Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Johnny Stiletto and Birchington

In 1992 an unusual book on photography, called Shots From The Hip, was published by someone who styled himself Alias Johnny Stiletto. On 18 June 1993 I bought one of the few copies still around. Here is the book.

Of course one immediately wondered who the author really was. As it happened, I could make a reasonable guess. I'd already seen an advertisement for Ilford HP5 black-and-white film in the September 1990 issue of Practical Photography. 

The chap in the ad, named as Philip Thomas, was said to have been shooting HP5 with his Olympus SLR OM camera every day for the previous ten years. A compulsive, prolific, rather out-of-the-ordinary photographer. Alias Johnny Stiletto was just the same, shooting black-and-white film on an Olympus OM SLR camera, with a 35mm lens. A camera that he always carried, even though it was a heavy thing and bagged his jacket pocket. I couldn't be absolutely sure that this ultra-keen photographer Philip Thomas (I don't think it was the surgeon!) and the author Alias Johnny Stiletto were one and the same. I have never seen any proof of it. But it's not a completely silly notion.

Maybe this post today will prompt a definitive answer! It happens. You may recall my post dated 23 February 2014 titled Juke Box Jury, Simon Dee, Sooty, Dr Who, Dixon of Dock Green and Crackerjack, in which I featured this Radio Times cover:

I had always wondered who the swinging-sixties Radio One girl was. Well, a week or so ago her nephew got in touch by email and explained that she was called, professionally, Linda Lawrence. (That's the dancer, not the other Linda Lawrence who married singer and poet Donovan) This link has some information about her career, with some pictures:

If such a thing as this can happen, then my hopes of solving the Alias Johnny Stiletto Mystery are not vain hopes. And I do really want to know. This book he wrote, Shots From The Hip, explained the author's very fluid and spontaneous approach to shooting pictures that perfectly caught the mood and significance of a place or occasion. He also launched me into a flirtation with black-and-white photography that I have never entirely shaken off.

Alias Johnny Stiletto's typical haunts were the streets of London, or places like East Berlin. He knew how to take an unnoticed picture without wasting time on getting the exposure right, or achieving precise focus. He set the camera up in advance, gauging the exposure on a hunch, and using zone focus - perfectly feasible with a 35mm lens. With the camera held at waist level, or quite possibly at ankle level, he grabbed the shot en passant. Carefully-composed work was out of the question. But he caught the natural, unposed moment - or the fleeting expression - and the subject would be barely aware that a photograph had just been taken. If they guessed, and were thinking of saying anything about it, AJS would by then have walked away.

It was very much like what has become known as 'Street Photography', but without the pretension to art, the focus (no pun intended) being on the content, the story made clear by the shot. I got the impression that he was a journalist, or possibly a film maker, who got around a lot and was forever seeing pictures that captured the essence of a place or situation, or an atmosphere. Such as a man in a natty suit and trilby hat at a pub doorway, apparently a respectable gent; and yet with a companion in furs and necklaces who was clearly not a woman. Or a scene in an art gallery, a woman on her own, apparently entranced by a painting, but actually silently weeping, forsaken by her lover.

He wasn't always on assignment. In Chapter 2 of the book AJS gets out of London for the day and visits a resort on the Kent coast called Birchington, which had a long promenade and wide sands. He'd been taken there as a child. He was keen to photograph holidaymakers. He took up position to observe and shoot whatever passed. His words: 'Lying under a small sea wall I watched a pageant of Angus McGill seaside postcards'. First he saw a kid following his mum:

His words again: 'A child with a bucket and spade, floppy and happy in a way I remember being a generation before, hand locked into a massive mum hand, off to who knows where. Dragged, steered and pulled, every journey a mystery tour guided by adults.' Then two more pictures:

'A fat woman passes. She reminds me of Robert Mapplethorpe's Lisa Lyons.' And: 'Encouraged, I go for a walk. A pair of old seabirds come out from the sea, both perfectly in step, both with the same posture and both in black bathing suits.' Then:

'Back at the sea wall I reload the camera. Nonchalantly the boy next to me puts his hand on his girlfriend's crotch. Nonchalantly I take a shot.'

And so on. You can see why I would find this inspiring stuff. It was an instruction manual on How To Be A Real Photographer And Not Just An Equipment Freak. Or, indeed, a handbook on How To Take Risky Shots. I was never so bold as he. And I cared much more about my pictures being properly exposed and in focus. But I did loosen up, I did begin to get sharper and more intrusive when shooting, and I definitely became more daring, not worrying so much about being 'caught in the act'. Thus, for example, these 2005 and 2010 shots taken in London:

Or these shots in Eastbourne, taken in 2004 and 2007:

Or these shots in Florence in 2009:

I think you'll agree that I had absorbed something of the AJS method, albeit in colour rather than black-and-white.

And what of Birchington itself? Well, it's a wide-open and rather pleasant sunny spot on the north Kent coast, not very far from Margate, but much quieter. I went there recently with my friend E---. There was little to see except the promenade, and some beach huts, and a lot of sand.

It was clearly very safe for kiddies. But they still had lifeguards available. They kept them in these pods - simply lift up the cover, and out they'd jump:

E--- and I took our ice-creams onto the beach. The older groynes had a jagged look that cried out for black-and-white shots, straight into the sun:

Of course, abandoning all of AJS's principles, I set up a traditional shot of E--- and myself posing our heads off:

Nonchalant or what?


  1. I'd think twice before emulating Mr Stiletto by taking surreptitious photos of children. These days you run the risk of being arrested! However, I do like his casual approach to photography. I'm not good at seeing a potential photo in the mundane things of everyday life, but you've certainly succeeded with your photos from Eastbourne and Florence.

    I'm planning a visit to Chepstow tomorrow and am now very tempted to try a few 'from the hip' snaps myself.

  2. Good luck! I agree with you about taking pictures of children though - a complete no-no that will only invite the attention of the police. It's sad, but even professional photographers have to be very careful nowadays. Best stick to adults and pets!



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