It all began innocently enough. On January 1, 2016, Yorkshire Post photographer Tony Johnson was experimenting with a new camera. The result was a black and white portrait of his son, carrying the skateboard he had got for Christmas. Another time, it might have become just another family photograph to go with the hundreds of others Tony had taken. Instead, it was the start of a year-long project which is about to be published in a coffee table photographic book called 366 (2016 being a leap year).
“At the time Mike Tipping, an old photographer friend, was about halfway through his own 365 project, where he had been taking one image for every day of the year. I looked at the portrait of my lad and I started thinking that I would quite like to do a project of my own. I knew if I didn’t do something the camera I’d bought would end up in the back of a drawer and besides I thought it would be a bit of a doddle.”
It turned out to be anything but. While Tony, who has worked at Yorkshire Post Newspapers since 2001, was sent out on dozen of assignments each week, he was determined that all the pictures for his new project should be standalone images.
“There were some days when I would go into say Bradford and within half an hour I had taken half a dozen images, any of which would have been good enough to have been included in the final selection, but there were plenty of other days when it didn’t come so easy.
“There were a few times when I would wake up at 4am wondering what on earth I was going to take a picture of that day. I might well have given up had I not had the support of friends and family. When we were on holiday on the Isle of Man my wife and kids ended up sitting in the car for 50 minutes while I waited for someone to come along so I could get a particular shot of the beach.”
As the hours ticked by, there were some days when Tony admits that he was running short of ideas, but inspiration would always strike and often from the most unlikeliest of places. “One day it was getting to late afternoon and I hadn’t taken anything,” he says. “I had to drop my wife in Leeds and on the way there I noticed a tattoo parlour. On the way back I stopped and asked the woman in the shop whether she would mind posing for a picture.
“A lot of people are camera shy, but when you explain what you are doing more often than not they are happy to help.”
The collection is predominantly, if not exclusively, shot in Yorkshire and as well as Leeds and Bradford it features images from York, Sheffield, Rotherham, Harrogate, Knaresborough and Thirsk. “I didn’t want to produce a collection of pretty landscapes. I wanted it to be street photography and I wanted to show the harsh realities of life. That’s why many of the final images are in black and white, because it often makes for a much more striking statement.
“It was about a week after launching into the project that I really began to realise just what hard work it was going to be. I’d decided that I would post each day’s image on Facebook, but that means they were all open to scrutiny. I’ve got a lot of friends on there who are professional photographers so I knew I couldn’t let the quality slip.”
While some of the images in the collection were the result of careful preparation, others Tony admits were down to serendipity. “I remember the day I was sat at home wondering where I could go and decided to take a drive up to Otley Chevin to take a picture of the cross which is erected every Easter. When I got there a rainbow had appeared, perfectly framing the brow of the hill. A couple of seconds after I had taken the picture it had disappeared.”
Tony says that over the course of the year he often went online for inspiration, but if he found a particular image on Google Images or on Twitter he didn’t want to copy it, he wanted to better it. “That was how I came to see the Specsavers advert which had been daubed with graffiti about the EU referendum, but there would have been no point me just driving out to Otley Road to take the exact same picture. It’s all in the composition.”
Another of Tony’s images captures what looks like a group of art students walking a mannequin across a pedestrian crossing while an elderly woman looks on slightly bemused. “I was actually taking a different picture and then I looked round and did a double take. It’s those kind of moments that really make a collection like this. It also shows that if you look hard enough there are odd, quirky and sometimes beautiful moments on even the most apparently ordinary street.”
While Tony has been working as a photographer for more than two decades, he says he has learnt a lot from the last 12 months. “It definitely does make you look at the world differently. Even as a photographer you often find that you don’t stop and pause and look around enough.”
All 366 of Tony’s photographs are being compiled into a book by Great Northern which is available for pre-order before it hits the shelves this spring.
“I would recommend everyone picks up their camera and does a project like this. It is not only a great way to hone your skills, but it also really makes you think about the images that you are taking.”
It’s now been two weeks since he took his final image for the 366 project and he admits that he feels slightly bereft. “Mike Tipping said I would get withdrawal symptoms and he’s right. Normally on a day off I would spend three or four hours working on a shot and now I’m at a loose end.”
He does, however, have a new project in mind. It’s one that involves a punctured football and makeshift goalposts and he is sure about one thing. “It would be good to get another project on the go, but safe to say it won’t involve taking a picture every day.”
• 366 by Tony Johnson will be published in the spring. Order before February 20 and receive your copy with the name of your choice printed in the book and signed by Tony for £40 or buy two copies for £60 including delivery. For orders call 01274 735056 or online at ypbookoffer.co.uk.