Hackney people: Stephen Gill

A profile of the Hackney-based photographer who found much of his inspiration in the borough

"I can absolutely trace what I do now back to my teenage years,” says Stephen Gill, a photographer whose work now hangs in public collections from the National Portrait Gallery to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

As a boy growing up in Bristol, he says: “I was really failing at the academic subjects. I fell into a little group of kids who were floating on the side-lines, trying to find other ways of channelling our energies.”

It was his father who uncovered a path for him. A keen amateur photographer with a background in chemistry, he taught his son how to develop photographs in a darkroom in their attic. 

“He was really into the technical aspects of photography and, as I learned, it quickly became my way of articulating and exploring the world. Even now, I try to hold on to that same spirit, not let the ‘work’ element drain the joy from it,” Stephen explains.

The ‘work’ is indeed substantial. He has published 22 books of his own photography and had exhibitions in leading galleries around the world. Despite this, he never had any real formal training.

He says: “From the age of about 15, I went to work in one-hour photo labs. I wanted, desperately, to get out and make my own work, so finally I enrolled in a one-year foundation course and then came to London for an internship at the Magnum photo agency.”

The internship turned into a job, and Stephen found himself living in Hackney, increasingly obsessed with the environment around him. 

He says: “It’s something about the collective energy in the borough. I find it really addictive and inspiring.”

In 1997, when he was finally able to leave Magnum and begin a career as a freelance photographer, he began ‘doing bread-and-butter work – mostly portraits for the weekend newspaper supplements – so that I could pay for my personal projects’.

It was those that made him famous and they involved, largely ‘getting on my bike in the small hours and heading to Hackney Wick’.

On one of those journeys, while working on a series called Billboards that involved ‘climbing over fences to take photographs of billboards from the back’, he stumbled across an illegal market on the site of a former dog track. 

Compelled to return again and again to this ‘fascinating place, so full of contradictions – part beautiful, part ugly’ – he began to document the people and paraphernalia that piled up there. The result was his first exhibition, entitled ‘Hackney Wick’, at the Photographers’ Gallery in Covent Garden in 2005. 

“I loved the idea of scooping up a bit of East London and dropping it in a central London location,” he says. 

Hackney remained his muse for many years: “Hackney flowers, Hackney birds, Hackney pond life…” lists the photographer.

Indeed, in ‘Hackney Flowers’, a project born from the Hackney Wick series, he began collecting flowers, seeds, berries and objects from the area and laying them over his photographs. Some photos were even buried, allowing the images to decay in places before Stephen dug them up. 

“I was trying to extract the concentrated essence of the place,” he says, explaining that he went on – in a series called ‘Talking to Ants’ – to put these found objects into the body of the camera itself, so that they were imprinted on the final photographs ‘like objects embedded in amber’.

“I wanted to allow Hackney to take a few steps forward, to creep into the pictures on its own, while I took a few steps backand lost a bit of control,” he says. 

In 2005, while exhibiting a series called ‘Invisible’ at the Victoria Miro Gallery, he decided to publish the work as a book. “Who’s your publisher?” asked a friend. “Nobody!” replied Stephen. Thus his own publishing imprint was born, named, appropriately, Nobody Books, from which he has published a collection by an unknown photographer called 'Hackney Kisses' (see image above).

He says: “When you love what you do, there’s a danger that you convince yourself you can do everything – the production, the assembly, the editing, printing … And you refuse to compromise or cut corners. You can end up exhausting yourself.

“I had been working nearly seven days a week, for nearly 20 years. I was so constantly inspired by Hackney, and associated it so much with work, that I had to get out for a bit to recover.”

So, last year, he and his wife and their two children decamped to rural Sweden. “A friend said she didn’t know what to think, since my work has always been associated with making gritty environments beautiful,” he laughs. Adding: “Who knows, maybe my next work will make beautiful scenery look gritty!”