Phil Penman

December 6, 2019

Phil Penman speaks about the advantages of street photography in New York, and the challenges of photographing celebrities.
During his photographic career, Phil Penman has had any number of celebrities in front of his camera; he has also spent many years dedicated to street photography. In an interview he explains why he considers New York the best place for it, what role the weather plays, and why the days of the paparazzi are counted.

LFI: How did you get into celebrity and street photography?
I started my career as a news/corporate photographer in the United Kingdom, but was given the opportunity to work for a celebrity news agency in Los Angeles and jumped at the opportunity. The work involved largely consisted of stake outs covering the lifestyles of the rich and famous. I moved to New York City in 2001 and quickly found myself photographing one of the biggest news events of our time, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.

Around 2004, I bought my first Leica off a friend and started taking to the streets to document the ever changing streets of New York City. A few more Leica camera bodies later and I had my first digital M9, which I started to use to document the behind-the-scenes, under belly of the celebrity world. I found the project a great way for me to keep my creative side whilst also having to shoot celebrities to pay my rent.

You prefer to take photos in New York. Could you describe the city from a photographic point of view in a few sentences?
New York is a living breathing thing. The city has a pulse and every day is different. You never know what you are going to see next. One day you’ll be walking along, and around the corner you'll stumble across a man walking a pet turkey. The city is never short of excitement.

What is more challenging for you, capturing the life of celebrities or capturing the spirit of the streets of New York?
Oh, celebrities for sure! The City is a joy to shoot and does not use umbrellas to cover its face. Celebrity photography is more about control. The industry changed years ago with the appearence of influencers and Instagram.

Now a celebrity can control the image they portray to the world a lot more. It used to be that the celebrity photographer would be the one to give you a glimpse inside that world, but now the celebrity not only gives you a glimpse, they invite you into their bedroom, their kitchen and show you where they go on holiday.
The days of celebrity photography are pretty much over. I left the game about four years ago to concentrate on just shooting street photography, and what makes me happy.

Could you describe your photographic approach when shooting in the streets of New York?
I’ll typically head out around 4-5am in the morning, on days when the weather is miserable. I use the weather to create my backdrop and then add my characters and elements into the scene, one by one. My goal is always to try and create something epic; it doesn't always work but if you don’t try you’ll never know. Normally the nastier the weather the better it gets. Being an Englishman, I never thought I'd be looking for the rain to come!

I’ve been a professional photographer for over 22 years now, and it was only during the last 5 years or more, that I truly started to just enjoy the experience of taking pictures and am less concerned about putting pressure upon myself. I feel this has led to by best work.

What does Leica mean to you?
Leica became my creative outlet. It’s not just a camera. It has introduced me to people and places I would never have discovered otherwise.

Through the camera I’ve now become an instructor for the Leica Akademie. This has been the best experience, as it has introduced me to fellow Leica shooters, and given me the opportunity to pass over some of my knowledge – but also to learn from them.

His book STREET is available on his Website.
EQUIPMENT: Leica SL with Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90 f/2.8-4 Asph and Apo Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280 f/2.8-4, Leica M Monochrom with Summilux-M 35 f/1.4 Asph and Apo-Summicron-M 75 f/2 Asph

Phil Penman+-

© Derek Fahsbender

UK-born, NY-based photographer Phil Penman has documented the rapid flux of New York City's streets for over 25 years. With clients ranging from People Magazine to The Daily Telegraph, he has photographed celebrated living legends, including Jennifer Lopez and Bill Gates, and captured historical moments such as the September 11th terrorist attacks. Penman's distinctive style, versatility, and dedication have won him prestigious awards and exhibitions. His debut book STREET has become a best seller. More