Larry Fink Interview

I Larry Fink, from "Road to Freedom"had a brief chat with Larry Fink last week, for ACP. We spoke during the media walkthru for “Road to Freedom” at the High Museum, an exhibition of Civil Rights photography that for me, was the most significant museum-going experience I’ve had in a long time. I hope to write about it more, soon.

In the pause, here’s a link to our chat, which also includes an interview with Builder Levy, a 2008 Guggenheim fellow, whose photographs are also in the exhibition.

For more interviews from the past few years of 2point8, click the Discussions link up top.

(Photo credit: © Larry Fink)

Bruce Davidson Interview for ACP

My skills as an interviewer may not be improving (apparently I ask everyone the exact same questions), nevertheless, here’s an audio interview with Bruce Davidson I conducted this weekend for Atlanta Celebrates Photography.

You may want to turn down your speakers, the audio’s a bit loud. Download the mp3, or press the pink play button below.

There’s a video of Mr. Davidson’s artist’s talk on ACP Now!, as well.

Arlene Gottfried, Sometimes Overwhelming, the Interview

Arlene Gottfried has a fantastic book called Sometimes Overwhelming arlene4of vintage portraits and street
photographs that’s just hit the shelves, via powerHouse. Arlene’s catalogue of characters depicts a NYC that’s MIA. Her collection of both faces and faded fashion works on that nostalgic, where-have-they-gone level, as well as on the pure photographic that’s-a-tremendous-picture level.

From Coney Island (when Coney Island was Coney Island) to back rooms at Studio 54, Gottfried’s view isn’t that of a voyeur, but of a dedicated, active participant. You get the sense that Gottfried didn’t necessarily leave her house to go get the picture wherever that picture might be, but that she lived her life with gusto and was ready for the pictures when the pictures came to her. Which in no way is a lessening of her skill — the book has a steadfast belief in the power of the portrait; that the connection between photographer and subject is primary, and is a pathway to rich insight and understanding.


Here are a few clips from an interview I had with Arlene last week. Thanks again to Arlene and to powerHouse for facilitating this. For more discussions on 2point8, including Joel Meyerowitz, Richard Kalvar and Gus Powell, see 2point8 discussions.


Clip 1:

Clip 2:

Clip 3:

Clip 4:

Arlene has a show of primarily color work going up at Alice Austen in Staten Island from March 6th through May 11th. The show will have an opening (book signing and artist lecture, too) on March 30th.

All pictures above © Arlene Gottfried, via powerHouse Books. Arlene would like to thank Maria Mayer for her help in creating Sometimes Overwhelming.

I’d be most appreciative to a 2point8 reader who’d be willing to transcribe the audio files above. Mail me at whileseated at gmail dot com, and thanks.

Joel Meyerowitz Interview (Part 2)

This interview is being presented in two places. An abridged version with an audio excerpt can be found on the Atlanta Celebrates Photography Blog. I’m presenting a complete, unabridged version here on 2point8; please read Part 1. Many thanks again to Joel Meyerowitz for his graciousness and his time, and don’t forget to check out Discussions with other photographers on 2point8.

2point8: 515CZYCAN1L._AA240_ Can you tell me a bit about how Bystander came about? Did you sit down and say, ‘the world really needs a book on the history of street photography, let’s do it!?!’

MEYEROWITZ: Well, not precisely, but that’s pretty close. I was going through this change in the 70s, from 35mm black & white to color. A return to color, for me. And my working methods needed to change, because shooting black and white, rated-up at 1000, and shooting color rated at ASA 25 were two very different speed and space experiences on the streets of New York. So, I had to be slower. And if I wanted to have any kind of depth of field, I had to be further away. So when I made this discovery that this is how I needed to work, I wondered, to myself, in the history of photography, surely other workers had a similar kind of experience, where they wanted to increase a quality, and they had to give up some assets to do it.

