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Discussion: Matt Weber

I first encountered Matt Weber’s street photos of New York City in an issue of Hamburger Eyes. He’s both online and off, with an excellent hardcover called “The Urban Prisoner“. His images are of a grittier, pre-Giuliani New York City, a city of trash strikes, high crime and spraypainted subways. A cabbie with a camera, Matt captured an era of New York that may just be gone for good.

For all of the interviews, click “Discussions” up top. 2point8 in bold.

You carried your camera with you as a taxi driver in New York City. The city was your office, so to speak, and you were able to take pictures on the job. When you began taking pictures, did you know what you were looking for? Had you seen things from the cab and thought, “if I only had my camera…”?

I think that anyone who lived in NYC back in the late ’70s remembers what certain parts of the city were like, particularly at night. The things I saw were brutal and sometimes real funny. “If I only had a camera” was something I started mumbling after each crazy thing I saw; people having sex in broad daylight on the hood of a car, knife fights that seemed like they were a scene from West Side Story, and lots of other violent or unbelievable things. The list could go on and on.

I wanted to include you in these interviews because the majority of your work’s from the pre-digital era. Digital photography fans espouse how digital takes the hurt out of sharing work and creating one’s own visibility. Most folks I know take photos with digital cameras because it’s so easy to share. Without this as an imperative, what kept you reaching for your camera on your way out the door?

I have a mental problem in allowing myself to ponder missed opportunities of any type, whether they be financial or even a great image that I failed to capture. I realize that there’ll always be the next great shot, but the ones that were very special do bother me. I’ve missed great (and I mean great) images walking to my corner for a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. So I make sure I’ve got my camera. Try and have at least one more roll of film than you think you may need on any given day. At least you’ve got a chance to succeed. I feel very fortunate to take more than ONE shot on a roll worth sharing. I think failing over 95% of the time makes it very gratifying when you finally take a photograph that you feel works.

I first saw your work in Hamburger Eyes. Their M.O. is film and film only. I know we’ve talked a bit offline about what’s happening to photography at the moment, but it seems like digital’s going to create (or has already created) an image glut from which good work may or may not rise to the top. I like the crankiness of publishers saying, “film and film only.” Are you cranky, too? Do you think digital will create a thicker soup of not-so-great pictures to wade through, or has there always been a thick soup of bad pictures to wade through?

I think that you’ve been able to find amazing artists like Mark Powell & Chuck Patch. I barely have anytime to look at Flickr because there’s an unbelievable amount of crap to sort through. If you put in a search for Subway over 35,000 images come up. There are a few people like (Grant Lamos & Ed Leveckis) posting great subway stuff, but who has a week to look at 35,000 images to find the few gems? Before the Internet there were tons of bad photos, but the ones that made it into print and galleries had been carefully selected and you never got to see most of the junk. I don’t feel like throwing away over twenty years of darkroom experience and going digital. I actually think that a nicely printed B & W 16×20 is still something to behold, despite the trend for oversized color prints in today’s art world.

I love my rangefinder not because of the quality of the images (I’m still stumbling with doing my own developing) but because it’s perfect for the street; lightweight, innocuous, and it doesn’t make me into some weird peeper the way SLRs do. You feel the same? Are you whetted to your tools or is a knife a fork a spoon?

I agree that some of the people I see on the street have lenses that are gigantic and they are just “normal” lenses. The rangefinders almost seem like toys and that’s OK with me. I only carry one camera and I have always worn it like a tourist. I feel like the minute I put on a photo vest and carry several cameras, people brace themselves upon my arrival, and who wants that?

Yesterday I was at my dentist, and he saw my camera and asked what kinds of things I photographed, and I told him “street things; I like people” and he said he’d seen something on television years ago about a taxi driver in New York City who carried a camera all the time and took pictures and put them together in a book and was “doing well for himself.” Was that you or your doppelganger?

No that was a guy who shot with a point and shoot and just stuck it out the window without even looking trough the viewfinder. I don’t want to use his name because his monograph contained around 500 images of which maybe five or six were images I’d be proud of. I find that the “Taxi angle” is something which people are interested in, but I like to think that when I started taking photographs back in 1984 I was a “Taxi driver with a camera” but a few years later I had become a “Photographer with a taxi”.

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This is just an example of looking for opposites. Often I look for people who are nearly identical. I remember being satisfied with this image, but it’s borderline at best and also almost impossible to get a good print from.

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The “Girl Falling Down” was another image that I didn’t really like too much, but when I was laying out my book, Ben Lifson, who knows a lot more than I do, thought it should be included. Turns out that lots of other people have liked it, so my editing skills are questionable at best.

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“The Animals” actually has a good story attached to it. I had just bought the classic book by Winogrand off a homeless woman for a dollar when Jeff Mermelstein, a very talented street photographer came up to me and said “you know that’s a great book, don’t you?” I probably said “yes of course of it is” but this was 1989 and I didn’t know what a great book I’d just bought.

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Modern Love…I have always taken to photographing words and images inside a photo and even if it’s a cop out sometimes, and even if it’s been done for a hundred years, I still bite every time.

At first Ansel Adams was my teacher. I bought “The Camera, The Negative and The Print” and learned everything I know about the technical aspects of photography from those 3 books. Then there’s Walker Evans who I feel a sort of kinship with, since he seemed very interested in documenting the vernacular of his era. I will admit to having a lukewarm reaction to my first reading of “The Americans”. I was still to caught up in the Ansel Adams “quality thing” and thought I’d eventually shoot with a 8×10 view camera. Of course, after reading “The Americans” a few more times, I began to realize that Robert Frank had captured in his over exposed and grainy negatives the true America of his time, and yes, content trumps technical perfection every time. Henri Cartier-Bresson had a career that no one needs an introduction to. From 1962-1969 in just those few years, Danny Lyon had the best decade any photographer ever had…Period. Today there are so many talented photographers out there that I will agree with you in your previous article, that the “Drive thing” will be how the great ones separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

Thanks, Matt.

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