Phil Penman Shares the Challenge of Putting on a Photo Exhibition in 2020

All images by Phil Penman. Used with permission.

Phil Penman is a seasoned street photographer. His works dare to cross the line between fine art and raw, candid imagery. Like most photographers, 2020 has been a difficult year for Penman. Restricted by quarantines, it has been a challenge working to his usual workflow. But, COVID-19 hasn’t stopped him. He worked on a personal project that focused on the homeless in New York City. And now he’s ending 2020 on top, closing it out with his own solo exhibition with Leica, at the famous Harrods store in London.

Phil Penman Exhibition at Harrods, London

Some may think it’s a risk opening up an exhibition amidst a global pandemic. Although COVID laws are loosening, many people still fear for their health and prefer to stay at home. Penman was happy to go-ahead and is offering an alternative for those who choose to stay indoors.

We spoke to Penman to learn more about his exhibition and what it was like going forward in one of the most difficult times in recent history.

Phoblographer: How did the exhibition at Harrods first materialize?

Phil Penman: About three months ago I was approached by Leica in the UK saying that they would like to do a show in Harrods with my work. Leica has a store inside so it made perfect sense.

When anyone asks you to do a show at Harrods, you just say yes! Then worry about everything else later. These opportunities come along once in a lifetime.

The best part was the great people at Leica UK who took care of everything. Tony from Metro labs did all the printing and I just watched and sat back as they did an amazing job of working with Harrods to put it all together.

The space is huge. When I saw the layout, I was thinking, how on earth are we going to fill it? The answer was 60-inch prints! ( again thank you Leica )

Phoblographer: You’re opening up in the middle of a pandemic – what impact has that had on the launch date?

Phil Penman: It’s tough as I’m unable to get over to the UK for the show due to the two-week quarantine rules, and I’m just not able to take three weeks off right now. COVID-19 has definitely had a huge effect on the way we live our lives, however, I know it’s all temporary and I’m just thankful to be given opportunities to show my work even in these difficult times.

The response to the show has been fantastic, I’m getting to see the show from what people are posting on their Instagram stories, It shows me that people are getting to see the work and also that it’s being well received.

Phoblographer: It’s been open since September 29th. Tell us more about the feedback you’ve had so far.

Phil Penman: Better than expected. I’ve had members of the press reach out to me, as well as being able to see all the comments from people that have been able to view the show. When someone says they feel inspired by seeing your work, well, you cannot really ask for much more than that!

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the curation. What was your main goal with the images selected?

Phil Penman: This is the hard part! What do you show? I figured showing my homeless project “Sheltering in Place” or my work from the pandemic is not really something everyone wants to see on the walls right now. We are surrounded by bad news on the TV so I went for more uplifting and work that gives me joy to shoot.

Some images are from my book “STREET,” and others I’ve taken more recently. I even put some color shots in there! Normally the only time I shoot color is when the camera malfunctions. Normally my day to day is black and white.

I sent over around 32 images for review, with the help of curator Lou Proud it was whittled down to 16 images. Varying sizes and a nice mix.

Phoblographer: How long did it take you to reach your final selection?

Phil Penman: I would say 2 months from submitting the initial set for review. When having a show in Harrods, it has to go through a lot of different stages and signed off by many different people.

Next, was to put together a proposal deck with the gallery layout, sizes, and copy to be put together for review. This was taken care of by Lou and Leica. You then wait for Harrods to review and give approval.

Phoblographer: People may be hesitant to go to an exhibition right now. Is there an online alternative?

Phil Penman: One thing that has come out of the pandemic are different ways in which galleries now do business. Online viewing rooms have become a big thing and allow your work to get out to a much wider audience.

For those that are unable to attend the show, I created a viewing room on my website. Link here.

On the first day I put it up I saw that over 500 people had gone to check the page. That’s more people that would view my work if I were to have just had an opening night.

Phoblographer: What was it like thinking about it from an online perspective?

Phil Penman: You want to be able to give the viewer the same experience, although nothing really beats seeing work in print!

I kept the images to the scale that they are in the actual show, for example, all the 60-inch prints are reflected as larger in the viewing room. For upcoming shows I would like to offer a more interactive experience, showing videos on the page as well. The online platform definitely allows you to reach a much wider audience from all over the world.

I’ll be doing an Instagram live chat with Leica soon, we’ll be discussing the work and allowing people to take a tour around the show at the same time.

Phil Penman’s exhibition runs at Harrods, London until November 24th 2020.

Dan Ginn

Dan Ginn is a content writer and journalist. He brings with him five years' experience writing in the photographic niche. During that time he has worked with a range of leading brands, as well as a host professional photographers within the industry.