How I got the shot: photographer Rob Greig on capturing London’s love affair with pie ’n’ mash shops

Looking back at one of our favourite photo stories of last year, photographer Rob Greig shares behind-the-scenes tips and tricks from his shoot for National Geographic Traveller Food.

Published 20 May 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
M.Manze, on Tower Bridge Road, sports the archetypal Pie ’n’ Mash aesthetic of tiled walls and marble ...

M.Manze, on Tower Bridge Road, sports the archetypal Pie ’n’ Mash aesthetic of tiled walls and marble surfaces. The shop was opened in 1902 by Michele Manze, grandfather of the present owners, and the recipes remain largely unchanged today — although the menu now includes veggie options and gravy is offered as an alternative to liquor. 

Photograph by Rob Greig

What drew you to this story and location?
Through my previous work as a staff photographer at Time Out, I had seen an explosion in the proliferation and variety of new restaurants across the capital, and a distinct change in the eating habits of Londoners. At the risk of sounding nostalgic, I didn’t want to see more traditional forms of cafe disappear — especially ones as unique as the pie ’n’ mash shop. So I was delighted when National Geographic Traveller got in touch with this commission, even before I realised just how precarious the shops’ existence was.

On location, what elements are you seeking out for a successful National Geographic Traveller shoot?
I knew that the decor would provide an interesting backdrop. There are few restaurants or bars that can boast as much crafted wrought iron and marble slabs as some of the traditional pie shops. It was important to me to show that the food isn’t as unphotogenic as people often think. I wanted to concentrate on the simplicity of the dishes and the cutlery, too, as well as the characters working behind the scenes.

What were some of the challenges of capturing this story? 
Organising the shoots was challenging to say the least. Invariably, no one was keen to arrange a time over the phone or email — yet face to face, everyone was very accommodating. My favourite subject was Bob Cooke. He was born above the shop in Broadway Market and had worked there since he was a teenager. Bob, like me, is a big boxing fan, and he told me of his trips to Las Vegas in the 1970s to watch Muhammad Ali and of his friendships with legendary London fighters like John H Stracey. A month after shooting the shop, it closed; Bob had retired to Essex, where he assured me he would still be eating pie and mash on a daily basis.

Jellied eels are a Cockney staple. F. Cooke on Broadway Market was own by the Cooke family for more than a century before its recent closure.

Photograph by Rob Greig

Was this shoot typical of your career as a travel photographer?
I’m often asked to photograph the less-celebrated areas of cities and towns, and I’m lucky enough to have worked on these types of projects before, so it’s usual for me to be asked to shoot a hot cup of tea and a bacon sandwich in the name of art. As a fan of most sports, I’ve been asked to shoot behind the scenes at a variety of clubs and institutions, like Lewisham Bowls Club (good for biscuits) and Dagenham and Redbridge FC (fine bacon sandwiches). Perhaps you can see a common theme in my inspiration... 

What do you take into account when packing a kit?
Can I get it on the tube? I always take a tripod, small light, reflector, camera.

Where are you finding inspiration during lockdown?
I've sorted through my archive and while portraiture has been my focus for 18 years, I’ve rediscovered the still lifes and abstract imagery I was making at college and in the time just afterwards. As I’m currently unable to visit my parents due to their health, I’ve found I’ve become focused on my relationship with them and looking back on the things that pushed me towards this career, like my early exposure to television, film, art and photography. I’ve also seen some amazing new collections of portraiture involving the people still on the front line of the current crisis. 

G. Kelly’s, on Bethnal Green Road, has stuck to the age-old liquor-only rule, refusing to succumb to the modern idea of gravy with pie.

Photograph by Rob Greig

Where’s next on your wishlist when we can travel again?
My wife’s family are Galician, and we all miss going there terribly — it’s an unexplored area of Spain for most Brits, if that’s still possible. The whole world will be hugely different when we start to come out of this; the connection between us all has been exposed as very delicate. I suspect everywhere will be struggling to adapt to a vastly altered lifestyle — and that will be great to document.

Dive into the full photo story on the London tradition of pie and mash shops.

robgreig.com
@robgreigphoto

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