Stephen Leslie

Pity the poor balloon seller seriously considering a vasectomy due to the horrors of his job. Every weekend at party upon party he witnesses the worst behaved children imaginable, miniature armies of spoilt Jaydens and Callistas whose parents are seriously trying to raise them without ever using the word 'no', lest it damage their rampaging egos.

He has been punched in the testicles by a four year old boy for not inflating a giant lion balloon fast enough. He has stood agog as asix year old girl spat at her mother because she wanted 'af reaking rainbow balloon arch like Vinessa's but bigger'and, unbelievably, the mother apologised to her child and then paid him extra to make it happen. His wife wonders why their sex life has gone off the boil? Why, when they're making money he seems so unhappy and exhausted? He feels he is being worn down. The other day, between jobs he fell asleep standing up. Each arm was raised by a handful of balloons so that he resembled a slumbering Christ. He only snapped out of it when an angry parent rang his phone wanting to know why his precious offspring was being kept waiting?

And so it is we find him this Sunday, resigned to his fate and contemplating having his tubes snipped (or tied off, like a balloon?)rather than risk adding to the shrill carousel of modern childhood.And this next party promises to be a humdinger, they have ordered over 100 balloons.

Hesighs and takes the first 25 from the van. He has learnt from bitterpast experience never to turn up empty handed. It is a beautiful sundappled day yet he fails to enjoy it, does not even notice the playof green, white and yellow against the tarmac that has turned him into a walking stained glass window. He finds the address and rings thebell. After a moment the door is opened by a tiny woman in hereighties. The Grandma, he assumes.

'Hello,I'm here for.....' Hechecks the name on his order sheet 'Arthur?'

Theold woman smiles and gestures for him to come inside. He follows herdown the hallway, slightly bemused by the lack of noise. There is noscreaming of children at play, no music or any of the usual partysounds. The old woman reaches a set of double doors and slides themapart. He stops and almost lets the balloons slip his grasp. In frontof him are at least 30 other pensioners and there, in the centre ofthe room surrounded by wreathes, is a coffin. He stares until the oldwoman taps on his wrist.

'Please could you tie them to the casket?'she asks.

In a daze, he carries out her instructions.

'Do you think one hundred will be enough?'asks the woman as he attaches the first twenty five.

'Enough for what?' He asks, utterly bemused.

'To lift him of course' she replies, 'Arthur always had a mischievous streak and this was his dying wish. Everyone here's chipped in and he didn't weigh much at the end, so we hoped one hundred should do it.'

He nods his head and mumbles a reply, then goes out to the van to fetch the helium cannister. Without realising it he breaks in to a excited trot.

Inthe end it only took eighty seven. He got a standing ovation when the simple pine box broke free of gravity and started hovering. He felt like a magician looking out at an appreciative crowd, their wrinkled faces full of wonder and genuine delight. Arthur's widow hobbled over and gave the coffin a push then watched it float smoothly over to where an old man was waiting to bat it back.

The balloon seller lingered for a few moments then slipped away, leaving them playing ping pong with a floating coffin and feeling happier than he had in months. Optimistic, his spirits actually lifted.

If this photograph works at all, it does so due to a combination of unexpected detail. People tend not to wear dressing gowns outdoors or, if they do, it is usually only briefly to go and fetch a forgotten something from the car, to coax a reluctant cat back inside or, at a stretch, to go buy milk from the corner shop. So having three women outside in dressing gowns is a result.

Then there is the fact that all the dressing gowns are identical and they are wearing flip-flops. It leads us to assume that they are attending a health club or a Spa but they are bunking off and they are bunking off to have a fag. This is funny, even tragic. You have paid for a day of healthy pampering and what do you do? You nip outside for a ciggie. It is not clear if the woman slouching with her back to us is also smoking. She may have just come with to keep her friends company, she cannot bear to face the sauna alone. Maybe being pampered is harder than they all anticipated, necessitating a quick puff? Or maybe they have had an argument? It could be a hen day and the woman on the right in thedoor-way who is not the bride but her best mate has just confessed to snogging the groom while drunk after karaoke that one time four months ago. They have cried, made up and popped out for a fag to decompress.

As an explanation that could all work,it is plausible. It's certainly less patronising than just assuming they're so inherently addicted that they can't even face a single day of health. The photo also works on a purely aesthetic level because of the elongated shadow of the cigarette in the hand of the woman on the left. A bonus touch. Shadows are arty, everyone knows that.

However, this is all a lie. It's a narrative interpretation based entirely around composition and what has been deliberately excluded. The real context. Imagine the rest of the street. To the right of the doorway where the women are smoking there was a fire engine and a couple of fire-fighters half heartedly investigating the possibility of a fire in the spa.

