Sunday, 13 May 2012

35 years of snapping: Pogus Caesar

Photo by Dee Johnson, 2011

Take a shot of something that interests you; a subject that you care about; something that matters. Hold on to it. Then, come back to it in ten, twenty, or thirty years. It's amazing what perspective that can bring.  

That's what Pogus Caesar does. I’ve known Pogus for ages. Lots of people around music in Brum have. He’s done lots - radio, television, painting, documentation, books, multimedia projects - across tons of areas. 

In  April of this year, the British Museum acquired four of his photos of the 1985 Handsworth Riots for their permanent collection. If you want the full details, check him out on Wikipedia. It’s a long entry.

We’re talking photography, and for this blog especially, photography that deals with the musicians in this town. You've built up a huge body of work going back well over thirty years. Was that planned in any way?
"I started off as a pointillist painter, making images with tiny dots, my major influence was the French painter Georges Seurat… and I wound up taking photographs without any real view of how these might become relevant in years to come. It was important to just document."

What sort of kit did you start out with?
"My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic, a very basic film camera, where the 110 film was loaded into cartridges which made it easier to handle." 
Youthful digital-only snappers can read up about this archaic system here
"Later on I upgraded to 35mm; I got a Canon Autofocus, which I still use today. And this is it: this is the camera used for all the images that you’re using here. "3

So we’re not talking about ten grands’ worth of kit, are we?
"No, the Canon is small, fast and effective and suits my way of working – and when one breaks, I go on eBay and get another – usually for under six pounds. I call it my poor man’s Leica. On my travels, people have tried to snatch it, because they think it’s digital. I’ve said ‘give me the film first, and you can have the camera’. The film is more expensive than the camera! So I don't really want to know about  hi-tech digital systems…"
You’re not that guy
"No. And I use film, so I only have 36 shots, I really love the grainy quality of black and white print. The downside is I can’t instantly view what I've shot -  then I have to wait for the film to be developed…but that's the magic and the mystery of film."
Pauline Black, Selecter, 2011
I often think photographers who work with huge memory chips in their cameras can afford to wait that extra moment, and squeeze off hundreds of shots, to push a few more seconds, just to get that extra moment. You can’t do that. So do you have a mindset when you’re working?
"Funny you should say that. There are times when I'm approaching a situation and I'll already have a tiny idea of what the image will be, formed in my mind. But life is funny and sometimes it doesn’t work out. I’ve only got a limited amount of people’s time, and I can only afford to take a couple of photographs and then move on. But because the camera’s so noisy and small, a lot of people don’t take it seriously, which is fine by me."
Mykaell Riley, Steel Pulse founder member, 1987
"The film that I use gives the photographs texture and grain, which I’ve always enjoyed. When you look at the work of photographers who influenced me, Dianne Arbus, Gordon Parks and Cartier-Bresson – under the conditions that they had to work under – the huge distances they had to travel, using the most basic of equipment, and their legacy - the work you can now find on the internet and marvel at … so it helps with my mindset. I can’t waste any shots, and I can’t delete. With digital, you can throw shots away instantly."
Sometimes, in retrospect, for the wrong reasons?
"Yes. I just don’t enjoy that element… yet."
Ruby Turner, Reggae Sunsplash, London, 1987
Many digital photographers do a lot of post-production work, treating the shots by softening the focus, or darkening the background, or tweaking the colour balance. All you can do - if you want to – is do a bit of analogue tweaking in the darkroom. I seem to remember the expression of dodging something out when enlarging a shot…
"Actually, that’s where Photoshop can come in useful! With film, you can get scratches on your negatives. So you can use it to take scratches out and highlight when needed." 
Andy Hamilton, 1987
So all you would do is to restore?
"What you see is what you’ve got. You can darken or lighten, but you’re dealing with images, vintage negatives. There are people I work with who demand that archival element that’s embedded in 35mm negatives."
Most of the photos – not all - in this blog post are about music: Birmingham musicians, and huge musicians, and major black artists, the big names who visited to our town. 
"They were in an exhibition mounted at the O2 in London last year - 2"Muzik Kinda Sweet2". I was pleased with the exhibition, to see photos of Lee 'Scratch" Perry, Stevie Wonder, Burning Spear, Grace Jones and Augustus Pablo all in one space was uplifting."
Lee 'Scratch' Perry,  London, 1987
 " Everybody loves iconography, we are fascinated by celebrity to some degree. For me to pretend that’s not part of what I do is wrong. And of course, if you happen to be in the company of a well-known musician, you take the shot, because that’s what you do!"
Dinner Ladies, Holyhead Road School, Handsworth, 1984
"...but the ordinary person in the street has just as much value - it's also very important to capture everything that you see. Whether it be from the 1985 Handsworth Riots, the Birmingham Tornado or the regeneration of the Bullring in Birmingham. Whether in Britain or travelling to Albania, India or South Africa, documenting communities is what really interests me."
Mighty Diamonds, Soho Road, Handsworth, 1986
 With your shots, you’re looking – we’re looking with you – at the subject, you’re engaging.
"It’s very important to get that ‘contract’ with those people that I photograph. There are times when you have to take shots surreptitiously, of course. But the reason why I use this camera is it's really small. I have to get in close and personal!"
Selwyn Brown, Steel Pulse, Birmingham 2006
Favourite shots?
"Very difficult. It has to be the ordinary person in the street. For whatever reason you decide they’re going to be IT for that second, ad then life goes on as normal. You take a millisecond of that person’s life, which can go on to become iconic."
In some cultures, taking photos of people is not acceptable at all; it’s seen as stealing part of their souls. Not a western concept, not a 21st century concept in these days of instant downloads…
"Yes. I’ve come across that. Last year, I published a book (Sparkbrook Pride - here's the flickr link) with Benjamin Zephaniah, about Sparkbrook, which is where I grew up. So I went back to photograph the community – and the amount of people wouldn’t let me take a photograph because I would own part of their soul! So for every one image, there were about fifteen who said ‘no’."
Soweto Kinch, Birmingham 2010
You mentioned surreptitious shots. The first photographer I profiled on this blog – Richard Shakespeare – makes no bones whatsoever being upfront and visible.
"Exactly. You can’t hide. That’s the thing. You have to get in close because the lens defines. I like working with available light.  I’m clicking away with this noisy old thing friend of mine called Canon and everyone else’s digital camera is playing shutter sound effects, phut! phut! phut!....Muzik Kinda Sweet!" 
All images © Pogus Caesar / OOM Gallery Archive. All Rights Reserved.

Pogus Caesar's website
Sparbrook Pride

See more posts on photography on Radio To Go


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