An Interview with Philip Chudy
Copyright- Margot Duane
RH: Who is Philip Chudy
Hailing from Zimbabwe Philip Chudy studied in photography in Birmingham (UK) and subsequently worked from studios in London Edinburgh and Frankfurt, before relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area. Shoots highly technical advertising and automotive imagery as well as fine art. Solo shows: London, Edinburgh, Leicester, Amsterdam, Darmstadt, Napa
RH: What attracted and inspired you to your current documentary project?
PC: Three things
One: the amazing evening light here in Northern California and the way it is accentuated on all colorful the fairground stands.
The second reason is more technical: I used to shoot street people with 8x10 plate camera and whereas one can include some spontaneity into such scenes, it is basically posed. The Summer Fairs series was a way to capture humanity on the hoof. I transitioned to shooting spontaneous imagery at Burning Man some years back where I shot mainly on 6x7 film hand held with Mamiya RZ camera. The Summer Fairs series has been shot entirely with DSLR and a mixture of long or wide-angle lenses in poor light which would have been impossible to shoot with film in the olden days. The speed and accuracy is liberating after having constrained myself over many years to choose fidelity over spontaneity.
Third reason is how ‘humanity’ and racial/age/ethnic/cultural diversity is on show at these events hereabouts. And, having grown up on Zimbabwe where a lot of things happen on the street but I only ever captured a tiny bit of it, the chance here was to make amends and go for it.
RH: Can you talk us through the planning stage for your project?
PC: There was pretty much no planning for that other than showing up at fairs and shooting. Mostly I go late in the day and shoot for perhaps 2 hours in the sweet light. It is total immersion and I am shooting many frames per minute till it is dark and then I go home mentally exhausted, before the other revelers start to enjoy the fireworks
RH: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
PC: This is a thing I know I will want to have done differently – sometime in the future (when equipment is way better than it is now). I will wish that I would be able to drag new equipment back in time. So can reshoot the best photos I already did better.
Looking back in time - there are two regrets. I shot a few rolls or street photography in what was Rhodesia in 1971. After that I turned up my nose on 35mm and lost touch with the small camera version of the decisive moment. I wish I had continued to shoot action people pics alongside my mania for ‘larger than street life’ large format fidelity. Also – having worked on Advertising for a decade or more from a big studio in Wapping in the 70’s, apart from a few rolls of Kodachrome I never bothered to lift up a camera and shoot street action or even static large format landscape in London. How lame to have professed (as I did) that London was not interesting in a visual sense.
Simple fact - street photos get better with age but they never can do that if you did not shoot them.
Implementation and Completion
RH: How have you dealt with any challenges and difficulties within your project?
PC: You might mange to be sneaky and hide somewhere in an attempt not to influence your subjects by being present in the scene. But it would probably be uncomfortable in that mailbox. I get around this by not being a purist. I let go of the idea that there will never be anyone looking into my lens with a ‘what is that idiot photographer doing’ look on their faces.
I tend to stand in full view of everyone often wielding my long lenses and wheeling about in what might be deemed a threatening manner. Or I dive into crowds camera at eye close to the people rushing past me. I find that people find you interesting for a while and then get bored and ignore you. I scowl a lot as if I am really finding nothing of interest to shoot. I lift up my camera a lot and point it at people as if to say ‘I wish it were worth shooting you but….’ I try to look impatient for them to get out of the way of the real photo I am taking and usually I get the ‘screw you, I am doing what I am doing and will move when I am ready’. I acknowledge people and smile when our eyes meet as if to say ‘what an idiot I am – you should be glad you are not struggling to get shots like I am’. I look past them a lot as if I am waiting to shoot someone behind them and that party is not cooperating. All this meant to make them get bored with me and discount my presence.
On a personal level, I look like a real jerk – if you want people to ignore you I think that helps a lot.
RH: How long do your projects tend to take from start to finish?
PC: Each Summer Fairs shoot is usually 2 hours or less shooting and many hours of post – trying to see if I got anything worth preparing. The Summer Fairs project is ongoing. So basically as the collection grows some stuff needs to be retired. It takes me a year or more before I don’t care anymore for what I once thought was an exciting or interesting photo. Then I find it easier to dispose of it.