So, I started looking, and I found a number of other surprising places where photographers were making very open-ended, non-event oriented centered photographs. In fact, if you look at the frontice of Bystander, there’s a tiny little Steiglitz picture in Paris. Only made 107 years ago, and to me, it was exactly like the pictures I was making in color, in New York in 1974. And I thought, “oh, he must have been experiencing a similar kind of feeling about timing and space.”

The more I looked, the more I thought about it, and the more I thought photography needed a book about street photography. Because it was an undervalued art form. So many people said, “oh, you shoot that from the hip? That’s a snapshot?” They’d say to Garry all the time, “you ever look through the camera?” Garry was a good friend of mine. I walked the streets with him for years and I know he looked through the camera!

So street photography needs some support here, and I did some research by myself, and at the same time I became friendly with Colin Westerbeck, who was a neighbor, and we were raising our kids at the same time. He was involved in film criticism and literature, and in our conversations, I got him excited about photography – the problems I was posing and everything. And he was a real academic, had a PhD in literature. And I said, ‘maybe you want to collaborate with me – this is the book I want to make, and we could do research…” So we formed a team and worked on this for many many years. Too many years. The book is not what I originally had envisioned, it’s the hybrid that comes out of two people bouncing ideas off each other, and I think it’s a lovely and maybe a definitive work about street photography.

2point8: Personally speaking, and from folks I know, Bystander’s a wealthy resource. It keeps giving.

MEYEROWITZ: Well, we dug into a lot of social things of the times, and speculated on different qualities of life at different periods and how photography intersected with all of it. And that’s really Colin’s gift to the book. I did the picture runs and relationships, and tried to make my essays out of the photographs. His essays came from all of our conversations, and his writing, and then we both edited. We kept going back and forth. I’d give him my runs of pictures and he’d give me the chapters. I would clean it up my way, then his way, and it was a great interaction. We loved doing the work that way, and both of us deeply miss the company of the other.

2point8: Your current show that’s up at Jackson Fine Art. As we did the walk-thru, we were talking a lot about the archival pigment printing of the pictures that are up there. On the camera and enthusiast side of things, digital is definitely remaking photography in many ways. I’m curious what you see as happening in photography in terms of popularity; the art market that didn’t exist for photography back in the 60s has exploded – where do you see all of these things going?

JOEL MEYEROWITZ Young Dancer, NYC, 1978MEYEROWITZ: Photography’s always been a very democratic medium. In the sense that the camera’s the same. It used to be 35mm, and now it’s digital. The camera’s the same, though – people pick it up and use it, like a fountain pen. Everybody writes something with it; a check, a story, a prescription. It’s writing. And photography’s the same – it’s democratic in that way. Everyone can use it, but not everyone makes art. I think what’s happened digitally, is that there’s been this huge explosion of access to imagery because you can print them at home. Or you can put them up on flickr and share pictures this way. So it both expands the market, and not necessarily makes it that much more interesting or better or artful, but it brings more and more people into it, so there’s a greater possibility of someone discovering their voice.

2point8: There’s definitely an explosion, not just of digital, but in these little subsections, of even something like street photography, people are looking backwards and seeing what’s been done, and looking ahead and trying to figure out how they can go about making work that knows its past and moves forward. There’s a lot of it going on right now, it’s an exciting time.

MEYEROWITZ: Yeah, it is! It’s been enriched. The potential for more interesting artists, just like it is for filmmakers – if you can put together a movie with iMovie and your little digital camera, you might discover the meaning of film for the next generation, and make a contribution toward pushing the language along. And the same is true about photography. It both lowers the quality on one hand, and it expands the universe of workers, especially because you can make prints and slideshows and all that stuff! It used to be that you had to borrow a slide projector, because not everyone owned a slide projector.

2point8: You were talking about cameras and pictures as a language, and being able to say things and shape them. In your own work, are you more interested in saying things that might be poems, or saying things that might tell stories? Where do you fall on that?

JOEL MEYEROWITZ Dusk, Provincetown, 1976MEYEROWITZ: I don’t fall into the story realm myself, because I don’t think in storylines. I think that photography is probably closest to poetry and music. I see very often a kind of musical notation when I put pictures together. I think of it in some kind of lyrical form. And I think individual pictures are closer to poetry in the way they’re read and the meaning they shed. I’ve always found them to be non-narrative objects. That’s why they always had to have captions underneath them. Nobody could figure out what was going on.

