Photographer Phil Penman uses his camera to document the dynamic energy, delightfully wacky inhabitants, and vibrant spirit of New York City. Shooting primarily in black and white, he captures a fantastic mix of playful portraits and atmospheric street scenes that illuminate everyday moments in a metropolis that has captured the imaginations of creatives for centuries. From astronauts on the crosswalk, to young skaters shredding on high rooftops, to 30-foot-tall statues lying sideways on the back of a truck, Penman’s subjects prove there’s never a dull moment in the Big Apple.
Penman, who hails from Dorset, England, now calls New York his home. There, he has photographed celebrities, shot assignments for a variety of publications such as People and USA Today, and covered some of the biggest entertainment and national news stories, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
A selection of Penman’s NYC photos is currently on display in a solo show at the Leica Store New York Soho–a huge honor for the photographer, who says he’s been using Leica’s legendary cameras for years. The exhibition will run through December 5. We were lucky enough to ask Penman a few questions. Scroll down to read our exclusive interview.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into photography?
I started my career in photography at 15 after having been given my first camera and light meter by my father (also a photographer). From there, I went on to to study at the Berkshire College of Art and Design in Reading, where I received my Higher National Diploma in photography. Straight out of college, I started work as chief photographer at a local newspaper, where I had to learn to deal with all matter of situations.
I then moved on to working at a news agency whilst also running their public relations division. At 21, I scored a big client in Microsoft and ended up doing all their corporate work as well as working on various advertising campaigns for various other high-profile companies.
My desire was always to live in the USA, so after working a doorstep job in the UK, a fellow photographer mentioned I should call his friends who had jobs in Los Angeles, and the rest is history. Did the LA thing for a while before getting the opportunity to move to New York, where I have been working ever since.
My work varies from having to photograph convicted killers in the middle of nowhere in Brazil to drinking cups of tea with Christopher Reeve inside his home. I cannot say my life is boring by any stretch of the imagination.
What’s the best part of being a photographer in NYC? Is there anything about the city that really excites your photographic and artistic vision?
As a photographer, you really cannot go wrong with New York. There is always something going on. It’s hard not to say it has not changed, with the ever-growing drones glued to their phones rather than looking at what is going on around them. However, in the shadows and darkest corners, there is more than enough to keep me occupied. Riding around, you never know what you are going to see. One minute you are drinking a coffee and the next a guy in a space suit walks past you.
When you hit the streets, what are you looking for in a photo, and how do you capture it in that single instant?
Every morning, I head out the door armed with my Leica M and bike, and all I ever hope for is to come home with just one image I’m proud of. I’m drawn to those individuals who are not trying to be cool or would even think they are, but just have great character and style. A lot of people are stunned when I want to do their portraits and cannot understand why I would care about them, but that’s exactly why I do. I feel like in this world, when everyone seems to be so into themselves, taking daily selfies, etc., I'm looking for those people who don't.
Do you have any influences or inspirations when it comes to street photography?
Arnold Newman, for me, is “the man” when it comes to portrait photography–simple and to the point.
Also, Sebastian Salgado for his early reportage work. I recently went to a talk he was giving and sat through a slideshow. I just sat in amazement at just how good he is. A friend of mine commented, “Why bother when you see work that good?” For me, it was the complete opposite–I was so inspired to get out and shoot even more.
Others photographers include Martin Parr and Richard Avedon. Also, I like the work of artists Jackson Pollack and Piet Mondrian. I once saw a piece by Mondrian in the Guggenheim and was blown away.
What does this Leica store show mean to you?
If you had said I would be having a show at Leica in New York, a few years ago I would have said you are completely out of your mind. The Leica name has a special meaning with photographers, so to be associated with that name means a lot to me. I’ve been using Leica cameras for a few years now. I had been largely using another camera system on jobs before a client asked me why a particular image looked so much sharper than the other. I quickly panicked and realized that if the client could spot the image taken with the Leica, then I would need to be using my Leica for everything. Now, on all my portrait shoots, I use my Leica. There has always been something so nice about the simplicity of the camera. I shoot fully manual and there is a freedom it gives you to try new things that you might not have thought about when shooting with a fully automatic camera. The brain can get lazy that way.
My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Phil Penman.