Still life and portraiture: Interview with Niall McDiarmid

Marianne Stenger
22nd July 2021

Scottish street and portrait photographer Niall McDiarmid has been documenting the people and landscape of Britain for over ten years now.

His prints are held by the Martin Parr Foundation, Museum of London and the National Portrait gallery. Many of his images have also been published as photo books, including Via Vauxhall, Town to Town, and most recently, Breakfast.

When shooting, he says there are certain things he tends to pay attention to, whether he’s out photographing people on the street or at home capturing moments from his daily life. “The space between objects and people, colour, pattern, light are all things I'm interested in.”

Holloway Road, North London - 2016

For his latest series, Breakfast, McDiarmid photographed his own kitchen table over the course of four years, although he was able to devote a lot more time to the project during the Covid lockdowns, when his home became a more central focus of his work.

“About four years ago I started taking more photographs of my own home life and in particular early in the day, at our family breakfast table,” he explains.

“The first meal of the day started to present itself as a natural still life. I was specifically interested in the quality and direction of the light, the colours and spaces between the various table objects. For me, breakfast is a peaceful time. A time of reflection. It is also a time to contemplate the day ahead and, particularly in these Covid days, believe that better times are coming.”

We had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his work and what the last 18 months have been like for him as a street photographer. 

From the book Breakfast - Niall McDiarmid - 2021

First of all, could you tell us a bit about how you got started as a photographer?

As a teenager, I used to send stories and occasionally photos to local papers and magazines in Scotland. After I left university where I actually studied engineering I went back to writing more freelance stories and taking photographs.

I eventually got a job in trade magazines after moving to London. Once there I got friendly with the photographers working on the magazines and decided to specialise in this. I then returned to college to study photojournalism and I've been working freelance ever since then.

Great Portland Street, Fitzrovia, London - 2016

Were you always drawn to portraiture and street photography?

Portraiture and street photography have been the basis of all the personal work I've done over the years. However I've often used this style of shooting to develop into other series, such as my latest book Breakfast, which is all shot at our own kitchen table. 

I enjoy meeting people and interacting with them. I like to be out on the streets as much as I can. Hustling, walking, badgering, looking, searching, waiting – it's all part of the photography game.

Neal's Yard, Covent Garden London - 2015

Could you tell us a bit about your work documenting people on the streets of Britain and what motivated you to start doing it?

Back in 2011, I initially did a series of portraits in South London on the streets near where I live. I branched out to cover the whole of London soon after. However, I realised that I didn't want to just do work in London. So I started making train trips up and down the country, visiting towns and cities and making a huge body of portraits from across Britain.

These were published in two books, Crossing Paths and Town to Town, and exhibitions at the Museum of London and the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol.  I was interested in building a large body of work that showed Britain at this time.

Clapham Common, South London - c2006

What has this past year and a half been like for you? Were there any silver linings or personal projects that kept you busy?

It's been an incredibly difficult 18 months as a photographer, particularly as one who likes to go out on the street and interact with the people I meet. However it has given me the chance to work on the Breakfast series and also to do more landscape work. 

Would you say that the pandemic has changed street photography for you at all?

I was concerned that street photography would change on the back of the pandemic, however having been back on the streets a fair bit recently, I feel it will return to normal pretty quickly.

Westbound Train, Clapham Junction, London - 2021

Do you have any advice for other photographers on how to put together photo book?

I hesitate to give too much advice, as I feel that when I started I was always looking at others work, worrying about whether I had the right approach and concerned that my work wouldn't match up with others who had gone before.

However when I stopped listening to advice and just pressed on as hard and fast as I could, that is when things seemed to come together for me. So that would be my advice. Find your own road and keep your pedal to the metal.

From the book Breakfast - Niall McDiarmid - 2021

Niall Mcdiarmid is a Scottish street photographer based in London. You can find out more about his work by visiting his website or following him Instagram @NiallMcdiarmid

Ready to turn your own series into a photo book? Make a customised photo book with Bob Books.

Biography:

Niall Mcdiarmid is a Scottish street photographer based in London. You can find out more about his work by visiting his website or following him Instagram @NiallMcdiarmid.

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