2point8: Or that’s why “the run” can come together, because you can’t have a run of things that immediately make sense on their own, necessarily.

MEYEROWITZ: Right. So they’re little fragments of poetry and they make you feel a certain way, and you put ten of them together, by the time you get to the tenth one, you have a dark emotion, or you feel lighthearted, or you feel something’s working.

Thanks again to Joel Meyerowitz and the staff at Jackson Fine Art. All images above © Joel Meyerowitz. Please see Part 1 of this interview.

Joel Meyerowitz Interview (Part 1)

This interview is being presented in two places. An abridged version with an audio excerpt can be found on the Atlanta Celebrates Photography Blog. I’m presenting a complete, unabridged version here, as the conversation was wide-ranging, lengthy, and covered topics of interest to the 2point8 readership. Many thanks again to Joel Meyerowitz for his graciousness and his time, and don’t forget to check out Discussions with other photographers on 2point8.

2point8: You have your Cape Light era pictures up at Jackson Fine Art, and I’m curious as to what the transition was like for you, from your earlier street work, to the large format photographs on Cape Cod? Were you finding limitations in the 35mm work? Did you want to step back, take more in, and describe as clearly as possible what you were seeing?

MEYEROWITZ: That’s exactly, precisely what it was for me. In that particular period of the 70s, when John Szarkowski was at MOMA, some of the underlying themes of his philosophy dealt with description. Description was what photography did – first and foremost. You press the button and the camera describes what it’s pointing at. That’s all it really does. It’s what you point it at, and how consistent you are, and how interesting you find subject matter that gives your work a dimension, and a shape, and a reason for being. But in the beginning, all the camera does is describe what’s in front of you. You can’t make it more than it is; it just is what it is.


I think my generation probably were influenced by this kind of thinking and expression, so I started making 35mm pictures that let go of the subject in the center of the picture, and I moved to a more overall take on things. And that led me, when I saw the space in that kind of photograph, to the view camera. I could make pictures of very deep space, and have incredible resolution all through the space. So I talked myself into working with the large format camera, to gain this description, but of course I lost a certain amount of mobility in the exchange. The hybrid was interesting to me, because I tried to keep the camera like the 35mm – open and ready for use, rather than packed-up in a box, and I worked as quickly as I could. So, that, in a sense is what the difference is, and I’ve always felt that all the years I spent out on the street were very instructive to me, when I became a large format photographer. Incredibly helpful really. And then I think that the work I did with the large format also illuminated for me new options with the 35mm. It re-seeded itself, it nourished me in a new way.

(An audio excerpt from this interview can be found on the Atlanta Celebrates Photography Blog.)

2point8: In looking at your work, it’s not that you made the transition and stayed with one thing, stuck with another, or disavowed what you did in the past — there’s a very fluid way of working with these multiple formats, and that’s why I was asking what that relationship has been for you.

MEYEROWITZ: Yeah, what’s interesting about it is if you think about music, 35mm is jazz. So, the riff, the spontaneous and immediate riff on something that comes out of nowhere, is what that instrument does well. The view camera is a more classical approach. It’s slower, more meditative, it has a different way of showing its content, and yet you can be a jazz musician and play classically, like Keith Jarrett, or you can be a classical musician and love jazz. In a way, each form illuminates a quality in the other one, and so for me, it opens me up to be a more meditative and reflective photographer, rather than someone who’s working out of pure intuition and immediacy. So, I liked the additional knowledge of slowing down. I didn’t know about slowing down when I was only working in 35mm, but once I worked with the other camera, I learned something about stillness, and spaciousness, and contemplativeness, so those things have reinforced themselves and given me a new way of considering things. And it’s also a language. It feels as if I enlarged my capacity for language by changing tools.

2point8: You’ve been talking about your artistic relationship to the tool that you chose to express yourself; have you found that your method of working has influenced your personality as well, or have you been personally in the center, and worked with both ends of the spectrum – the quick and fast of the 35mm on one end, and the slow, meditative view camera on the other?

