Embarrassing London life caught on camera

Tarmac sick note

Caught on camera: insensitive advertising on Edgware RoadCaught on camera: insensitive advertising on Edgware Road

Big van, little van

Desirable address

First published in What's On by

Celebrating the grim, unintentionally funny minutiae surrounding us and overlooked by the majority of London-dwellers – including misspelt shop signs, graffiti, adapted signs, and the vast array of chicken shops among them – photographer Patrick Dalton, has compiled a book called Shit London. The title, he claims is not damning, instead he describes it as a “love letter” to London life.

I chat to Patrick about his obsession with finding humour in the subjects he photographs.

What is your motivation behind Shit London – and what do you hope the reader will experience?
I suppose that the thing that motivates Shit London is getting people to notice their surroundings a little more, to enjoy parts of their city that they might usually want to avoid looking at. The majority of this city isn't this hyper modern, slick, polished city we see on shows like The Apprentice. It's the local shops, some a bit crappy admittedly, that are under threat from the increasing march of big stores into our neighbourhoods. I suppose I'm trying to celebrate these things before they are gone.

Can you tell me about where your love of the visual-storytelling began?
I grew up in family of thespians and so from young age saw my parents and their friends competing with each other over who could tell the best tale. I guess it just rubbed off on me because I'm consequently unable to communicate anything without gesticulating wildly and leaping out of my seat at some point. It must be incredibly tiring for people. I think that crept into my photo work and blog. I feel compelled to drag people along the mental journey I've been on.

How do you write so humorously: is it just spontaneous prose on scraps of paper as you’re out and about taking pictures or is it an outpouring on the computer after you’ve uploaded the pictures?
It's a definite outpouring, a stream of consciousness when I sit down in front of the computer. I don't write notes mainly because I'd probably lose them. I don't always set out to write something humorous but find that it's just easier that way for me. The humorous things are usually just what I notice. It's the way I speak in "real life" as well..

I've harboured pretensions of writing novels and most of my attempts just ending up sounding like me trying to ape someone else so I found it easier to just write as myself. I just enjoy making people laugh and have always liked listening to witty people tell stories. Making someone laugh is the most rewarding experience I can have. I worked as a radio producer for Simon Mayo on 5 Live and would often get called up on writing inappropriately funny intros for guests. One I remember writing was "It's the 15th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster today and later on in the show we'll be talking to Atomic Kitten". That didn't go down too well.

What camera do you use to take most of your pictures on?
Most of the time I have two cameras on my person. My big digital Canon SLR and a little snapshot. Different types of photo demand different cameras. For example when I'm shooting a building I like to use my SLR as it has a wider angle lens. Sometimes I have to try and be a little sneaky about taking certain shots so that's when I'll use my snapshot. When I'm going out for a night I'll usually just carry my snapshot as my other camera weighs a ton and can really get in the way if you're trying to dance.

Can you tell me about your photographic technique or is it simply “point and shoot”?
My technique is pretty much point and shoot, there is no big secret behind it. Of course I try and frame the photograph nicely but it's the content that really matters to me not necessarily the technique behind it. I'm far from being the most technically proficient photographer out there but I have an eye for my subject which as long as you can use a camera is, too me at least, far more important than technique.

What’s the weirdest shot you’ve ever taken?
The weirdest shot I've ever taken was actually in New York. I was walking down the street and this guy approached me asking for change. He had a cat on each shoulder and one balancing on his head. They weren't on leads or anything so they just must've been incredibly well trained. That or the man had made some sort of deal with them. They just sat there as I talked to him. The strange thing was though is that he didn't mention them once, even as I took his picture. It was like he and the cats had entered into some symbiotic relationship so long ago that neither really noticed each other anymore. Neither he nor the cats minded posing for me.

Can you tell me about your funniest moment?
My life has been a series of funny moments. Most of the unfunny moments in between those I am either asleep or watching TV. I think I have too many funny moments to even chose from. Things that spring to mind are having my finger stuck in my ear for an hour as a child, being attacked for being dressed as Jesus whilst bearing a cross in Tooting, narrowly avoiding arrest in Bangkok for playing Badminton in speedos and once, for a bet, leaving Richard Branson thinking he knew me after I confidently walked up to him, shook his hand told him I couldn't hang about only for him to say "I'll call you soon!".

How would you describe yourself as an artist (are you self-taught or trained)?
I guess the best way I could describe myself is as a street photographer. I'm obsessed with cities, how they work and the people within them. I'm totally self taught and consequently probably make lots of mistakes but I don't mind. I lack the attention span for training.

Is Shit London a hobby or a crusade?
Shit London started as a hobby but it has turned into a bit of a crusade for me. So many of the things I photograph are so transient that they might disappear within a day or two. That makes me driven to capture these moments before they go and then archive them.

