Johnny Stiletto's Vintage 80s

The enigmatic London street photographer talks to Dazed about his latest book and most iconic images

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Vintage 80s: London Street Photography, Johnny Sti
Vintage 80s: London Street Photography, Johnny Stiletto, £14.99, Frances Lincoln © Johnny Stiletto

For veteran street photographer Johnny Stiletto, life behind the lens often tells more than a thousand words ever could. In his latest book, Vintage 80s, his black and white photographs offers an often insightful realism of the social landscape of the era. Working under an alias, Stiletto has documented the dramatic decade that saw the rise of Margaret Thatcher, changing fashions, and a plethora of other significant cultural happenings. We caught up with the enigmatic photog to find out what he makes of the recent rise in popularity of the street photographer and why he felt compelled to shoot the streets of London for a whole decade. 

Dazed Digital: How did the idea for the book come about and why did you choose to focus on the 80s?
Johnny Stiletto:
At the beginning of 1980 I thought it would be an interesting idea to keep a photographic diary for a year, which I did, and after that I didn't see any reason to stop so I shot the entire 80s. I think anybody shooting a decade is going to come up with something quite interesting. The 80s was an action packed decade, specially from the point of view of what was happening on London’s streets: fashion, fly posting, Iranian Embassy siege, social changes. Margaret Thatcher slung a very large stick of dynamite into the social pond and the ripples went on and on and on.

DD: The commentary that accompanies the images works so well, offering a little anecdote to the visuals, is this something you consciously consider?
Johnny Stiletto: Not when I was shooting, but I think the words bring the time and pictures to life a lot more, more vividly. Also with words I think you can steer the perception of the pictures, nudge and guide what you want the pictures to say, or why you took them, or why you find them interesting, or what the sub plots are. These shots are a one eye, one person view of the most vibrant city in the world going through a decade, not news shots. They’re coming from an individual point of view so it’s quite useful to know what going on in the mind behind that eye.

DD: Who were some of your favourite people to shoot, do you have any funny stories/ memories about shooting them?
Johnny Stiletto: It all happens very quickly. Up to the point of pressing the button I’m very discrete. After that I try and get out of the way as fast as possible so except in a couple of cases I’ve never had any sort of relationship with the people in the book. The one photograph I really remember was the one I didn’t take. I was in a more or less deserted Tube carriage and I realised the other passenger was Stirling Moss who was a very famous racing driver, so famous that at one time if the police stopped a speeding motorist they’d ask: ’Who do you think you are, Stirling Moss?’ I thought this is great…Stirling Moss on the Tube, the man who screamed big hairy racing cars round howling bends all over the world. The true Brit hero. He had big mournful eyes and he just looked straight at me, the victor of a generation of Brylcreem dreams trapped in a mournful, dirty lonely tube carriage. An icon smashed. I just couldn’t do it.

DD: What’s your favourite image?
Johnny Stiletto: It depends, mostly what kind of mood I’m in though there are a few shots that I’m quite constant about. John Lennon Shot Dead is so brutal and I’m surprised it hasn't had a wider airing. The silhouetted girl in a rubber dress is one that I always like. Francis Bacon is famous. I can stare at The Odd Couple for ages and still see something new in it. Seaside Grannies makes me laugh.

DD: You use an alias to present your work, is that because you want your work to speak for itself or to add an enigmatic mystery that creates more interest in you and work?
Johnny Stiletto: I think if you really want to take street photographs seriously you need to be as anonymous as possible. I’m like a cheap meal, I slip through people’s lives without being noticed, and that’s how I think it ought to be. As far as I know there’s only one photograph of Cartier Bresson and that’s towards the end of his life. I don’t think anybody knew what Brassai looked like and Capa’s name was made up. Anonymity means I can work any crowd, anywhere, go anywhere, shoot anything. Nobody’s going to act up or pose for me , or cause any kind of trouble or distraction.

DD: Have your techniques when shooting changed over the years? Do you still use a 35mm camera?
Johnny Stiletto:
I think it’s like playing the piano, if you do it every day over time you become more fluid. There are a few techniques that I’ve refined and work well but essentially it’s the same as when I started; get in front of something good and press the button. I still use a 35mm camera but only really when I think it’s appropriate. Fuji do a very nice colour film and that’s something you can’t replicate with digital.

DD: Street photography has really infiltrated the mainstream with the rise of the Internet, blogs and photo sharing sites. You've been doing this for a long time, what are your observations of the new generation of street photographers who have come to prominence?
Johnny Stiletto: All street photographers have the same thing, you’re only as good as what’s in front of you. I think the rise of street photography and the new street photographers is a great thing because we live in a surveillance society. For example, in the Mile End Road there are at least 160 cameras within a quarter of a mile. Street photography, blogging, the net gives the surveyed a chance to answer back, retaliate, rein in some of the excesses of the abuse of visual power we all suffer from.

DD: I heard that if you are a street photographer you shouldn't ask permission to shoot as people are more likely to start posing. When you started what was the reaction you got from your subjects? Have there ever been some volatile reactions?
Johnny Stiletto: One reason for not asking permission to photograph people is that it upsets them. They’re going to spend however long wondering why they were asked for a photograph. What’s going to happen to it? Who’s got it? Why? When I started I realised that cameras have different sounds and they produce different reactions from people. Film Nikons sound loud and assertive and people act up in front of them. A Leica rangefinder’s just a lethal little click and it can make people suspicious, an Olympus SLR sounds innocent and it doesn't cause much bother. If I've ever had an aggressive reaction it’s been my fault. There’s something wrong with my body language. My movements have been too sharp or jerky. I might appear to be out of place. Generally, though, I’m quite intuitive about people who are likely to cause a problem.

'Vintage 80s' is out now on Francis Lincoln Limited

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