Richard Kalvar (part 2 of 2)

Here’s the conclusion of the discussion Richard Kalvar and I started last week. Please read Part 1 for an introduction to Kalvar’s work.

2point8: How did that lead to you eventually joining Magnum?

Kalvar: In the late 60s when I was in NY, I showed my work around. I went to see photographers like Andre Kertesz and Lisette Model and also a few people at Magnum. I left a portfolio up there. The people who reacted most were Elliott Erwitt and Charles Harbutt. When I applied in 1975, after leaving my old agency, Viva, it helped that I knew these people at Magnum.

When I started out in France, I worked for various magazines. Women’s magazines, things about knitting, anything to make a living. I was taking my own pictures, working for whoever would pay me, and occasionally going off and doing something that was vaguely photojournalistic.

Richard Kalvar, Rome, Italy, 1978

2point8: Did any of that lead you to the Rome series? How did you develop affinities to explore particular places you kept returning to?

Kalvar: Jean-Loup Sieff decided to do a series of books. He had Doisneau do one, and Martine Franck, who was also at Magnum, did one, and I was supposed to do the next one. The idea was that you get a little bit of money and go to some place you’ve always dreamt about working in, and take pictures. Then the Pope died, in ’78. I got an assignment from Newsweek to take the same pictures everyone else was taking, and I’d never been to Rome. It was fantastic discovery! It was early in August, and Newsweek had an office near the Spanish Steps. I came in late afternoon, early evening, and the light – I was bowled over. So beautiful! It was so wonderful being in Rome. So I did the stuff that I had to do, and there’s the funeral, and the election of the new Pope. Between the two, there’s nothing.

So I started wandering around, taking pictures for myself, in black and white. I was working for Newsweek in color, of course. It was great, being there, taking pictures. It was relatively easy to photograph. People weren’t hostile, and they were expressive! So I decided to do the Sieff book in Rome. Except that the book never happened, but I kept going back anyway.

2point8: You’ve been doing this since the late 60’s, you’ve seen global societal shifts, regarding security, and what it means to be on the streets with a camera, taking pictures. Where are we know in terms of how you feel out there, interacting with people? Did it used to be easier?

Kalvar: It’s more difficult now, but I’m a fairly sneaky photographer, so sometimes I can succeed in getting around it. I’m kind of shy and sneaky and aggressive at the same time. Sometimes I have the nerve, sometimes I don’t. It’s true that as far as security is concerned, people are suspicious of everything now. America is in many ways a lawyer oriented society – everyone’s suing all the time – but for photography, America’s okay, and France is the most difficult place to work, for legal reasons. People here have a statutory right to their own image, and their privacy. You take a picture and they can sue you. Even if it doesn’t do them any harm! So that’s been a tremendous problem.

Richard Kalvar, Paris, France, 1994

2point8: Has that been a problem all along?

Kalvar: It’s mostly the last 10 or 15 years, although it’s been getting a little better lately. For a while the courts were awarding damages to anyone who sued. It’s discouraging. Even now, you have magazines and newspapers that put bands on the eyes and pixelize faces and so on. It leads people to say, “Why are you taking my picture? You don’t have the right! You’re making money off my image!” That part’s really unpleasant and makes things difficult. It’s worse than it was before. It’s true in other countries too. Although often there are no problems, or they’re minor. There are more photographers around. Before, you might have been the first photographer who’d ever shown-up in a particular village. Now, there are people taking pictures with their telephones. It’s harder to work, but it’s not impossible.

2point8: Have you ever published an image from the street and had someone see themselves and get in touch with you?

Kalvar: I took a picture that’s in the book at a wholesale meat market. Magnum got a call from one of the guys in the picture. Boy was I worried! But all he wanted was a print! It’s a perfectly human way to react. It’s absurd for someone to sue you, they should be happy you’re taking a picture that they can show their friends and talk about. I sent the guy half a dozen prints; he was happy, I was happy.

