BOOK REVIEW: Sparks – An Adventure in Street Photography by Stephen Leslie

The intersection between literature and photography is a place I like to occupy.  Photos are a catalyst for words, words a catalyst for photos and once converged, the energy within their relationship can be dynamic. Stephen Leslie’s ‘Sparks – An Adventure in Street Photography’ is just that. This startlingly beautiful risk of a book is published by Unbound and situated in that Venn overlap somewhere between image and story. It is work that articulates the imaginary and the supposed, the absent or the unsaid in moments captured by camera with a diverse range of storytelling. Leslie’s photography alone is guaranteed to prompt the full range of human emotions and each shot accompanied by poetry, flash fiction, micro fiction, memos and slivers of memoir written with concision.

One photo features a boy who has climbed the bare branches of a high tree. He wears shorts, his legs loose. He bear hugs the trunk of the tree to stay on and admits ‘although I’m not actually, properly stuck I’m not going to get down.’  He has a packet of Munchies. An apple. A runaway who confesses to feeling neglected by his family: ‘Sometimes to get people to pay attention to you, you have to disappear and then, when they notice you’ve gone and miss you, they want you back really, really badly…

My favourite is a shot of two people wearing fibreglass whale tail suits who are pursuing a smiling woman. Mid-field the harbour is busy with coloured boat roofs and pewter water ripples. The accompanying text is a fervently imagined row about a man discovering his best friend has had an affair with his girlfriend. The two fight [still wearing their whale tail suits] and then: ‘lie there, helpless, limbs flailing in the air like toppled giant woodlice unable to right themselves.

Another features a middle-aged blonde waiting at the station. MIDLAND MAINLINE glows behind her and the neon glare of a café sign is the only grim light. She remains static whilst the passengers  move. She has a black eye, half- shut. In the accompanying text, a rhetorical argument is laid out about the power politics of a black eye. The woman’s injury assumed to be because she is a: ‘victim of domestic violence or even a tart who’s been slapped around by her angry pimp’ yet the man with a bruise owns his badge of valour, it is the boast of a punch well aimed.  The woman’s silence is brandished as the last power, her right not to tell. This paradoxical slight thumbs at the wheel of power and violence where society’s collusion in her silence is implicit each time they see her, look away.

This is a book in which fact and fiction collide in ways that not only represent or transform the image on the page but it also works hard to divert and oppose and dismantle what the eyes say they see . This is courtesy of Leslie’s powerful social commentary and satire and also in the premise that the moments in these photos will never be realised. The reader will never know the truth. This raises as much uncertainty as it does cross-examination.

Intertextuality isn’t new to the literary landscape but I wouldn’t say it’s old hat. Woolf did it with Orlando. In contemporary literature, Granta and The Stinging Fly do it. The online literary journal Spontaneity invites submissions inspired by art and there are more word and image combinations popping up online, and in print, but I can’t think of any which use street photography quite like this. What is so refreshing about ‘Sparks’ is that the sense of voyeurism street photography invites lends the reader this powerful sense of social responsibility and interrogation. It requests readers to consider society up close. Sometimes Leslie shows us the soft lens of vulnerability, sometimes the harsh in vivid technicolour. The lost lurk in grainy shadows. A dog sits on a bench. A person sticks their head in a bush. There is one colourful constant: landscape – the slate of the pavements, that blue line where sky meets water, limey leaves on the trees.

Sparks. The title is loaded with potential. Sparks culminate in fire, a chemical reaction generated by rubbing hard two things together and here we see glimpses of people’s lives bumping up against an artist’s imaginings with brightness and great beauty

Sparks is published by Unbound and is available here.

Stephen Leslie

I’m an award winning screenwriter and film director from London.

My first short film, I WAS CATHERINE THE GREAT’S STABLE BOY, focused on bestiality and the Russian royal family. The most recent one, TO LEECH was a comedy about stupid men trying to solve an argument by dueling. Repeatedly.

I’ve worked for the BBC, Ch4, the BFI and Working Title, writing 15 original screenplays. One of these has been made in to a feature film and several more are currently in production.

As an antidote to the protracted and often frustrating world of British film making I started taking photographs. This rather rapidly became an obsession. I now never go anywhere without a camera and my photographs on Flickr have had over 2 and a half million views. Sparks is my first work of fiction.

To see more of Stephen’s photography, featuring several more images that will feature in the book, visit his web-site www.stephenleslie.co.uk

Reviewed by Rachael Smart

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