Rena Pearl - Reflecting on real life. Professional photographer Rena Pearl discusses her extensive career and portfolio.
Posted on February 16 2020
For more than 35 years, Rena Pearl has been capturing people, whether in street photography studies, documentary projects, formal portraits or at live events. Now based in Liverpool for five years, she has won many accolades, including a Long Service Award from the BIPP. Her work can be found in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, the Jewish Museum, the British Library in London and in several private collections. In this interview, Rena chats to us about her impressive body of work and what has inspired her during her photographic journey, as well as her extensive Billingham bag collection.
Rena Pearl at the National Portrait Gallery with her Hadley Small Camera Bag
Can you tell us about yourself, your background, and what inspired you to become a photographer?
I was born in Liverpool, and now I’ll age myself; I used to skive school, barely a teenager, to go to the Cavern Club. At 17, I left Liverpool and went to live in Israel for a few years. On returning to the UK, I went to live in London. For many years, I was a ‘frustrated artist’ going to various art classes at night, until I decided to give up my career in property management, get this ‘art thing’ out of my system and go and do a full time art foundation course at Barnet College. It was on the course that I was told to do a photographic project of my choice. Not having an SLR camera, I borrowed my brother’s Olympus OM1 (on very long term loan - until I had it stolen) and decided to go up to Liverpool and photograph the aftermath of the Toxteth riots. This was 1981. When I came back, processed the work, and showed the contact sheets to my tutors, I was encouraged to pursue a degree in photography, which I thought wasn’t for me.
Did you study photography or have formal training?
After completing my art foundation, I did go on to study a BA (hons) degree at West Surrey College of Art & Design in Farnham. It’s changed its name since my day. We had tutors such as Martin Parr (before his Magnum days) and Charlie Waite. Then, some years later, I did a post grad in photojournalism at LCP (London College of Printing). This was while I was still doing freelance work for commercial and bodybuilding magazines. The bodybuilding work came as a result of my BA degree show. When I think of it now, I’m not too sure how I did it! I think it is a case of ‘the more you have to do, the more you are able to do’. If you want something done, you ask a busy person.
Do you have an ‘idol’ or role model in the world of photography? Please tell us who and why.
I wouldn’t say I have an idol or a role model as such, but I do admire and have been influenced by many. Henri Cartier-Bresson comes to mind first, the champion of the ‘decisive moment', and an amazing observational photographer. He was known for using a Leica rangefinder camera and a 50mm lens for almost all of his work. So of course I wanted one.
The doyen of photojournalism to my mind is Grace Robertson - a very tall and elegant woman. I do admire her. I had the pleasure of interviewing her, and taking her portrait for The Photographer magazine. She worked for Picture Post magazine, and conducted major photo stories. A pioneering photographer, I think she was the first photographer to complete a series of photos of a woman in labour and giving birth. She is very much a humanistic photographer.
Grace Robertson OBE - In the permanent collection of NPG © Rena Pearl
At one time I was photographing lots of groups of people, and often beforehand I would look through Annie Leibovitz’s work. She is a master of putting together a group of people. If you look at her group shots, each is made up of a number of triangles or inverted triangles. Much like the old masters of photography.
You have covered a wide variety of photographic genres during your career, including photojournalism, editorial, street photography, portraiture and corporate work. Which field do you prefer and why?
That’s a hard question. But, I think photojournalism. I love doing the research for a project, getting excited by it, telling a story and hopefully coming up with a strong set of images, where each image will stand up on its own and convey a message.
Another area that’s becoming a favourite is interiors and exteriors. This was my main area when I started out, and over recent years I have gone back to it. I find it relaxing, and at the same time, you have to think about it. I like to get my shots right in the camera, so that means knowing what happens with different light sources or in mixed lighting, and how to adjust it.
Interior shoots kit: Profoto A1 flash, with Air remote and stand. Leica M10, Elmarit 28mm f2 lens, Summicron ASPH 35mm f2 lens, Sekonic light meter, ColorChecker Passport, Lee filter adapter, ND filer, spirit level cube, spare battery and SD cards - Bag used Hadley Pro 2020 with AVEA 7 side pockets
Can you tell us more about your legal and personal injury photography?
