Born and raised in the tiny village of Briantspuddle in the county of Dorset in the United Kingdom, Phil Penman studied photography at the prestigious Berkshire College of Art and Design. A veteran commercial photographer with an unerring instinct for capturing the timeless and compelling in seemingly ordinary scenes, Phil Penman is also an avid bicyclist and semipro racer. In this interview he explains how he documented a 440-mile bicycle trek from New York to Montreal for Chalet Magazine astride his two-wheeler with a Leica M and M9.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: For my commercial work it depends on my clients’ wishes. I aim to capture the vision that they have in mind for the particular assignments I’ve been hired to do.
As for my personal work, I try to capture a timeless quality that will live on. It’s hard to describe, but there is that moment when you’re looking through the viewfinder watching the world in front of you and you get a feeling. It’s almost like drinking twenty cups of coffee at once. I look at a scene and in my head I envision how I want to see it in print.
Q: Can you explain your photographic approach?
A: For me there is a feeling you get when being in the moment. Photography has taken me to places I never thought; I would see and meet people I only knew as a child watching them on television. Having a cup of tea with Christopher Reeve in his home was an eye opener for me on how photography can change your life.
There is something very epic about seeing an image unfold and develop through a viewfinder. You’re closed off to the surroundings and it’s just you and your subject, be it a snowstorm or looking into the eyes of a convicted murderer inside Attica Prison.
Q: Which camera and lenses did you use to capture the images in this portfolio? And what are some of the characteristics and features that you found especially valuable in executing this assignment?
A: I use both the M9 and Leica M for my shoots, using a 75 mm f/2 on my M9 and a 35 mm f/1.4 on my Leica M. The Leica’s simplicity and exceptional quality of the lenses allows me to concentrate on what is important — the image. The 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux is by far the best lens I have ever owned and anytime I can use it at f/1.4, I do.
Q: More than half the images you included in your portfolio here were output in black-and-white, but some of the most graphically compelling ones are presented in color. How do you decide which medium to use for presenting your work, and do you have a preference for one over the other?
A: A lot of the time when I’m setting up the shot on the street or on a job I already have in my mind exactly how I want it to look as a print. It may be a shadow on the street that I want to overemphasize by making my exposure a little darker or knowing that I want to darken the sky, etc.
Also, some pictures just work better in a specific medium, be it a colorful graffiti wall in NYC, or a moody dark day over the mountains that almost looks black-and-white when looking at it.
When editing I always like to give the client the option to be able to run it in color or black-and-white so I give them the choice. The Chalet spread for this particular portfolio was largely a mix of color and black-and-white. This was a decision made by the photo editors.
Q: This is a charmingly chaotic picture of garbage on a street that includes a newspaper, crushed plastic cups and bottles, paper bags, etc., the forms of which are emphasized by the side-lighting. Why did you decide to include this image in your coverage, and what do you think it communicates to the viewer?
A: This for me is straight up downtown New York City. The amount of trash on the streets just never ceases to amaze me and how people just drive around and feel that they can throw bags of trash out of their cars onto the street is unreal. I felt that for my portfolio it would be a good way to start to show just exactly what you have to ride through and smell in the city, especially on this particular 100-degree day.
Q: This shot shows a semi-derelict kind of anonymous square house surrounded by trees, next to a road, with a dramatic sky in the background. It’s an interesting picture that certainly conveys a somber mood and a sense of decay, but what does it have to do with a cycling tour?
A: This again shows you just how diverse your surroundings change on any given mile. This particular image shows a building in the town of Haverstraw, north of New York City. Not everything we see on bike tours is grass and green fields.
Q: This image shows a couple of young men wearing baseball caps sitting on a step in a seedy urban setting. It looks like it would be part of a street photography portfolio as opposed to a documentary of a bicycling tour. Where was this picture taken and why did you include it in your portfolio?