MEYEROWITZ: I think it has changed me, for the better. I’ve noticed over the years (I’ve been shooting the view camera now for thirty-one years) and I’ve had many people say to me, in response to the view camera work, how Buddhist it is, how meditative it is, and often, if I’ve given a public lecture, someone will come to me afterwards and say, “are you a practicing Buddhist?” and I realize, in some ways, whatever has happened to me through using that camera, and its slowness, and the studied, reflective quality of it, has quieted me down.

I still have some of my street humor. I can feel it come out when I’m in front of an audience and doing whatever I do, I’m always having a good time, but I can also feel this other side – and I realize that yeah, I am – and maybe we’re all this way, that we have various aspects of our personality, but we don’t develop them always. Because something doesn’t call us to explore that particular area. So I feel lucky that I stumbled through this doorway of description, and landed on the other side where there was this meadow of contemplation in it. So on one hand, there’s there’s the street, with all this noise and jazz and energy, and on the other side, there’s this long walk. And I’m in the long walk space now, in ways I didn’t know I could have been.


2point8: I’ve read about how you created the pictures for Aftermath, and how every day was a challenge, getting kicked-off the site, having to work on your feet. I assume that some of your street sense and history helped you navigate around Ground Zero.

MEYEROWITZ: I did a reversion to type. It was very interesting. I had to go into a blue collar world. And although I grew-up in the slums of the Bronx, in a working class family, in the course of my life, I’ve grown away from that. It’s a different set of circumstances. So, to go back into Ground Zero, it meant a return to a place where my values, my aesthetics, were not something that was common with everyone there. So I found myself slipping back into type, which was exciting, because I’m a street guy… That was how I grew up. It was fun, being back in that milleu with a cast of a thousand every day, and at the same time, being able to talk with any of them. When they’d see me with the wooden camera and say, “what are you doing?”, I was able to explain to them, from my position where I am now, in language that they’d understand because of where I came from, and so, it was exciting to be sharing the kinds of feeling and experiences I was having with people who generally don’t go to museums.

2point8: About that project and the site: the site’s cleaned-up, they’re starting to rebuild, and you’re working with your archive and with the book that’s out. The national consciousness, with each passing day, has moved away from the pain of that day, but you’re still seeing a lot of the images that you took that probably viscerally remind you of what it was like to be there. How has it been emotionally to have created this project and to be working with these images even as history’s moved on?

MEYEROWITZ: A similar thing happened when I made a film about my father, who had Alzheimer’s. He and I took a three week road trip with my son, and we made a road movie about this guy who didn’t have his memory. When the road trip was over, I sat down and edited the film. It took more than a year, and then we took it on the festival circuit, and so I was involved with that film for probably three years. And it’s the same with the Ground Zero project. I’m involved with this for far longer than the group, and the event, and all of the things around it. The book came out on the fifth anniversary, so in a way, I had five years of living with those pictures and managing them and preparing the book and having to revisit it all the time. These two events; my father and Ground Zero, extended the experience in ways that brought out a great deal of emotional connection that I wasn’t experiencing the same way during the act of making the movie or taking the pictures. I mean, there were other experiences and other emotions, certainly, but to have them continue to play, locked in the room with these images, over and over and over again, you realize that it’s your vocabulary. And now I was trying to say something with these pictures. What was it that I wanted to say? Because the event is one thing. And the clean-up was another thing. And when they’re over, they’re invisible, they’re gone, you’re right, they are moving away from public consciousness, over time. I extended it, in some strange way, because I was trying to make sense out of it. And I think the book is the conclusion of that connection for me. I finally said it the way I wanted to say it. Maybe not 100%, but as close as I could sum-up that experience.

2point8: This idea of “extending the experience”. Does that get close to a liberal definition of what you would consider photography to be?

