Simply Put, Without London, I Wouldn’t Have Become a Photographer

This week we get to know UK photographer Chris Holmes. Hidden in Chaos, now shipping to stores worldwide, pairs Chris’s cinematic images with the words of 18 poets of various backgrounds, painting a vivid picture of the complex but devoted relationship that London’s residents and visitors have with the city’s many faces. Find out more about Chris’s process, love for poetry, his new book, and more in this exclusive interview.

In your new solo book, Hidden in Chaos, you capture rare moments of solitude and calm as the city of London yawns, stretches and begins its day. Would you mind telling us more about the book?

Hidden in Chaos pairs images of solitary Londoners living their hidden lives within the chaotic backdrop of London with real-life observations, perspectives and experiences from 18 incredible emerging London-based poets. The book hopes to show the honest side of London through the words – and lens, of course – of native-born or adoptive Londoners, either through darker, lesser-known street corners or the raw emotions within each poetic piece.

What can viewers expect from your book?

My images are generally on the darker side, which is both a symptom of having to beat the crowds to get solitary figures, and also because I’m drawn to how light, both natural and artificial, changes the depth of contrast within a scene. The accompanying poems add narrative about experiences lived when existing in London, either through an unconditional love for the city or how it shapes us as humans through its chaos and edge.

What significance does the book hold for you, both in terms of its contents, as well as just seeing your work in book format?

Now that I’m no longer a live-in-Londoner, it’s a printed treasure chest of personal memories I gathered whilst exploring its vast myriad of streets. I can recall the back story to each photo – from where it was, the time of day, the weather, to the emotion I felt capturing each frame. I was given free rein from Trope on the poem and poet selection, which was incredible, so it’s a very personal collaboration with 19 individual perspectives culminating as a collective ode to the city we love, London.

To have a solo book out in bookshops across the world is something I never dreamed would happen when I first picked up a camera. The fact that Trope deemed my personal work worthy and appealing enough to invest in is truly magical, and I’m beyond grateful that they have supported not only me as an artist, but also the concept of narrating through poets, which brought many more layers of logistics and time.

How was the production process of creating Hidden in Chaos?

Framing solo individuals within my images has been a pattern for a little while, but when we worked through the concept and the title, it meant that I had to become disciplined in the planning – to prepare for varied times of day and various weather to collect a range of images within the book.

The process has taken a little over two years, from my first discussion with Trope about concepts. Within that time, we have worked constantly – gathering poets through social media and a community festival, or spending hours discussing titles to ensure it acted as an active wrapper to the emotions within the book.

It’s been an unforgettable journey working with Trope, and although I’m excited to see all of our work come together, I am going to miss working on the project with them.

When did you first move to London? What was your impression of the city like?

I moved to London in my early twenties to experience life outside of my hometown. I never went to university so had never lived anywhere else; when the opportunity came up, it was time to test myself in what I would soon come to understand as one of the most unique cities in the world.

I visited London as a kid and was always spellbound by its enormity and pace. Even when I was young, its magic washed over me. When I moved, that same sense of wonder repeated, but through a matured lens; I was now an adult so could truly understand what London can offer you, if you let it.

An outsider’s view of London is likely that it’s chaotic, it’s frantic, it’s brash and in your face all of the time, and it’s fair to say that all of that is true. But it also has an unexplainable peaceful side, one of universal community created by strangers, habitants who all share the same pride, native or otherwise, of being a Londoner.

The romance I felt on day one is the same feeling I have now when I think about my time there. I love and miss London in equal measure.

Would you say that you fell in love with the city in tandem with your development as a photographer? How would you describe your identity in photography?

I already loved London, but because of photography I got to really know London by truly exploring it.

I’d been there for about six years before I started photography, so had been to all of the usual places, both socially and for work. But as a non-photographer local, I never had a good reason to look up, to take a random left turn down a side street. But once I did, photography positively evolved my pre-existing relationship with London. It showed me more the more I explored.

London has shaped me as a photographer. All the elements I’m drawn to, such as scale and contrast of light, are plentiful all over the city. Thanks to its rich and varied aesthetic, it’s a city that exists to be captured as a perfect playground to practice in. Simply put, without London, I wouldn’t have become a photographer.

Can you tell us why you chose to document London the way you did, and what inspired you to capture the quieter moments away from the chaos?

Generally, I enjoy the shadows that hard light casts, or the textures from streetlights that rain creates. Both elements can be more pronounced early in the morning, and after exploring the use of single people in the frame to offer scale for a while, the quieter moments were initially a happy coincidence.

