Phil Penman is a British-born editorial and portrait photographer based in New York City, but as we learned when we grabbed coffee with him earlier this year, he’s also built up quite a few frequent flyer miles while shooting news and covering famous subjects such Christopher Reeve, Bill Gates, and the artist Damien Hirst.
We also learned that a solo show featuring Phil’s street photography is currently on display at Leica Soho in New York through December 5th, so if you’re in New York, you should definitely drop by and check it out. And of course, be sure to read on and learn more about this Leica-wielding, bike-riding Brit.
Phil carries the new Bowery for Leica special edition bag with his Leica M240.
ONA: How did you get into photography?
PP: Well, it was either being a sports teacher or photographer and well, you can see how the sports teacher thing worked out! I started shooting around the age of 15 armed with my trusty Nikkomat camera and a Weston light meter given to me by my father, who was also a photographer. I basically lived in the darkroom for the next few years, bypassing sleep trying to get that print just right. I then did the college thing (which involved building the skills of drinking more so than photography) and then managed to talk my way into the role of chief photographer at a local newspaper.
Not content with that role, I ended up landing the Microsoft UK account, which kept me very busy while also shooting news for British newspapers. The goal, though, was always to live and work in New York, a far cry from where I grew up in Briantspuddle, a small village in the UK consisting of around 360 people and a few thousand sheep. Now, my paying work largely consists of working for the British newspapers and traveling the US doing at home shoots with celebrities for lifestyle magazines.
ONA: What camera do you shoot with? What is your “go to” lens of choice?
PP: I primarily shoot with a Leica M240 but have a Canon 5D Mark 3 and lenses as a back-up setup. (On shoots, I do often get asked what that “tiny black camera” is!) Lens-wise, my “go to” lens would be the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux; however, I just bought the 24mm f/1.4, and that lens is fast moving up the ranks.
ONA: What sort of project drives your creativity? And what is your dream project?
PP: Anything real, to be honest. I’m not a huge fan of Photoshop and tend to be more attracted to the average person on the street. I love pictures that are a little gritty, ones where not everything has to be perfect. I would rather convey the emotion I feel when I am taking the pictures and hope that the viewer can see and feel the same. Dream projects? I have to say I am living it! New York City is a constant hive of energy and activity and it keeps me driven to shoot everyday, be it seeing someone walking around in a spacesuit in Soho or snow storms on the East River.
ONA: What is the hardest thing about being a photographer?
PP: Getting paid! I do not know any industry anywhere where waiting two years to get paid is acceptable. The business has gotten tougher and tougher with social media both helping and hindering the industry at the same time. Marketing plays a big part in photography these days, and it’s not always the best photography that makes it out there. Often, just being the friend of a celebrity could get you a name, and then great marketing does the rest. It does not mean the work is any good, however!
ONA: Describe your style of shooting.
PP: Erratic! I like to shoot a lot and can get totally drawn into a moment. I would not say I’m the most patient photographer in the world. I am drawn to darkness and moody, foggy, snow storms — there’s nothing better than walking around in a snow storm with your camera.
ONA: In one sentence, what advice would you give to a photographer just starting out?
PP: Keep on pursuing your dream and never let anyone else tell you otherwise.
ONA: How did you hear about us?
PP: I came across the bags at the Leica Store in New York, and the Leather Union Street was the perfect solution for my camera setup. It’s a beautiful bag and does not scream out to the world I have a ton of expensive camera gear in here. I’m excited to add the new Bowery for Leica to the mix!
Photos of Phil kindly taken by Stephen Chernin.