With the amount of press attention he’s been getting over the last couple of weeks in the run up to his debut exhibition at London’s Howard Griffin Gallery, you’d think photographer Bob Mazzer would be somewhat overwhelmed. This is not the case. Over the past 45 years he’s been taking photographs of the people he meets on the London Underground, but it wasn’t until Spitalfields Life starting posting them on their blog last year that it all kicked off.
He first started taking photographs when given an Ilford Sporti for his 13th birthday, photographing throughout his studies in graphic design at Hornsey College of Art and selling the odd image to Time Out in his early 20s, while living in hippy communes off the King’s Road and in Wales. But it wasn’t until he began working as an eight millimetre projectionist at a porn cinema in the 1970s that he started conscientiously taking photographs on the London Underground.
“I answered an ad in the Evening Standard for an eight millimetre projectionist, and it was this seedy little porn cinema in King’s Cross, and that was a real education. And it was in that period that I started taking these pictures seriously. It dawned on me that I was making a record, that no one else had, and that took a good year or two for that awareness to arrive. I never saw it as a project that would end as a show in London of this nature, I really never thought like that.”
Many of the photographs in the exhibition are incredibly intimate, but Bob says he’s never had much trouble when it comes to taking people’s photographs. “I love relating to people, and it’s a kind of hippy ideology, but we’re all in this together. I may know nothing about you but we’re both human beings here, and we’re going through the same sort of problems in one way or another, so there can be an instant camaraderie.”
How did he spot the situations in his photographs? “I kept my eyes peeled! As soon as I went through the entrance of the Tube I set my camera to F4, 1/60th of a second, an old film camera, and that could deal with most situations, so I would be ready, often with my camera just round my chest. It was a little black Leica, it was very unobtrusive, an unthreatening little thing. Quite often they’re black, in the days when cameras were chrome and silver. And in those days photographers would even tape up their silver cameras with black tape, because it was the street thing to do. You’d didn’t want a shiny thing that said ‘I’m a photographer!’ You wanted it to disappear.”
“I kept my eyes peeled! As soon as I went through the entrance of the tube I set my camera to F4, 1/60th of a second, an old film camera, and that could deal with most situations.”
He’s still drawn to taking photographs on forms of transport he explains, with a couple of images in the exhibition dating to just a few years ago. “I enjoy it. I do find actually that I enjoy shooting pictures from moving vehicles; if you shoot pictures and you’re on a bus, often they’re of people outside the bus, and they’re really interesting because nobody knows you’re doing it. But when you’re on the Tube, you have to kind of move inward and you photograph what’s happening around you. It’s just something I do instinctively, I can’t help myself.”
It’s this sense of instinct that gives the images their integrity, he explains, and for that reason he’d rarely go out in search of photographs. “Every now and again if I had some free time at the weekend I’d get on the Tube and say ‘well, I’ve never been to Barking,’ but usually that wouldn’t result in good pictures. What worked for me was that it just had to be part of my life. As soon as I made it a project, it stopped working. You would never really choose to go out and get on the tube at 11 at night, but sometimes you would have to come back from somewhere, and it was at those times that the interesting stuff happened, when drunk people got on the train or parties were over.
“I suppose the peak period was the 80s,” he tells me, which goes some way to explaining the wealth of photographs of London’s subcultures; mods, punks, rockers and skinheads hanging out together in relative harmony. He points out one photograph of a skinhead and an early punk sharing a fag. “I love that! What amazes me about this is that I’m standing there with a camera and they don’t care. And they’re not posing, either. For me this is quite a sentimental picture. This quiet, friendly quality, and just the gesture, you know."
It’s an apt summary of an exhibition that centres around quiet moments captured by one man and his camera in London, and the show is maybe even more extraordinary because until last year, these images existed only on Bob’s Facebook page.
The exhibition of Bob Mazzer’s work will be on at the Howard Griffin Gallery in London until 13 July. Find out more on our London listings site, This at There.