This started by chance nearly 20 years ago. I was approached by a solicitor asking if I would go over to East London and photograph a female client of his who was very distressed, and wouldn’t leave her house. One of the silicone breast implants that she’d had implanted had leaked, causing lesions over her body and head. Not a pretty sight. I was shocked, but spent time with her, and eventually she felt OK with letting me photograph her body. And that’s how it started. After that, this same solicitor (who I still work for) asked me to photograph a Jewish Orthodox woman and Muslim women (because of their modesty and religious laws) who had been involved in accidents or had surgery. Over the years I have photographed a melting pot of people of different genders and backgrounds, with varying degrees of scarring or injury.
Personal Injury kit: Nikon 810 camera with Nikon 50mm f1.4 lens, ring flash, Sekonic light meter, Color checker passport and medical ruler. This kit goes in the Billingham 225 with space for accessories. (Also fits the Hadley Pro with lens taken off camera). Photo by Rena Pearl.
These days, other legal work tends to be buildings/property related, cracks in walls, damaged foundations or roofs, and the like – areas that would come under disputes.
Exterior buildings kit: Leica M10, Elmarit 28mm f2 lens Summicron ASPH 35mm f2 lens, light meter, ColourChecker Passport, Lee filter adapter, ND filer, spirit level cube, spare battery and SD cards - Bag used Hadley Pro
We believe you also teach photography and run many workshops. How did you start teaching? Where can people find out more about your workshops and talks?
When I finished my degree at Farnham, I was asked to teach photography on their art foundation course as they wanted to encourage students to go onto degree level photography. Whilst teaching on the Farnham foundation, after a term, I also did portfolio reviews with final year degree students. This led me to teach part-time at other colleges and also to create my own workshops. Anything from ‘back to basics’ to a ‘masterclass in street photography’ to ‘flash workshops’ and even ‘mobile photography.’ Up in Liverpool, I’ve mainly been doing one-to-one work, or sessions where a group of friends would come along together.
If people are interested in a workshop or talk, they can email me directly. I always put a notice on the blog section of my website and tweet about it. Sorry, but I don’t do Facebook!
What has been your most challenging or memorable project to date?
I’m going to give you both, although some would ask how come my most memorable isn’t the most challenging!
Most challenging: I went out to Los Angeles and photographed Rachel McLish, the first Miss Olympia, on Santa Monica beach. One challenge was me being relaxed, and not ‘star-struck’. I was very much into the female bodybuilding scene in the UK, and was carrying out freelance work for a few bodybuilding magazines, writing articles, and suppling images. Other challenges were that I had less than ten minutes to do the shoot including setting up, Rachel was cold and coming out in goose-pimples because it was late afternoon in December. The sun sets very quickly in LA and I could only shoot off one roll of film. I used my Pentax 6x7, which gave me just 10 shots on the roll. But it turned out to be a very successful shoot. I won a BIPP press award for one of the images and also had a number of front covers with a few others. Out of ten shots, eight were used in one way or another.
Rachel McLish - First Miss Olympia © Rena Pearl
I’ve had many memorable projects but I think the most notable is spending six weeks with the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department), accompanying different squads from vice, to street gangs, air support, traffic and others. It took a while to arrange and obtain accreditation (having a letter of recommendation from the BBC helped), but was well worth it in terms of excitement and exposure, and the good reviews the work received. Rex Features syndicated the work. They have other work of mine, too. I used my trusted Nikon FM2 and F3 with Fuji Velvia film (my favourite colour film) along with my Metz 45 flash when required. All carried, with much more, in my Billingham 550. This also led me to work on a story with the London Metropolitan police.
Most photographers have a personal favourite photograph. What would you consider to be the most notable or outstanding picture you’ve ever taken and why?
