Jan Chlebik: The stunning Manchester street-photographer just doing his job

Jan Chlebik doesn’t see himself as radical, although maybe he is. He doesn’t see himself as being a photographer, he sees himself as doing a job.

By Manchester's Finest | 22 February 2019

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He can’t bear it when people say that they have a photographic ‘practice.’ “No it’s their job.” Or say that they are ‘investigating’ something. “Those words make me throw a wobbly. They are just words to try and justify what they are doing.

“Things come into my head. Where from? I don’t know. Every experience I’ve ever had. Every emotion I’ve ever felt, sometimes a mix. Things come into my head, which I’m trying to express. Sometimes I’m just fiddling with things and something comes out of that. It’s not magic, but I can’t rationalise it. It’s my job. Just like some people are plumbers, some are electricians, some are doctors.”

Jan has been photographing Manchester (not to mentions cities around the world) for decades, now often revisiting changes in the cityscape. He’s not, he says, against change. It’s just that it should be good change and the right change.

Now I put it to Jan that he has spent his career looking at buildings exhaustively, where we all might just glance. And that after looking through the lens, he then looks exhaustively on his bench and then again when painstakingly creating a print with chemicals, paper and clothes pegs – where prints hang to dry. And then he looks again.

So maybe that’s why he’s critical of many of the new buildings in Manchester. Although he cites St. Peter’s Square as now being magnificent. “The new buildings that have gone up there are of a scale and a stature that works. There’s not been any attempt at mimicking buildings like Central Library or The Midland Hotel. It’s a contrast to those elements, whilst giving a nod to their presence. I can’t wait to see a massive public demo there!” “What,” I ask, “a modern-day Peterloo?” Jan just smiles.

We talk of smartphones and digital photography. “It occurred to me that people coming into photography now, well that’s their baseline. Of course, I’ve never processed my own colour film, I’ve never made my own emulsion or made my own paper and mixed my own chemicals. I buy them from Ilford.

“So a photographer of previous generations might look at me and say…he doesn’t even make his own emulsion. But my baseline was that I didn’t have to. That’s where I came into this. Clothes pegs are not digital. So I don’t want to be dismissive.

“Whatever your baseline the craft element is always the starting point and yes I have skills that a young photographer may not have. But I’m sure they’ll do things in a different way.”

And “Oh,” he adds, “I like Oxford Road too, it fascinates me. I think I’m pushing myself more now by revisiting what I’ve done before and looking again. But in the final analysis, it’s about light. I’ll photograph a bin if the light’s right.”

Jan’s final words (on this occasion) are that his job is, “In the entertainment business. Entertainment’s not just casual and throwaway. Entertainment covers works of literature, films dealing with serious topics.”

An interesting view on how he sees his work. And Jan won’t thank me for writing this, but several years ago Peter Saville said to me that, “In the context of Manchester, Jan’s a photographic genius.” It’s just my job, he’ll say.