Phil Penman

The WhiteWall Ambassador Phil Penman was born in the UK but has lived in the US for a long time. He is best known for his Black & White street photography. Penman’s work is exhibited worldwide and he has won numerous awards. Penman focuses on street, portrait and architectural photography, primarily of New York.

Penman’s distinctive style, versatility, and dedication to his craft have earned him prestigious awards and exhibitions, as well as the distinction of being named one of the “52 Most Influential Street Photographers.” In this interview, he talks at length about his love of Black & White photography, his role models in the genre, and the technical tricks he uses in his black-and-white subjects. 

Portrait of Phil Penman.

"Black and white photography captures the raw essence of the streets." – Phil Penman

two black & white photos of architecture with strong contrasts, skyline new york.

Photo: Phil Penman // Photo Print On Ilford Baryta Paper With ultraHD Sharpening and Passe-Partout Frame Hamburg in Black Matt and White Border

How would you describe your photography? 

I would describe my photography as black and white, that captures the raw essence of the streets.

Why do you photograph in black and white?

I photograph black and white; I think, mainly because it takes me away from my work. A lot of my work is always color and I'm working for clients. And black and white was always kind of for me and it was a way that I could escape. It takes me away from my work and it's basically my enjoyment of photography. It's the raw kind of photography. It captures the emotion of people and street scenes. I feel that color gives you a distraction from that, and for me black and white is pretty much to the point.

What is black and white photography all about for you?

The way that I shoot black and white now, it takes me back to where I started. So, of all that work in between this has kind of been like “the back to the beginning” for me and it's the thing that I love, you know? I couldn't imagine anything else.

Do you miss colors when you look at your black and white photograph?

Not at all. For me it's all black and white. I'd kind of like to follow in the footsteps of people like Sebastião Salgado. Color photography was always considered work for me because that's what I shot for work, so when I am shooting black and white, I really don't miss it at all.

What emotions does a black and white photo evoke in you? 

Black and white photos trigger a lot of emotion. It's very emotional when I look at them, it comes back to where I started. You know, I started in the dark room shooting black and white when I was around 15 years old. And when I started going back to black and white, I guess like 2015 or maybe before, it really took me back to where I started.

Are there photographers that inspire you in particular?

It must be the works of Sebastião Salgado that I remember seeing an exhibition of his when I was very young in the Royal Institute in Bath, England and it just blew me away.

From then on, it's been black and white all the way.

Photo: Phil Penman

"The print is magic. It's where I started in the dark room and it's where I am now. " – Phil Penman

Do you think or see black and white while working with your camera? 

When I'm photographing, one of the cameras I use is like a monochrome camera, so it only shoots black and white. So, when I'm viewing the world, I use an electronic viewfinder that I put on top of the camera, and it allows me to shoot in black and white. I can see in black and white when I'm shooting, and it takes you back in time. It's a beautiful thing.

Do you think about printing when you start working?

When I take pictures, pretty much everything is about the print. It's the finished product, the one that you see on the wall. For me that is the start and the end of the photographic process.

Kids playing with water in the streets of new york, only silhouette.

Photo: Phil Penman // Hahnemühle FineArt Pearl On Aluminum Dibond

Which technique do you love the most when it comes to black and white photography?

Black and white techniques for me, I guess it must go back to the darkroom. So even when I'm editing a lot of it is the same stuff that I would do when I was in the dark room. So, a lot of dodging and burning, which means that I am looking at an image and figuring out the areas that I want to lighten and which I want to darken. Again, it all goes back to the darkroom.

If you had to choose one photograph, which would you choose?

If I could pick one just one picture, I don't think I could. It would have to be the work that I shot over the last three years during the pandemic. That was inspired by the old Farm administration work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lang. That would be the series that I picked.

What does printing your work mean for you?

Printing for me is where I started in the dark room. It is the joy of seeing the finished article. And it's the same with when I'm taking my pictures now and then I get that print come through in the mail and looking at it like that - there's nothing else that's it for me. The print is magic. It's where I started in the dark room and it's where I am now. The process doesn't finish until I see that print.

Which requirements do you have to an image when you configure a picture for your wall? 

So, a picture for me when I see it on the wall, it's got to have an emotional attachment to it. It doesn't have to be the best picture in the world, but I have to feel something when I see it.

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