Lee Thatcher on his shrouded, unnerving, black-and-white portraits of urban existence.
“I don’t really think too much about the digital revolution,” says Lee Thatcher. “I wasn’t into photography before digital. What was more important to me was the mobile revolution. If it hadn’t been for having a camera on my phone that was easy and fun to use, I probably wouldn’t have started photography.”
Lee Thatcher is a relatively late starter in the photography world – his interest began at the age of 36, but four years on he has established himself as a street photographer of considerable talent.
Thatcher’s work feels both contemporary and well seen. Shot in black-and-white, primarily on the streets of London and Peterborough – his home town – he provides an often startlingly unfiltered look at human behaviour in urban spaces. Yet his induction to photography was comparatively prosaic and he still maintains a day job working in the IT industry. “I became interested in photography after my daughter was born, to document her growing up. As I began to shoot more, the enjoyment grew and I became a little bit obsessed by it,” he reflects.
“I haven’t studied photography, although I did try to enrol on a photography course at the local college; it was cancelled, though, due to lack of interest. I began to read a lot of photography books and study the work of other photographers. And now I take photographs of anything and everything.
“Early on a friend gave me some advice, which was to develop a look and feel, to create consistency throughout my photos, and I began to focus on black-and-white street photography.”
Thatcher is guided by chance, yet his work is remarkably taut and convincing; his economy of style lending his portraits a degree of concentration and resonance that passes through realism into symbolism. His insistence on eliminating unnecessary detail creates focus on the most important aspect of his photography – his subjects.
“Initially, I would take photographs in my home town,” he says, “but as nobody else was taking photographs I stood out with my iPhone and found I couldn’t achieve what I wanted, so I turned my attention to London. I often jump on a train and spend the day exploring the city, finding moments that interest me. I don’t go out with the intention of finding a particular scene or type of person; I just have my camera ready, and when I see something I think is interesting I take a photo. I shoot a lot fewer pictures than I used to, but I find that by slowing down and thinking more I end up with more keepers.”
Thatcher’s Flickr page reveals shots that elicit a composed drama, often through the navigation of silhouettes and space, or an unexpected pairing of the modern and pre-modern. “I’m not a fan of really busy backgrounds, so I might try to get high or low and eliminate some of that visual clutter,” he explains.
“I try to achieve photography that looks a lot older than it is,” he says. “I don’t often shoot indoors; outside it feels more fluid, like anything can change at any moment. I often think it’s now or never when I’m outside on the streets.
“I used to use a lot of apps with filters for grunge and scratches on my iPhone to achieve a certain look, but now I mostly use Lightroom. I spend a lot less time on post processing than I used to – perhaps just a few minutes per shot. I will shoot in colour, convert to black-and-white, adjust contrast, and add a little grain.”
Thatcher’s photography is underpinned by a defining feature; bruised urban portraits of lives in flux, in constant motion, even in peril. His subjects are solitary, belying a certain complexity or duality, borne out by dignity and presence. I suggest this social purpose is reflective of the ills of modernity.
“My images on the streets are often sad or solitary figures,” he says. “But that’s probably a reflection of how I feel a lot of the time. I think I came to photography at the right time for me. I needed something to do that fitted in with my responsibilities of being a new dad, and I wanted to document my daughter growing up, so photography seemed to fit perfectly. My choice to switch to street photography was mostly due to my daughter getting bored with me taking pictures of her. The streets offered unlimited possibilities.”
Thatcher is both conscious and wary of the pitfalls indelibly linked with the hyper-connectivity of social media self-promotion. “I think there is a social [media] purpose to photography,” he admits. “How social? Well, that depends. You can totally immerse yourself in the social aspects. I tried this and found I didn’t have the time to shoot and read photobooks. I had to find a healthy balance. I cut out the social networks and focused on Flickr. I really like what I find there – it’s the right tempo for me in terms of conversation.”
Tempo is key to Thatcher’s work. Just as his responses are thoughtfully composed and decidedly unrushed, his photography is equally fixated, maintaining a steady heartbeat amid the passive-aggressive hustle of life in a city. He provides a key and intuitive insight into the urban mystique and the maelstrom but, most of all, the absolute truths of modern-day city living.
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