Regulars down the Roman will have noticed a chap wandering around with a big blocky camera taking pictures of people. His name his Dav Stewart and for the last year he has been working on a completely analogue photographic project – A Portrait of Roman Road.
Less than a year after starting the project, one of Stewart’s photographs was shortlisted for this year’s Portrait of Britain award. And there’s plenty more to come. As the project has evolved Stewart has set his sights on an exhibition – on Roman Road, of course – celebrating life in this ever-changing corner of East London.
The project has one rule. ‘I wanted to produce everything on the road,’ Stewart says. ‘Shoot it on film, get it developed, processed, and printed, then eventually have an exhibition.’ So far so good. Every image so far has been shot and processed on Roman Road.
It started, as so many things seem to, with Isaac Carlos at Muxima. A Mile End resident, Stewart had grown fascinated by the evolution of Roman Road and wanted to capture it, starting with Carlos. He dug out his Mamiya RZ67, a medium format camera first released in 1982, and got to work.
His first portrait was in fact of Helen Fisher of SNAP. His second was of two young men queuing outside Cafe East. Their openness to the project gave Stewart a good start, and the project has grown and grown since. Each excursion would bear a few more images, which he would then take to Labyrinth at Four Corners to be developed. ‘I found it really daunting at first because I hadn’t done it for such a long time, but now I kind of love it,’ Stewart says. ‘I love waiting for the film.’
The Portrait of Roman Road library makes for a who’s who of the area. Marc Herbert of Herbert’s Fruit and Salad in Globe Town, Gaving Peckover of Peckover Butchers, and the Donut Man of Roman Road Andy Adenegan are just a fraction of those immortalised by Stewart’s analogue mission. Some smile, some are wary, some look positively stoic. All in a day’s wandering down Roman Road.
The project has strengthened Stewart’s connection with the area. You never know who you’re going to meet, or how it’s going to go. ‘There was this old lady I saw and thought was amazing,’ Stewart recalls. ‘I ended up chatting with her for 25 minutes on the street about the history of the road. I thought she wouldn’t even want her picture taken and now we email each other.’ Been on the road for 95 years.
It has also renewed Stewart’s love for analogue photography. ‘I’ve learnt to feel much more comfortable over this period, and I’ve started using it in my work because I’m more confident with it.’ You can see why. The pictures cannot be altered in the same way as digital photographs, and are all the more striking for it.
There is an unlikely openness to the process, of strangers talking candidly. ‘Day to day I’m quite shy, but for some reason having that camera in my hand is quite a strong presence,’ Stewart says. ‘It gives me a lot of confidence, and I’m not really hiding behind it because I don’t shade my face when taking pictures. With that camera you can have a conversation while you’re prepping the shot. You’re still having eye contact, which I find really interesting.’
Stewart has a few particular favourite shots. He got Isaac Carlos in the end and considers it one of his best portraits. A photo of two women and a dog was what made the shortlist at the Portrait of Britain award. The light in his portrait of Savvas Argyrou of the Saucy Kipper came out just right. He likes capturing people in the domain. Business owners at their shops, stall owners surrounded by their goods.
‘It’s about capturing a moment and not being too fussy about where it is,’ Stewart says. ‘I take them where I find them.’ Safe to say it works. There is nothing contrived about A Portrait of Roman Road. It is in many respects photography at its purest – a snapshot of life in motion.
There is no ‘end’ to the project per say, but an exhibition feels like a natural conclusion to this phase for Stewart, followed perhaps by a book. When we know, you’ll know. In the meantime enjoy the shots taken so far. There is no pomp, no frills; just the people who make Roman Road special.
If you liked this piece you may enjoy Massimo Iannetti’s phography project on the corner shops of Bow
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