Stephen causes Sparks as he captures real life street snaps

IT’S immediately apparent when chatting with Stephen Leslie that photography is not merely just his profession — it’s his passion.

The 48-year-old speaks fervently on the subject, and one which he didn’t get into until he was in his early 20s.

Stephen’s photographs have featured in numerous magazines and websites and been used as the covers of albums and books — and even on bottles of beer.

He has now compiled his 20 years of street photography in his first solo book, Sparks — Adventures In Street Photography (Unbound/Penguin, £25), which imagines the weird and wonderful stories behind his original street snaps.

The book is a love-letter to photography, pairing 80 evocative colour images — shot on film — with stories, as well as Stephen’s recollections of 20 years spent looking through the lens.

“I initially wanted to do a straight-forward photographic book,” Londoner Stephen told me.

“I then realised that the photographs I liked the most were the ones which were suggestive, in that if I looked at them, I started to imagine what was going on, so I could add fake narratives and context to go alongside them.

“It was a question of seeing which would work with the narrative or some other kind of text.

“The thing with street photography is that you rarely know the context you’re taking.

“Look at any photography — you don’t know the true story behind it because a photo only ever gives you a tiny fraction, a 200th of a second, and the field of vision is limited by the lens and then cropped even further.

“The book is an attempt to flesh out the photographs, either with truth or total fiction.

“I like that and the freedom it gives me to go along with images which are supposedly real.”

Some of the photographs have a personal resonance, however, such as the one of his Hungarian-born grandmother, Matild.

“I remember her speaking Hungarian and I don’t think she ever really fitted into England,” he said.

Stephen was raised in North London by parents Melvyn and Hilary.

He is not religiously Jewish, but leans towards the more cultural aspect of the faith, particularly in the creative field.

“Every day I am more and more aware of the amazing array of Jewish photographers, such as Robert Frank, Saul Leitner and Elliott Erwitt,” he explained.

“Every time I discover a new photographer, they are usually Jewish.

“I think a lot of it has to do with a time, in the 1930s and 1940s, when it was the golden age of photography.

“Especially in America, you had people who were first or second generation immigrants, so they were strangers in an amazing new world.

“A lot of them latched on to photography because it was the artform of the time.

“It was also a way of rebelling against a religious upbringing.

“Saul Leitner’s father, for example, was a rabbi and he was expected to follow in his footsteps — he even went to yeshiva.

“He rejected it all and went into photography, so I think Judaism, unlike other religions, is a religion which fosters creativity and questioning.”

Of Polish and Hungarian descent, the family’s surname was Anglicised to Leslie, although Stephen is unsure as to what the original surname was.

He read English at the University of Leeds, but didn’t know where his career was heading after graduating.

Stephen recalled: “I had a miserable job cold calling and selling corporate hospitality, which was soul destroying.”

He later enrolled in a film studies and screenwriting MA at the University of East Anglia.

And, after completing his studies, landed a job as a runner for the film director Sally Potter and also as a script reader for filmmaker John Schlesinger.

His first short film, I Was Catherine the Great’s Stable Boy, helped him gain a place on the BBC’s trainee assistant producer scheme, where he made a number of documentaries, including one about the spontaneous human combustion phenomenon.

He then moved on to work for a production company whose output included Faking It for Channel 4.

Stephen made an episode about a ballet dancer who attempts to become a wrestler.

“The British film industry is a strange and unfathomable world,” he said.

“I have had one film — To Leech — made and another couple of things were close to being made, but they collapsed.

“Writing scripts makes me money because I get paid to develop and write them, but it is really difficult to get a film made — it is about getting it over the line.

“I can’t take it further than a certain point because you are relying on others for financing, which is incredibly frustrating.

“It is why I love photography, because it is entirely my own work and I have an end product.

“I haven’t given up, though, because you only need one thing to happen properly and hopefully it will open doors to more things.

“I have come too far to turn back now.”

Stephen, who is married to The Observer film critic Wendy Ide, is not formally trained in photography — and he still uses film as opposed to digital.

“I am completely self-taught and it gradually became an obsession, so much so that I can’t leave the house without a camera now,” added Stephen, who is father to eight-year-old Fred.

“The turning point was when I went to India with Wendy and took a lot of photographs.

“It was around 1997 or 1998, so they were taken on film and they turned out really well when I had them developed, so I became hooked.”

The first time a selection of his photographs was published was in Unseen London, which featured Purim festivities.

Arsenal supporter Stephen still shoots on film, as opposed to digital, partly for aesthetic reasons, but also from a philosophical point of view.

“The way photography is going, digital allows people to take unlimited photographs, which is not necessarily a good thing because then they edit them, so they are thinking about it too much,” he said.

“Every time I take a picture, because I shoot on film, it costs me money, so I have to think, ‘is it really going to look that good?’.

“Street photography is meant to be real and not to be interfered with. I am capturing reality, to an extent.”


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