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Shots from the hip

Phil Coomes | 09:25 UK time, Friday, 31 July 2009

Francis Bacon on the Piccadilly Line

In the early '90s, I picked up a book called Shots from the Hip by Johnny Stiletto. The title and technique appealed. Frames grabbed by holding the camera with a wide-angle lens down low and hoping for the best.

Today, everyone holds their camera at arm's length, weird angles and anything goes.

But this was a time of film, and virtually everyone using a 35mm camera looked through the viewfinder. Away from the usual tourist zones, it was rare to see a camera on the streets; today there's one in every pocket.

Shots from the Hip by Johnny StilettoA couple of weeks ago, an e-mail popped into my inbox from Johnny, with a link to his website and the words "A website for people who like photography". It rang a bell; I clicked and, sure enough, there were the pictures I remembered from nearly 20 years ago. I still have the book, and I dug it out again for another look.

Johnny Stiletto was - indeed, is - an alias which adds an air of mystery to the pictures. Who is it who shoots so many photographs of his daily encounters? These are pictures that form a visual diary; they're records of moments that catch his eye; occasionally, they're taken just to fill the time. Have camera, may as well take pictures.

Following publication of the image of Francis Bacon on the Piccadilly Line (top), Johnny got a call from picture editor Bruce Bernard, who was a close friend of Bacon, saying it was Francis' favourite picture of himself and could Francis have a print? Johnny remembers that "I had two prints, I signed one for him and Bacon signed one for me."

Some of Johnny's photographs work in their own right, many are very funny, while others benefit from his commentary in which he recalls his thoughts at the time of making the picture.

Today his photographic style is alive and well, he said:

"I'm still using a 35mm camera (film not digital), still using a wide angle, still not using flash and refining the techniques in Shots from the Hip. I'm trying to move towards a man-in-the-crowd view of events. Things that I see that are attractive or quirky, and also the impact of the big things that happen, the 7/7 bombings, Boris Johnson, the Big Bust. The everyday things that hit on me and probably do on everyone else."

Have a look at his website and let me know what you think.

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