Portrait photographer Jenny Lewis’s latest book, One Hundred Years, is a tender and intimate portrait of her community. Peter Dench finds out more
The news reports I read and heard about Hackney in the mid 1990s were rarely positive. When I had to visit the east London borough running errands for the photographer I was assisting, I scheduled them for noon when the supposed gangsters, pimps and addicts (I hoped) would be sleeping off the previous night’s endeavours.
Around the same time, Essex-born photographer Jenny Lewis graduated from Preston University (University of Central Lancashire) with a degree in Fine Art, moved to London and made Hackney her home. ‘The first house that I absolutely loved was in Haggerstone near London Fields. A proper house with a pool table and a massive garden for parties.
From that first house I’ve moved twice, one road over. I walk past that first house I lived in every day. I never felt nervous in Hackney. I immediately knew my neighbours and felt really connected. All the photographers lived east who I was assisting, it was easy to get to people’s houses – it just felt like my vibe. I felt instantly at home,’ reminisces Jenny.
Many photographers, when they’ve made their fortune in London move their family to Devon; over 25 years later, Jenny remains in Hackney with her husband raising their two teenage children, Herb (12) and Ruby (14). In those early years, Jenny cycled to work at professional photo lab, Metro Imaging, learning quickly from the hundreds of black & white contact sheets she printed every day for renowned photographers including photojournalist Tom Stoddart and photo-siblings, the Douglas Brothers.
She quickly prepared and propelled herself into the freelance world shooting editorial assignments for a range of magazines and supplements including The Times, Guardian, Red, Grazia and perhaps surprisingly, punk rock metal magazine Kerrang! who sent her to America photographing hip hop group, the Beastie Boys.
Walking through Hackney to meet Jenny is uplifting and eclectic. The birds are chatty and the weather as warm as the greeting I get from Jenny arriving at her first floor studio overlooking Regent’s Canal. The signs are Jenny is busy. Flowers from socially distanced visits by photographers Alys Tomlinson and Jane Hilton bloom on her desk, and bestowed publications from Barry Lewis lie on the window sill (all three photographers recently featured in AP).
The year planner on the wall is busy with highlighter pen. One hundred 400x560mm mounted prints have just been delivered for installation at the Britannia Leisure Centre in Shoreditch. The images are all from One Hundred Years, her latest book.
One Hundred Years (2021) is Jenny’s third book, following One Day Young (2015) – portraits of women and their newborn baby all taken within 24 hours of birth in east London – and Hackney Studios (2017) – where Jenny spent four years exploring studios across the borough, photographing the artists who have defined the area including painters, illustrators, filmmakers, jewellers and ceramicists.
All three are a collaboration with independent east London publisher Hoxton Mini Press. Jenny is captivated by and has captured her neighbourhood. ‘I don’t think I’m obsessed with Hackney, it’s more I’ve a right to be there in a way – I feel more accepted. You can get a lot of diverse experiences in these few miles. It feels really natural to me to talk to people and take portraits that are on my doorstep. I have confidence in my own community where I can ask something.’
One Hundred Years brings together portraits of her community, covering every age from one to 100 in chronological order. In 2018 she was asked to photograph 105-year-old Nellie by Nellie’s grandson for Mother’s Day. ‘I couldn’t believe someone aged 105 could live on their own, I thought you’d be in a care home that age or have carers coming in.
She was so feisty, she lives two floors up, she’s not in a wheelchair and goes out every day,’ explains Jenny. After photographing 150 women with their baby for One Day Young and mostly mid-age creatives for Hackney Studios, she wanted more scope.
‘I’d given myself really tight parameters with the first two books, ten years of photographing people in those tiny groups; I wanted to burst it all open! I wanted to photograph men, see what’s going on in their lives, in their head. I’ve photographed so many women and loads of the work I was getting was because of One Day Young and then that’s all you get, commissions of motherhood and babies.’
