A remarkable street photographer born in Briantspuddle, Dorsett, England. Phil Penman found his way to New York City after a short tenure in Los Angeles. Originally, Phil worked for a celebrity news agency where he covered news stories that included celebrities of all sorts.
A graduate of the Berkshire College of Art and Design, Penman moved on to representing Leica cameras as he tours and holds workshops around the world. You can see Phil’s incredible street scape photography on Instagram or pick up his book, Street, G Arts publishing on amazon.
Friday, June 24, 2023
My assistant Cheri and I are meeting with Phil at the Starbucks coffee shop on W. 15th Street just a half block from the Chelsea Market in the Meat Packing District of Manhattan.
Phil, a Tall thin man is wearing a black shirt and pants with a Yankee baseball cap on. He carries his Leica M10 camera with him wherever he goes. We meet, shake hands and exchange pleasantries as we find an outdoor table to sit and chat.
“Where are you from originally?” I asked Phil. “Originally? England. Phil goes on to say he’s been here for 23 years now. He moved over to Los Angeles and hated the place. Got out as quickly as possible. “It was hard to connect with people and I was flying out of the country like, every week. It was more of a base camp.” He was working for an English press agency based in LA and it became the biggest press agency in the world by the time he finished. Phil was employed by the agency because it was the easiest way to get a working visa which is very difficult to get. He gave up the copyrights to his photographs for a better deal, a new car, residency, etc.
Living in New York
Phil goes on to say that he lives in a condo, “It’s like a subsidized housing for artists. A rare artist complex as there is, maybe two such condos in the city. You put your name on a list and you wait for fifteen years.” He says, he’s lived there for 8 years now and loves it. “Everyone dies there,” Phil jokes. “They subsidize you to help you in your talent so, like Alicia Keys, Larry David and Kelsey Grammer, all these people came through the system. A lot of them still live there as well. Manhattan Plaza, there’s a documentary about it. It was originally designed for luxury housing in the 70’s. They couldn’t fill it so they found funding available to help cover the financing if they could fill it with 70% artists. It’s a great place and you recognize half of the people there.” Phil says he and his wife will hear singing, go out on their balcony and witness some kind of a Tony Award winning performance.
Penman came into photography at fifteen years of age, because his dad was also a photographer. He started working in the industry when he was about eighteen – nineteen. He went to college for 4 years to study photography as well. “I’ve been working in photography for thirty years and professionally for twenty-seven.”
The difficulty of the photography business.
“In the news world, trying to keep a girl friend is impossible. Because you’re flying every day. It’s not like they give you much notice. We’re sitting here and you’ve got one hour to get to the airport. You don’t have a personal life. I did the agency thing for like 5 years and it’s just like, I gotta go free-lance.”
The celebrity business
“How did you get into the celebrity business,” I asked. “That is what brought us into this business. My love for being in this country was more than staying in England and, the compromise was I had to work for an agency who’s bread and butter was celebrity. Back in the early 2000’s it was considered like the golden years. It was a compromise and you can’t do that for long though. It’s a horriblly tough business.”
“What’s the process of celebrity photography,” I asked. “I quit in 2015 and I was dwindling out of it. But there it was a huge rivalry you had between People Magazine and US Weekly. They were paying crazy money to out-bid each other for pictures that weren’t worth that much. You may have to invest a lot of money to get these pictures. You could sink $20,000 of your own money to getting the picture and then you got to sell it.”
“How did you know a particular celebrity was going to be somewhere?” “The majority of what you see today is set up. The very popular celebrities would control their own publicity. Perhaps the celebrity may not realize but, their publicist would know and they would be the ones to set it up. It’s their job to get the publicity, to keep them in the news and keep them relevant. I worked directly with a lot of celebrities, where there was a rumor about them that they didn’t want getting out, or maybe there was a story that just came out and wanted to kill it by doing something else. They would call me and say ‘I’m doing this, come get us some shots.’ So that process was educational.”
“I used to use a bicycle to get around because it was the quickest way to get around the city. You had to be incredibly fit. You had to get the pictures you knew would sell and you had to be a salesman. A lot on the Epstein stuff I covered, I was all over that. It was free-lanced. I went to free-lance in 2005, you get 50% and I was one of the disrupters of the industry where I would get rid of the agency and go direct. You would get 100% of the money rather than giving them 50%. It teaches you to value your work, it was hard work.”
“Most of my days are teaching. I teach for Leica. I go all over the world for them teaching. I’m going to be off again in a week to London teaching. I just came back from Boston and then I was in Australia. And then my day today is I teach privately, which you can do that every single day. People come in from other countries and they kind of want someone to guide them around New York and teach them at the same time. So, you get a real mix. They can be pretty wealthy or influential because the price point on these is not cheap.”
