Forgotten faces

Much portrait photography reflects the glamour of wealth and fashion, but Clare Dowdy considers three projects of another kind, which capture the anonymous lives and hidden faces of the homeless, the ordinary and the long-lost

THERE ARE (at least) two forms of portrait photography: commercial shoots, usually involving professional models or famous types, and pictures of random individuals taken for reasons other than financial gain.

A trilogy of recent projects sheds some intriguing light on the latter form. Snapping homeless people is very different from taking photographs of all your mates at the local pub. And while both these photographers are professionals, the eyes behind the lens in a new book are all amateurs, or at least unnamed.

Vyshali Sardesai describes how she wanted to portray the clientele at the Whitechapel Mission shelter. ‘Homeless people become almost invisible, but actually some are very bright and amazing personalities, who have lived amazing lives. That’s forgotten,’ she says.

John Ross was on more easy-going terms with his subjects – all regular drinkers at the now defunct Wheat Sheaf pub. ‘I’d stand by the camera, chat away and put people at ease. It was like being in the pub except I was behind the camera,’ he says.

Meanwhile, the photographers featured in Being Human are all lost to the mists of time, and that’s how collector and editor Robert Flynn Johnson likes it. ‘There’s a purity about it; it’s the perfect book for the recession. In the art market, people buy with their ears, not with their eyes,’ he says. Because these unknown snaps don’t have the cachet of a big-name auteur, their appeal is purely aesthetic, he argues.

THE WHITECHAPEL MISSION BOOKLET
Shot by Vyshali Sardesai Designed by Why Design

The Whitechapel Mission is a drop-in and support centre for homeless people in east London. One of its most popular services is the cooked breakfasts, 150-200 of which are served up every day of the year.

BDG Workfutures supports the mission, and some of its staff volunteer to help with the breakfasts. This is how consultancy associate Vyshali Sardesai became involved.

‘I felt BDG could do something more, something using our strengths,’ she says, and she came up with the idea of a booklet to raise awareness of the mission’s work among potential sponsors. ‘We wanted to create something that gave the essence of what the mission does.’

In order to shoot the mission’s clients, Sardesai had to step out of the comfort zone of the kitchen and into the breakfast room, where things can sometimes be unpredictable. A member of staff escorted her around and explained to clients how the pictures would be used.

‘I didn’t shove the camera in people’s faces, and I didn’t use a flash. While some people were intimidated, others were positive.’

She says that she was trying to capture the wide variety of individuals that the mission serves. In fact, a quarter of the people using the mission are ex-servicemen, and a third have been through the care system.

‘The rest of us have a preconception of what they are and how they live. But through my experience of the breakfasts, I saw people of all ages and walks of life.’

THE WHEAT SHEAF RIP
Shot by John Ross Designed by Browns

This most personal of personal projects was triggered by the closure of John Ross’s local boozer. The Wheat Sheaf in London’s Borough Market had to make way for the expansion of the rail network, and served its last pint in January.

Ross had been mulling over a project around Borough Market, but couldn’t hit on an idea that seemed original enough, until he thought of shooting the pub’s regulars.

But rather than snapping them in situ, it all happened in his studio round the corner. ‘I wanted to remove everyone from The Wheat Sheaf as it was about the people, not the pub.’ So over a seven-month period, he had people – including Jonathan Ellery (of Browns) and Mark Farrow – turning up before and after work and in their lunch hour.

After trialling the lighting, he kept it as standard throughout the shoots, ‘as I was having to set it up and break so many times’. The backgrounds varied between white, grey and black.

Sometimes he was doing ten portraits in an hour, ‘so there was an adrenaline rush, and I was having to think on my feet. I’m not really a portrait photographer, so it was about capturing the right expression.’

While Browns didn’t crop any of the portraits for the book, Ellery did have to make a selection from a couple of hundred images. ‘I still get grief from individuals left on the cutting-room floor,’ says Ross.

Everyone involved in the project was a Wheat Sheaf regular, hence the support from the printer Moore and paper company GF Smith. Meanwhile, proceeds from Browns’ tome went to local charity Kids Company.

‘It was a fun project and it got me emotive again, I became very passionate about it,’ says Ross.

BEING HUMAN
Edited by Robert Flynn Johnson Designed by Design Holborn Published by Thames & Hudson

Rummager extraordinaire, Robert Flynn Johnson has produced his second book of his photographic findings.

Being Human features more than 220 photographs, many of them rescued from what Johnson calls ‘below the radar’, such as flea markets like London’s Portobello Road and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

‘They are photographic orphans. Very often the photographs I find in the morning cost me less than my lunch that day,’ says Johnson, Curator Emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

He’s organised the collection around the cycle of life. Chapter headings include Immaturity, Masculinity, Singularity, Activity and Adversity.

So in Immaturity, an androgynous toddler circa 1890 clutches a replica rifle. He/she has been positioned opposite a similarly sized infant three decades later, in formal dress and holding a walking stick.

Likewise, Johnson has a pair of native Natal policemen from 1880 in full bobby-on-the-beat get-up, complete with whistles and helmets but barefoot, juxtaposed with two chaps in the ‘leatherman’ version of police-wear, no doubt on their way to a Gay Pride event in San Francisco 100 years later.

Chocolate-box depictions of humanity are thin on the ground here. ‘I didn’t want it to be treacly sensibility, full of cute children, pretty girls and handsome men,’ Johnson says. ‘I wanted it to be real.’

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