Phil Maxwell on the Tube
This is unique among the hundreds of pictures that East End Street Photographer Phil Maxwell has taken on the tube in the last thirty years – since he appears, reflected in the glass with his camera. On this rare occasion, Phil felt confident to raise the camera from the position he usually holds it while on the tube, nursed between his legs, because his subject was so absorbed in the newspaper.
Over all this time, Phil Maxwell has perfected the trick of taking pictures without needing to look through the lens, allowing him to take these extraordinary covert photographs of unselfconscious people absorbed in their own worlds. “You have to become like a magician with the camera,” he revealed to me, “You have to know what the lens is seeing from every angle.”
This technique accounts for most of the pictures in this selection and explains the low point of view in many of them. “It’s good to photograph from low down, you see so much more,” Phil explained to me, “And it’s more challenging to the eye because we are all used to seeing at eye level.”
While Phil has been photographing the life of the London streets, taking pictures on the tube has proved a natural counterpoint, offering the opportunity to photograph Londoners in private within a public space.
“Photographing people on the tube encapsulates all the skills required for being a street photographer. You have to deal with the constantly changing light and be judging the correct exposure. You can go from Whitechapel to the West End and it’s like travelling from day to night. In this respect, I have always regarded the tube as very special photographic studio for Londoners because it has such dramatic changes in lighting, from 100% artificial lighting one minute then bright sunlight the next.
And just as you’ve got different moods in lighting, people show different aspects of themselves at different times of day. If you take a picture at night they might be joyful and laughing from the pub, but if you take picture in the morning you will encounter the silent mournful masses – I always consider myself lucky that I don’t have a nine to five job, and there’s the evidence. Passengers may be carrying briefcases or toolboxes, but when they walk into the tube it’s as if they walk into my photographic studio.
The tube has become a very special and hallowed place for me. I’d be going from an assignment photographing a senior politician and I’d get on the tube, and I’d have as many as twenty frames left that I’d use taking pictures. If you look at my negatives, you’ll see that at one moment I am photographing Tony Blair and the next minute Mrs Smith sitting opposite me on the tube, which for me is much more interesting and enjoyable because politicians are totally plastic. It is a great joy to get on the tube, I always carry my camera with me and I always take pictures. You never know who’s going to get on and sit opposite.
People’s behaviour changes on the tube, almost as if they’ve gone into the operating theatre. Their breathing slows down and they go off and daydream, which suits me very well because they don’t realise what I’m doing when they’re on another planet.”
Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell
You can watch a film of Phil Maxwell’s tube photos by clicking here
and see more of Phil Maxwell’s work here