A couple of memorable celebrities
“Brenda Lee was one of my favorites. About 4 years ago, (during a photo shoot) she would clear the room out. If she thinks that she can just work with you and you know what you’re doing, she’s like, ‘can the rest of you just leave the room’? Her husband, he comes into the room and he’s got on a pair of dungarees and he’s bare-chested with a baseball cap on backwards and a pair of glasses. He says, ‘I’m ready for my shot.’ So, I’m like, okay both of you sit down on the counter. He kind of looked at me dead-panned, no smiles at all. I get their picture and he walked away in a huff. Brenda says to me ‘good on you, he hates having his picture taken and he was trying to call your bluff and you called it’. She ended up using the picture for their Christmas card, so it went everywhere.
Donny Osmond was one of my favorites, he’s just a cool guy. It’s all the older ones that have gone through the ups and downs already and now they kind of appreciate it. Hugh Jackman once told me you guys don’t know how important you are to us. No one is ever going to tell you this but, you are very important to us, you could make or break us. He was the only one to actually say it, you know.”
Phil remembers photographer Ricky Powell
I shoot a photo of Phil with an old Minolta Hi-Matic 35mm film camera. “This is my Ricky Powell special here,” I joked. Greenwich village photographer Ricky Powell was very popular in lower Manhattan and known to use this model camera. “Poor ole Ricky. He used to hit on my wife all the time.” Phil laughs. “He was funny. I used to see him walking around all the time with the radio. It’s sad he’s gone you know. What a character, there’s not many left.”
The Minolta Hi-Matic 35mm photograph of Phil sitting outside
Photo by Charles Hahn
“What software do you use?” I ask. “Capture One I use. They reached out to me about three years ago. They asked if I could do an on-line thing for them. I’m like, I don’t even use your software, well I better learn,” Phil quips. “It’s a good software. They’re all good at this point. I used to use Silver Effects. I use black and white anyway and now I can get it all done in Capture One. There are a lot of tools that they offer that the other ones don’t necessarily offer. But it’s all professional like if you were tethering live shooting, that kind of thing.
Experience with film
“Have you shot much film?” “That’s where I started, but it’s so much money now. That was the fun part, the printing. I was lucky I had a darkroom in our house. My dad has a darkroom set up actually now. With the price of film, it doesn’t make sense for me to use it.”
Phil speaks of students
“You either got it or you don’t. I always get asked, what makes a good photographer and I answer, the camera is really irrelevant. Most of it comes down to experience. There’s a lot of copying, that’s the crazy thing, when people start copying your style and it’s like, it’s supposed to come from there (Phil gestures to his head). It’s supposed to come from what you’re feeling.
“Is there anybody you kind of grew up with and admired?” “One guy I admire is Sebastiao Salgado. That guy’s insane. I like Salgado, Elliott Erwitt and Arnold Newman. They’re going to open a new store (gallery) around here and Erwitt will supposedly be the first show probably in October. It was supposed to be open already but they’ve been taking their time with it.”
Talking about the road to ‘making it’
“How do you find your sponsors?” “They find me. Sometimes it’s like ‘well you have a big audience, there’s a lot of people liking your work.’ Now if the work’s good or someone likes your work, it’s gonna get out there. I worked in the press for years so I know everyone and I know how to pitch a story although, I hated that side of the job, it taught me a lot. Photography is probably 40% marketing as an individual. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a good agent who’s not going to rob you. I’m fortunate that people go to my website and they buy prints directly.
There’s also a lot of politics in the game. That is if you go with a gallery, that means the other big ones are not going to take you anymore. So, you basically have to say no to everybody until the big one comes along. I’ve said no about fifteen times already. I have a rule, if they’re not a Paris Photo, that’s the big-one, then I’ll wait. That’s like the big show for us. I go every year just to go and see it, in mid-November. Usually, the first or second week in November and about 5 days, three days to the public. So, I’ll time it. I’ll go over and teach workshops. I’ll do like two workshops and then it basically pays for your flight and your hotel. You don’t get rich. I just happened to be at a Leica show. Someone from the WhiteWall photo lab printing company recognized me and next thing you know three months later they were flying me to Norway for a campaign. Most of the company’s I work with are all German, the publisher I’m with is German, Leica is German, WhiteWall – German. It just ended up that way.”
A short walk
We look at the time and it’s getting late. Phil says, “I can walk you to a cool place for photos if you would like?” “Yes sure.” I reply. We see a few really interesting photo opportunities. During one of them, Phil is sitting in front of a service door with graffiti all around. A little girl with mother in tow, photo-bombs me on her bicycle staring in a curious manner and I get that last photograph of Phil.
Photo by Charles Hahn
After walking a block or two further it’s time to part ways. We say our pleasantries and goodbye’s.
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