I tend to find I fall seriously out of love with those photos which endure (ones which others call ‘the best’). I can see they are good but I can get to hate them. I would rather finish my project with an edit of photos which retain a subtle magic for me. It would take me years till I would have the courage to throw away the ‘undisputed best’ ones to give space for the magic ones to breathe. So, probably I will never do that. Thus the project is never finished.
Editing and Sequencing
RH: Do have several images to edit of one fleeting moment or do you have one well-constructed precise image that you have captured?
PC: Both can happen. Usually I shoot a stream of frames mostly because I don’t want to lose the pic just because it is not sharp, or the camera shook. I am surprised how often the one of the series of exposures I choose in the end is the very first frame. That is reassuring.
RH: Within the editing stages, have you felt the project has taken on a different narrative than first envisaged?
PC: Not for me personally. After all the years of carefully crafting my photos with a plate camera, where the narrative should be fully under control, I thought I would lose all that with more action based work. I thought it would be a giant crapshoot at shooting stage and a heavy dredge though at post, hoping to hell that you ‘got something’. I am gob smacked to find that I am almost always aware when shooting something good and I know why it will work when I press the shutter. I cannot really understand how this is, because there is so little time when shooting to think about anything.
At the same time I tend to shoot even when I know it is crap. It is a bit like bouncing the ball to get your muscles warmed up. Or it is like a Mayan ritual sacrifice – forgoing some good photos just to please the gods. My problem is that good images come in batches and you end up with 10 good pics with the same person in them. You cannot decide which ones to dump. Having to dump anything you like feels like having to accept a diverging narrative.
Occasionally I get the sense I am seeing the project through the eyes of other hypothetical people. When that happens there is not so much a change of narrative, rather there is absolutely no narrative left at all. That is quite strange. I have experienced moments when I look at my work and fail to see a single thing to be interested in or engage with. Seeing things that way would not be surprising if I was depressed but I am not. There has to be some salutary lesson to be learned – namely that whatever excitement one might find in such imagery, represents some crazy good stuff in the mind of the viewer, because it sure as hell is not inherent in the image itself.
Tips and hints
RH: What would you recommend for people starting their own photographic project?
PC: Only one word – start. And ‘start’ means taking photos and editing them.
In the main as this applies to photographers: preparing, researching previsualizing, planning are only precursors to nothing. They only serve to ensure that you never get anything done and you will whine on regretfully to your grave.
Another thought which can be useful – drop the idea that when you look at a scene you are seeing it. It takes a lifetime to learn to just stand and look at what is in front of you (even in a static scene) and try as you can you will never manage to really see what is right in front of you right now. In view of that, it is a wonder that you might expect to make sense of a dynamic moving scene (as with street photography). Anything you look at in a scene blinds you to other stuff you will fail to see. There is more in a scene than you will ever see and if you are good you will continually seek it out.
RH: Does the camera really matter?
PC: It matters a ton what you shoot on (if you can afford it) and it matters also in the negative sense that the camera will destroy your photography if take any pride in, or even notice of what is in your hand when you are taking photos (well, it is ‘you’ really). If you have a crap camera you just need to adapt and shoot what it affords you to. Your photos will be way better than someone who is concentrating really hard to gain advantage from fabulous state of the art equipment.
RH: Any books you would recommend reading to get the creativity started?
PC: What is a book? I remember a lot of photos but I stopped noticing books after The Family of Man. I have to say I am not proud to be a book cretin: a book is a fabulous exercise in curation/editing. I am making a couple of them as we speak. Owning a book is one thing, but emotionally I find it hard to imagine why any modern person waste the time looking through one. Not that I prefer online or real shows. Images exist in mental space for me, not in books.
RH: Would you recommend attending photography workshops?
PC: Not really - unless you like paying to socialize. You will learn way more by editing and post producing your photos and shooting than trying to inherit a recipe or formula.
find out more about Philips work at:
Fine Art website
Very Large batch of Summer Fairs photos
If you have a documentary project worth sharing please get in touch by leaving a comment below or email.