From Hokusai to horror: an evening with Chris Steele-Perkins

Chris Steele-Perkins, Cherry blossom tree with plane, 2001

The award-winning Magnum photographer Chris Steele-Perkins yesterday gave a talk about his life as a photojournalist at the Kings Place in London, in support of Photovoice – a brilliant charity which works with disadvantaged people and communities, using photography to effect social change.

Chris is a renowned photojournalist who has had an extraordinary career, documenting communities in Britain and around the world, from the 1970s through to the present day. His talk last night was a trawl through his own potted history of the last 40-odd years – compressed into a little over an hour. No mean feat, even for someone who, despite claiming to by ‘quite a shy character, really’, is clearly a great storyteller in words as well as pictures.

From his early work on teddy-boys in the 70s, through essays on poverty and social deprivation, working for NGOs in Africa, photographing the Taliban in Afghanistan, and right up to his latest series on centenarians – taking in his views of the English at leisure, conflict in Northern Ireland, and the demise of mining communities in Yorkshire along the way – Steele-Perkins has few equals amongst contemporary British photojournalists. I heard somebody sat nearby whisper that he’s kind of a cross between Martin Parr and Don McCullin, which I thought was kind of spot on.

But the stories behind some of his most famous images – as well as some less well known ones – were revealed in a fairly unscripted jaunt through his extraordinary archives. He also spoke about (listed here in no particular order) the process of editing (‘like a process of attrition’), his photographic influences and heroes (‘I even met some of them; some of them were even alright!’), England and the English (‘I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider’) and alluded several times to what he sees as an intrinsic quality in photography – that ‘it can reveal everything, but explains nothing’.

But it was for one particular body of work – perhaps his most well-known – that it was particularly timely and interesting to hear him speak about last night, and that was his work on and about Japan.

‘Under the great wave’ or ‘The great wave of Kanagawa’, Hokusai Japan, about AD 1829-33 (courtesy British Museum)

Steele-Perkins spent much of the first few years of the new millennium in Japan, having married his second wife, Miyako Yamada in 1999. As he puts it, he ‘fell in love twice – first with her, then with her country’. This second love affair resulted in two acclaimed  photographic books on Japan, Fuji in 2001, and Tokyo Love Hello in 2006 (follow this link to see Magnum’s brilliant audio slideshow version of this).

Fuji was inspired by the 18th century Japanese artist Hokusai’s ‘Thirty six views of Mount Fuji’, which includes perhaps the most famous Japanese wood-block print, The Great Wave of Kanagawa (pictured above). But it was somehow fitting that, despite the horrific events currently going on in Japan, Steele-Perkins did not mention them once last night. His description of Hokusai’s famous image was simply reference enough.

He didn’t actually show the print, just described it, as a sufficient introduction to talking about Fuji – a project that is clearly a deeply felt and affectionate body of work, one Englishman’s attempt to understand and interpret the Japanese way of life.

Part of me wanted to ask what he felt about what was going on there now, and whether he’d already given any thought to going back. But it didn’t seem fair – what could I expect him to say?

Steele-Perkins presented his work in a purely chronological way, although he referred repeatedly to recurring themes that cut across projects. So I’m misrepresenting his presentation slightly by ending this post by referring to the image of the cherry blossom tree at the top of this post. But I think in the context of Japan today, the importance of Japan in his work, and in essence of what he was trying to say, I couldn’t think of a better way to end: the cherry blossom tree is as much a motif of Japan as Hokusai’s wave.

But, despite all of his wonderful photographs of Japan, Chris Steele-Perkins’ cherry blossom was photographed in a car park in Essex.

As he says – sometimes photographs can reveal everything but explain nothing.

Donate to Photovoice

Donate to the International Red Cross emergency appeal for Japan

About Russell Watkins

Photographer and multimedia producer/editor working in international development. Also on Twitter @russellphoto
This entry was posted in art, history, humanitarian emergencies, NGOs, photography, photojournalism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to From Hokusai to horror: an evening with Chris Steele-Perkins

  1. Pingback: The spider trees of Pakistan: a tale of two photographs and the web | Developing Pictures: photography+development

  2. Pingback: 24 posts later: a year of blogging on Developing Pictures | Developing Pictures: photography+development

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