Street: Photographs by Phil Penman

2 April - 31 May 2020
  • Introduction to Street

    Introduction to Street

    I’ll never forget chatting with a homeless man on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street in Manhattan, across from the Disney Store. A policeman came up to us and said to me, “He knows all and sees all,” referring to the homeless man, who then asked, “What happened with the bomb scare inside the Disney Store this morning?” The policeman responded with surprise, “How could you possibly know about that? We had undercover police officers, and it didn’t go out over the wire.” But somehow the homeless man knew from just sitting there for hours and watching the comings and goings that were oblivious to anyone else but him.


  • The street—it’s living and breathing. Millions of lives dizzyingly moving around us as we go about our daily routines. 
  • We choose to see or not see what we want of it; though, if you really look closely, you can discover just about anything—even undercover sting operations in one of the busiest tourist traps in Times Square. But in a city like this, it’s all too easy to miss it if you don't stop and look around once in a while because as they say, “life moves pretty fast.” I’ve found this to be true in the 18 years I’ve trawled the streets of New York City as a photographer.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           


    If I was to say what I hope to achieve with my street photography, it would be to keep documenting the ever-changing streets of New York City in all its rat-infested, garbage-mounted glory. Perhaps I’m fascinated by all the grime and grit this city has to offer because I grew up in the countryside of Dorset in the United Kingdom with only the sound of cattle moving in the night. In my path to New York, I’ve done just about everything, working as a street cleaner, garbage man, milkman, paper delivery boy, Champagne waiter, nightclub barman, DJ, real estate broker, and even lycra salesman. I never thought I would end up being a celebrity photographer, but in order to chase my dreams to the United States, I was willing to learn everything and anything. What 22-year-old in his right mind would turn down the opportunity to fly all around the world, staying in expensive hotels and photographing celebrities, earning in one month what it would take him ( me )  one year to make in the UK? The decision was, of course, too obvious, so when I was offered a job with a celebrity news agency, I jumped at the opportunity.


    Upon landing in the States, my boss greeted me with my first task: “You’re going to be photographing Pete Sampras’s wedding this weekend.” By photographing it he really meant, “You’re going to be roaming the hallways of the Beverly Hills Hotel with a small camera stuck down your pants hoping for a sighting of the bride.” Clearly, the life of a “celebrity photographer” usually entails very little glamour, a far cry from standing behind a velvet rope waiting for the rich and famous. More often than not, I was standing on the streets of New York, hiding behind a trash can freezing my butt off in weather that was 20 degrees below zero. 


    From being called “trash” to hiding behind actual trash, the paparazzi always get a bad rap. Along with the debauchery and the thrills, being told to “get a life” was part and parcel of my life as a paparazzo. Maybe this is why the profession attracts so many social misfits. We come from all walks of life: adrenaline-fueled kids tired of photographing stories ( playing the computer game )  “Grand Theft Auto” and looking for the real thing, a motley crew made up of ex-military personnel, press photographers, and the rich looking to kill time. Whether we were speeding down the road in a taxi cab or furiously pedaling our bikes to the center of the action, we were there to capture it all, always out on the streets.


    And being on the street all day, you get a real feel for the city. You always know when there is a bad vibe on the streets and pick up on things that the average person may not see. You get to know everyone. In time, I found myself drawn to street photography, consumed by the makeup of New York. It may be a big city, but I felt as though wherever I went, I could stop and chat to someone I knew, discussing the politics of Greece with one coffee vendor and then how Uber was killing the business of the hotel doorman with another.


    In doing so, I was clocking up around 400 miles a week riding around the city on my fixed gear bicycle. Instead of photographing the celebrities, I went out with the intention of capturing people on the streets—people taking their pet turkeys for a walk or spacemen striding down Prince Street in SoHo which had become far more interesting to me than a celebrity walking with a cup of Starbucks coffee. In New York, there is always something to see: every day is different. In all this rush, it’s hard to convey in a single image what you’ve experienced during that one fleeting moment. But still I find myself clicking the shutter just for the hell of it because what you’re seeing through the viewfinder is magical, and for one second, you’re able to capture that moment.

  • Street