Words: Mark Edward Harris

British-born, New York-based photographer Phil Penman has documented his adopted home for more than 25 years, finding it an endless source of visual inspiration. While his personal work documents daily life he has photographed major public figures and historical events, including the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center as a news and magazine photographer.

Phil Penman, self-portrait
His latest book, New York Street Diaries, published by teNeues (2023), presents 195 black-and-white photographs focusing on the city during the pandemic lockdown. Its historical importance was recognized by the U.S. Library of Congress, which acquired a number of images from his series. He joins a prestigious collection that includes work by the Depression-era documentarians Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Penman’s signature street photography has graced countless gallery walls around the globe. As a Leica Ambassador, he also tours the world teaching workshops on photography for Leica Akademie. Born in 1977 in Briantspuddle, Dorset, England, Penman received his formal training in photography from the Berkshire College of Art and Design before working for a local newspaper.

Black & White: How did you make your way from an English village with a population of less than 500 to being a photographer most known for documenting daily life on the streets of megalopolises?

Phil Penman: I went to New York in 1994 as a 16-year-old and fell in love with it, and then spent the next six years of my life trying to get back there. I was a hip-hop junkie back in the day. Briantspuddle wasn’t really a hip-hop town. I started photographing at 15. My dad is a photographer as well. I was spoiled; I had a darkroom in the house because he was a news photographer. I was a terrible academic, but I was good at photography, so I plowed ahead with that and studied at a college in Redding outside of London.
New Yorker, 2022
BW: Where did you begin as a professional photographer?

PP: First off, I tried to go to New York under a journalism visa for one year, but didn’t get it, receiving the horrifying information that I couldn’t come to the country again until I got that visa. I was in a real shit state. On the third attempt I got it, moved over [to the U.S.], and worked for my aunt in a real estate office in the Bronx because I couldn’t get any photo work. When that didn’t work out, I went back to England with my head in my hands, and lived with my parents working as a waiter in a local pub in the countryside.

BW: That must have been a difficult time. It’s only in hindsight where we can see how all the pieces would eventually fit together. What happened that got you back on the photographic track?
59th Street Snowstorm, New York, 2018
PP: I got a job offer from the Wokingham Times, a newspaper in Redding where I had studied. I did about a year there doing all kinds of local-type stuff, then got a job for INS, an international news agency. While I was on a job for one of the national newspapers, I just happened to be sitting next to a guy, bullshitting about where we wanted to be and what we wanted to do, and I told him that I really wanted to work in New York. He said, “You should call Gary and Kevin at Splash News in LA.” Two weeks later, I was moving to Los Angeles.

BW: Even small-town newspaper assignments are great building blocks that lead to larger assignments for bigger papers and agencies, as your career progression clearly demonstrates.

PP: It’s the best education you can get, but I found LA a tough city. It’s so spread out. I didn’t really fit in there. I just took the job because it would get me into America. I got off the plane and was told, “You’re shooting Pete Sampras’ wedding this weekend.” It was paparazzi style—that’s what Splash specialized in. They were the go-to agency for the British papers. We traveled all over the country, as well as to Canada and Latin America…breaking news like Prince Harry in Argentina. Celebrity stuff. Pedophile priests. You name it, we covered it. We were given a car and 25 percent commission. We could make $500 date rates from newspapers back then, but could make half a million doing Tiger Woods’ wedding. The emphasis was on celebrity. One minute you’re doing paparazzi, the next minute a portrait shoot with someone really famous for the Daily Telegraph. It was mostly assignment work.
Black Hole on 6th Avenue, New York, 2021
Back in those days, the papers would fund the gig and get the first rights on the pictures. Afterwards, the agency had the right to sell them worldwide. Although I was not a fan of LA, it was a good education.

BW: How did the move to New York come about?

PP: After six months, Splash decided they wanted to open up an office in New York City. There were three of us covering the whole of the United States, so they sent me and another guy over to New York to set up the agency and paid for our first year of rent and six months of our utility bills. We never got to see our apartments because we were working all the time, but it was a golden opportunity. I had moved to LA in August of 2000 and New York in January 2001, nine months before 9/11.
Frank Gehry Building, New York, 2019
BW: What was it like covering that day of infamy?

PP: Believe it or not, it was my first day off since I got there. I often worked until 3 am. I got a call from a fellow journalist saying a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Towers. I turned the television on, saw what was happening, got on my bicycle, and rode like a lunatic to get down there. I was living in Murray Hill, 35th and Third on the Eastside. I parked the bike too close and never saw it again. I’ve become friends with a number of the people in my photographs. The photo of Joanne Capestro is probably the image that has gotten the most attention from that day. It’s been seen by hundreds of millions of people. I’m still friends with JoJo. I photographed her wedding 18 years later.

BW: The photo with Capestro as well as your other powerful images from 9/11 are in black and white. Were you shooting on film?
Midtown, New York, 2020
PP: The black-and-white images from 9/11 were shot in color digital and converted to black and white. I’ve gone back and reprocessed some in Capture One to bring out more details and add grain to give them a film look. I had started shooting in digital back in England with the Nikon D1.