London’s architecture and streets are world-renowned, so instead of making them the main focal point as they often are, I wanted them to play a recognisable supporting role to the people in each image. And as London is rarely witnessed when empty, it allowed me to offer an alternative perspective that feels uncharacteristic of the London we know.

Many of the images in your book were shot before dawn, after dark and in harsh temperamental weather conditions. Can you speak about your interactions with the city as you were going about taking photos?

Roaming London’s empty streets feels like a reward for setting that 4 a.m. alarm, but there is also an edge to it, one that you’re constantly aware of at that time of the morning. But I think that’s what I find exhilarating about the early starts. I get to explore an empty London that I’m sharing with those yet to go to bed.

What were you looking for as you walked around the city?

The location I’d explore would depend on the time of day, the season and mainly the weather. Before I’d arrive, I’d have a few mental notes on what to watch for. For example, if I was out on a crisp sunny winter’s morning, the light can be beautifully hard, so I’d be on the lookout for a scene that included long shadows and warm tones.

Did you gravitate to any particular area of London to capture the images in your book, or was there an area you found most interesting and why?

East London, namely the area surrounding Liverpool Street, because of the many back streets and its multitude of tall buildings. But that area is never completely quiet due to its many bars and clubs, so there are also characters to capture in the early morning, whatever the weather. A five-minute walk from the main drag, there are fantastic views of the city, looking back in, which give you a real sense of the size and history of that part of town.

There are a few shots in the book from central London also, like Piccadilly Circus and China Town, which offer lesser-known views of better-known areas.

When it comes to editing, how important is this step for you in narrating the story you hope to tell through your photographs?

The edit of an image is an important mark for me as a photographer, as it completes my view of a scene. Editing allows me to emphasise the atmosphere within a photo by accentuating certain details, whether that be the saturation of a road marking or the depth of the shadows.

An editing “style” is a photographer’s equivalent of a painter’s brush stroke. It further helps an image become recognisable and individual.

What is the most important thing to you when it comes to creating an image you are proud of?

A cinematic feel, either through its use of framing and layers, or the grading applied through the edit.

For Hidden in Chaos, you collaborated with 18 different poets, most from London. What sparked this collaboration? When and how did you come up with the idea to pair your images with poems?

The book is exclusively London images, and it called out for a narrative. It needed honest London perspectives from inhabitants of the city. And as an admirer of poetry’s qualities, finding emerging poets to help add context within the book was the perfect pairing. I think poems pack a whole story into a short space, whilst episodically adding a rhythmical soundtrack to the book about London life.

What about the selection process? What criteria did you follow to choose the poets, and how did you pair their words with your images?

The poems had to be an honest and genuine experience unique to London– a view that is relatable to those who have lived there, and interesting to those that haven’t. Not all of the pieces overtly call out London, but within them there are nuances that cry “London life.”

The ambition wasn’t necessarily to directly pair poems to images – not all were written for the images specifically – and were done independently of each other. However, because there is a such a beautiful array of words and images, we were able to find serendipity with the pairings.

What kind of additional context do you feel it gives your images?

As a viewer, looking at a photo can be one-sided, in that you’re viewing my output, but not necessarily what I think of London or have lived through in London. That’s where the poems introduce a human element as they’re all personal, raw and sometimes emotional. That helps add a further story to the images sitting alongside.

Do you have a particular favourite pairing in the book?

A few images in the book had specific pieces written for them by Astra and Paul, so they hold a special meaning as my image inspired a creative spark within their mind – a genuine cross-medium collaboration.

There are so many that strike a personal note with me too, such as Laura’s “Never Leave,” now that I’ve left London. Also Imogen’s excerpt from “May I Ask Who is Steering?” as it concisely summarises the character of London that I fell in love with many years ago.

Lastly, Tom’s piece “Searching” is paired with an image I took of a homeless man named Goff, and as the two formats share the same context, it’s a beautiful coupling.

Finally, what message/s do you hope to convey through Hidden in Chaos?

Every city has more to offer away from its well-known faces, so it’s worth exploring for an extra hour or two. And, just because you exist in a city, your experiences, perspectives and influences mean you are alive within it; they are as equally as important as those of the person standing next to you on a crammed tube.

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Experience Chris’s passion for his craft in two of our meticulously curated ongoing series:

In Hidden in Chaos, the fifth installment in our Emerging Photographer Series, Chris Holmes captures rare moments of solitude and calm as the city of London yawns, stretches and begins its day. His high-contrast scenes depict the miniature dramas unfolding all around us, obscured by the hectic pace of metropolitan life.

Trope City Editions is a collection of urban photography books by emerging photographers from around the world. Chris’s images can be found in both London and Hong Kong editions.