Photographer Mark Lewis has an eye that is unbeatably intense. At the same time he can also be light and ironic, sketching out a grudging half-smile.

As a photographer he is aesthetically agile and acute, but it is the years of uncompromising work, doing his time, that give his work depth. Seldom seeking the limelight, he has covered ground from high-tone fashion in Vogue to inner-city brutalism.

But it is his considered and easy acceptance of any world he finds himself in that makes people open to him.

"The series Wake Up, This Is Joburg was inspired by William Dalrymple’s, book Nine Lives," he says.

As with Dalrymple, travel often plants the seed for Lewis.

"Travel has absolutely played a big part, but due to circumstances over the past six years I have had to cut back and this has forced me to look at my own environment with a fresh eye. Tanya Zack reintroduced me to Joburg, where she has walked the streets as an urban planner. She has shown me how the city works and flows."

It is easy to think of a photograph as one truth. I think there are many truths in life and we choose which ones to highlight
Mark Lewis

Lewis could turn up anywhere, always fitting in like a local. Here he is riding a bike between Charlotte and Berwick streets in Soho, London. In his beanie, carrying an old leather bag; his face as concentrated as a monk’s. Here he is standing on a bleak hillside in Welkom, beside the graveside of a boy killed on the border. Here he is in Paris, cycling through an underpass, eating garlic sausage, his eye triggered by fissures in a building, quirky textures — always alert to offbeat sublimits.

He is immediately a part of his surroundings, and though he relishes the country — his pictures of hunting dogs in Swaziland are among his best — he is essentially a city guy, scraping through the layers of life, an urban sleuth.

"My focus now is around urbanisation and suburbanisation," he says. He is a home boy, rediscovering the beautiful neglect that is Joburg and photographing it in a way that avoids hysterical realism.

As a photographer Lewis details much, but leaves much to the imagination, rather like a good novelist. "It is easy to think of a photograph as one truth," he says.

"I think there are many truths in life and we choose which ones to highlight.

"When I walk into the discarded space that the informal butchers occupy, the first reaction is one of horror: the smell, the rats — that is the truth of the place. But the longer one engages, other truths become clear: how hard the work is, how everyday the situation is, the social engagements that take place."

Lewis comes from a background of fashion photography, featuring in highly lit magazines such as Face, Blitz and Vogue, and he is represented in Aperture’s prestigious new book, Fashion Photography: The Story in 180 Pictures. The book is compiled from the past eight decades of fashion photography.

"I have two images out of the 180, which is a pretty good way of ending that part of my life," he says with characteristic modesty.

The step from fashion to the fringes of other lives has been easier than expected.

"Fashion is more constructed," he says, "but I think of some of my photographs as tableaux with that particular sense of space, rather like a performance. The same applied to photographing fashion.

"I went fully digital in 2008 and have not looked back. I find the immediacy enticing, especially when working out of the country. It’s put an end to all those fights at airports on the continent where they insist the film needs to go through very dodgy X-ray machines.

"On a shoot in Sudan we had to wait for four days to shoot the president, Omar al-Bashir.

"He kept cancelling. When I arrived home and processed the film none of the images of Bashir was exposed — not good for the stress levels.

"I am not very technical and work with a minimum of stuff, one camera and one lens. In the final days of using film I worked with a Rolleiflex [camera]. I enjoy working with very basic equipment and walking as opposed to zooming if I need to be closer."

Have there been influences?

"The world is awash with images and I tend to not look at other work as much as I used to. I find it rather overwhelming, how much there is and so I now tend to be more interested in friends’ work or my own," he says.

However, he admits to being influenced by photographers such as Lewis Baltz, an American who photographed motifs that usually were not thought worth snapping, such as deserted industrial buildings.

The Grande Hotel, Beira
The Grande Hotel, Beira

The new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town features a high percentage of photographs in its collection. Is photography the new art?

"I don’t think of my work as art or not art," says Lewis. "I take the work very seriously and the stories I pursue are very considered, not only for the aesthetic but also for the narrative. I am fascinated by how people live — particularly those who live on the edge — and how they carve out a space for themselves in a harsh urban environment like Joburg."

Slice of life

"[The English writer] Geoff Dyer once said to me: ‘If you ever want to learn about something, write about it,’" says Lewis. "Well the same can be said about photography. My photographs are stories, which can only really happen with the participation of the person. They get to choose which aspects of their lives they wish to share. We never assume to tell their story. They all have much bigger stories than the ones we get to tell.

"I am always amazed at how the one recycler we followed lived under the M1 South. He would climb up and sleep in a metre-deep concrete pit under the road, with the cars and trucks above. He would awake looking into the plushness of Saxonwold without giving it a second thought, without bitterness. He had too much else to think about."

Lewis often works in marginalised spaces and with people from the informal sector, but he says he does not see himself as a photographer of mutilating scenes. "The landscape that holds these people also holds the secret of their fate and I tend to concentrate on how people rise above that," he says.

The extraordinary thing in Africa is that people do manage things — sometimes better than in the First World.

"When I was working in Somalia there had not been a government for 15 years but the country functioned. You could get a landline on the same day that you applied, something that [for me] coming from Joburg was pretty startling."

There are many stories like this, and a favourite photograph shows labyrinthine electrical wiring in Mogadishu.

Lewis is now working on the periphery of the city with all its fortifications, aspirations and determination. "This city has turned into the most extraordinary place I have ever encountered," he says.

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