I enjoy photographing musicians in action; the engagement they have with their music allowing me to capture their character without them becoming distracted by the large black brick I’m holding to my eye, so I was frustrated when, dashing through Ely in search of sustenance and a few shots of the Cathedral, I didn’t have time to capture the performance of a talented banjo player entertaining shoppers en route to the market.
Returning to my car I strained my ears unsuccessfully for the sound of his strings and voice but he’d finished his set. Nevertheless he was still in the vicinity, hunched over his tablet writing of his experience of playing in the town. A kindred spirit!
With one pair of glasses perched on his head, and another on his nose he still made a great image lost in his thoughts, but as you can see, some sixth sense alerted him to me and I was clocked!
Thus began a conversation that ran the gamut of the splintering of British politics, immigration, attitudes to busking, the joys of cycling, and of course music. He offered to pose with his instrument at which point I noticed the writing on the head announcing that it had been played by Tom Paley, whose work with the New Lost City Ramblers has been acknowledged as an influence on a young Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia. What I didn’t know until our conversation was that the great Ry Cooder (who will doubtless crop up again here when I visit Havana in May) and thus Keith Richards can also be seen to have adopted Paley’s open tuning.
I’d originally intended to shoot the man with his trusty bicycle. He was on a three day tour, so all his worldly goods were loaded upon it including his Gibson banjo, Martin ukele, and atop it all a small plastic skull, one of his discoveries from many miles in the saddle. When it came to the shot though I wanted something tighter that captured more of his facial expression so the bike was sacrificed. At first I lost the sparkle of his eyes due to the peak of his cap, and though overexposure put some light back, it also lost some of the punch of the shot.
With a sense of guilt, I went even tighter in the processing of the image, losing even more of his precious Gibson, but hopefully retaining enough to be meaningful as a portrait of the man. The fifth string remains as an identifying feature.
Of course he can never be fully separated from it; it has become part of his name. Say hello to Banjo Nick.