An Interview with Jenny Lewis, Portrait Photographer

Jenny Lewis was born in 1974 and has worked as a portrait photographer prolifically in the UK and internationally for the last 15 years. Moving with ease between celebrity photography on the covers of magazines such as The Times with the likes of Thandie Newton and Peter Blake to working with the Beastie Boys in New York. Jenny continues to work for her editorial clients but is spending more time on personal work such as her One Day Young series and current exploration of Hackney Studios and their creatives. She is based in Hackney, London and takes lots of inspiration from the community in which she lives.


When did you first discover your interest in photography?

My boyfriend was studying photography when I was studying A-levels, that was when I was first introduced to the darkroom and the beauty of black and white imagery. Everything became a photography project. When I started Art foundation in Colchester a year later, being fully immersed in a visual world was incredibly exciting. I used to clean a guys house up the road and he ended up giving me his Canon AE1 for payment. I love that camera and still have it now, it totally changed the way I looked at photography and the quality of my images. Also around this time I volunteered to work in a Romanian Orphanage. The experience was pretty intense beautiful unspoilt landscape of rolling countryside, scenes of farmers herding goats and giant haystacks, mixed with concrete corridors and rows of mentally disturbed children, the smell of urine and bleach stinging your nostrils, shaved heads to combat the lice, forever rocking backwards and forwards. The photographs I took on that trip are clear in my head even though it was over twenty years ago, this is the moment I really found photography, and the lasting power an image can have. I haven't looked at those images for a long time but am now intrigued to dig them out for you.

I decided to study painting at university using photography as a a tool for research and experimentation but this was probably a mistake by the third year I was making photographic installations and couldn't keep out of the darkroom.

Going to college was an incredible time to indulge in imagery, I studied in Preston seduced by the size of the studios. To be introduced to all manner of artists and ideas was invaluable. Maybe the visual imagery I was looking at was broader than a photography course and all areas of art interested me but I was always drawn back to the work of photographers. It was here I first discovered the Douglas Brothers. Years later I was lucky enough to assist Andrew Douglas. Can't say I can remember any worst parts, I loved studying, I loved my studio and I met my husband at university so it all worked out pretty well. It might have been more fast track to be in London studying photography or maybe going straight into being an assistant from Art foundation but the journey and the friends made along the way are what’s important.

What was your first job?

I moved down to London after college and slept on friends sofas. Luck was with me and I got the first job I applied for. Working in the B/W department at Metro Imaging in Clerkenwell. Everyday I would have to process hundreds of rolls of film. From exceptional war photographers like Tom Stoddard and all the other Magnum photographers to fashion photographers like Corrine Day. Dazed and Confused had just opened down the road so there were parties and previews to go to every week. It was a whirlwind of stimulus, surrounded by all the great work being produced in London at the time. A great place to learn and refine my technical knowledge of film, light, composition. Also a great way to figure out who to assist.

Best and worst parts of this?

We worked really long hours for little money, Metro was 24 hrs in those days. It was like a factory. I made some great friends in the industry and it was a fantastic place to start. to be thrown in at what felt like the epicentre of photography at the time; but there is only so long you can work in a darkroom, after a couple of years it was time to leave the rabbit warren of darkrooms and move into the light.

How did you get from your first job, to where you are now?

As I mentioned before Andrew Douglas was my first assisting job, then I worked with fashion photographers such as Liz Collins, music photographers such as Ellis Parrinder who became a great friend and is the godfather of my daughter. I finally ended up assisting Polly Borland who is an amazing portrait photographer. We worked together intensely on everything she produced for a couple of years. Editorial portraits from The Queen to Nick Cave, a solo show for The National Portrait gallery, and filing away her personal projects such as Adult Babies. From working with Polly I learned a real aptitude for portrait photography and a keen interest in people and this is when I realised Portraiture was the natural area for me. So quite a long apprenticeship in the industry, but again the journey was the treasure.

What work of yours would you say best represents you and your practice?

Working on One Day Young has really impacted on my practice. For years shooting editorial portraits of celebrities and real life features, I had been trying to strip back the barriers people put up, to capture an honest portrait. In One Day Young the veneer is already stripped away. The women are proud, un self conscious. No longer worried about the self they are projecting but simply themselves. Empowered by the birth, this monumental physical achievement that they have worked through just hours before. It has been an incredible experience capturing the intensity of emotions at this time and something I am incredibly grateful these women have allowed me to capture.

