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Nicholas Sack, London photographer

Nicholas Sack is what the youth of today would term a ‘street’ photographer extraordinaire. His favourite thing to photograph is people going about their everyday business in the City area of London, in particular the financial district and around the docklands area of Canary Wharf. The people in Nick’s photographs do not usually know they are having their picture taken which gives the viewer a snapshot of City folk interacting naturally with each other. I find these pictures interesting because, for me, it shows how isolated people are, for example not making eye contact, constantly looking at a phone but rarely acknowledging each other.

I also feel that some of Nick’s photos create a feeling of sexual tension between strangers that in real life would either not exist or go unnoticed by passers-by on the street. The tension in some of these pictures makes me think of the feeling of suspense that Hitchcock movies evoke.

In the photograph below I feel like the man is hiding around the corner ready to pounce on the approaching lady!

The picture below made me smile as it looks like the man is parading his wares for the lady to admire but she does not look interested!

Nick is an ‘old school’ photographer and shoots his timeless photographs in black and white. His camera of choice is a Nikon FE with a 35mm lens that he has owned for 30 years. He shoots with film and produces silver prints in his darkroom at home. I’ve often thought that developing your own photographs must be exciting, waiting to see what you’ve been lucky enough to capture rather than getting the instant gratification of digital shots. When on a photographic adventure with his kit Nick is often stopped by people who recognise his camera and want to chat about it!

I met Nick as I was keen to learn more about his street photography and his book, ‘Lost in the City’. I was surprised to learn that he was a late starter and did not pick up a camera until he was 25 years old, he said “by today’s terms, this is of course ridiculous! As everyone today has mobile devices”.

At 18 years old he worked in the planning department of London Transport for eight years and in the evenings he was a drummer for rock bands, playing gigs all over London (one band was called ‘Dog Watch’ - I love that name!). A friend at London Transport encouraged him to have a go at amateur photography by taking analogue pictures and producing slides. Nick then went on to study transport planning at Aston University in Birmingham where he became interested in journalism and photography. He became editor of the students’ newspaper and was introduced to the dark room, he beamed, “this was pure magic of course! A revelation!” After finishing his degree Nick did a year’s postgraduate course in journalism at the City University in London where he became hooked on photography.

Whilst at City University he worked as a freelance photographer on assignments for various business magazines and built up a portfolio to show art editors. Photography was a specialist skill at that time and Nick was engaged to work for motor magazines, a personnel magazine, the social workers’ weekly and construction publications. He was often asked to photograph professional people for interviews or profile pieces and preferred the sitter to be doing something so that the picture was not a ‘normal’ portrait. Some of Nick’s clients were based in Canary Wharf, which he remembers as being “a bleak wasteland” in the 1980s. He said there was a “derelict warehouse for bananas from the Canary Islands and that’s why it’s called Canary Wharf!”

Nick’s career taking photographs for magazines and corporations lasted for 30 years, he joyfully proclaimed “it was fantastic as it was what I wanted to do”. He worked on other photography projects in his spare time and said that “books and pictures were my education”. He was an avid reader of technical books and often studied other photographers’ work, “this must be the greatest way to learn” he said with his infectious enthusiasm.

Nick can often be found “haunting the print room at the V&A!” and is over the moon that he can “actually handle the great prints” that are part of their collection.

Several photographers greatly influenced Nick. When he was a keen amateur photographer he would explore London and Birmingham looking at odd bits of the urban landscape and feels that “Lee Friedlander taught me that you don’t need spectacular or dramatic material to make a good photograph”. He also admires Garry Winogrand and says that “some of his busy pictures of pedestrians and passers-by are on the brink of falling apart - but miraculously they hang together. He teaches me to loosen up.” Nick is also enthusiastic about the work of Harry Callahan and Raymond Moore who, he says, “invested everything they looked at with an intense, slightly melancholic mood”.

Nick adores the work of Henry Wessel and says that “his suburban bungalows, strip malls and beach scenes are sublimely gorgeous; by example, he has taught me to print more subtly and with softer contrast. We have been in touch by e-mail and he likes what I’m doing with my book, ‘Lost in the City’, which is a fantastic compliment! I learn from the masters through books – I’m a voracious collector, at exhibitions, and in the print room at the V & A, where you can request photographs from their huge collection in the vaults and study them closely.”

