When photographer Claude Crommelin moved from Amsterdam to Shoreditch, East London, in 2008, he was overwhelmed by the amount of astonishing street art in the area. Motivated by the short lifespan of most of the works (here today, gone tomorrow) he bought his first digital photo camera and started to document the vibrant street art scene. He made some trips to other London areas in search of more outdoor art, but soon discovered that Shoreditch was actually the heart of the London street art scene. On average he posts 40 new photos on his Flickr page every week and he published his book New Street Art in 2013. The first edition was completely sold out in just three months and is considered as THE East London street art Bible. Scroll down to the bottom of the post (after reading the interview first of course) to find out how you can win a copy of the recently published second edition. On 1 June 2016 you can have your book signed by the author and some of his friends including street artist Stik at the official book launch in Brick Lane Bookshop.
I first met Claude in 2014 and we spoke about his career as a freelance art and music photographer and how Shoreditch has inspired us both to document the local street art scene. This interview is a combination of our first meeting and more recent ones.
Photographing legendary pop icons
Claude is a successful self-taught photographer and became the in-house photographer for RoXY, a legendary club in Amsterdam most famous for its pioneering role in the house music scene. How did he start his career? ‘I went to a college for printing and publishing, but have never worked at a publishers or bookstore in my life. After my graduation I picked up my father’s camera because I had always been interested in photography. I started my own work in my early twenties and taught myself how to develop prints.
After a few years I discovered I had an uncle who was a photographer and was looking for an assistant. That was in the early 80s and many of my friends at the time were doing something in the arts or music and asked me to photograph their works. I had some stationery printed with “Claude Crommelin fotograaf” on it and suddenly I was a professional photographer.’
His personal work focused on documenting the exciting punk, squatter and post-punk scene and he also photographed some legendary pop icons in the 80s. ‘I was a big fan of Nico and Patti Smith and photographed their concerts in the Netherlands in the 80s. It was a very different time then and it was much easier to take professional photos at venues. You could even get on the stage and take photos from the side, as long as you would stay out of sight for the public of course and weren’t in the artist’s way. When Nico returned a few years later, I even got to see her in her dressing room and handed her my photos I had taken of her before.’ You can see Claude’s photos of Patti Smith, Nico, John Cale, Grace Jones, Einstürzende Neubauten and many more on his Claude Crommelin Flickr page.
Through his connections in the art world, Claude specialised in photographing the fine arts and his photos have been featured in museum catalogues and magazines. He did this for 30 years till the introduction of digital photography which led to the collapse of the industry. ‘Around that time my wife was offered a job in London and we relocated to Shoreditch in 2008. I basically retired and I now focus on my hobbies birdwatching and photographing street art. I go out at least four times a week to photograph the latest street art and have been doing that for almost 8 years now.’
Shoreditch: the heart of London’s street art scene
DGiL: ‘Why do you think street art is such a big thing in East London?’ Claude: ‘It’s more or less tolerated here. If you paint in West London, it’s gone the following day. Till the 50s Shoreditch was a slum area you wouldn’t normally visit. In the 60s and 70s London became a popular destination for artists and thousands of them came to live in the capital. They came to live in Shoredith because it was so cheap there. At a certain point Shoreditch had the highest percentage of artists per square metre in the world! There was absolutely nothing here, not even shops. If you wanted to buy a pint a milk, you had to cycle to a different area. With the artists came the first galleries, cafés and clubs and it slowly turned into the trendy area it is now. The bankers who worked only 5 minutes away from here in The City started to pick up on the popularity of this cheap area and swapped their overpriced flats in West London for property in Shoreditch. People complain about this, but it’s only a natural process. Although it’s an expensive area now with very high property prices, it’s still a poor borough. The local council doesn’t have any money to clean up street art and graffiti from the street. Besides, the local authorities tolerate it because street art has become the business card for the area and it attracts thousands of tourists on a yearly basis.’
“At a certain point Shoreditch had the highest percentage of artists per square metre in the world!”
‘Funny enough, when I suggested the title for my book to the publisher I wanted to call it “East London Street Art” or “Shoreditch Street Art” because 98% of the photos were taken right here in Shoreditch and I wanted the title to reflect this. The publisher turned it down because they wanted to publish the book internationally and said the title wouldn’t mean anything to people abroad and that it was better to have a neutral title. Ironically, Shoreditch is now world-famous in the international street art scene.