MEYEROWITZ: Well, for a medium that happens in a thousandth of a second, and then it’s gone, whatever you recognized in that brief glimpse of a fraction of a second, wasn’t really substantial enough to fix itself in your memory in any deep way – you only glanced off of it as you passed it by. That’s how it is for me, with street photography, or photography of the moment. The bringing up of the picture again, the printing of it, the studying of it, the using it in a book, finding its place – the right place in the flow of things, is an extension of the life of that millisecond. You now contemplate that as a fact, in and of itself, cause that’s all it is – it’s a fact, right? You’ve sustained that fact from 1977 and you’ve brought that into 2007, and it plays, it reads, it scans, it does whatever it does for you.


I use pictures as a kind of building block of a visual language, so that it’s not the individual picture that’s the so-called “master work” the way painting created master works. These pictures are all little gestural elements that don’t necessarily add-up on their own to anything profound, but as a run of pictures, you might be able to sustain some thoughts and ideas. And I guess that’s what I always, since I understood Robert Frank’s “The Americans”, from the first few times looking at it, I suddenly understood, ‘oh, they don’t have to be great photographs, they have to be interesting and interlocking in a way that you could fuse them in runs of seven or ten pictures, to be stating a sort of collective of ideas into one thing that will carry the reader along.’

2point8: And you may not know where the run is going when you start, too.

MEYEROWITZ: Not at all. They’re very malleable. Before I lay out a book, I read the pictures many many times, until I’ve absorbed the so-called meaning of each picture. My feeling about it – not intellectually, but my gut feeling about these pictures and how I relate to them, and then I just collect them all as miniatures, at three inches across, and I carry them with me like a deck of cards, and I lay them out, everytime I have a few minutes, I lay them out – I’m doing it now, for this next book – I lay them out and look and look, and then I’ll see something that looks like a starting point. So I’ll put that picture first, and then I’ll see what happens. What does it call, like magnetism, to itself? And what do these two call themselves, and what do these three call? Because it’s not just about the next picture, it’s the weight of the three of them in a row. Five of them in a row. Ten! I can set-up certain rhythms or cadences, so that when you get to the third or fourth picture, you begin to realize the first picture again, like, ‘oh yeah, the first and fourth are linked!’ And there are these links so that if you were to make a drawing of this book, if there were forty pictures – I could probably make a diagram that comes after the fact, not before the fact, that the first connects to the fourth and the tenth and on and on – and that there are these interconnections. It’d be a fun thing to do, actually!

2point8: It’s a great idea!

MEYEROWITZ: You should take your favorite book and take it apart that way and see why it works that way. What is it about the rhythm of these pictures that make you see it as a book, rather than a collection of pictures. I think, too many photographers make books that are just collections of pictures. You could throw them together any way and they’d be alright. And there are other photographers that make books that are works of art, as a book.

2point8: Was Frank’s “The Americans” the first time you’d seen anything like that? What was it like, as a photographer, coming across that the first time?

MEYEROWITZ: Well, it was the very first photography book that I ever truly looked at and saw as a work. And it so astonished me and moved me and challenged me and aroused me. To this day, it is a singularly great work of art that I still sit down with, at least once a year, and just sit with it and see what comes up for me when I look at these pictures. Because things come up!

2point8: It tells you different things over time.


Here’s Part II. Thanks again to Joel Meyerowitz and the staff at Jackson Fine Art. All images above © Joel Meyerowitz. More Meyerowitz on 2point8.

Alec Soth in Atlanta

Last week, in a surprising convergence of personal and professional (and with the help of a nimble crew from SCAD) I was able to ask Alec Soth a few questions about his work on camera, before his lecture for ACP at the High Museum.

Over a year ago, Alec was kind enough to field a few for 2point8, and it was fun to hit a few more grounders his way. Interviewing via email or phone is one thing, on camera is another beast, entirely. At least Alec’s a pro!


Alec’s lecture, which covered his early paintings, his three books, and even some recent work commissioned by the High Museum, was extremely popular, and apparently sixty people were turned away at the door, due to fire restrictions. (There’s a worthwhile write-up on I’m in the process of building a blog for ACP where we’ll feature future collaborations with the SCAD crew, and possibly even some audio from Alec’s lecture, for those of you who missed it. Please stay tuned.

