Known for his evocative storytelling and keen eye for detail, Simon Wheatley’s journey is enriched with diverse experiences and a deep-seated passion for the art. This has led to the creation of stunning visuals that speak volumes of the evolution of London.

In this Q&A, we delve into Simon Wheatley’s latest endeavours, exploring his transition into fashion photography and the inspirations behind his work.

What inspired the creation of your series Silverlink?
Silverlink came about as a book when I finally edited the Kodachromes I had taken between 1998-2010 on what had been known as The North London Line before the railway’s privatisation. After that, it assumed the name of the company which had taken over the franchise – Silverlink. I had initially been intrigued by this train line across North London’s inner suburbs by the apparent social diversity of the places it passed and the adventure of travelling through parts of the city that at that time were unknown to me.

Even though fashion is not at the centre of your Silverlink project, your photography has captured the eye of people in the fashion industry, why do you think that is?
I’ve always been drawn to photograph youth culture so the appreciation from the fashion industry has probably been a natural extension of that.

Have you noticed any photos in your Silverlink series that have resonated with the fashion community?
It seems to be all about the clothes and the brand names! The girl in the platform in the Burberry cap is a bit of a hit, and the guy on the train in the Avirex jacket too. Sometimes stylists and other fashion types see a picture and say something like, “Oh! I used to have that jacket!” Though it was always about the sociology for me.

How did your collaboration with Corteiz come about?
I’d met Clint at an Unknown T studio session, and he wrote to me saying he’d like to use the photo of Crazy Titch with the dog jumping up at the camera on a jacket. It’s as simple as that. He’s a very direct guy who gets on with things. I sent in a high-res file and a few months later went to his office and he presented me with the jacket. I thought it was very well done and perhaps raises the bar in using a photographer’s images on clothing because he’s done a very creative job of it.

How has your work documenting the grime scene influenced your personal and professional life?
I just happened to be around when grime happened, photographing London’s decaying council estates in the early 2000s. Without its emergence, I may have been just another documentary photographer, but it has given me a legacy for which I’m very grateful and taken me into the music and now fashion worlds. There has also been a big impact on my personal life as I’ve become part of this culture I’ve documented. I’d always rather run away from England as I’d struggled to fit in here, but the love I’ve felt from London’s Afro-Caribbean communities has helped give me a sense of belonging.

How did the Leica M6, the camera that helped you find your voice as a photographer in challenging environments, influence your approach to fashion photography, did its discreet appearance play a different role?
I am not entirely new to fashion but only recently has this become a significant part of my activities. I would say that the Leica M6 is influencing my approach, and that again it is about the simplicity of the camera. In the past, I have assumed that medium format was the go-to camera for fashion but using the M6 on the Corteiz assignment has encouraged me to think differently. The way we shot that day – our base being a couple of vans with no hair and make-up, the stylists just part of the day-to-day team, and some açai bowls to keep everyone energised rather than a break for lunch – was quite refreshing. It was like a military operation, and I found that working with the M6 rather than a medium format camera helped me to fit into proceedings, as I shoot more quickly and spontaneously with it. So, moving forward I expect to be using it substantially in fashion photography, and I think it will help me to also retain simplicity in situations that can feel complex. I also find that having more exposures on a roll of 35mm rather than 120mm allows me to both take more risks and get deeper into visual situations with the longer roll.

In the past, there has always been an essential difference between 35mm and the medium format in my work, the latter being for portraits and the Leica as my tool for reportage. My life situation is not as it was in those days when I threw myself into my personal work so passionately, and while living in India, I chose to be a family person and stopped wandering around the streets with a camera or making photo stories. When I came back to London and started doing assignments again, everyone wanted me to shoot film, and as they were mainly portraits, I’d use medium format. Then Leica contacted me about the M6 relaunch, and I dusted off my M6s. Now I’m using my Leica M6 cameras again in situations I previously wouldn’t, finding that it’s ok to deliver on 35mm – not only in fashion but in my music work too.

I used it for the pictures of Niko B for his album artwork, which were all set up. And the other day I shot the band Fontaines DC for their label. We were meant to start at 2pm but by the time they’d arrived and with all the styling etc it was 6pm when we set out. My brief was to deliver 15 pictures but one of the band members had to leave at 9pm, and they also wanted a break for some food after the first shot – by which point I’d already decided I needed to go with the Leica to get through this as smoothly as possible.

The other thing that helped was the benefit of the greater depth of field that 35mm offers – Fontaines are a five-man band, and I could stretch them out in the composition, shoot at f4 and f5.6 and keep everyone sharp enough. If I’d been shooting medium format, I’d have needed f8 or probably f11 and then a tripod for the shutter speed, which would have slowed things down when I needed to run from one thing to the next and think very fast about making those compositions harmonious.

Following your Corteiz collaboration, do you think you’ll shoot more fashion photography?
I guess I will continue to do more. It’s so easy to create the feel of pictures I made in my day as a documentary photographer. I keep it simple and shoot the same as always. The shoots can be fun, and I find it touching to be amongst younger people who often have some reverence for my work. I give thanks for the fortune I’ve had, but beyond that, working with a set on a fashion production also feels like a step towards film directing too. So, I’ve not lost sight of my ideals!

See Silverlink at Leica Gallery London until 22nd July 2024 and see more of Simon’s work on his Website and Instagram.