My most notable (not my favourite) is a black and white portrait that I shot of a friend of mine who is HIV positive. It’s a Marmite picture. You either love it or hate it. I love it, because it addresses the issue of people being labelled. It was part of a series I created on people living with HIV/AIDS. I shot this with a Pentax 6X7 using Kodax Tri X film. Interestingly, some years later, I shot a similar photo of Marcel in colour for the Jewish Museum on a Leica, which was used 4 sheet size on a billboard to promote their Identities exhibition.
Marcel Weil from the series Living with HIV © Rena Pearl
We understand that you mainly use Leica equipment for your work. Can you tell us more about the cameras, lenses and accessories you prefer to use and why?
All my self-initiated projects are shot with a Leica, these days an M10. Occasionally, I use an M7 when I shoot black and white film Kodak Tmax, and depending on the commission, it will be a Leica or a Nikon. Portraits or headshots tend to be with a Leica. And much of my street photography is captured with a Leica M Monochrom and 50mm lens, or a Leica M10 with a 35mm lens. The Summicron 35mm F2 lens acts as my prime standard lens.
Top Left - Leica M10 with Summicron 35mm lens, 50mm lens, SanDisk SD Card holder, Sekonic light meter, Bottom Right: ND filter, ColorChecker Passport & Leica M7 - Fits well in the Billingham Leica Combination Bag or Hadley Pro.
The quality of Leica cameras and lenses are the best, and they are very compact and last a lifetime. I’ve recently downsized my equipment, including selling two Leica M6s, and I had a change over from Nikon Speedlights and Bowens studio lights. My lighting now is all Profoto, A1 flash heads, and B2 portable location studio lights. They are so easy to use, excellent build quality with a good range of lighting accessories, and the main thing is they are a really nice light source. I have the Nikon hotshoe version of the A1 and air remote, but use them also with my Leica cameras in manual mode. I just wanted to make my kit lighter and easier to carry.
For personal injury I always use a Nikon camera and 50mm or 60mm macro lens with a ring flash, but will often take a Profoto A1 for backup.
Commercial kit: Nikon D810 with 24-70 mm F2.8 lens, 2 x Profoto A1 flashes, Air Remote, Light meter, Leica M10 with Summicron 35mm and 50mm lens, ColorChecker Passport, Leatherman Micro penknife. Kit goes in Billingham Hadley One
If I’m shooting commercial/company headshots, I tend to take my Profoto B2 location kit with light modifiers and stands. This I feel looks more professional and value for my fee than if I use my Profoto A1s on stands. I would aim to shoot with a Leica and Summicron 75mm lens. If not, it would be with a Nikon and 85mm lens, which these days is much easier for me to focus.
Do you also shoot video?
No, but I have shot footage of the odd event on my iPhone and included it in with a video I have made for clients out of stills. I keep telling myself that I must go and do a workshop, but I guess I’m too much a lover of still images.
Rena carrying a Hadley One camera bag while capturing a quick shot on her iPhone.
What’s in your kitbag currently?
For my Nikon kit including accessories, such as a light meter and ColorChecker Passport, I’m using the Hadley One these days. This is great with the luggage strap - if I am taking the Profoto B2 kit, I will put this with stands, cables and modifiers in a Peli 1510 roller case with the Hadley One bag on top.
With my Leica kit, it depends on what I’m shooting, so the bag will be determined by how many lenses I take. I’ll often use the Hadley Pro 2020. But if it’s just my Leica M10 or Monochrom with a Summicron ASPA 35mm F/2 lens for street photography, I’ll use the Hadley Small if I want to take a bottle of water with me. Or just the Hadley Digital, which I love, as it is so compact and has a side pocket for a spare battery and SD cards. No matter what kit or bag I’m using, I will always take my micro Leatherman penknife - just in case. Not sure what ‘the just in case’ is, but…
Billingham Hadley Digital with Leica M10 with 35mm lens
You’re a fan of film photography. We are, too! Please explain more…
Very much so, and I didn’t realise just how much until digital started to take over. I love the entire process of shooting with film, just 36 shots on a roll or 10 if I was shooting medium format; thinking a bit more about each shot and waiting to process the film, and then seeing the negatives hopefully well exposed and developed (I’m talking black and white film now). And finally in the darkroom, fingers swimming about in chemicals, the smell, the magic of seeing the print come up, and maybe breathing on the highlights for more detail. Wonderful! I was a master black and white printer, and taught Lith and archival printing for a number of years, along with basic printing. Not always practising what I preached - “use tongs, and not your fingers.”
