It is known that a photograph can speak a thousand words, but frankly at Ultimate Library we are slightly fonder of the words. Bringing the two together for us this month is acclaimed photojournalist Stephen Markeson. He began his career assisting legendary photographer Dezo Hoffman before going on to work in Fleet Street. At just 19 Stephen was the youngest ever to work in Fleet Street with special dispensation being given by the National Union of Journalists. His extraordinary career spanned 31 years, working with newspapers such as The Daily Herald and leading to a position as Senior Staff Photojournalist at The Times.

Having always been his ambition to be a photographer, Stephen further pursued his career further by starting his own company, working with advertising and in the corporate world. His love for his photojournalism days has not diminished and Stephen has recently released a book about his time on Fleet Street.

Fleet Street Exposures – Diary of a Photojournalist contains over 80 photographs and chronicles Stephen’s journey took over 30 years. Stephen allows the photographs to speak for themselves, yet brilliantly lets readers in on some of the circumstances, opportunities and fortune that framed the story behind each moment.

You have travelled a lot during your career; what is the best way, in your opinion, to get to know a place?

Walking, watching and taking my chances. Nowadays we are bombarded by information, with a wonderful selection of travel books and seemingly limitless advice on the web and social media. I will always prefer dipping into a physical book, marking the pages and scribbling notes in the margins, but when I was working for newspapers I often didn’t have the luxury of much notice of where I was going or when, so rarely had a travel guide with me and had to rely on what information I could glean locally. Early in my career, I had an assignment in Budapest and with an afternoon to spare took a tour bus to a well-known viewpoint on the other side of the river.  I must have misunderstood the guide because when I returned to the bus, it had left without me – so I walked back into the city, stopping for the odd drink, playing chess in a bar and somehow communicating with people. It was a wonderful way to actually see the city and set a pattern that I followed for years to come. I would leave the confines of my albeit comfortable hotel and walk as much as time allowed, often heading for the local markets and stopping for a coffee or a drink. The market would usually be surrounded by an array of shops, bars and restaurants and busy with people from all walks of life.

I have always felt that people give an image character and say so much more about a place than a photograph of a well know landmark or famous ruin. I was in a busy district of Rome, surrounded by traffic and well-dressed people when an elderly shoe-shine man took exception to me taking a photograph and stuck his tongue out, I love that picture – elegance, chaos and character in one frame, that’s Rome for you!

Shoeshine Man 1990, Rome. Travel page pictures are not all about famous landmarks which don’t convey any sense of local character. This unwilling subject gifted me an amusing shot.

Going from behind the camera to writing your own book, how did you find this experience? What surprised you the most?

The pace, or lack of it. Being a photo-journalist required quick thinking and resourcefulness, often with a punishing deadline.  Get ‘The Picture’ and move on to the next assignment. I thrived on the adrenalin and constant change, mostly not knowing what the next day would bring. 

Newspapers were heavily unionised and although photographers and journalists were all members of the National Union of Journalists, there was an unwritten rule that journalists didn’t take pictures and photographers didn’t write. It all changed in 1986 when Murdoch moved News International to Wapping and broke the stranglehold of the unions. One day I returned to The Times after taking photographs of an event and the night editor liked what I had taken. He shouted across the editorial floor to the news editor asking which reporter had been with me, only to be told that I had been on my own. The night editor turned to me and said “I want 750 words and you’ve got half an hour to make the edition, you can use that computer over there.” I had never used a computer before and my one-fingered typing didn’t help but I was up for the challenge if a little nervous. My story made the edition along with the photograph I had taken. This was a ground-breaking moment and paved the way for me to write more for the paper including a weekly feature. But it was still a fast turnover – take the picture, write the words and hand them over to the editor. Job done.

Maggie Thatcher 1990, Downing Street. Page 35 of ‘Fleet Street Exposures – Diary of a Photojournalist’

I had so many anecdotes it was suggested that I should write a book. Having written for The Times I thought I would give it a shot, little did I realise how different it would be. It was agony. From concept to publication was a long and arduous journey. I was used to the cut-and-thrust and fast deadlines of working for a daily newspaper and the slo-mo world of book publishing almost drove me into a straightjacket! Every day brought new decisions, what to include; a change of structure; re-formatting; constant proofreading; the list seemed endless. When it was eventually finished and sent to print I breathed a huge sigh of relief, thinking all the hard work had been done.

How wrong could I be? I fast discovered that however good my book might be, it wouldn’t sell itself. So now this self-confessed Luddite is on the steep learning curve of self-publicity, book signings, and social media. Another challenge for someone who always used to let the camera do the talking.

You have photographed a lot of famous faces over the years, which was the encounter that really took your breath away?

That’s a tough one. The control of Maggie Thatcher, the charm of the Aga Khan, the infectious joie de vivre of Judy Dench, where do I start?  Without wanting to sound blasé, photographing famous or powerful people was a common occurrence and I quickly learned that not being over-impressed produced more natural photographs.

The encounter that took my breath away and has stayed with me to this day did not involve a celebrity or politician but a child.

It was very early in my career and I was working as an assistant to a commercial photographer who had been commissioned to take pictures for a school for blind children. We were photographing a young girl, probably no more than three or four years old, when she whispered something to her carer who told to me that the child wanted to know what I looked like. Could she ‘feel’ my face? ‘Don’t worry’, said the carer, ‘it’s perfectly normal’ at which point she put the girl on my lap.

Her tiny soft hands gently stroked all over my face and it was as much as I could do to fight back the tears. Just remembering the experience brings the emotion flooding back.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono 1969, Heathrow. No prizes for guessing! Yoko greets John at London Heathrow airport on his return from a tour. Famously, the duo staged a series of unforgettable ‘bed-ins,’ which were akin to the sit-in form of protest popular at the time. Lucky to be in the right place at the right time I was fortunate to get this iconic shot of one of the world’s great celebrities with his partner.

What is your favourite part of London to photograph and why?

Difficult question. My personal interest is in people not places

and there are pictures to be captured everywhere. You have given me one choice and it would have to be the East End. It has changed over the years, with fine restaurants, independent shops and boutique art galleries but it is still a wonderful melting pot of cultures.

I love the markets with loud cockney stallholders (never shy and always willing to be photographed). Wandering through the fashion district or down the back streets reveals an intriguing and individual range of subjects, including the colourful Asian and more reticent Jewish communities who have been the mainstay of the area for so long. It is a vibrant area that, for me, encapsulates and celebrates the energy and diversity of London.

What three books have inspired your work the most?

The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson

A Photographer’s Life by Robert Doisneau – a lot of his books are out of print but this one is still available.

Anything by Snowdon – he was a brilliant photographer who took wonderful portraits and inspiring fashion images but seemed to excel in all fields. I was privileged to photograph him (one of the many stories in my book) and particularly honoured that he asked to use one of my photographs as his official portrait.

Ultimate Library would like to thank Stephen once again for being our expert of the month, you can follow him on Instagram and find out more about his work here.