John Daley

‘You can’t go up and say, “Oh, you are looking great, can you do that again so I can photograph it?”’

– John Daley

John Daley, interviewed by curator Athol McCredie, 2011


AM: You saw Gary Baigent’s The Unseen City book in 1967, and this prompted you to do something similar yourself. But what was the underlying reason that made you want to take street photographs?

JD: The rationale in many ways … I was actually extremely, I was really quite shy. I was an only child of elderly parents, and I really didn’t know very well how to relate to people, and people were a curiosity to me. This was really my way of observing the world and trying to work out how things ticked. I might have the gift of the gab now, but I didn’t in those days, and I really didn’t know how to deal comfortably with people at all.

So a lot of what I was doing was observing these kind of strange rites and rituals of city folk and how they went about their lives every day, and I found it absolutely fascinating.

And of course with photography, the sort of photography we were doing, you can’t go up and say, ‘Oh, look, you’re looking great – can you do that again so I can photograph it?’ You really do have to grab the moment and photograph it when it’s happening. And the bulk of the people, certainly for the first couple of years, never knew they were photographed at all.

AM: There must have been times, though, when they did become aware …

JD: Yes, there were, and I’d sort of go over and say, ‘I hope you don’t mind, this is what I’m doing.’ People were much easier in those days. I mean, God, I’d get my head chopped off now if I did some of the things I did in those days. I only ever got confronted once. That was shooting in a pub, which I probably shouldn’t have tried doing. But people were generally quite good about it.

But the bulk of the shots, people didn’t know they were photographed. Or they may have thought they were photographed, but I’d devised these techniques of judging how far someone was and standing facing a totally different direction, measuring out my focus and things, and then just swinging around, taking the shot, and carrying on, always looking in a different direction, and avoiding the gaze. Sounds rather sort of cowardly, but it was my way of doing it!

AM: In some of those photographs, like the one with the Salvation Army woman and the man [Willis Street, Wellington, 1969 – see slideshow]

JD: I don’t think they were aware of being photographed. He certainly wasn’t.

AM: No, but it seems remarkably close and intimate. You know, you’re right in there.

JD: I was close. I had a Pentax Spotmatic with a 1.4 lens at this stage. And this was pretty radical. And I was pushing my chemistry like anything and actually getting really good results, as you can if you really treat the film kindly and get your temperatures exactly right and do all those things properly. It was a bit of my chemistry background I suppose that helped with that.

So I was shooting a lot of that street stuff – it was all hand-held, I never had tripods – at 6,400 ISO on Tri-X and getting remarkably good results with it. It was much higher than people generally rated film. But it allowed me to do stuff on the streets like that, and I could hold the cameras very steady. So a shot like that outside a pub just by streetlight and at 50mm 1.4 lens was quite possible. They were very involved in what they were doing.

And the sign, ‘Whisky Is an Education’, behind them … I had this fascination with words and signs and signage, and that developed as I started seeing all these images with words behind.


This excerpt is from a conversation for the book The New Photographyavailable at Te Papa Store on Level 1.