Nick Turpin: An Observer
Nick Turpin’s fascination with photography began seemingly by accident, when he signed up for a photography course at school simply to fill a gap in his timetable. Before long, he and his friends were responsible for re-opening the school’s darkroom, which had stood unused for a decade. Gaining access to the darkroom also unlocked Turpin’s enthusiasm for the craft, in that printing his own photographs allowed him to be involved in the entire photographic process from start to finish, which he found to be wonderfully empowering and engaging. He went on to study photography at university and later worked on staff at The Independent newspaper in London, England, for seven years. While at the newspaper, Turpin acquired and refined the skills needed to make a living as a photographer, which he has done ever since.
Street photographers working in 1960s New York, such as Garry Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, Tod Papageorge, and Mitch Epstein, have had a great influence on Turpin. He is also drawn to the work of contemporaries, such as Jeff Mermelstein and Martin Kollar, who are capable of capturing what is unique and special in an everyday scene on an ordinary pavement. If there were ever a seminal moment for Turpin, however, it would have to be leafing through the newspaper’s review copy of Bystander: The History of Street Photography (by Joel Meyerowitz and writer/curator Colin Westerbeck) and making the sudden discovery that his hobby did, in fact, have a name. Much the way he initially fell into photography, another apparently random coincidence illuminated an important open door. How fitting, as street photography itself relies on such a peculiar blend of happenstance, timing, and intention.
Keen on capturing real life, Turpin has always seen photography as a natural extension of his general inquiry into the world at large. He acknowledges that he uses photographs not only to communicate to others, but also to more fully explore the society in which he lives. Over the years, Turpin has come to realize the vital role street photography plays in holding up a mirror to the decisions we make as a people and, as members of a modern democracy, how important it is that we remain free to make exposures in public places. Regarding the tricky issue of privacy, Turpin boldly asserts that private activity cannot exist within a shared, common space — what occurs in public is available to all onlookers. To further this logic, he does not distinguish between witnessing an event occurring in public and photographing one. According to Turpin, actions are the result of individuals’ decisions, and the presence of others, including street photographers, is of no consequence. For their records to be genuine, it is imperative that street photographers work in a candid manner with no interaction whatsoever with their subjects. Because Turpin does not use his street photographs in a commercial manner, there is no need for him to get a model release signed. It is acceptable in the United Kingdom to publish street photographs in a book and exhibit them in galleries, provided that product endorsement is not implied and subject matter is not misrepresented. Only a few countries have privacy laws, an example being France, astonishingly enough, considering the mutually inclusive relationship between freedom of expression and democracy. Turpin’s book of photographs titled, The French, will be published everywhere except the country in which it was shot, in order to highlight France’s legislation prohibiting the publication of photographs without the subject’s consent.
With the trend in the late 1990s of visual artists embracing photography as their medium of choice, photographic realism, including street photography, appeared to be falling out of fashion. In an attempt to redress the balance, in 2000, Turpin undertook the admirable task of promoting the work of photographers, like himself, who still employed basic yet immensely powerful tools: the shutter and the rectangular frame. He invited street photographers such as David Gibson, Matt Stuart, Richard Bram, Trent Parke, and Gus Powell to show a folio of their images together in one place in cyberspace. As a talented collective with Turpin at the helm, In-Public was the first of its kind to use the Internet to bypass the gatekeepers of traditional photography exhibition, instead reaching a vast, international audience. A private members’ forum soon followed, allowing street photographers worldwide to connect, share ideas, and organize exhibitions of their work. On the tenth anniversary of In-Public, 20 members celebrated with an exhibition in London and the publication of 10, a book containing, unsurprisingly, 10 images created by each member. In a similar vein, PUBLICATION magazine, produced by Turpin’s own imprint, Nick Turpin Publishing, was invented to provide the growing online audience of street photography with the quality printed outlet both they and the photographs they
According to Turpin, a variety of factors are contribute to the current interest in street photography, including the pervasion of inexpensive, high-quality digital cameras, and an ever-expanding online presence of street photographers fuelled by websites such as In-Public and the image-sharing site Flickr. This surge is creating a veritable street photography tipping point, which is not going unnoticed by publishers or curators. A decade of photography having been dominated by the conceptualizing influence of the art world and the sophistication of technically manipulated images has left consumers of photographic art craving authenticity and has spurred a return to the basic honest magic of the medium itself. Turpin suggests we are coming home to the remarkable ability of a compelling photograph to show us the familiar in a truly novel way, a way that can be held and kept.
In Turpin’s experience, making a career, or even just a living, in street photography is exceedingly challenging. Because of the time commitment involved, a successful year might result in only a handful of outstanding shots. If aspiring street photographers remain undeterred by the lack of income potential, Turpin suggests looking at a great deal of existing photographs both for inspiration and to become familiar with prevalent clichés. Contemporary street photography often incorporates a high degree of empathy with the subject matter, careful and discerning attention to composition, and the ability to trigger an emotional response. Turpin advises acquiring an inexpensive camera and using the frame and shutter button to transform the chaos of ever-changing events around you into something beautiful and poignant. He proposes avoiding contact with subjects, and in the unlikely event of a confrontation, he keeps moving or diffuses the situation with a smile or a compliment. Turpin encourages novices to be patient, study their surroundings, and not to hesitate to attempt making a seemingly impossible picture. Try standing in one place, try walking all day, try shooting close, try lots of different strategies and find what works for you, he recommends. In closing, Turpin offers what could be considered a veritable street photographer’s mantra: “Above all, be an observer and let life unfold in front of your lens; it can really surprise you.”