When I relocated to Liverpool five years ago, I sold my enlarger and other darkroom equipment to a student of mine. That I regret, but I still process my own black and white film.
In terms of quality of print, tonal range and paper, for me film wins - in the right hands, that is. I would love to get my hands on the new Leica M10 Monochrom - that I’m sure may well beat film in terms of quality but not feel, again providing the photograph has been correctly exposed.
If you could take just one piece of equipment with you to an important event or trip, what would it be?
That would have to be a Leica M10 with an ASPA 35mm Summicron lens. But if it were to be a personal project (hint, hint Leica UK!) I would love to use the new Leica M10 Monochrom.
We know you are an avid Billingham fan and owner! Can you tell us more about your collection?
It’s an addiction, and I can talk for England about Billingham bags. The quality, the design and the fact they are ‘Made in England’. I always try and buy British when I can. My first I bought more than 32 years ago, a Billingham 550, which is now looking rather tatty, and is used to store old equipment. It’s been to many places around the world and it has had some rough treatment. I would have had 13 bags, but now it’s just nine. One, a Pola Stowaway that I took with me to Uganda (along with the 225) on a shoot I gave away to a villager after being pestered for it for days. She also wanted my 225, but I stood firm and held on to that! Besides, I had all my equipment in it. She didn’t have a camera! And two others I gave away and one got stolen.
Rena Pearl's Collection of Billingham bags - Photo by Rena Pearl.
Left - Billingham 550 (in Nytex fabric - that fabric is now discontinued), Top-left - Hadley One, Top-Centre - Hadley Small, Top - Hadley Digital with AVEA 3 attached, Centre-Middle - AVEA 5, Centre-Middle-Right - Billingham 72, Top-Right - Leica M Combination Bag with AVEA 3 End Pockets, Right - Billingham 225, Bottom Centre - Hadley Pro 2020 with AVEA 7 End Pockets, Centre-Left - Hadley Pro.
What are your favourite Billingham bags and why?
I have a few. A long-time favourite, which I still use on occasions, is my Leica M Combination Bag, with side pockets (AVEA 3). This was my go-to ‘street photography bag’. I bought this bag when I purchased my first Leica M6. It is very comfortable to use, is roomy and has a large pocket along the front of it. I used to walk about with two Leica M cameras and two lenses.
The 225 is also a favourite. This is a well-balanced shoulder or ‘across the body’ bag. It is very easy to get equipment out of it with the sides tucked in. It holds a lot, and what I really like is that it has leather corners and brass studs on the base of the bag. These do protect the bottom of the bag, and I’d like to see them on the Hadley One.
The Hadley Digital is perfect for a Leica with one or two lenses (or a similar sized camera) for street photography. This is well-padded and compact to carry. I’ll always have this in the car if I’m not working and going somewhere.
I could go on, but let me end with the Hadley Pro 2020. I also have the Hadley Pro and Hadley One in Sage green, which is my favourite colour at the moment. The main differences between the Hadley Pro and Hadley Pro 2020 for me are the luggage strap on the back (on the 2020), which is very handy, and the leather on the underside of the handle, making it that little bit stronger and comfier to hold.
But it doesn’t matter which Billingham bag is my ‘favourite’, really! I know each of them are superbly made, the best quality, and the fabric is fully waterproof. And Made in England.
How do you use your Billingham bags day to day?
Not always as camera bags. I often use the Hadley Small as a casual bag by removing the centre insert. It’s also perfect to wear across the body for when I go hiking, just the right size for a water bottle, snack and bits. The Hadley Pro and Hadley One I’ve used for overnight/weekend bags, again by removing the dividers. My father taught me the art of packing light!