The book includes men feeding pigeons, sunbathing, at work, on the tennis court and in the studio. She found her subjects through friends, schools and social media. A General Practitioner helped find the older subjects and the doctor’s surgery will exhibit a selection of images. Each simple portrait is accompanied by a personal narrative of the sitter transcribed by Jenny.
‘In the late 1980s I was diagnosed HIV positive. I decided to start a theatre company comprised entirely of others with the condition. We became a great success. I witnessed the transformation of frightened individuals, some terrorised by public ignorance, into confident performers. It’s encouraged me to help others not give up hope,’ is the testimony from 76-year-old Cloud, pictured sat on a multi-coloured covered sofa wearing a jaunty green hat with the HOLLYWOOD sign on top.
‘People are always stereotypical to me. Just because I’m a boy they say you can’t like pink, but I love pink. One of the first times I wore a skirt, my mum bought me a tutu. I looked in the mirror and I loved it. It makes me feel happy when I’m glamorous,’ reveals Jack, 69 years Cloud’s junior.
The pages are alive with chatter exposing life’s poignant twists. What did Jenny learn from her romp through the lives of others? ‘I expected the plus-75s to have thought they’d had enough and most of them said that they wanted another 20 years and I was surprised by their lust for life, to keep wanting more.
People I thought were possibly really lonely – a guy that never got married, hasn’t got any kids, isn’t working any more, I was thinking, what’s that like? He said it was the best time of his life and was loving it. I was constantly challenged and surprised at what people would say – the young ones often being so anxious and confused and the older ones being sparky and quite fun. It was nice to have got it all wrong.’
For One Day Young, Jenny had to work quickly and simply. Setting up lights would have been too much of a distraction, blasting flash at the adjusting eyes of a newborn, unforgiving. She continued this approach for One Hundred Years, cycling to each portrait with her Canon EOS 5D Mark III and a tripod – no assistant, no lighting, no fuss.
‘There’s something about having it on a tripod where you can stop photographing and have a chat, make eye-contact, relax that person and then go back to it. That’s become the technique, it’s a little dance. If the camera wasconstantly obscuring my face it would make a difference. I don’t need the tripod but it’s a handy distraction.’
The uncomplicated approach binds together the 100 characters and enables Jenny to bring us their stories. When Herb was a few months old, Jenny developed rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease causing joint pain and damage throughout her body. We gaze across the canal as a tough-looking man crouches to photograph the ducklings, a kid jumps to sniff at the dangling jasmine and child carers push prams towards Victoria Park.
Has the pain she suffers directed her photography? ‘It’s definitely altered why I photograph things, what I’m searching for and trying to figure out. With One Hundred Years there’s a lot to do with mortality there. I’ve lost quite a few friends over the past couple of years, my best mate from university got cancer and died.
Another friend got leukaemia, my dad got very ill with cancer and suddenly it just felt a real possibility that death was there – where am I on this timeline, what’s going on, what’s coming next, how do other people deal with it? I hadn’t really thought about it until I stopped and looked at the work on the wall.
I often find out why I’m doing things only when I’ve finished and consider that whole question of mortality and death.’ We go outside to photograph Jenny standing beside the seven, 3m-high, weather-proofed portraits from One Hundred Years on display along the canal; other outdoor exhibitions are planned. I raise the camera with the lens cap on then accidentally boot my flash across the ground. Finally I bring Jenny into focus.
She’s as fidgety as a toddler, wearing the bold colours of a child and trainers of a teenager (original Nike Air Jordan). She has optimism, drive, energy, wisdom and stories. She is one to one hundred years old.
Jenny Lewis is a portrait photographer who excels at putting people at ease to capture a natural portrait. She has delivered assignments for a wide range of publications and commercial clients for over 25 years. See jennylewis.net. Her new book, One Hundred Years,is available to buy now. RRP £17.95. ISBN: 9781910566855. See hoxtonminipress.com