes and businesses that have been added piecemeal and shaky – or slowly fading.
He looks for “anything that catches my eye visually, it’s very instinctive.
“I can walk around London with my Leica for three or four days and not take a picture, then I discover something. The theme was just something London.”
And Paul’s superb book not only delights visually, but challenges the viewer to pause and be aware of the pace of constant change that surrounds us.
“When documenting a large body of work over a period of time, images can be more interesting when viewed all together,” he adds.
“As I got older the change, especially in London, was incredible. A lot of what I recorded has since disappeared, so I’m glad I caught them then. I’ve also had my disappointments when I’ve returned to an area about a week later and what I saw is gone, and some of those lost images still haunt me a bit to this day. London is an ever-changing city that never stops revealing something new to us. In a way, I feel like I’m trying to document infinity.”
• London unseen. By Paul Scane, teNeues, www.teneues.com, £19.95