Has following your art had an impact on your personal life?
My endless photographing of random ephemera has annoyed countless friends, especially when on holiday, but since Shit London has taken off they have become a lot more understanding and almost proud of my compulsion. In fact they're always showing me things they've photographed and giving me tip offs these days. Shit London directly cost me one girlfriend who thought the project was ridiculous. She didn't understand that was the whole point.

What’s been the critics' reaction so far to Shit London?
The critics' reaction so far to Shit London has been great. Being featured in the Guardian weekend magazines "Big Picture" section was a great moment for me. I was very pleased they "got it". Some people have seen the book and automatically assumed it is an attack on London without realising that it is in fact a very heartfelt and honest love letter to the city. Every photo in the book is of something London would be a lot poorer without....well almost every photo.

Did the idea for a book or the website come first?
The idea for Shit London as a website came first, the book came as a very welcome offshoot of the project. I'd cockily been swanning about thinking "Yeah this would make a great book" and making hollow statements to that effect to anyone who might want to listen. Luckily a publisher got in contact with me and made my posturings into something tangible.

When did Shit London begin for you?
Shit London had been lurking in the back of my mind for about 10 years before it took form into something solid. I'd been taking these kind of pictures for a long time and had always had something in the back of my mind about celebrating the unloved and uglier bits of the city. I just wasn't sure how it would work or what form it would take.

Tell me about the hometown you grew up in?
I grew up in Wimbledon South-West London. A leafier, safer existence you couldn't wish for. It was great as a child and even better as a teenager. I spent my formative years getting drunk on the common and forging many friendships that I still hold to this day. It was big enough to feel like it's own town and yet only 15 minutes away from central London to not feel too suburban. I really couldn't imagine anywhere better to grow up.

What did you learn at school outside the classroom?
School taught me a lot that wasn't on the curriculum. Mainly charming my way out of situations. In fact just the other day I was talking to friends about the whole school experience and how much we managed to get away with. I didn't particularly like playing football but managed to persuade the games teacher to let myself and a few mates go running instead around the local streets. Amazingly he agreed and naturally we just ran to the nearest park and smoked fags for an hour and then jogged back. This went on for about two years before he called our bluff and made us run a circuit of the common much to our lungs' horror.

How old are you?
I'm 32 years old, which is constantly a surprise.

What books or art did your parents read to when you were growing up and has this affected your style or inspired your writing?
There is one book that my parents owned that directly influenced what I'm doing today. It was called "Graffiti" by Nigel Rees that we used to keep in our bathroom. It was a collection of amusing graffiti seen up and down the country. Incredibly I don't remember it featuring one photograph in the entire book but I just thought it was hilarious. It was literally just a verbatim copy of whatever was written on a wall. That in some way has informed what I'm doing today, my dissatisfaction with one book I read on the toilet 25 years ago!

I devoured Roald Dahl books as a child and read or had read to me every single one. I loved the way he never spoke down to children and didn't shy away from the horrifying or the disgusting. I really admired the way he described things for example in "George's Marvellous Medicine" he describes the grandma as having a "mouth like a dogs bottom". I have never forgotten that.

I was in some ways quite a precocious little git. I remember watching the film Amadeus and afterwards going to Our Price and spending my pocket money on a Mozart tape. I used to sit in the front room, put it on and then sit and paint. The next month all that'd be finished with and I'd spend hours stoically sitting in a makeshift trench in my back garden pretending I was in the First World War. I was an only child so had to make my own entertainment and I think that led to an overactive imagination.

Who were your English teachers and did they have any influence on your style?
My English literature teacher at A-level was an incredible man called Hugh Epstein. He is without doubt the best teacher I ever had. He had a way of bringing Chaucer to life, to make you realise just how filthy and funny he could be. He managed me well despite my inherent laziness in school and was very encouraging with the pieces I write for him. He made me realise that if I just sat down and wrote I could produce something readable.

He also taught me to write often, to keep the cogs greased. I bumped into him recently at the British Library and told him that I had just released my first book which was a nice thing to be able to do. He left his mark on a lot of students, so much so that we clubbed together and bought him a brick with his name on at the Globe.

Is there an artist who inspires you?
The one time I can remember discovering someone's work and being hit like a thunderbolt by it was when I read Kurt Vonnegut for the first time. His way of looking at the world, his humanity spoke to me in a way that no other writer has managed. I'm also a sucker for Bill Bryson, he writes so humorously and still manages to inform.

Photographically Martin Parr is a hero of mine and direct influence on my work. His pictures are still going to be looked at in a hundred years time as a record of British life. I love Andreas Gursky for the sheer scale and beauty of his photographs and for taking me places I dream of going to. I also like a bit of Terry Richardson, just because he's essentially made a career out of being a dirty old man.

Is there any advice that you could give to other prospective “drive-by (photo) shooters” uploading to Shit London?
The advice I can offer to would-be uploaders to Shit London is to keep your eyes open, really notice your surroundings, be vigilant and you'll start seeing these things everywhere.

Images of London life are constantly uploaded to Patrick’s website at www.shitlondon.co.uk

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