I came across Lee Webb's work while researching outlets that would feature my latest book. His photography struck a very positive chord with me!
Lee is an Englishman living in Shanghai. He shoots street photography with vintage lenses and sometimes film.
Cendrine Marrouat: What inspired you to become a photographer? Any particular story?
Lee Webb: I’d wanted to get into photography for a few years but never did anything about it.
For too long I was into the idea of getting into photography without ever actually getting into photography.
Then one day I was browsing the Cracked website and came across an article called 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person. The main idea of the article was the only thing that matters is what you do, and not what you think or who you think you are. To be the noun you have to do the verb.
It just struck a chord like nothing I’d read or heard before.
Soon after, I saw some upcoming photography classes advertised, which I signed up for. Taught by a very talented Frenchman called Franc Peret, they laid the foundation for everything I’ve done in photography since.
If I hadn’t read that article I might not have signed up for the classes. I might still now be just been thinking about getting into photography instead of actually doing it.
CM: What is your favorite subject to photograph?
LW: I do street photography, so whatever I find when I’m out shooting. However, I do try to use as much of a scene as I can.
I try to think about the backgrounds and foregrounds and also how shapes and layers can feature in the photograph.
I want to make a photograph that has artistic merit rather than just showing a street scene. A photograph - probably monochrome - of a person walking down the street and hashtagged #streetphotography doesn’t interest me.
Recently I’ve been looking for scenes with a background or subject and waiting until someone walks in front of my camera to obscure some of the scene. It’s the kind of thing that annoys people trying to take a clean shot of something but I like to use the shape of whoever obstructs the shot as part of the shot. It adds another layer.
Whether what I’m doing is good or not isn’t for me to say. I’m just doing what I’m doing. It’s up to the viewer to judge the quality of it.
CM: What makes a good photo?
LW: I’ll never forget something my aforementioned photography teacher said: “The subject of any photograph is the light.”
So when I’m out shooting, I don’t look for interesting subjects. I look for good light because this always results in better photographs.
Aside from that, a good photograph probably makes me think ‘I wish I’d taken that’. These are usually photographs similar in style to mine but better than I’m capable of right now. I use them as motivation to get better.
Based on what I shoot and what I like to look at, photographs that I consider good are ones that cannot be recreated.
It’s hard to take a good photograph of just the Taj Mahal today. Everyone has seen it before. But if you can tell an original story featuring some of the people also there, and so making a photograph that cannot be recreated, you can create something that I might well consider to be good.
CM: What is the photo you prefer in your portfolio? Why?
LW: This changes every day. It’s changed several times while I’ve been thinking about which one to provide here.
This one, however, makes sense to use as an example of what I’m trying to achieve with my photography right now and also gives me a chance to talk through my process.
Going with the light, the building and the rows of bicycles were the first things I noticed. So using the building as a backdrop, I crouched down and waited for people to come into the frame. I probably took 30 or so shots from that position and this was the best one.
The man in grey walked into the frame from behind me and turned to look back; perhaps to see why I was crouching down in the middle of the street. I like how the shadow on his face turned out, I like how his grey clothes match much of the rest of the image while the boy’s orange t-shirt matches the bicycles, and I like how the wires kind of look like marionette strings. Or maybe that’s just me.
I also don’t mind his feet and head being cut from the frame. They both are so it’s balanced and it doesn’t take anything away from the feeling of the shot.
But that’s all just my opinion. Others may judge differently.
CM: Any photographer you admire?
LW: All time, Alex Webb.
I mentioned earlier how I like photographs that are similar in style to what I’m trying to do but beyond my current capabilities. Nobody exemplifies this more than Alex Webb.
The colours, the layers, the artistic merit of the composition are all supreme.
With all the respect in the world, people can mimic Bruce Gilden’s street photography with a flash and some bravery. People can mimic Daido Moriyama’s street photography with a trip to Japan and a high contrast monochrome Lightroom preset. But to mimic Alex Webb you’re going to have to develop your eye.
That doesn’t automatically make his photography better than the other people mentioned, but it is an indicator of why I like it. There’s just more complexity to it.
Current day, F.D. Walker. Again, F.D. Walker is doing the kind of thing I want to do but to a level I’m not yet capable of. You can see a lot of Alex Webb in his work, which uses colour and layers to great effect. And often humour, too. I certainly recommend people check out his website if they haven’t before.
CM: What piece of advice would you give photographers who are starting with online promotion?
LW: That most people likely don’t care about your photographs.
They may like photographs but, unless you’re world famous or world class, they likely don’t care specifically about yours.
If you want to make money from photography, you should be looking to bring more than just photographs to the table.
Ask yourself this - if you see a nice picture from Yosemite, do you want to buy it and put it on your wall or do you want to make your own and put that on your wall?
Everyone has a camera today so why would they buy yours when they can make their own?
So I think you need to give more.
Write tutorials on how you do your landscape photography in Yosemite. If people appreciate that, they may buy other photographs from you.
Put together a set of four shots from different spots in Yosemite. If people think getting to every spot themselves is too much trouble, they may buy your set.
Document the behind-the-scenes story of when you went to Yosemite to make your photographs. If people feel they know you, they’re more likely to buy from you.
Also, diversify your income streams.
I don’t see much of a future for people simply saying “here’s a photograph I took, do you want to buy it?” over and over on Twitter when everyone has a camera and so much work is available - legally - for free anyway.
The internet has brought us so many other ways to make money from photography as a concept that relying on just selling photographs seems very outdated to me.
Online photography theft is annoying but it’s here to stay. I don’t think worrying about it is helpful when we could be focusing on being productive in other ways instead.
If someone steals an image they would never have been a paying customer anyway. Forget them and concentrate your energy on creating unique income streams that cannot be stolen.
It’s better to work with the countless opportunities the internet has given us than to fight a losing battle against the downsides.
CM: Anything else you would like to share?
LW: You don’t need to learn manual mode. You don’t need to shoot in RAW. You don’t even need a camera. Take your phone if that’s all you have and get your feet on the streets.
There’s nothing more important for a photographer than to make photographs. Don’t let elitist attitudes and accepted erroneous wisdom about camera settings stop you from doing that.
Strike the right balance between looking at other people’s work, sharing other people’s work, and working on your own work.
The first two are important but if the last one isn’t your priority, consider whether your balance is wrong.