Richard Kalvar is a classic, black & white street photographer. A member of Magnum since the 1970s, Kalvar’s photographs show a sharp mind at work, deftly juggling both insight and whimsy, delivering photographs that are as frank and familiar as they are disturbingly alien. Even though Kalvar’s been consistently photographing for forty years, he’s still relatively unknown in the United States.
Many thanks to Richard for his graciousness and time. What follows is a long-format, mostly unedited conversation about the nature of Kalvar’s work, both personal and professional, and what a career in photography has meant to him, an American in Paris.
2point8: Your show that just came down in Paris, it was a retrospective, correct?
Kalvar: It’s sort of a retrospective. It’s what I think are my best pictures over the last thirty-five or forty years. I didn’t do it in a chronological way or in a geographical way, I tried to have the pictures flow into each other. I put a picture from thirty years ago next to a picture from five years ago. But yes, itâ€™s a retrospective.
2point8: You’ve been living in Paris since the late 60s?
Kalvar: I came here in 1970. I’ve been living on and off, but mostly on, in Paris, since then. I began working in photography in 1965, when I dropped out of college for a while. I happened to wind-up working for a photographer for some strange reason, because I didn’t know the first thing about photography and wasn’t interested in it. A fashion photographer. Then I got interested in it, but not in fashion photography. I guess I started taking pictures in 1966 and by 1968, I was pretty serious.
2point8: What was that transition like? When you became serious about it, were you looking at the pictures you were taking and thinking, ‘hey, I have a proficiency here, and I want to explore it more’, or was it more about the feeling you had while shooting? How did you make the critical evaluation that this was something you really wanted to do?
Kalvar: When I was a kid, particularly as I got a little older, I had a creative streak, which I didn’t really know how to channel. It mostly came out in screwing around with my friends when I was in high school and college. Then I dropped out of college, got the photography job, and learned about photography almost in spite of myself, because it was clear that I wasn’t going to be a fashion photographer. I wasn’t really interested in it. But I had the good fortune to be hired by a fashion photographer who had a broad knowledge of photography and was a smart guy and who introduced me to things outside of fashion photography. He showed me books. His name is Jerome Ducrot. He was a very good photographer. I left him after about a year. We had a big fight before I left, and then there was a big reconciliation, and when I left, he gave me a camera as a going away present. I decided to go to Europe, just to travel around. It was while traveling around Europe, where the goal wasn’t to take pictures but just to have an adventure, that I started taking a few pictures, and by the end of the trip, I knew – I could feel that I was doing something with photography, and that this is what I wanted to do.
I didn’t see any of the pictures I took. I saved my film, I sent some to my father, but I didn’t see it for almost a year. But I knew. I knew at the end of the trip that this was for me – that I’d found something that corresponded to the screwing around I used to do with my friends – I could express myself, express a way of seeing, a way of being, through photography.
2point8: So you were seeing this, literally, through using the camera, but not seeing the effects of what the prints looked like.
2point8: This was all on the street?
Kalvar: Yeah! In fact, I almost didn’t bring the camera on the trip. Ducrot gave me an old Pentax. I bought a couple of lenses for it. And I had this big knapsack, and I tried to squeeze everything in, but I couldn’t get the camera in, and I thought ‘well, should I really take it?’ But then I pulled something else out, and stuffed the camera in, thank god. Yeah, it was the experience of taking pictures that started to excite me.
2point8: So how did the transition happen from your youthful enthusiasm traveling in Europe to ‘this is a career that I could do and maybe do some editorial work’. How did that happen?
Kalvar: Back in the late sixties, times were different. Vietnam, the hippy era. A lot of people questioning things and so on. It was also a period in which the country was pretty rich. I came from a relatively poor family, but you didn’t worry about making a living. You could always get a job; drive a taxi, work in a restaurant. An awful lot of people, including myself, were more open to marginal activities. So I wasn’t really thinking about making a living as a photojournalist, I was thinking about being a photographer. From the very beginning, once I started to do it in a serious way, I was less concerned about a career in photography, working for magazines â€“ than in using it to express myself. I was fortunate enough to live in that brief period when you didn’t have to have a lot of money, and you didn’t have to worry about having a lot of money. So, I was able to develop what I was interested in, without having to worry about clients. Although I did get into the marketplace quickly, to make a living, since I didn’t want to drive a taxi or wait on tables, so I thought well okay, I’ll try to get some work in photography.