This is the real reason behind the now infamous dressing-gown fag break. It has been enforced by a precautionary evacuation of the club. They aren't particularly lazy or getting over a trauma, they've been told to leave and are passing the time smoking. Of course I tried to get this other photo, of women in dressing gowns smoking in the street while firemen milled in the background but I couldn't get far enough back to fit everything in and so opted instead to focus on the women alone.

It's a photo that works but it is not the truth. If anything it's better, if slightly harsher, for being a lie. I think this applies to a lot of photography.

She has lived in the house her whole life and has no intention of ever moving. Each afternoon, weather permitting, she carries a chair out on to the terrace and settles down to look. The view of the coastline is stunning and she knows it by heart – the mountains and tree covered islands like vertebrae in the mist.... this is why she now chooses a smaller chair and is careful to position it close enough to the wall so that she can't see over. She still wants to take the air but has no desire to look at that fucking view ever again.

Instead, she focuses on the tiles and takes pleasure in what she finds there. The quality of the workmanship, all done by her father. She can stare at the lattice of cement straight lines for hours imagining each tile holds a different memory from her past. Although she's just as content to switch focus and concentrate on the tiles themselves, follow the passage of drops of condensation or the gradual spread of mould and lichen, a spider doing battle with a fly or a parade of ants as they carry their spoils back home. All of it unfolds right in front of her, an entire myopic world. She has no further use for the more conventional view. She has seen it so often that it bores her to tears.

If just one more person tells her how lucky she is or mentions the tree covered islands and how they look like vertebrae in the mist again she is going to stab them repeatedly in the face with a blunt chop-stick, she's not joking. She doesn't care any more.    

This  photograph is of my late Grandmother, Matild Leslie. Even aged 92 she would attract hopeful men and the one in the background was her latest doomed suitor, I think his name was Marc. If you look closely you'll notice that he's just wet himself.

But  he does not concern us here. The real subject of this shot is Matild.I know that I took this on September 10th,2002 and that's significant as it was just two days after her youngest child,Victor, my father's brother, had died from anaphylactic shock after a wasp crawled in to his mouth and stung him on the tongue while he ate an ice-cream by his swimming pool on the Isle of Wight. His death was tragic, and bizarre enough to briefly make the papers - Victor was just 57 and at one time had been a successful businessman.

A  few months later, one of the tabloids ran a follow up interview with his widow, his second wife Pat, who they photographed lounging in front of the same pool in a bikini talking about her loss. I only mention this because even though it was in extremely bad taste, in a strange way it also reminds me of Matild’s life. In my parents' loft there are boxes and boxes of old cine film and photographs of Matild posing in swimsuits in front of pools around the world,'cheesecake shots' I think they're called.

In  her prime she was a beautiful, striking woman and her husband, Alan,had a fantasy that she and my father would break in to the movies and make a fortune, rescuing him from being a taxi driver, sometime repairer of dentures and occasional shop-lifter. Of course it never happened. Matild and my dad were extras in a handful of films –watch Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, there's Matild in the party scene at the Embassy or in Ken Russell's The Devils, she's an onlooking peasant - but it never went any further. She once had an interview with the famous producer Alexander Korda about a speaking role, apparently he said that her thick Hungarian accent might be a problem and she told him his own Hungarian accent wasn't exactly discreet, they had an argument in Hungarian and that was that.

She  was always outspoken,  always dramatic. She favoured leopard print clothes and had my father dye her hair bright copper right up until the end. She smoked until her mid-eighties, drove badly until she was forced to stop. As a Jewish Grandmother she was useless, she couldn't be bothered with cooking or making a fuss of children. Although I used to love going over to her flat and being left alone to explore the rooms, cupboards with drawers full of false teeth, an automatic card shuffler (for her marathon sessions of kalooki) and a cigarette case that thrust your next fag out towards you when you rolled back the top. She was always complaining, she felt her life had been a disappointment and as she got older she became 'the forgotten voman' or even 'a voman alone'.

Certainly  she outlived most of those around her. The youngest of six she survived all her brothers and sisters, her husband and one of her children until she became the figure you see here; confused, frailand uncertain. She would have hated this shot but that's the cruel power of photography, with time it imposes the image over the facts until all that remains is the image. Without my thumbnail sketch of her life she has been reduced to nothing more than an old lady in a chair with an incontinent man standing behind her.  

