Matthew Eller: I had the absolute pleasure spending a raining afternoon walking around lower Manhattan, NYC photographing one of my favorite photographers Phil Penman. Philip was also kind enough to answer some of my questions about his life, street photography, and his new book “New York Street Diaries”. So Phil, Tell us a brief bit about who you are, and what you do?
Phil Penman: UK born from a tiny village called Briantspuddle in the South West. Studied photography for a few years before catching a break working in the news industry covering all matter of things from politicians kissing babies to road traffic accidents. In 1999 I got chatting with a photographer whilst on a celebrity stake out and he introduced me to his ex-bosses who ran a photo agency in Los Angeles. The company specialized in news and celebrity stories. A Few weeks later and I find myself on a plane to LA. After about 6 months of clocking up traffic tickets working on celebs and anything the British newspapers could throw at us I moved to NYC. New York City was always the goal ever since I visited in 1994 and fell in love with her. The graffiti backdrops, and hip hop blaring cars were the draw for me, as I also worked as a DJ. It’s 23 years later and I’m still here, but spend my days photographing the streets and interesting characters that are its make up.
Matthew Eller: How long have you been a photographer?
Phil Penman: All in all about 31 years now with 28 of them as a working professional.
Matthew Eller: How did you get your start?
Phil Penman: Like any good artist I blagged myself into a job. For those that are unfamiliar with the term it means to bullshit your way in. My first job was as Chief photographer of a local paper. The art of the blag is that you have to be able to pull it off and actually deliver the goods which I did. From there it’s just about putting your head down and working your arse off.
Matthew Eller: How did you become a paparazzi?
Phil Penman: I kind of fell into it because of the drive to live in USA. The agency I was working for made it very clear that’s what paid the bills, and if you wanted to stay in the country you had to be able to learn that skill. When people think of paparazzi they think of people jumping in front of them or flash bulbs on a red carpet. This could not be further from what I was doing. Think more like a sniper camped out with lens honed in on a super yacht in St Barths and you get the idea. My job was not just this though. Most of it was actually doing undercover investigative work. Some paedophile priest who needed outing, or a sketchy adoption agent selling the same babies to multiple couples and running off with the money. This was the bulk of the work but the celebs paid the bills.
Matthew Eller: Why did you quit?
Phil Penman: Because it mentally destroys you. Having the World Trade Center come down right in front of me and going through the same celebrity dross everyday just gets to be to much. I actually quit and took a job working for a cycling company selling clothing whilst also carrying on my portrait work and doing street photography at one point.
Matthew Eller: Did you always want to be a magazine / press type of photographer? Or did you just fall into it?
Phil Penman: My dad was a press photographer and it was a pretty awesome job back in the day. You got to travel the world paid for by someone else. I got to meet people like Bill Gates and Christopher Reeve as well as pretty much everyone else in a position of influence in their respective industries. In what other job do you get to do this and get to ask questions to the people that actually know?
Matthew Eller: Who would you consider to be your 2 biggest influences? They do not have to be photographers.
Phil Penman: Got to be the photographer Sebastiao Salgado, and then probably Jackson Pollack or Pier Mondrian.
Matthew Eller: You are known for your intense black & white street photography. Has b&w always been your weapon of choice? Why do you seem to prefer it over color?
Phil Penman: When you have shot color for work for over 30 years you need a different mind set for your personal work and black and white was where I started in the darkroom and where I’m happiest. It’s not that I don’t like color it’s just that black and white takes me off to another place where I’m in my zone.
Matthew Eller: You’re also a Leica Camera ambassador. How did that relationship come to be?
Phil Penman: Around 2015 I had my first break getting a show at Leica in New York. They shortly reached out about doing some talks and workshops for them and I have been traveling around the world doing things for leica ever since. This year alone I’ve done shows and workshops in Miami, Melbourne, Sydney, London, Boston and New York.
Matthew Eller: Best and worst story as a paparazzi getting a shot of a celebrity?