The Billingham 72 with a Leica and lens I tend to use when I’m cycling, as it’s small and can be worn across the body.
What exciting developments do you believe we will see in the world of photography in the future?
I don’t know, as photography has advanced so much in the last decade… 360 panorama, drones… but whatever it is, it will be further away from one person using a camera and lens to draw with light. I’m not too sure if we will even be using the term ‘photography’ in the traditional sense.
Abayudaya children in Uganda - Black History Month - Jewish Museum Exhibition, October 2019 - Photo by Rena Pearl
What advice would you give to young people embarking upon a career in photography today?
Now I’m going to get on my hobby horse. My advice is to know your craft. To do this, you need to start with a manual film camera. Know what the aperture of a lens governs, and likewise what the shutter governs. Learn how to process your own black and white film and spend time in the darkroom printing. Frame in the camera and don’t depend on cropping in the darkroom. This way you will gain a good understanding of the workings of a camera, exposure and how to create a good negative.
Adding to this, I’d suggest shooting with transparency film such as Fuji Velvia, which gives amazing colour. When using transparency film, as it is a positive image, you really do have to get the exposure spot on, as there is not much leeway. Now, when transferring to shooting digital, you’re on your way to creating good image files, and won’t have to spend hours in Lightroom or Photoshop correcting errors. Most importantly, find a project that you are passionate about.
Which of your projects have you been most passionate about yourself?
I’ve returned a few times to my project on Holocaust survivors. The last big one was for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps (this year is the 75th). The survivors are such life-affirming people. It was very humbling to photograph them. Leica UK supported the project. For most of the project, I used a Leica M9 with a Summicron 75mm F/2. When I finally got delivery of my Leica Monochrom, I used that. They have been exhibited twice in the UK, and I’m often asked to give a usage license for some of the work.
Sir Ben Helfgott - Holocaust Survivor, Captain of the British Olympic Weightlifting team 1956-1960 - Photo by Rena Pearl
To view the images and know more about the project:
What’s next for Rena Pearl? Can you give us details on any forthcoming projects?
I hope to be relocating back to the London area shortly, and I want to - and need to - get more paid photographic work. I will start holding more workshops. I have openings I’d like to take up. Project-wise, I have a few ideas that I want to work on. One working title is ‘The Collectors’ - portraits of people with their collections. Another is environmental, which is very important to me, and something I’ve wanted to do for a while.
Where can readers find you on social media?
Do you find social media helpful in your work?
I guess I would if I used it better for that purpose. Nonetheless, I have had the odd person come to a workshop or ask for a one-to-one via LinkedIn. And people have visited recent exhibitions I’ve held as a result of seeing them mentioned on Twitter - and not even by me. But I have met a number of nice people on Twitter!
Where can people come and see your photography / meet you? Do you have any forthcoming exhibitions, talks or workshops?
I held two exhibitions at the end of last year. One was during Black History Month in October at the Jewish Museum in London, and the other was at the ‘Readers Gallery’ in Liverpool, where I exhibited street photography, which went well. I will be giving workshops when I return to London. Details will be on my website and I’ll tweet and promote them on LinkedIn. But if anyone would like to contact me, they can do so via email or Twitter.
Southbank Children playing - Leica Monochrom with Summicron 50mm lens. Limited edition print - Reader Gallery - Liverpool. Photo by Rena Pearl
Aside from photography, what’s your biggest passion or hobby?
My biggest passion is my dog, Sunny, who’s 15 and thinks he’s human. He takes me on long walks, tells me to go to the gym and makes sure I wear a helmet when I’m cycling. I kid you not!
Anything else you’d like to share?
I’m a lover of inspirational quotes. Here’s one from Anne Frank:
“Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”
And from a personal perspective, Billingham bags aren’t the only things that I seem to like collecting. Or that’s the impression you might get if you looked in my wardrobe! I have five Barbour jackets, which to me are the Billinghams of the jacket world. Also Made in England…
Rena with her Billingham bag collection
Rena Pearl can be found at:
Web site: https://www.renapearl.com/