12 by Niall McDiarmid

Posted on March 29, 2015

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Niall McDiarmid is a photographer based in London. His work is primarily about documenting Britain and has been published and exhibited widely. Niall talks to guest interviewer Katie Stretton about his approach to street portraiture and his latest book Via Vauxhall.


How did you come to be a photographer?

I got into photography in my late teens initially by sending stories and pictures to local magazines and newspapers where I grew up in Scotland. After university where I studied engineering, I got job a full-time job working as a junior reporter for trade magazines, writing and occasionally supplying pictures for different titles. After doing that for a couple of years, I went back to college, the London College of Printing, to study photojournalism for a year. I’ve worked as a photographer for different magazines and book publishers since then.

Via Vauxhall, London - 2013/2014

Via Vauxhall, London – © Niall McDiarmid

Did you always enjoy making portraits or did that happen later?

Yes, I’ve always enjoyed taking portraits. I’m interested in meeting people and documenting how people look at this time.

How did you begin making ‘Via Vauxhall’?

After I finished the Crossing Paths book in 2013, where I travelled across the country to more than 100 towns, I wanted to do something close to where I live in South London. So initially I began photographing images along one bus route, the 87, which travels right into central London. However within a few days of starting this I was drawn to the area around Vauxhall, a neighbourhood that the 87 passes through. It’s an area that for the past 40 years has mostly been a neglected industrial zone with warehouses, storage depots and the ruined Battersea Power Station. However in recent years huge riverside developments have started to spring up, the new multi-million pound American Embassy is being built and massive financial and cultural upheaval is afoot. Right in the middle of all this, is the Vauxhall Bus Station where south London residents and commuters pass through.

Tell us a bit about this work in relation to your previous and successful series ‘Crossing Paths’

The images are shot in a similar way to Crossing Paths, although this book adopts a slightly more documentary style. Again there are recurring themes of observing a population that is changing quickly, attempting to capture the look and spirit of people at this time.

Chapel Street, Woking - March 2012Chapel Street, Woking – © Niall McDiarmid

How do you decide who to make a portrait of?

I can’t give a definitive answer to this, as every situation is different. Often I get into conversation with the person first, sometimes it’s the colour or shapes in what they are wearing combined with the surroundings, or at other times I feel the person just has a look that differentiates them from everybody around at that moment.

How do you approach people?

I often speak to people first. Chat with them. Tell them what I’m doing. Many people say no. But that’s no big deal, I’m used to that.

Do you think portrait photography has undergone any changes in the last 20 years?

I don’t study portraits more than any other particular field of photography so I couldn’t say for sure. However aside from certain short term trends that come and go, it seems there is a consistency amongst many of the photographers I admire that stretches all the way back to pioneers like Hill and Adamson back in the 1840s.

Via Vauxhall, London - 2013/2014Via Vauxhall, London – © Niall McDiarmid

How do digital and social media change how you make/engage with your work and your audiences?

I wouldn’t say the internet or social media has any influence at all on the way I take photos. However social media is a very effective way to show work, get to know new people and develop an audience over a period of time. Likewise I enjoy following other peoples’ creative journeys, their successes and disappointments along the way. The internet and social networks play a huge role in how photography is viewed and enjoyed today. However like all great innovations, social media has its downsides too.

Whose work would you consider to have been influential and inspirational to you?

Like most people I suppose, my biggest influences come from those I know best. For me that’s my parents, my brothers, my friends and my wife Catriona. They are all very hard working people. I like that. It inspires me to work hard, just to keep up! As regards to creative influences, musicians, writers, artists and well-known photographers are who I look up to for inspiration mostly. Joel Sternfeld, William Eggleston, Daniel Meadows, Joni Mitchell, Richard Ford, Vanessa Winship, Diane Arbus, Richard Long, Stephen Shore to name but a few.

Via Vauxhall, London - 2013/2014Via Vauxhall, London – © Niall McDiarmid

Mistakes?

I’m sure every working photographer makes mistakes but I’ve probably made more than most. I try to laugh at them, whether it’s technical errors or just comical incidents. I fell into a river once, right up to my chest, when taking pictures in Scotland and destroyed my camera. It wasn’t funny at the time but looking back it was hilarious. On a serious note, one of the big missteps I and I’m guessing many creative people make is the inability to take a completed body of work through to a conclusion, whether it is a book, exhibition, website, or whatever – those last steps of finishing something off, having some sort of completion, always seem to be the hardest.

What was the last photo book you read?

I look at photo books everyday. I buy them. I sell them. I love to have a pile of books at the side of my desk. Sometimes I’ll just flick through them. Other times I’ll go from start to finish, then back. Often, after a while, I get rid of them, so I can then get some new ones. And so it goes on. Recent ones I’ve enjoyed include, Mark Cohen, Dark Knees; Jackie Nickerson, Farm; William Klein, Close Up. I’m awaiting delivery of Janet Delaney’s book South of Market. I like books that the photographer has either self published or at least had a large hand in making. For me, a little innocence in a book adds a lot of charm.

And the last exhibition you saw?

I don’t get the chance to see as many exhibitions as I would like but recent ones I’ve enjoyed were Alfredo Camisa’s Urban Alphabet at Tate Modern, Viviane Sassen at the Photographers Gallery and Chris Killip at Tate Britain.



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Katie Stretton

Interview by Katie Stretton