BW: What are you shooting with now for your street photography?

PP: It depends on the weather. My go-to camera is the Leica M11 Monochrom. But if it’s bad weather, I use the Leica SL2 because of its weather sealing. I got my first Leica in 2004. I got a Leica M9 Monochrom upon release, and that’s when I went all in shooting black and white. It was largely just to get me away from the work stuff and to shoot for myself out on the street. I quit Splash and went freelance in 2005. There was a lot of money to be made back then. The biggest cut I ever got was $300,000 for a shot of Britney Spears’ first baby. And it was an image that never saw the light of day because People magazine had paid her 4.5 million for an official shoot and my picture would have blown up their exclusive. They had to cough up money not to lose the 4.5 million. It was basically a kill fee, but the picture was terrible. It was like a night vision shot. The agency took a percentage, as did the other guy I was working with. Still, that is a lot of money. But those days are long gone.
Harlem Criterium Bike Race, New York, 2019
The craziest thing we ever did was a two-second video clip of Michael Jackson in Aspen when he was there for the second court case. That sold to NBC for $45,000. The most I ever heard for one picture was $12 million. Allegedly it was the Princess Diana-Dodi Fayed kiss by Jason Fraser, the kingpin of the celebrity world. He had the in with all the celebrities.

BW: Your new teNeues book is a long way from the world of celebrity

PP: The 5,000 first print run sold out in the first three months. It’s about being in New York during Covid. When Covid hit, I knew from my mistakes not doing follow-up photos in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that you literally have to shoot everything. In the case of the pandemic, that included signs on the floor that said “stand six feet apart.” All that is going to have historical meaning.
Steam Pipes, Madison Avenue, New York, 2022
So I had about 20,000 images edited down from the three-year period. I did several series, such as how Covid affected the lives of 20 different New Yorkers from 20 different backgrounds. Some had made money, some had lost everything. I did portraits of the homeless, telling their story. A did a lot of assignments for the New York Review of Books, then I did the day-to-day. I think it’s a fairly accurate depiction of life in New York during Covid rather than the spun narrative that the streets were all empty, which they weren’t.

BW: The title, Street Diaries, doesn’t give that away.

PP: You set these goals for yourself. When I was young, I said I wanted to work for The Independent shooting features. Back in the day, all of the best photographers wanted to be in the Indie. It was the paper for photographers. At 22 years old, I had accomplished it. Then I thought, “Okay, what’s the next goal?” Every year in the back of my diary I would write the goals I wanted to achieve. I might tick off six out of 10. I said to a friend who is a professor at CUNY, “Within the next 10 years I want to have something in MOMA or the Met.” Within two years, my book was in MOMA. Or, “Shit, the sky’s the limit now.” That’s the problem. Then I got in the US Library of Congress. You’re in the history books then. I sent them a PDF of all the Covid stuff and just expected crickets, but got a message: “Send us 100 images that we can pick from for our permanent collection.” They picked seven images, a mixture of Covid and some street stuff.
West Side Highway, New York, 2012
BW: In terms of lenses, what do you walk around with?

PP: I still have a press mentality, so I don’t have one lens like some of the street photographers. When I started out, it was with the 24mm and the 50mm and a telephoto of some kind. I didn’t know any other way. When I was doing press, I would have a 16-35mm, 24-70mm, a 70-200mm and maybe a long piece of glass. I use this same mentality with my street stuff. I also have a 105-280mm and a number of fixed lenses, including a 21mm, 28mm, 135mm, 180mm. I don’t think it should be one lens. If you do that, then you’re another one and everyone’s street images looks the same. I need my work to stand out.

When I first got into Leica, I made a massive investment. I must have dropped 75 grand. You want your work to get recognized by Leica. There’s a publication called LFI in Germany and I started winning “Picture of the Week” all the time. In 2015, Leica New York asked me to do a show which got worldwide recognition. Publications all over the world covered that. Then you’re on the map. I’ve been teaching for them as well since 2015. I really enjoy teaching.
Halloween, New York, 2019
BW: What is it about sharing your knowledge of our shared medium that you find rewarding?

PP: When I was a young and upcoming photographer, whenever I reached out to people I was always ignored or ghosted. I said to myself that I never wanted to be that guy. To this date, I have done about 100 essays for students doing their final-year projects on me. A highlight was doing a podcast for three 13-year-olds who did a class assignment on 9/11. It’s our duty to help educate those coming up. As a Leica ambassador and a Leica Akademie instructor, it’s especially rewarding to see people I have mentored coming up to be Leica instructors or brand ambassadors. It’s so rewarding to teach workshops around the world to people who just love photography. If I can help them achieve their goals or help them progress, I’m happy.

Thanks to Phil Penman for his cooperation in producing this feature. You can see more of his award-winning work at, and at In addition to New York Street Diaries, he produced the book Street: Photographs (G Editions LLC, 2019). His work has been published by The Guardian, The Independent, the Daily Mirror, The Sun, USA Today and the New York Post. All images courtesy the photographer.