I first met Paul Harrison at a protest march that had brought part of central London to a standstill. He rushed up to me and asked if I knew where he could buy another SD card as he’d filled his up.
I met him again when I bought a lens from eBay and went to collect it and the seller was Paul.
And despite Paul not being a protest photographer, I met him a third time at a demo at the British Museum: he was a bit peturbed by the protestors interrupting his patient process of hunting for pictures.
“It’s the simple idea that if you press the shutter at the right time something truly odd might be happening that’s not been created by anyone. It’s just humanity being wonderfully weird.”
Starting street photography
I began to follow him on Instagram and was struck by the elegance of his work in galleries and museums. So I was surprised to learn that he’d only been shooting for a couple of years.
Although he first bought a camera in 2020, Paul realised that he’d actually been working on pictures for years while commuting during the dreary London winters.
“On my little train heading back to southeast London I thought I need to cheer myself up, so I played a game. As you pull into a station, I’d look at all the people on the platform and try to tell myself something that I liked about each person. It might be some nice shoes, or a smiling group of football fans. And when I bought my camera, I realised that I had kind of been doing the basics of street photography for a few years already.”
London street photography
Paul counts himself as a street photographer but some of his most striking work takes place in London’s galleries and museums. He already knew them well from his work as a tour guide, so when he finally bought a camera during the depths of the February cold and rain, it was natural for him to head inside. “The National Gallery was just across the road from where I worked, and I was aware that street photography could be done anywhere. So whenever it rained, I’d be in the galleries.”
He quickly realised that very few other photographers were covering this territory and that there is no pre-exisiting body of work on the National Gallery because photographers have only allowed to shoot there for the past few years. “I am massively surprised that more people don’t do what I’ve been doing. Because it’s the exact same principles you do on the street. But just inside.”
Photographs from the National Gallery
Paul’s gallery work focuses on the chance interactions of visitors and the art works they’re looking at: a pose that’s echoed in the stance of the viewer; garments that are the same in the painting and the visitor; or striking similarities between art and real life.
Paul knows the gallery well and often walks the same route or waits by a favoured picture waiting for the right moment. ”I have certain paintings in my head that I make sure I spend a few minutes with each time I go in, or I look for the right person and follow them. But it’s also a living breathing thing so, it’s not always the same because paintings will be moved or there’ll be different people.”
Paul has expaned his beat beyond the National Gallery, and these days you’re likely to spot him in The British Museum or Tate Modern and Tate Britain. Despite the fact that much of his work takes places inside, Paul definitely sees himself as a street photographer but is keen to keep pushing the scope of his work.
“I see the central idea of the streets as not something physical like the tarmac road but as a place where life happens. So a street photographer is someone there to photograph something wonderful happening in that space. So I think here’s so many different ways to call yourself a street photographer.”
In 2024 the National Gallery will be celebrating it’s bicentenary, and Paul hopes by then he’ll have produced enough work to create a zine or a small photobook.