The downside of this is that it also attracts graffiti writers. When I just moved here, you barely saw graffiti in the area. Another significant more recent development is the emergence of street art agents who intermediate between artists and walls. The scene is far more institutionalised nowadays. Lots of those middle men are also really into graffiti and freehand spray painting. I don’t find that very interesting and hardly photograph those works. although I do make an exception for artists such as Dan Kitchener, amongst others. When I just met Stik he pointed out some graffiti and asked me if I had photographed them yet. I told him I wasn’t interested in them. He laughed and said “You’re definitely the most elite street art photographer I’ve ever met!”‘
DGiL: ‘What style of street art do you really like then?’ Claude: ‘I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence but there have been artists painting in London [in 2014] who seem to have had classical training, like Borondo, Luis Gomez and Furia ACK. Personally I enjoy classical art – Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic – and their works fits right in there.
Befriending Stik and running into ‘Banksy’
Over the years Claude has befriended many street artists who’re pleased he noticed their works and published photos of them online. ‘I often see many of the same people working and they’ll give me special prints or other works in return for my support. Love Piepenbrinck for instance has made me a special photographer piggy with a camera. I especially have lots of work by Stik. After I just moved here I went to a gallery where they had an amazing show on. I saw the show a couple of times and went back for a new exhibition a month later. I bumped into this guy who asked me what I thought of the show and I replied that I had been completely overwhelmed by the previous show. I said how those works had been a revelation to me. His smile grew bigger and bigger and he exclaimed: “That was me, I’m Stik!” That was one of Stik’s first solo shows. When I met him, he had just moved into a squatted building. When he was homeless he made drawings every day, almost like a diary. He collected them and made a little booklet of them. Those drawings are really good, very special. I started to buy his works quite early on and have also commissioned him to make works for me. I asked him to make his version of my favourite painting Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Renaissance painter Masaccio. He’s also made a portrait of me which I use as my social media avatar. Now Stik is world-famous and gets invited to paint all over the world and he also has lots of private commissions. It’s great to see he’s doing so well.’
‘You also meet lots of dodgy people whilst photographing. One day I was out taking photos when this guy in a hoodie came up to me and said he was a street artist. He invited me to come out with him one night to photograph while he’d be working. I had to pay him a thousand pounds for that. He said it may seem like a lot of money, but I could then sell the photos to magazines and newspapers because he was Banksy. I replied I didn’t have that much money and had to decline. I mentioned this story to someone who does know Banksy and he said this was definitely a con because Banksy looks different from the guy I met.’
‘London is ideal for photographing street art because all the street art is so near to each other. I usually photograph in Shoreditch and Hackney Wick and I can walk to most of the places. It’s different from cities like New York where you have to travel great distances between different areas.’
DGiL: ‘How does London compare to other cities in the world?’ Claude: ‘I haven’t travelled enough to answer this question, but you do have lots of street art in cities such as Melbourne and Bristol. Berlin used to be well-known for its street art. I photographed the art on the Berlin Wall at the time. I wish I had taken more photos there because the ones I have aren’t that good.’
DGiL: ‘What about your style? How do your photos stand out from others?’ Claude: ‘I usually photograph from close up. Often people frame the art within its context, but I think that it emphasises the work by zooming in on it.’
DGiL: ‘How important is it for you to identify the artist of works you see in the street?’ Claude: ‘I always immediately search for the artist names. I believe that it’s my duty as a photographer, especially because I publish the photos online. It’s also something I do with my other hobby, birdwatching. If you spot a particular bird, you want to name the species. I also have that with street art. Sometimes it can be rather tricky to identify the artist. Take 616 for instance, when he started painting he wrote his name in a way that it read “bib” and I thought for a while that that was his name! Later I learned it’s actually 616!’
Win a signed copy of ‘New Street Art’!
Following the massive success of the first edition, Claude’s book New Street Art has recently been re-issued and here’s your chance to win a signed copy of the book! All you have to do is send me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) before the 31st of May 2016 and tell me in 30 words or less why you should win this book. Please note that by participating you will be automatically added to my mailing list.
Good luck and I am looking forward to hearing from you! 🙂