Shoreditch Bridge Portraits: John Perivolaris [Q&A]
Since 2011, photographer John Perivolaris has been making wonderful portraits of strangers under the Shoreditch Bridge in London. Perivolaris captures passers-by who are both anonymous and transient, in a fleeting moment as they move between places. This moment of stillness, particularly in the enormity of a city, is absolutely crucial and raises several questions for Perivolaris, including “Where do we find stillness in cities and what does stillness mean in our continuous transit through, or between, public, marginalised, and increasingly corporatised urban spaces?” Then, there’s the bridge itself, heavy in both material and shadow, weighing both literally and metaphorically over the local landscape. For Perivolaris, the symbolism of bridges became the perfect anchor for his project, saying, “Bridges because they connect separate parts of the city and distinct populations. But also because bridges offer me the opportunity of interrupting their transit and creating temporary situations where encounters can take place, where dialogues can take place.” We had the chance to ask John a few questions about his project, and were delighted that he agreed.
F+B: None of the photographs in the series have names or any sort of biographical information attached. There is no sense of identity or place to the images. Was that a purposeful decision? If so, to what end?
JP: I suppose this has something to do with the formality of my encounters with a range of passers-by at an urban transit point where nobody would normally stop. In an increasingly privatized urban space ever more under surveillance, the encounters I record mark moments when public space is shared respectfully with others. Not including names or biographical information is a sign of a respectful distance bridged by the moments of our encounter. These are commemorated by the dates attached to each photograph.
Identity and place are imprinted on the surfaces of what might at first glance be considered a non-place. An organic material subject to internal decay, the concrete setting of the portraits is marked by the passing of time and people. Ultimately, it is the latter, in all their variety, pausing still for the camera, their faces and eyes open to the moment, who make the urban space of the portraits hospitable to a sense of identity.
Your artist statement is a little heavy, even referencing the Greek philosopher Diogenes. How do you distill this statement down to just a few moments while talking to potential subjects?
My approach to potential subjects is always presented as an invitation to participate in a long-term project about the changing face of London. I then point out the attractions, in terms of surfaces and light, of a space through which they pass on a daily basis but to which they might not have paid much attention. As a regular fixture under the bridge in Shoreditch, I am, in any case, recognized by regular passers-by. Their curiosity sometimes leads them to approach me. On several occasions, I will establish a nodding acquaintance with passers-by over several months, leading eventually to a portrait.
You talk about the friction found in the city between concrete and skin. How do you see that translating in your photographs, as well as “skin to skin experiences”?
Over time, I have become increasingly fascinated by the juxtaposition of my subjects’ skin and the concrete skin of the city. A large proportion of time processing the photographs is spent rendering both types of surface. I suppose that my underlying motivation is to represent the inherently organic relationship between cities and their citizens. Equally, there is a humanistic dimension to the momentarily intimate encounter with those I photograph and whose names I do not know. Skin to skin is, in one sense, a way of registering the surprise inherent in such intimacy between nameless strangers in a public space.
What does it mean to be “grazed by the city?”
The phrase refers to the other side of the familiar idea of the photographer grazing on the chance events presented to them on the streets of a city. It acknowledges that the open readiness required for such work also implies a vulnerability to chance, surprise, and even potential trauma.
What are some of the technical challenges, if any, of setting up under a bridge where people are usually there just to cross over? Did you find it difficult to find subjects willing to stop for a moment and pose?
The difficulty lies in letting go of one’s preconceptions and letting one’s eyes guide one. I have to be open to that flicker of recognition that passes between my potential subjects and me. That is why I usually avoid photographing people wearing sunglasses. Other barriers typical of our time are headphones and cellphones. Both serve to isolate one from the city and citizens around one.
You reference concrete as a “fluid reflector” and a “diffuser of light”. What drew you to concrete as a backdrop?
I started photographing under the bridge back in February 2011. At that time of the year, the light can be crisp and blue. What I love about concrete is the way it registers seasonal changes in light, as well as differences in hue and intensity during the day. For me, it is a perfect reflector and diffuser, providing even illumination but also sensitive to the movement of traffic. When I sometimes refer to the marine light provided by concrete I am not being poetic but am merely referring to the rippling reflections one notices on the undersides of concrete bridges built over rivers or, in my case, the reflections cast by the windshields of passing cars.
What do you look for in a subject? Is it just anyone who happens to pass by and is willing, or are you chasing a certain look?
More an exchange of looks and some recognition between a passer-by and me. I am happy to confirm that many Londoners have a playful and creative spirit.
You can learn more about John and see more of his work on the project page. Also, John has created a book of selected photographs from the project, called Shoreditch Bridge Portraits 1, which is available via blurb.