2point8: You’ve seen what’s happened in the last few years with digital photography and websites, and Magnum’s definitely on that train now with the revamped site and the stories. Are you still using film? Did you make a transition? Are you going to shoot the way you’ve been shooting?

Kalvar: For my personal pictures, I’m not going to do anything different from what I’ve done in the past. I have 40 years work behind me, and it should be consistent. I like the feeling of film and the cameras that I use, so I don’t think I’ll change. But I’m an amateur photographer and a professional photographer. I’m a much more interesting amateur photographer than I am a professional photographer. The amateur just had the show here in Paris and is publishing the book and so on. The pro is the guy who’s trying to make a living and works for whomever will pay him. For that kind of work, I use a digital camera, nine times out of ten. There are great advantages to it – you can process cheaply and quickly, the quality very good. I’ve tried working with the Leica M8, but it wasn’t very successful. It’s not quite ready for prime time.

Since I go back and forth, there are things I miss from digital when I’m working with a film camera. You don’t have to change the film roll when things are getting exciting. You can’t see the picture with a film camera – I wish I could do that a little bit, because I’ve gotten used to it. Sometimes it’s a question of habit. I use a Leica, and when I take a picture, I immediately advance the film. But sometimes now, I forget I have to do it myself, and I’ve missed a few pictures that way.

Richard Kalvar, Paris, France, 2000

2point8: How has the aesthetic influence of your amateur photography influenced your professional?

Kalvar: They’re coming out of the same person. It’s the same brain. I can do company portraits. I go there and get a nice picture of the guy that they can put in their annual report. Sometimes, when we’re shooting in a less-posed way, naturally my personal instincts come more into play – and that’s a good thing. My pro work isn’t necessarily bad, some of it’s good, and some of it is informed by my amateur work. The distinction is a little artificial. The real distinction is between stuff that I’ll put in an exhibition and stuff that I won’t. There are pictures that have a force, and there are pictures that might be funny or whatever, but they don’t have that force.

If I shoot in color, I still think that it isn’t in the same category as my black and white. It doesn’t have the same mystery.

2point8: Does the black and white help create that mystery? Does it enhance it?

Kalvar: What’s always interested me in photography is the way you can play with reality. Photography is based on reality, it looks like reality, but it’s not reality. That’s true of anyone’s pictures. It’s a picture of something, but it’s not the thing itself. It’s different from the reality – it doesn’t move in space, it has no sound, but it reminds you of reality – so much so that you believe it’s reality.

So what’s always interested me is playing with that. I realized early on that for me photography corresponded to my screwing around in high school, playing with words, saying things that obviously weren’t true – it just moved into another dimension.

In order for the mystery to work, you need abstraction from reality. Black and white is an additional abstraction, in addition to selective framing, to the freezing of the moment that in reality is a part of an infinite number of other moments (you have one moment and it never moves again; you can keep looking at the picture forever). The black and white is one more step away from reality. Color, for me, is realer, but less interesting.

2point8: It’s that the abstraction is somehow able to deliver more pure expression, and that with color there’s a little too much that’s real, that takes away from what that expression could possibly be – it can be distracting, I guess.

Kalvar: Yeah, people say, “oh, of course, that’s such and such” They know what something is by looking at the picture. (Color) kills the mystery that I’m trying to create. The framing is very important – you have to keep out things that distract from the little drama that’s in the picture. I’d like my pictures to exist almost in a dream state and have people react to them almost as if they’re coming in and out of daydreams, you know?

An old friend of mine said, “I love that picture of the old lady dog reminiscing about her empty nest.” I thought, “That’s wonderful!” I want people to have their own reactions, and I don’t think anyone else has thought the dog was thinking about her empty nest. My friend was worrying about her empty nest.

Richard Kalvar, Paris, France, 1974

2point8: So black and white creates a wider baseline from which viewers can write themselves into the picture with more ease.

Kalvar: Yeah, to me, someone who really looks at the picture and takes off – starts thinking – not even consciously – to me that’s the ideal reaction. I think that black and white contributes to that dreamlike quality (even though I happen to dream in color).