What inspires you?

Meeting people and exploring their lives, Hackney Studio which I am currently working on is a perfect outlet for that. The extreme intimate moments such as One Day young. Talking to people and photographing them allows you to see things in a new perspective from another viewpoint other than your own. You could say I find other people lives intriguing or you could say I'm quite nosy. The extreme intimate moments such as One Day Young have proved extremely inspiring.

and Who do you admire?

There are so many great photographers I’m really not sure where to start. So I think I’ll say good teachers. A seed of intrigue was planted in me to look at things differently by my A-Level Art History teacher…Harry. He was so passionate about Paintings and Sculpture,Architecture, introducing us to a world of beauty..Renaissance , Mannerism, Classical Architecture, so many artists. I had never heard of Carravaggio and chiaroscuro …the light and shade falling on a piece of cloth and the beauty in this. It was like a light switch, I know that sounds cheesy but it was as simple as that I felt inspired..eyes wide open I realised I’d been blind and had never really look at anything. I think having a passionate teacher as a young person is such a gift. I need to be sending that man a bunch of flowers or better still a photograph as he probably started this journey I’m on.

Run us through your average working week

At the moment I am researching publishers, galleries, writers to bring the One Day Young Series to a conclusion. Gathering model release forms from over a hundred recruits in the project. Dropping everything at a moments notice if I get a call from a new mother as I usually only have a number of hours to get to them. The series is getting a lot of international attention at the moment so I usually have a couple of interviews to do for blogs etc. I sometimes do professional practice lectures on degree courses. During the week I will usually have a couple of commissioned portraits to do either in a studio or on location. Then the edit will need to be uploaded and sent to the picture editor and work from the previous week will need to be sent to the retouchers ready for publication. I find writing about my projects quite difficult having four years of emotions to strip back to a succinct statement, so that is something I’m working on. Being in London there's always a list of galleries I want to get to so if I can, I will take an afternoon to catch up on a couple of shows. This all has to be juggled with my two Kids Ruby, 8 and Herb 5 who need ferrying to swimming lessons, street dance and help with making dens and various school projects.

How did the One Day Young project come about?

Having had two great births myself I felt I had a duty to share this as a birth option. I wanted to show the transition into motherhood as something empowering not something to be feared. The series has evolved from this starting point to a collection of strong empowered women, a different view of beauty to the retouched perfection we are all accustomed to. 

How has it effected everything else you do?

The honesty in the images has impacted on the way I approach all portraiture. Working on the series I have very simple equipment no assistant, stylist, make up artist…no team. I have really enjoyed working in this simplified way and have more intimate portraits because of this. All focus is on the subject with no distraction. How the women is feeling and the dialogue shared shapes the portrait. The series has reinforced my respect for women and has made me feel more connected to my community.

How do you select the people you photograph? Who do you want to get involved in this to take it forward?

No one is selected for the series. They are all strangers who have responded to leaflets or more recently I have met through the meet the midwife sessions in Hackney. There is no casting process, no one is chosen for their looks, class,race, and no one has been turned down who has contacted me. They just need to be back in their own homes within 24 hrs of the birth and to live the borough ( Hackney…this was just for practicalities so I could juggle my work schedule and get to them in time)

Have you won any awards for your work, or done any amazing jobs that make you feel really proud?

Being flown to New York to shoot The Beastie Boys was one of my favourite commissioned jobs, they did not fall off their pedestal.

Another time I was sent to Tokyo to shoot Napalm Death which was a lot of fun. Those international music jobs don't seem to turn up so much anymore but I am finding it just as inspiring shooting real people on my doorstep. Apart from the Taylor Wessing I haven't really entered any awards but now I have a couple of projects I’m really proud of I’m going to start entering relevant awards and see how they go down.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?

Wow, well with teenage children for a start, my dream would be a couple of books / exhibitions behind me and still working on projects that I love.

Maybe more teaching too, time to pass that seed onto someone else.


You can see more of Jenny's work on her Shutter Hub profile, and at her website, here.


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