A: Again this shot was taken in Haverstraw and shows a couple of guys I got to chat with. I’ve found that being dressed up in my cycling gear with my bike can actually put people at ease when asking to take their portraits. They are usually intrigued to know about my trip or where I am going or they just want to admire the bike.
When I’m on jobs, I don’t always get the same reaction. Once I had to shoot a feature on how Camden, New Jersey was the most dangerous city in America. I was in my regular photography gear and people were not so much at ease. The moment a shoestring on a door starts moving and guys start doing catcalls you know it’s time to move on.
Q: There is something disarmingly straightforward and up-tempo about your picture of a classic hotdog truck in a park-like setting. Where was this picture taken, what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release, and can you provide the tech data?
A: This was taken with my 35 mm lens at f/1.4 at 1/4000 sec at 100 ISO. I love shooting wide open and even with a small landscape shot like this I want to have as little depth as possible in the background so your eye is drawn more to the truck. I’m also a fan of humor in photography and love the work of Martin Parr, a British photographer with Magnum. His early work in neighborhoods close to where I grew up gave me an appreciation for the humor in the things around us.
His series on the town of Boring in America illustrated how you can take a simple shot of a school called “Boring High School” and make it amusing.
Q: This a black-and-white picture of a group of cyclists going up a hill with a railroad trestle in the background, certainly gives a visceral sense of their trek, and this is emphasized by the slight blur evidently due to camera movement. Were you actually following them on a bicycle? Also where was this image taken and what does it mean to you?
A: As I mentioned I was following on my bike for the entire trip, which got a bit tiring while riding with them, having to stop to take pictures and then catch up with them again.
For a lot of the trip my Leica would dangle down from my neck so that I could shoot them while riding. Guessing the exposure and focus was always fun, but keeping the brain moving took away from the pain in the legs. In this particular shot taken entering Montreal, I wanted to show the movement and what riding in the group feels like.
Q: The shot of a Vermont road sign in a grassy field with a line of bushes and trees in the background certainly establishes a location, and implicitly gives a sense of the extensive nature of the bicycle tour, but it also has a nice graphic quality and stands on its own. How would you describe the function of this image in your portfolio, and are there any other reasons why you included it?
A: This particular image I feel has a nice graphic element to it. The colors worked well, and as you say, it gives a sense of location, which is important to convey as part of the series.
Q: This is a charming picture that contrasts a typical whitewashed New England church in the background with a moldering wooden Victorian building on the left-hand side. The dark corners of the image provide an effective vignette and the ominous looking clouds in the sky give it a slightly creepy feeling. Do you agree, and what was your intention in capturing this masterfully composed image?
A: I’m personally a big fan of architecture and absolutely love the look of the building on the left; it just has so much character to it. I would agree that it’s definitely a little creepy though and I would not want to walk past it late at night.
A lot of my photography in general is based around buildings and iconic structures and using human elements in the foreground to emphasize its shape and size. Lately the architecture in NYC has gone rapidly downhill and riding by beautiful old buildings being knocked down and making way for Legoland building block structures with zero character is very depressing. So anytime I see a beautiful building I make sure to photograph it since tomorrow you never know.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan to explore any other genres, such as portraiture, architectural photography, or street photography, all of which play some part in this portfolio?
A: I’m lucky enough that my work is very diverse and I get to shoot all manner of subjects. Just last night I got back from shooting travel features in Rome and today I have an at-home lifestyle portrait shoot with Jamie Colby, a news anchor for Fox News, at her home in NYC. Photography has opened my eyes to many things and people I never thought I would get to meet.
Portraiture is a favorite of mine since you get to ask the questions and chat with your subject and find out things you would love to know from the world’s leading experts.
The subject is normally a lot more at ease chatting with a photographer than a reporter since they know that it’s off the record. Being able to ask Bill Gates where he saw home technology going in the next 10 years and his personal thoughts, and to watch a lot of it come true is quite an experience.
Thank you for your time, Phil!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Phil on his website and Facebook.