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Street Photography from the North East and beyond

An Interview with Graeme Perrin (aka Copenhagen Street)

On the street as a photographer you aren’t anonymous… no matter how hard you try.

Image courtesy of Graeme Perrin

Image courtesy of Graeme Perrin

Amongst all the black and white imagery in my Instagram feed there’s the occasional bright, colourful and distinct street photography that really stands out and has intrigued me for a while. Those images are by Graeme Perrin, also know as Copenhagen Street and I was so pleased when he accepted an invitation to talk about his work.

In my view Graeme has managed to develop his own unique style, something I’ve written about previously on how important this is, yet how difficult it can be to adopt. His use of consistent colours against contrasting deep black shadows are striking and I can almost always identify the photograph in my feed as one of Graeme’s when it appears.

Graeme speaks eloquently about the subject of street photography and if anything invites more questions with the responses he provides. He touches on many interesting points; challenges and frustrations that I and I’m sure others will relate to, plus his inspirations and unique thoughts on our interaction with people when taking street photos.

I want to thank Graeme for spending valuable time in sharing his words and a selection of photographs for this publication and for providing such an insightful interview and I recommend everyone to check out Graeme’s excellent work afterwards.

Can you first share a little bit about yourself Graeme, your background and what you do for a living?

Yes, I’m born and bred in the South Island of New Zealand in the small town of Darfield, about a half hours drive west of Christchurch. I left NZ at the ripe old age of 19 with the intention of seeing the world. 40 years later and I’m living permanently in Copenhagen, Denmark with grown children, lovely wife and a fine mortgage on my house.

I work as a department leader in a large after school program at a newly built school in Copenhagen.

I have had creative tendencies all my life, where art… drawing, painting and writing have been my main sources of expression… so much so that in 2007 I published an experimental, poetic novel called Saltworks.

… My fathers camera and light meter had an almost holy aura about them …

When did you first get into photography and particularly what has drawn you to street photography?

I have always been fascinated by photography and the idea that it freezes time, suspends movement and magnifies expression. As a child I used to love looking at old photos and could somehow feel myself being a part of the scene, reliving a life and time long since gone. My father, during my early childhood, was a keen amateur photographer and I was quite taken by the way he immersed himself in the technicalities surrounding photography. His camera and light meter had an almost holy aura about them and occasionally I would sneak into his camera cupboard just to hold his camera and pretend to take photos.

When I travelled overseas in 1976 I bought my first SLR camera (Asahi Pentax ME) which served me well through the years until I turned to digital cameras around the beginning of the millennium.

Even though I’ve been living in Copenhagen for many years I have never had a great interest in the city itself. Perhaps my rural New Zealand background implanted a certain skepticism regarding city life. I live in an area on the edge of the city where nature is always an alternative to the cobblestones and pavements of life close to the streets. However, a while back I inherited some photo books from my step mother and was somewhat stunned by the work of Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. There was something about how they could capture people and situations so expressively… that I was inspired to research further into this form of photography. So a couple of years back I decided to try my hand at street photography… to see if I was able train my eye and camera to make my own expressive art form. Little did I know…

Image courtesy of Graeme Perrin

Image courtesy of Graeme Perrin

Where do you get your inspiration from? For example, are there any other photographers who’s work inspires you?

These days there is so much inspiration to be found on the internet through different sites and social media forms…but one has to be careful not to be anesthetized by so much overwhelming content. There is lots of good stuff around but at the same time… there is so much mediocrity it can easily fall by the wayside. So I occasionally invest in photo books and often get back on track through them. Saul Leiter, William Klein, Gary Winogrand.. among others. More contemporary photographers I’m lately gaining great inspiration from are Alex Webb, Alex Coghe, Thomas Leuthard… Nick Turpin and his ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ or bus window series is a pure stroke of genius for me… and Trent Parkes work can inspire me enough to get out on the street on the darkest and coldest of winter days.

What kit do you own and what do you take with you when shooting on the streets?

This past year I shoot primarily with a Fujifilm X100T. I love that camera and have to say that since owning it I have learnt more about photography technique than ever before. There’s something incredibly intuitive about how it feels. All my street shooting now is done manually using “zone focusing”… and through small adjustments I at times feel as if I’m surfing the light.

Whats your street photography style? Is it ‘from the hip’ or are you more considered in your approach?

In the beginning.. all of those two years ago, I was more hit and miss, spray and pray. I must admit now that I’m more varied in my approach. I can be on the move all the time hoping for chance situations, characters to turn up on my route… or I can find an interesting background or bottleneck area where I just wait for the right people to turn up to complete the picture. I can also attempt to be totally anonymous and shoot from the hip.. but this is usually if I’m desperate for something to come home with after an unsuccessful day using other methods. Lately, as I have a better feel for my camera, I’m going more after the light and discovering many more creative opportunities with my photography… using shadows and contrasts for example.

Street photography has become a way of losing or forgetting myself.

What is Street Photography to you?