This  is what happens should you leave a box of negatives in a damp  cupboard under the stairs for at least ten years. We tend to think of  film as fixed, it freezes a moment in time and holds it there while life moves on but we forget that film, real 35 or 120mm silver  halide film, is unstable. It creates its images through a chemical reaction but that's not the end of its involvement with chemistry. If you  allow it to get damp the emulsion decays and the gelatin cultures  mould like a scientist growing  bacteria in agar.  It continues to develop in to something else. It lives.

That  all this has  happened to a photograph I took years  and years ago of a ruined nightclub called 'Amnesia' is almost too perfect to be true. I  honestly cannot remember exactly when or where it was taken, possibly Sicily or Corsica sometime around  2001 or 2002. It's easy to use photography as a weapon against the  inevitable. We wander    around preserving memories as a way of avoiding the reality of our own decline but this      is a delusion. The photographs are not immune to attack or decay and neither are we.      

I'm certainly not the same person I was when I started taking photographs.                             I've changed and aged and now, thanks to my own neglect, so have some of my photographs.

This is an un-published interview I did shortly after the publication of SPARKS. 

They said my answers were too sarcastic and wouldn't fit with their readership. 

I quite like it and it also makes for a fun quiz, correct answers at the end. 

1. Let’s go back to the beginning - How did you first get into photography?

a.) I was born in to it. My father was a wedding photographer, some of my earliest memories are of playing in his studio. I had old fashioned flash bulbs for baby rattles and I could develop film and use an enlarger by the age of 3.
b.) A close friend of mine was, still is, a professional photographer. I was always really impressed by her work but didn't think I could accomplish anything similar. Then, in the mid 1990s she said it wasn't too tricky and suggested I buy a Yashica T5. I got one and have been hooked since the very first roll.
c.) In 1994 I made a short film called I Was Catherine The Great's Stable Boy (it's on Youtube if you don't believe me...), while we were scouting for locations I inadvertently rung on Stanley Kubrick's doorbell and he told me to 'fuck off'. After this I became obsessed with him, particularly his early B&W street photography for Look magazine. I started taking photographs that copied his style in an ultimately futile attempt to reply to his insult and prove myself.

2. The book was funded through Unbound. Could you tell us more about how the process works and how the the journey of getting public backing was from your perspective?
a.) It's a simple crowdfunding model but one where the risk is essentially taken away from the publishers by ensuring that a market exists for the book beforehand. It's just like pre-ordering.
b.) Once you sign up to Unbound you have ultimately sold your very soul for the rest of your life and the bloody thing never, ever stops. It's like sisyphus but with a book. I hated every second of it.
c.) It has been the best and the worst of times. I have learnt a lot, made multiple mistakes, met (mostly) fascinating new people and now know far more about making a book and running a marketing campaign than I could ever have imagined. I am also, however, totally exhausted.

3. In such a wonderful way you have ran with this concept of writing detailed stories, giving more depth to the background of your photographs - where did this idea come from?
a.) I did far too many magic mushrooms one night and wrote the entire book on toilet paper in a manic, paranoid fourteen hour session.
b.) I stole the whole idea from the truly original and groundbreaking combination of words and images that Brooklyn Beckham pioneered in his 2017 masterpiece, What I See.
c.) It's a logical development that took place incredibly slowly over nearly twenty years. I used to stick my prints into a diary and type out a little caption card for each one. Then, when Flickr started I gave them titles, so the book is an extension of my gradually combining words and text, just far more ambitious.

4. The stories alone are extremely gripping, how did you find the balance to ensure they did not take anything away from the strength of the photographs?
a.) Each story actually weighs exactly the same as each photograph. If you cut the pages out of the book and then place them on either side of a set of scales you'll see they balance perfectly. We spent ages making sure this element would work. It was very important to me.
b.) Hopefully it's not a question of getting the balance right but rather making sure that the two elements compliment each other and, possibly, even bring something else out of a photograph.
c.) Well, every story is true so of course they balance the photograph, they're all just extended, factual captions.

5. When putting the book together, did you select objectively the best images, or images that told the best stories?
a.) I whittled it down over a couple of years, so there are photos that I love which didn't make the book because I couldn't come up with a suitable narrative. Basically, it was always image led – the photograph had to 'spark' the story.
b.) I wrote all of the stories first then went out with my camera to take photographs that matched them perfectly – this is why it took so bloody long.
c.) I put all my photographs in a big felt hat, mixed them about then picked out 80 at random and wrote a story about each one regardless of the image and it's suitability.