Kudos again to, who came through with an HD camera and a tripod (not to mention production values!) on the day my tripod gave-up the ghost.

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.

Richard Kalvar (Part 1 of 2)

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.

That should change this year with the publication of Kalvar’s forthcoming book, Earthlings. As a preview to the book, I thought it would be great to include him here, in Discussion.

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, it’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.

Richard Kalvar, Piazza della Rotonda, 1980.

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.

Kalvar: Nope.

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 – 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.

Richard Kalvar, West 4th Street, New York, 1970

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.

Richard Kalvar, Les Halles, Paris, 1972

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.

Richard Kalvar, Rome, 1982

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.

2point8: Right.

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 – 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.)

Polaroid Week on F’log (Slack Interview)

Photosharing sites could learn a lot from what Andrew Long’s been doing over on Fotolog’sDaily F’log“. Andrew’s proving that the smart hand of a dedicated editor can filter and create a timely presentation (blog-style) that benefits any online community. (Fwiw: I’ve contributed a book review and the interview below to F’log).

He’s been hosting Polaroid Week this week, for which I had a conversation with Mike Slack. While people aren’t the predominate subject of Mike’s work, I think of him as the explorative cousin of a street photographer – heading out there, not knowing what he’ll find.

Have a look, and subscribe to Andrew’s feed to gauge the (Brazilian!) pulse of Fotolog.

Discussion: Nils Jorgensen

Nils Jorgensen photographs celebrities for a living. When he’s not out photographing the rich and famous, he sizes-up the rest of the world, taking pictures of us as we are, out there, in the streets of London. No tinsel, no light rigs, no limos.

Simply, Nils creates some of the best “moment-based” street photography I’ve ever seen. And he’s been doing it for years. (Ask him how many undeveloped rolls of Tri-X he has hanging around from his film days.)

I remember first coming across Nils’ photographs after a particularly poor day of my own. And in looking at his work, I was struck by how each frame quietly said, “be patient” and “persevere”. His pictures are like payoffs from an insurance policy on looking.

If the world of Nils’ photographs is a place most only see out of the corner of their eyes, it’s also a place where the impossible is the norm. Whether you’re a photographer or a landscaper, you can’t help but turn your head when you hear someone describe the impossible. And Nils Jorgensen’s photographs do just that (and more) with an enviable consistency.

2point8 (in bold) is glad Nils had the time to discuss his work and working methods.

Q: When you think about your own pictures, what makes them successful? Is it a particular energy that you get from looking at them, a hit? Do they feel hot to the touch? How many particular elements need to be speaking in a photo for you to feel like you’ve captured something that’s potentially engaging to a viewer?

A: I’ve no idea what makes a photograph work. I might like one photograph for a particular reason, and another for other reasons. A photo doesn’t have to have a predetermined number of elements in it before I like it. But it’s important to communicate something, to tell a story, even if it is only short or simple. One of my Flickr contacts Ole Isø-Nielsen kindly complimented me on my work saying that my photos “manage to generate some kind of narrative, which evolves after looking at the images for some time”. I do recall the times in the darkroom when I held a new, still wet print in my hands, and looked at the image large for the first time, and saying to myself, yes that works. This was a strong moment. It’s a little different now with computers, where you can blow up and view large many, mostly bad, photos within seconds. I do not regret this, it’s just different.

Q: Can you talk a bit about how your professional photo work complements or conflicts with your pursuits on the street?

A: I sometimes find it difficult to keep my personal work going alongside my professional work. There is a conflict of between the two worlds. Professionally I work much faster, meeting deadlines and clients’ needs and so forth. So there is less time to take a more quiet, reflective and personal view. But in a way, I have found that this ‘conflict’ can be constructive. For example, it takes one’s mind off problems in either camp, for a short period of time. After a week shooting celebrities, it’s nice to come back to my street photography. And equally it’s nice to go back to work after too much street photography. But I sometimes feel like my mind is split into two halves.