Intuitive development! This may sound a bit “zenish”… but street photography has become a way of losing or forgetting myself. When I’m on the street I have a high level of focus and awareness for things around me. So much so that my own apparent world of concerns, self indulgence and over interpretation just disappears… as if I’m melting into things around me. All the while I’m in this intense social environment which requires an awareness of interaction with other people… a necessary balance in order not to seem over intrusive or even aggressive… while at the same time pushing my own boundaries of security. So it’s about natural attitude and open mindedness… a kind’ve therapy.. and yes too… meditation.

Image courtesy of Graeme Perrin

Image courtesy of Graeme Perrin

In your Copenhagen Street project I see consistent colour elements, deep reds appear often, is that a conscious decision? Do you go looking for specifics in your work?

Lately yes. As I said, I’m going more after a certain light in my pictures now. I enjoy deep blacks… broken by sharp colour contrasts. I think red does it best for me at the moment… so yes, Im hunting down the reds.

What (if any) post-processing do you do on your images as they have very strong contrasts and some beautiful colours to them?

I do a basic post processing in Lightroom. Adjust exposure, experiment a bit with contrasts etc. I like to level my pictures when I can too… and yes, I crop to a certain extent. Just can’t help it really. Maybe I’m not getting close enough?

You do take occasional black and white photographs too, how and when do you make that choice?

I admire black and white photography when it accentuates the image or the story. I would like to take more black and white stuff… but I’m still having trouble letting go of the kind of vibrancy colour expression gives. Sometimes I’ll see that the black and white contrasts can simplify the image.. intensify it I suppose. I know I’ll be getting more into it later… when I’m ready for that other level.

The street for me could perhaps be regarded as a huge psychological playground.

You work with people (adults and children) on a daily basis in your full time job, has street photography taught you anything new about the Human Condition that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered?

That’s a pretty good question, and a difficult one to answer… The street for me could perhaps be regarded as a huge psychological playground or showcase. So many different types and backgrounds mixed together… relating and not relating together. But these people, no matter where they’re coming from in life are very sensitive and aware… even if they’re not showing it for the moment. As a street photographer it’s crucial to look for those moments where the guard is down… and it often comes down… if you’re lucky enough to tune in at the right time.

Through my job I’m often exposed to emotional situations… sometimes quite extreme. You have to be able to navigate through this while aiding and comforting… and this requires a certain awareness of how to play your own role. I believe that on the street as a photographer you aren’t anonymous… no matter how hard you try. You’re always relating somehow to the people around you… affecting them on some level. So this may sound like a long shot… but if you’re aware of this yourself… not putting yourself first… being open to the people around you.. then the people too can open up to you and your camera. Sounds easy don’t you think? Well.. not quite, but it’s a theory I have in mind… and it helps for a better understanding of this Human Condition you ask about.

I’m faced with the pressure of breaking through my own limitations of creativity.

What for you is the most challenging aspect of street photography?

I’m often battling with the temptation of being drawn into the “cliche world” of street photography…. you know, people walking past walls, street performers, café window shots etc… and in trying to avoid this, I’m faced with the pressure of breaking through my own limitations of creativity, getting outside the box or finding some new creative angle or alternative shot. This can be frustrating and I can feel myself losing faith in my own abilities. So then I just have to focus on the overall enjoyment of the activity. To be honest, the most creative shots I make are often those with the least thought involved.

For any other photographers heading to Copenhagen, where would you recommend as a good place to hang out with the opportunity to capture some great street photographs?

I would always recommend getting started around the inner city. This part of town is always busy and full of life. On the walking streets in the summer there are thousands of people from all walks of life. The smaller, quainter side streets are less crowded and more picturesque. Copenhagen isn’t a big city really, so from the inner city within easy walking distance you can go along Vesterbrogade, the main station, and Istegade. Here there are less tourists and more of a local atmosphere. I would also recommend areas of Nørrebro where there is more of a cosmopolitan atmosphere. All in all. Copenhagen is a very street photography friendly and rewarding city.

Don’t get too engrossed in your gear… it dulls the creative edge.

As someone who has been in to Street Photography for around 2 years, what advice could you offer to someone just starting out that you wish you’d had been told when you started?

Give yourself time… a lot of time. Look for the picture before you take it.. this too takes time. Don’t get too engrossed in your gear… it dulls the creative edge. Move slow. Be prepared not to get the picture you thought you had.. and be prepared to regret you didn’t take the picture at all… and forget about it as quickly as possible afterwards. The process is often more rewarding than the product.. and so on. Lastly… don’t over do it. Take a weekend off once and a while.

Image courtesy of Graeme Perrin

Image courtesy of Graeme Perrin

What’s next for you? Do you have any other upcoming projects or plans we can look out for?

I’m still working on finding my footing… perhaps even style. I would like to go all in on a project where I could photograph more abstract themes on the street. Break out of the rut I sometimes find myself in. This process I would like to document somehow.

I would also like to integrate text into my photos and have plans for a website or blog devoted solely to this.

Finally, where can we view more of your work?

@copenhagenstreet on Instagram

Posted on Jun 21, 2016