He takes a moment to think about his heroes’ photographs and ponders, “why are they so moving and powerful? Why do they have an emotional effect, of course inspirational nowadays?”

Nick’s favourite subject to photograph is London and he is passionate about taking pictures of the streets, buildings and industry there. He also enjoys photographing rural landscapes, “the coasts and estuaries on trips out of town. I’m less interested in entirely natural landscapes; I prefer to see the hand of man, if only in the line of a hedge or the pattern of ploughed fields.”

Street photography is appealing because you only have to open your front door and there will always be something to paint or photograph. Nick feels that “the streets are chaotic and dramatic: everything is in flux, continuously changing, and it’s the photographer’s task to extricate a sliver and impose coherent order in a fraction of a second. I live close to the centre of London and have been photographing in the City and around Canary Wharf for decades – yet I will never exhaust the subject. I have travelled quite far – to Australia, the States, Arctic Sweden – yet don’t feel the need to go to the other side of the world for interesting material.”

In 2004 Nick published his first book, “Uncommon Ground”. In 2014 Nick suggested an idea for a street photography book to Martin Usborne (the founder of Hoxton Mini Press). Martin thought that Nick’s pictures had a film-noir quality to them and he suggested the title ‘Lost in the City’. Nick has hundreds of prints that could have been included in the book but any shot that had a person smiling or looking happy was immediately rejected! He said that “the theme and the locations are very tightly restricted, to create a slightly claustrophobic effect. We hired the renowned designer Friederike Huber to make the sequence of images. I was absolutely thrilled that Iain Sinclair agreed to write the intro, because he has long been a literary hero of mine”.

A lot of Nick’s photos are of random interactions in the City, yet I feel when looking at his photographs there is a theme emerging….people being isolated from one another, avoiding eye contact, standing in line or doing the same thing (without realising it). I wondered if Nick purposely developed this theme? He said “when I started 30 years ago, I was attracted to the collision of old and new in the City: a Wren church slap-bang next to an office tower. Gradually I became interested in the folk who inhabit those streets, darting from work-station to sandwich bar, apparently oblivious to the buildings that seemed to overwhelm them. A sense of dislocation emerged: alienation and estrangement, which I find enormously attractive. I’m aware that the theme is developing over time; recently I’ve been looking more closely at human gestures, the distinctions between how men and women sit and stand in public places”.

He is a traditionalist and feels that black and white is a serious medium, he explained “it is slightly removed from reality, adds a hint of mystery, and suits the sombre quality of ‘Lost in the City’. Someone at one of my exhibitions remarked that the smallest human gestures assume a profound significance in black and white, yet would be lost in the wash of colour”.

Nick has experimented by shooting in colour and most of his commercial work was shot on colour transparency film. His early photography was colour prints made by high street labs but he decided to switch to black and white as soon as he discovered the darkroom in 1982! Helen Levitt, Saul Leiter, Stephen Shore, William Christenberry, Harry Gruyaert are colour photographers that Nick admires, but he will be sticking with monochrome!

Nick feels that a memorable photograph is a mixture of intriguing content, rigorous form and the scent of a specific mood or atmosphere - there may even be a hint of mystery! I agree that when artists or photographers leave room in their pictures it sparks a viewer’s imagination.

I asked Nick if his work is instinctual or planned, he explained “I don’t go out with pre-conceived ideas; I want to be alert to anything fresh or surprising that might catch the eye. Some of the arrangements of pedestrians in my City pictures appear choreographed – but of course they are not. I work quickly and unobtrusively; many pictures are one-offs, a conjunction that came together for an instant and will never happen again. If the scene is fairly static, I might shoot a sequence. When I find a particularly attractive setting, I will wait for the right passers-by to enter the frame, like actors on a stage set.”

As well as taking his City photos Nick is currently looking for unusual building facades to photograph. He also has a huge backlog of films to develop!

Nick may publish another book in the near future so watch this space. In the meantime, if you’re pounding the streets of London keep a look out for the sun glinting off a 35mm Nikon camera lens and if you don’t want to be photographed remember not to smile!

To find out more about Nick’s photography please see his website

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