Q: London. What makes it a particularly good (or bad) city to photograph on the street?

A: I’m sure it’s true to say that every major city provides it’s own unique opportunities for street photography. But I have lived and worked mostly in London. And London is a wonderful place to photograph in and has certainly been source of great inspiration, even if I may not always have been aware it. In an article for See Saw Magazine, Sophie Howarth writes about the ‘Onto The Streets’ exhibition (now on tour in Greece), and she describes London as “a vibrant metropolis rather than an elegant city, functional but not coherent”, which I think is a very good description.

Q: I’ve mentioned elsewhere here (or at least I thought I did) that there are two strong and particular streams in street photography: the Sander/Arbus/conversation side and the H.C.Bresson/Winogrand/candid side. Can you talk a bit about how you ended-up on the moment-based Winogrand side? Have you done much conversation-based portrait work, or is it always candids?

A: Getting involved and talking to people is simply not the way I like to work, nor has it ever occurred to me to do so. It is not in my nature to approach people unless forced to for some reason. It could be that early on I was too embarrassed to approach people, and have simply kept working like that ever since. But the truth is I don’t really want to disturb the flow of life around me. I much prefer waiting and hoping for something to happen. It’s also much simpler. For me the whole point of photography is not to interfere with what is happening, or might be about to happen. It could be more interesting than what I might have in mind anyway. If nothing happens, that’s just too bad.

Q: Why street photography? It takes a lot of time, it’s potentially troublesome, and sometimes people yell at you. Are the rewards worth it?

A: It is a question I have never contemplated too much. It is just something I do. Of course, it’s relatively easy to get started. To start, all you have to do is wander around aimlessly, with a camera. This bit comes naturally to me, and I have no urge to be more constructive with my time. But of course, as you say, it takes a lot of time, and you can wander the streets all day and maybe not have anything to show for it. So that aspect is much less easy. To create an image which remains strong year after year is extraordinarily difficult. The images which remain good over the years become precious to you, as you cannot easily go out and get a few more. Then there are the doldrums, from which one cannot believe one will ever come out of. It can all change in one quick moment. And one may think one can artificially speed things up, (and naturally it helps not to sit at home all day), but in the end there is nothing you can do, except wait and wander. For me an image is just as likely to come to you by just waiting for it to arrive, rather than to go searching for it.

Q: In looking at your pictures in the last year, I’ve been struck by their consistent sense of humor. Did you come to take pictures because you wanted to capture these fleeting, (often funny) moments, or for altogether other reasons?

A: Yes, I like taking photographs with humour. And I like the reaction from people when they see them too, so maybe this is in part a motivating factor. To affect someone positively in this way is nice. But otherwise I am not sure of the reasons for these photos. I saw Elliot Erwitt’s work early on in my life, and loved it, but I was never aware of myself setting off to emulate him. For example, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go out and ‘look for funny photos’. Anyway this mostly results in failure for me, and being depressed when nothing happens. So better just not to think about it too much and just keep taking photos of anything that comes along. True, this leads to a lot of bad photos, but it also leads to an exploring attitude which I quite like. It can be quite surprising what happens, the way things look, when photographed. So if in doubt, take a photograph. My main aim maybe is mostly just to try to take a better photo than the last one. I collect images, in the same way some people like collecting stamps, I suppose. It’s the same thing really. Humorous photos are difficult to do. Bob Dylan said, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”.

Three Images:


“Chain” was taken near where I live, in Wimbledon, London, a woman peering through a square hole of a locked gate, which has been chained shut. It’s a simple scene, but one which becomes strange when photographed. It is this last ingredient which fascinates me. The transformation of a random and meaningless events into new meaning. I sometimes take many photos of a scene, hundreds even. At other times it can be no more than a couple of frames, as was the case here. The woman didn’t stay for long so I coudn’t explore different compositions.


