It was 1972 when Neal Slavin stumbled on a group photograph of his brother-in-law as a child in his scout uniform with his fellow troopers, the photographer was immediately gripped by what might have happened to these kids and what they went on to do. “They came together for an instance in time and now all we have is a memory of them,” he explains on the phone from his New York studio. “I’d never considered the group form before but with all these questions and that feeling of wanting to find out who these people were, it became really fascinating to me.”
That weekend Neal asked a friend who volunteered for the ambulance service if he could take a photograph of all the people who worked there – it would be the first of many group portraits he took. At the time the drivers and crew often took part in races so Neal captured them with their medals and trophies. “I shot the group once in black and white and then in colour. In black and white you couldn’t tell the difference between the trophies, the tonal range didn’t allow that, so the trophies all looked the same. In colour, suddenly you could see who came first or third – the whole story was told and I found that amazing,” Neal says.
During the late 60s and early 70s, most photographers were still working in black and white, and colour was seemingly only acceptable in commercial works. Discovering the detail colour provides, Neal realised the multiple shades and hues available was more about information than beauty: “You want as much information as you can get in a picture to aid the narrative, so from then I shot pretty much everything in colour.”
Neal admits that first image of the ambulance crew wasn’t his best work, but he decided he wanted to explore group photography further. “I just knew there was something exciting happening, sociologically and aesthetically,” he says. In a career that spans 40 years, Neal has photographed some of the most obscure and wonderful groups you could think of; from ballroom dancers to bingo players and war veterans to a gurners society, taking him all over the world. His most famous work are When Two or More Are Gathered Together (which we’ve featured before) from 1976 which saw him photograph various clubs and organisations across the USA and Britons which was commissioned by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in 1986 and captures the eccentric characters of the UK.
Both of these projects evoke that idea of memory Neal finds so captivating and the nostalgia and charm they conjure has been something he’s become known for. “People think of my work as ‘quirky’ but I just document groups of people,” he says. With people at the heart of his work, what specifically has kept him hooked on snapshots of strangers? “It’s really interesting watching what happens when people come together and how they behave with one another,” he says. “People in clubs, associations and societies all have an interest in common, so I love to see the body language within my photographs; how people stand, their attitude, the space between people even. If you look at it that way it’s a fascinating visual map of humanity and the more you take photographs of it the more intriguing it gets because it’s always different.”
In Neal’s pictures he lets his subjects control the direction. “Not everyone can be seen in the photographs, but that’s because I let them do what they want,” he explains. “If someone puts their chest out in front the camera, blocks someone, or shies away from the lens, then great. Ultimately the explicitness of the public persona of my subjects leads to an implied private persona, which is what keeps me going with this.” He adds: “In single portrait, the idea is to get to the soul and the inner-workings of that person. I love the group form because it gives me access to more than just one soul, I see it as getting to the core of a sociological form.”
In order to create these photographic masterpieces, there can be a huge amount of planning and technical set-up that goes into them. Depending on the size of the job and whether it’s a commercial project, Neal can have a crew of just one assistant to as many as eight, with everyone helping to scope the space, fix lighting, and check the depth of field before the shoot. “It gets really interesting when the group arrives,” Neal says. “I don’t tell them who should be in front or who should be in the back – that’s all determined by the club themselves, so already they’re building a document of who’s important and how the person in charge would like to be seen by others. Once they’re in position, anything happens. I try to loosen up the group by getting them to smile or wave at the camera, I know those pictures aren’t going to work but it’s fine, it’s just to get them to relax. Once everyone is ready I’m then like a 35mm street photographer: I’m pressing the shutter continuously for ten minutes because you can’t keep the group too long as they’ll get tired and start to lose interest.”
With so much organisation needed to create these large scale images, it would be easy to assume that spontaneity is difficult to achieve. The formality and the fact his subjects know they’re being photographed all hint towards a fairly traditional form of photography. “The spontaneity happens after those few awkward moments when I start shooting,” Neal says. “For instance when I was shooting When Two or More… I was taking a picture of about 90 people and suddenly a young woman bared her breasts, just because she wanted to.”
Neal’s current series The Prayer Book, explores the group dynamic in a new way. Capturing religious groups praying, Neal is photographing these groups lit but unposed. “The prayer groups are very serious, and I have less control. I can’t loosen them up, I just start shooting as soon as the prayer service begins. These images feel like pure spontaneity because I’m a fly on the wall and defenceless to anything I might want to change to make the picture more palatable,” he explains. “My other pictures are about likeminded people coming together, The Prayer Book is similar but because it’s so ritualised, you see everything a bit differently.”
It’s not only the relationship between the subjects that Neal wants to highlight, it’s also their relationship with the camera and himself he considers in his work. “When you’re using the big 20×24 Polaroid camera people notice it as they come into the room – instantly you know a photograph is being taken and that’s puts a bit of pressure on the photographer as well,” says Neal.
In his prayer series, few of his subjects are even aware of the camera, and the purpose of the group shifts more towards the individual, adds another definition to the word “group” for Neal. “Praying is an individual experience. After the first flash of the camera nobody cares about it anymore because they’re there for another reason. They came together to pray not be photographed so it really feels like a different phase of group photography for me.”
From group photography Neal has been able to make a career with his skills and flair for capturing the unique being commissioned and celebrated by The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine and Esquire, but he’s careful to not just to look to the future. “My life and work is a cycle, it’s not just a runaway locomotive running down the tracks. I’m always looking back because it’s important for me to see what I’ve done and how I can relate that to the present,” Neal explains.
On whether he enjoys being known for such a specific form of photography Neal is very matter of fact: “It depends on the day you ask me. Sometimes I think they’re the most boring, traditional pictures on the face of the planet, and other times I think I’m really saying something. The form is traditional, you can’t get away from that. But I’m exploring the mentality and anthropological nature of coming together, as well as the quiet moments within that. We all want to be recognised in some way or another and there would be nothing worse for me than to be recognised for a hollow statement.”