Bakerloo: An underground portrait of London by photographer Harry F Conway
- Rebecca Irvin
- 4 June 2019
Harry F Conway’s photography practice takes place predominantly on the streets of London. “I can’t work in a studio – I find it too stifling,” he tells us, “and there’s something about the everyday person that I am interested in documenting. I hate the term ‘street photography’ and don’t think it represents my work, yet the street is where I draw a lot of my inspiration.” With his self-published, crowdfunded book, Bakerloo, Harry takes to the underground line that runs beneath London’s streets between Harrow & Wealdstone and Elephant and Castle, photographing the faces and characters that he encounters on his route.
Although Harry became interested in film photography in 2006, he initially struggled to pursue his creative impulse. In his words: “I worked dead end jobs after repeatedly deferring a place at university and eventually losing that place. I sunk into depression and graffiti took over my life for a few years.” In 2012, after completing a foundation degree at Central Saint Martins UAL, Harry spent time in prison for a non-violent crime of graffiti. Upon his release, he managed to gain a place at the London College of Communication UAL on the BA Photography course.
Since leaving university, Harry has spent much of his time “walking around London trying to document strangers through portraits," he tells us. “I’ve reflected a lot recently on where my motivations come from and I’d say that all those years on the streets painting graffiti showed me another side to London. Lurking about certain areas that aren’t as desirable to some, often in the early hours, left a deep impression on me.”
Working solely in analogue photography, Harry describes his style as “raw”. He says: “Upon leaving university I made the conscious decision to sell all my digital equipment so that I wouldn’t end up applying my photographic practice to everyday work such as event photography. I wanted to know that when I was picking up my camera I was concentrating my energy on work I actually enjoyed.”
Bakerloo is Harry’s portrait of a piece of London’s geography, history and culture that is also fundamental to his personal experience and conception of the city. “This tube line has connected me to the rest of London for my entire life,” he states. “I grew up in North West London and still live here 29 years later. Creeping into the Bakerloo train depots to spend my entire New Year’s Eve along the line, I’ve seen this train line and its inhabitants from every angle.”
Speaking of how the book came about, Harry says: “I initially wanted to document this line and my fellow commuters as a series. After shooting for a few months, I quickly realised this needed to be made into a book, acting as a time capsule and a testament to London history. Bakerloo is the everyday person – 128 pages of no first class, you either sit or stand, no luxuries. I wanted to represent everyone that I witnessed at some time on that tube, whether it was the person coming home from work, the rush hour crush, the workers, graffiti writers or party goers. I believe this book holds many stories and is a representation of Londoners as a whole.”
In Bakerloo’s pages, we encounter the staff of the Bakerloo line, people with tattoos, parents with their children, people in fancy dress, people with curly hair, straight hair, blue hair and no hair – and even a white bull terrier. Much like the nature of public transport, Harry’s photographs are indiscriminate, encompassing the old and the young, people of all backgrounds, styles and social status. For the photographer, what compels him to take a picture is “normally something small, like the way they carry themselves or a maybe a look they give. Most people have a story, it’s just whether you are able to depict that in a 35mm frame.” And, for Harry, “half the portrait is the conversation you’ve had moments before. Yes, framing and all the technical aspects have to be on point, but how do you create an atmosphere? Sometimes I just talk to people and ask them about their life, trying to find some mutual ground.”
By breaking that London taboo around initiating conversation on public transport, each of Harry’s portraits grasps a moment of mutual recognition and signifies an appreciation of the dense complexity of the other lives around us – a complexity that is often overlooked on the busy commute. Each photograph denotes an instance of human connection. When asked what he hopes to achieve with the book, Harry says: “I want people to stop and revaluate how they view everyday situations," believing that,“as Londoners we are always shut off in public encounters, and if you speak to someone on the tube they either think you want something or that you aren’t from London! Let’s change that view – what’s wrong with talking to strangers? You might learn something.”
Harry’s portraits are bound together in Bakerloo-line-brown cloth, with a flyleaf patterned to match the carpet-like material of the tube line’s seats – representing the capacity of the underground transport link itself to bring people into proximity. Indeed, the book’s foreword, written by artist King Headswim, states: “This book is just like the fabric of the seats; filled with all kinds of stuff that will make you want to wash your hands”. Harry’s photographs are not glossy studio shots, nor are they retouched, beautified or sanitised; they are simply composed with an innate sense of how to capture the everyday person in an everyday situation.
Bakerloo is underground photography in every sense. Harry, who conducts his practice outside the commercial sphere, admits that “it can be difficult at times. People have really connected with my work and words, but I am making this work without any grants or funding. There’s a lot of creatives in the UK currently in the same predicament, where they want to make work for themselves instead of doing soul-destroying commercial projects. But you need to earn money, and sadly I’ve seen a lot of people put their passions to the side as nothing more than glorified hobbies to work a 9–5," he says. "I am going to keep shooting film photography and hope to do more work overseas in the future.”
About the Author
Becky joined It’s Nice That in the summer of 2019 as an editorial assistant. She wrote many fantastic stories for us, mainly on hugely talented artists and photographers.