I spent 10 months in Europe, essentially blowing the pittance that Ducrot had paid me the previous year. I thought I should go back to school – to make my parents happy or something. So I went back to finish up, but that was just a thing to get out of the way, so I could go back to being a photographer. And the first thing I did when I came back to New York, was get a job at a black and white lab, called Modernage, which in fact still exists. Back then it was the best lab in New York. I got a job as a receptionist. They let me stay in the evening and print for myself. I learned in two days what people who go to photography school take two years to learn. I was working with real professionals. I printed up all the stuff I shot in Europe. I had a number of pictures I thought I liked. I started showing them around, and other people started to like them too. I had this feeling that I was going in this direction, that I was looking for something, which is similar to what I’m still doing today. I’ve refined it, but basically, it’s the same approach.
2point8: What is this approach? In looking at your photographs, there’s humor, there’s irony – I like the title of your book, “Earthlings”, that these are people who are familiar, but they could also be from outer space…
Kalvar: Or maybe the person looking at them is from outer space…
2point8: Yeah! So, what is that thing that hasn’t changed? What is the uniqueness of your view?
Kalvar: It’s hard to put into words. It hits me when I look at the contact sheets. There’s a certain irrational element that afterwards I can describe and try to analyze. I look at the sheets and suddenly I see, amid all the crap, something that sticks out and works – and works in a way that has a kind of hysterical tension in it. It’s funny, but also disturbing at the same time. It’s no longer the thing that was being photographed, it’s a scene, it’s almost a play. I don’t have too many that work – after 40 years of photography, there were only 89 pictures in the show, but every once in a while the good things come together.
I don’t set out looking for a certain kind of picture. It’s just that I’m kind of unconsciously drawn to that kind of thing, and I know when to recognize it in my contact sheets. Now, obviously, I’m doing the kind of things that might make it happen more.
2point8: What would those kinds of things be?
Kalvar: I walk around a lot. That’s necessary. I try to go to places where interesting things might happen. And I’m always looking. At relations between people. I’m attracted to people doing things with each other. Mainly talking, as a matter of fact. Whenever I see a conversation in the streets, I’m immediately attracted to it. I’m curious. I have your standard voyeuristic instincts, and conversation is great photographic raw material. Generally, nothing happens. It’s a conversation, so what, big deal! But every once in a while something does happen. By going after that kind of situation I increase my chances of being there when that thing happens that’s going to make the picture.
2point8: Can you tell me a little bit about the role of intuition in that? How you might come back on a certain day or month and say, ‘hey, I was really on, this was really working, my percentage of keepers is stronger that it has been’? I’m trying to get at that mysterious gravity that certain situations have, in which you’re compelled to make the right shot, where taking that picture feels almost willed? Like you couldn’t have not taken it.
Kalvar: It’s hard to know how much the situation is responsible for the picture and how much your availability is. In French, there’s a word,”disponible”, meaning, you’re letting yourself go, you’re available for things to happen. It’s a mental and emotional opening. In other words, you’re ready.
Sometimes something obvious happens and you happen to have a camera and you take the picture, but sometimes it’s because you’re ready, you’re sensitive to things, and you’re not thinking about other things – you’re concentrated and you’re more open to things happening. I couldn’t tell you the exact percentage, but both ways of functioning come into play.
2point8: When you’re out shooting, you know when you’ve got a particular shot.
Kalvar: You know when you might have something.
Kalvar: What counts is the result. It works or it doesn’t work. You may think after you’ve taken a picture that you may have something. And then you find out that you don’t have anything, that you almost had something â€“ but that in fact, you pressed the button at the wrong time. That you took a lot of pictures, but you were on auto-pilot – that instead of waiting, you shot buckshot at it, so you missed the one that might really work.
But every once in a while, I look at my contact sheets and I discover something I hadn’t even seen. That’s possible, too.
2point8: True surprise.
Kalvar: Yeah, I take a lot of lousy pictures, and sometimes it turns out that one of the ones that I didn’t even think about was in fact pretty good.
(2point8 will have Part 2 of this discussion next week.)