2point8: Is the mystery a narrative mystery? Is it a mystery about something that might not resolve? Is it an opening that you’re trying to create that will allow people to write themselves into it?

Kalvar: I’d like people to write themselves into it, like my friend. I like the idea that the picture is ambivalent, that the picture looks like something, but that someone else can come up to it and think ‘no, no, it’s something else’. Even the same person can float between different interpretations and feelings about it.

2point8: At the root of traditional street photography is the creation of these things that are possibly stories – is it the middle, the beginning, or the end? Is it all three? Where are we, exactly? And how can that speak to a particular person looking at a photograph.

Kalvar: It’s not only street photography. Only a few people do so-called street photography. And a lot of people who’ve done street photography aren’t concerned with these questions. The best ones are, but there aren’t many of them. I was thinking of Diane Arbus the other day. That’s not really street photography, it’s posed and so on, but I feel this similar kind of mystery – that she’s creating these little universes. There’s a similar feeling. There’s something related. You get a feeling for the picture. In her squares she creates these scenes that really grab you, and you put an interpretation on them, but it’s not necessarily the banal one that everyone sees every day.

Richard Kalvar, Warsop Vale, UK, 1974

2point8: Where do you see a future for this particular kind of work? A lot of people look at street photography as “hey, this has been done – there are already so many great street pictures, why should we pay attention – why is this important?”

Kalvar: I’m facing that question myself. I’ve been working for a long time, but I haven’t had a show in the States, ever. I haven’t had a show in France for 25 years, until this one. I haven’t really published much. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘I’ll wait until I have something really really good.” And now that I think I have that, I have the feeling that the world has passed me by and people aren’t necessarily interested any more. I’d like to have a show in the States, maybe when the book comes out. So maybe I’m in the category that you’re taking about – “we’ve seen this before.”

But it’s what I like to do, it’s natural for me. I’m not going to change now. It’s true that if someone were to start doing what I do, or what Friedlander’s done, there’s less interest, unless it comes out of a genuine feeling, rather than a desire to imitate what’s already been done. If it comes out of something real, it’s not going to be the same as what other people did. When people find out I shoot black and white, they say, “oh, just like Doisneau”. Well, first of all, I do unposed pictures, and anyway I’m not Doisneau. What I do is different.

I think that other people coming along can use traditional form and do something creative and interesting and different from what other photographers do. If they do something that uses a traditional form and is not creative and interesting and different, and it’s not really personal, then I can understand the criticism of it.

Searching for novelty, in itself, is not very interesting. And a lot of stuff that’s shown now is crap. A lot of it isn’t. It’s not because it’s different that it becomes good. And it’s not because things are done in a more traditional way that they’re necessarily bad. You still want something that’s personal and creative, and to me, that’s the key, whatever form it takes.

Think about movies or novels. It’s the same as it was 20 or 50 years ago. There are stories. People are interested in stories. In novels, people are interested in the story and how it’s told. The form evolves, but it’s possible to continue in a preexisting form and still do creative and interesting things.

9 thoughts on “Richard Kalvar (part 2 of 2)”

  1. Hey great interview – thanks for introducing us to this wonderful photographer. Was dissapointed when I got to the end of the Rome story to find out there was no book! Besides this Earthlings book, is there any way to see the Rome photos?!

  2. I ran into Richard Kalvar on the subway yesterday, I couldn’t believe it. He was a real nice guy. We rode the A train from 23rd Street down to West 4th, chatted about this interview, Paris, his upcoming book, etc. His “Piazza della Rotonda, 1980” image was featured in the show “First Contact” at Silverstein and I remarked to him how his name was not included on the exhibition press release ( Though I’m kicking myself for not taking a picture of him, actually getting to meet him was a huge honor. Thanks for doing this interview.

  3. A really nice interview. A rewarding and encouraging read for all us street wanderers. Thanks. Always loved that dog pic too.

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