6. The book is semi autobiographical - stories of losing your hair, your grandmother, your father - can you tell us how it feels to share personal stories of your life with the readers?
a.) It's all lies so I don't feel anything about sharing personal stories because they're just tales I've made up.
b.) That was an unexpected element. I never set out to write about myself but some of the photographs are undeniably personal and they demanded personal, true stories. My photography – everybody's photography actually – is autobiographical and pretty much akin to an extended diary, so it would have been bizarre to edit or photoshop myself out of some of the stories. And how does it feel? I've already had plenty of practise oversharing on facebook!
c.) Are you saying I'm bald?

7. Tell us more about what street photography means to you and your personal relationship with the craft…
a.) I don't believe in street photography as such. As I mentioned in a previous answer it's all just a diary to me. I simply take photos of stuff I see as I'm going about my life. As long as I don't interfere or set things up then it's valid. I like to keep things as simple as possible.
b.) It means everything to me, it is my sun, my moon, my afternoon delight. I'd probably go bonkers without it. If I'm not out pounding the streets for at least eight hours a day then that day is wasted and lost forever. I resent writing these stupid answers as they're keeping from 'the street'.
c.) It's easier than writing. With writing you start from scratch and have to invent everything but you can also make changes, alterations and start again. Street photography is totally different as it's reactive, you respond to what goes on around you and there are rarely second chances. I'm lucky in that I get to do both things, writing and photography.

8. Some of these images were taken 15 years ago. Was the idea always to one day turn them into a photobook?
a.) No
b.) Yes
c.) Maybe

9. What clicked in your creative mind for you to say “I’m at a point now where it’s time to make a photo book”?
a.) I had an archive (ie a shambolic room full of disorganised prints and negatives) dating back twenty years (not 15 as implied in the question above). I realised that I had enough work to sustain a book but it wasn't until I realised that I could combine my writing and my photography that something did indeed click and I saw how a book could be achieved.
b.) I have been working in the British Film 'Industry' for a very long time writing scripts that hardly ever get made or even read. This is incredibly frustrating (hence my lack of hair) and disheartening, so SPARKS was an attempt to get my work out to a wider audience.
C.) I was desperate for cash and thought this might be a quick money-spinner. I was wrong.
10. If one has to take the pole position, are you a street photographer who writes stories? Or are you a writer who takes street photographs?
a.) I am an ARTIST!! you ignorant hack.
b.) I'm very much a writer who also takes street photographs.
c.) I'm very much a street photographer who also writes.

11. For all our gear junkies out there, what gear are you using (camera, film roll etc) and why does this set up work for you?
a.) I use a 1959 4x5" Graflex Speed press camera with optional rangefinder and bulb flash. This was one of Stanley Kubrick's original cameras and since I'm obsessed with him ever since he told me to fuck off (see question 1 answer C.) I try to replicate his shooting style exactly.
b.) I mainly use a Contax T3 because it's small, reliable (although recently mine broke causing utter crisis / turmoil) and I can take it everywhere with me. I also shoot medium format on a Yashica MAT124G, mainly for street portraits or sometimes a borrowed Mamiya 7ii. I only really shoot Kodak Portra 400, hence my lack of money.
c.) I have every Leica camera ever made, all the limited editions and the newer digital incarnations. When I wake up in the morning the first thing I do is to spin a giant wheel of fortune type thing by my bed to decide which one to use.

12. Working on a project, building something, as stressful as it can be it’s also a magical journey. Now it’s over and the book is out there, what’s next for Stephen Leslie?
a.) I am trying to make a feature film about a talking, lost english dog that gets marooned in Kolkata India and has to team up with a Holy Cow and an Indian pariah street dog to travel thousands of miles across country to be reunited with his owner in Delhi.
b.) I've decided to totally re-write SPARKS with exactly the same phoptographs but a totally different story for each image. I will then repeat this process every year until my death.
c.) That's it. I'm done. I'm giving it all up to become a Llama farmer in Latvia, Leslie's Latvian Llamas, coming soon in 2019...

13. Finally, for photographers looking to create their first photobook, what’s the best advice you can give them?
a.) Don't. Seriously, there are more than enough books out there already. How am I meant to sell mine if other people keep making them?
b.) Be prepared to lose all your hair in frustration, it's a long and tricky process but ultimately very rewarding if you get it right. However I have no idea if I got it right yet, ask me again in ten years time.
c.) Be certain that you're idea is strong enough to sustain an book, show it around to friends and people whose work you admire and respect in advance. Listen to their advice. Make a dummy, there's no substitute for printing something out – even if it's very rough – just to see what the finished thing will look / feel like. Don't rush it. Better to make a good book over 5 years than an average one in two.

Correct Answers:
1. B & C 2. A & C 3. C 4. B 5. A. 6 B & C 7. A & C 8. C 9. A, B & C! 10. A11. B 12. A (honestly!) 13. A, B & C  

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