My name is Stephen Howett, and I am a father of three based in the beautiful university city of Cambridge, England, 60 or so miles north-east of London. This is the brief story of my recent photo journey.
I have been into photography one way or another since I was 10 years old, but (like many people’s long term hobbies) it is an interest that has waxed and waned over time, and there have been periods of my life when I have gone years without taking a photo except on holiday and birthdays/Christmas. Moving away from London 15 or so years ago didn’t help, as I found the beauty and history of my new home town almost impossible to photograph in an interesting way – there’s a cliché round every corner in the city centre, and it’s a small place.
A year or so ago, in a – rather miserable – fit of introspection, I realised that over the last couple of decades I had churned through ridiculous amounts of camera kit (the GAS has been real!), but that despite all that (a) I had made almost no progress creatively since I was on Pbase (anyone remember that?) doing a photo a day project for a whole calendar year back in 2004, and (b) many of my favourite photos over the last ten years or so have been made on my phone or a small digital compact. This provoked some serious soul searching, and a resolution to do better in future, with more focus on actual creativity and less on gear-based displacement activity.
Oddly enough for me, as a person well on the wrong side of 40 with a serious professional day job, the solution to my creative rut has been Instagram (@Stephenhowettuk), which I started in mid-2019. The self-imposed pressure to post regularly and keep my meagre stats moving in the right direction has given me the push I need to actually get out there and make work, and the exposure to huge amounts of photographs every day has really helped me realise the kind of photos I want to make and the standards I need to achieve. I’ve also found it a real benefit to have to work within a defined creative space to give my feed decent continuity and consistency, and to have to define my “style” as a photographer.
I have added another self-imposed constraint by doing almost all of my photography within walking distance of my house, mostly early on weekend mornings – I walk the same streets regularly, and doing that has helped me understand the importance of light and time of day in making the same scene look completely different, as well as the small, subtle things you notice about a location when you walk past it a lot. It turns out that (for me at least), familiarity doesn’t breed contempt at all – quite the opposite.
So a year or so into my new photographic journey, I would now define very much as a photographer of the urban, obsessed with finding the beauty in the everyday, with a heavy nod towards the “new topographic” tradition – Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places is a book I turn to again and again, and many of the people I follow on Instagram are working in that tradition as well, including some fellow Brits making some really great work.
I love the challenge of trying to turn the base metal of my everyday surroundings into visual gold, of seeing the picture most other people would walk past, of making something out of nothing. It’s a lot harder than taking photos of the obviously picturesque, but when it works there’s nothing like it. The challenge of making beautiful (or at least interesting) images out of ostensibly unpromising material is one that really keeps me on my toes photographically, and in lots of ways it is a very “pure” challenge aesthetically – the difference between a rubbish photo and an interesting one of something not obviously beautiful in itself can be a couple of steps sideways or backwards, so that all the elements line up “just so” – like a (very) poor man’s version of Shore with his 8×10 camera I often find that process of figuring out the exact geometry of a scene works best looking at it on the screen of my iphone, which is another one in the eye for my GAS! That said, a search for ultimate levels of fine detail and tonality, plus that medium format “look”, have just led me to the Fuji GFX 50R, which on initial acquaintance threatens to be the perfect camera for what I do. With my track record of buying and selling gear though let’s see if I still have it in 6 months! Follow me on Instagram to find out…. @stephenhowettuk