Phil Penman: Best would have to be Madonna on a film shoot with Guy Ritchie. It’s where all the hard work paid off. I had been chasing her around NYC on a bicycle for about 2 weeks. Picture Two black escalades with police lights being followed by 10 bicycles, 5 motorbikes and 10 cars. Everyday we would go out it was a race. Who would be last one standing ? On this particular day I managed to be the last one and they had successfully lost everyone else. We pulled up on a film set that husband Guy was directing. Madonna gets out the car with the kids and goes over to Guy and the kids gave him flowers as it was father’s day. I was shooting these amazing pictures of Madonna and the family posing by the camera with a long 400mm lens. It felt like a portrait shoot. The key is to keep your distance and not get in the way. Half the time celebs were never really concerned about the photographers because you would not have much of a career without it. They were more concerned about us drawing attention to them so the public would see and rush them. Many celebs have serious stalker issues so a lot of my relationships with celebs were built on me being respectful and not making a scene or getting in the way. Stood behind her were about 20 security guys who did not move or confront me, which was strange. After about an hour they leave the set and a sound guy comes over and says “Man she loves you”. I thought it weird but she had a mic on and he was hearing everything. The security guys kept saying to her, do you want us to stop him from taking pictures? She apparently replied “He has been chasing me on a bike for two weeks he can take whatever he wants”
Now for worst it has to be a news job. I had many shitty scenarios but you never know what can go wrong. After 9/11 the country was on high alert. A breaking story came in that a women in South Carolina had taught a terrorist how to fly and he had just tried to take over a plane in Sweden but was unsuccessful. I had to jump on a plane with a reporter and get there. We knocked on her door and she screamed to leave her alone. We said we would go. As we started driving down the block and a police car comes screaming round the corner and stops us. He asks “Can I help you?”. We replied “We are just lost”. We pulled into a strip mall parking lot to check our map and were immediately swarmed by 5 or more police cars with guns aimed at us from every angle. After having to wait an hour we were interviewed by the chief of police. We asked him “What was the big deal” as we were just press responding to a huge news story. He replied “You embarrassed the FBI by getting to her before they did and we were told to make an example of you”. In my time working as a press photographer I had guns pulled on me more times than I care to remember. Been inside Attica Prison interviewing serial killers and chasing down murderers in Brazil. The job was never boring but not without it’s danger.
Matthew Eller: Hardest part of being a street photographer and maybe some words of wisdom?
Phil Penman: If you are in it for the money you have the wrong business. This is for the love of photography and being engrossed in the surroundings. My favorite part of the day is getting into conversations with people from all walks of life and learning something new that I did not know a day before. It also gives us the opportunity to capture something real when pretty much everything else around us now is becoming fake (from a picture point of view). People changing their bodies for social media or arm chair bandits creating pictures with AI . The entire point of photography for me was the art of it and being out there with other people.
Words of wisdom? I would have to say , go against the grain. If anyone ever tells you Street Photography is this and has to be done using this lens etc., go do exactly the opposite of what they say. These people have made it so easy for us to stand out by trying to impose rules on everything. How are you going to make your work standout if you are following rules?
Matthew Eller: You have made NYC your home for 25 years. Is it New York City or nothing?
Phil Penman: Pretty much. You know the average time someone lives in New York is 2 years. Either could not hack it, or could not afford it. It’s one of these great cities where the best of the best are trying to be here and make a name for themselves. I love other cities to visit but it’s when you come back that you realize how bloody good we have it.
Matthew Eller: Tell me about your new book “New York Street Diaries”. How is this different than your other books? What can people expect?
Phil Penman: This is gritty depiction of NYC during Covid lockdown and the great people that make it. It’s dedicated to the streets of NYC.
Matthew Eller: Bonus question – funniest or interesting story about one of the captures in your new book? Which picture in particular has a story which would blow our minds?
Phil Penman: It always has to be people for me as they interest me the most. A guy with a hat with the words “Dope as fuck ” on it and a mask with USA flag on it rides by me. I ask if I can do his portrait because I love the mask and he has great character. Within 10 minutes he is trying to sell me a bag of weed. I just laughed and wished him well with his business venture.