“Kicking Statue” was taken at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I had already taken several photographs of the man looking at the small white square on the wall. He was facing away from me with his hat in his hands, when he dropped the hat, and leant to pick it up, and I was ready to pounce. Taken some twenty years ago, with a Leica M2, on Tri-X. I lived through film days some considerable time, and loved B/W film. But the digital era arrived and has been such a wonderful thing. Even now, after using it for some six or seven years, I can hardly contain my excitement. The most important thing is the image, and it matters less to me on what medium it was taken. And digital has enabled a whole new generation of photographers, myself included, to more easily explore colour in the same way that they did B/W.


“Maddog”, came about because the dog was being thrown sticks to fetch. A stick landed in the bush and the dog leapt up to get it. Again a simple image, which came about through a simple course of events, and a good example of how an image can come out of nowhere. This aspect, as I’ve mentioned, has always intrigued me, how you can make an arresting image out of a simple and unimportant event, close to home.

Nils Jorgensen Links:
Flickr Slideshow

All 2point8 Discussions

Four Questions for Rosalind Solomon

When I stumbled across prints of Rosalind Solomon‘s a few months ago, I felt like I was looking at some kind of missing link. Her gallerist leafed through the big prints and I stood there, confused. “Whose pictures are these?”

If Solomon’s work is a link, it may between the past (the irony of the Arbusian square) and a future that’s waiting to begin. That’s not the most precise language, but as a photographer, I feel like Solomon is pointing “out there” to that place where great photos come from, whether it’s on a street close to home or on a mountain trail on the other side of the world.


Frankly, I hadn’t seen anything like Chapalingas before. Over four hundred pages of global portraits, landscapes, moments, interiors, exteriors. In an age in which photo books (and art projects in general) can asphyxiate from the limits of their own specificity, it’s inspiring to find a photographer who doesn’t primly fit into a box with a neat label. Which makes writing about Solomon’s work a challenge.

She has a new book “Polish Shadow” on the way (from Steidl), and I’m happy she was able to take time from her project to answer a few questions here. 2point8 in bold.

Q: Rosalind, your work is wide and comprehensive in that it spans not just decades and countries, but it encircles the girth of human experience, from birth to death, with quite a bit inbetween. Did you always envision a book as big as Chapalingas, or is it a compilation of smaller projects that grew into something larger?

When I started out, my goal was to create books of my projects. Tennessee Williams agent, Audrey Wood, loved my battered dolls and tried to get them published. She gave up after several publishers found them too disturbing. (They reminded Alice Walker of the murdered civil rights workers!) When my India work was scheduled for a show at Eastman House and the Smithsonian Institution, the curator hoped to publish a catalogue placing the pictures in the context of expeditionary photography. There was no catalogue, because Eastman House could not raise money for the project, so again there was no publication. Even when I had my solo exhibit at MOMA, “Rosalind Solomon, Ritual” there was inadequate lead time for a publication.

Chapalingas gave me a book debut, 35 years after I had begun making photographs. When I began choosing images for the book, I did not forsee how many images would make the final edit. My concept developed over two years as I worked to sequence the pictures. I wanted to reveal the scope of my work, my inner process and repeated themes. I thought that could be done best by showing relationships between images that transcend time and place. The chapter divisions became a device for sectioning and structuring both texts and images. I edited pieces from my journals and wrote new texts as I edited from an original selection of 1500 pictures. In the end, I chose 200 images for the book.

The Photographische Sammlung and Steidl published the book in conjunction with a major exhibit of my pictures. For several months I worked in isolation at the artists colonies, MacDowell and Yaddo, and it was during those residencies that a framework for Chapalingas took shape.

Q: What sustains your desire to combine travel and photography? Your work shows a dedication not just to people, or to documenting, but specifically to documenting people where they live, and showing the details of their surroundings. How has travel furthered your photography?

Margaret Mead was one of my early heroes. I dreamed of knowing and understanding other cultures. When I began taking pictures, I was 38. I lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the wife of a businessman and the mother of two children. My interest in international relations led me to establish the international exchange programs of The Experiment in International Living in the South. The organization arranged for me to live with a family in Japan for a few weeks, to qualify me to orient families who would be hosting Japanese students. During my stay with a family outside of Tokyo, I began taking pictures with an instamatic camera. Within a year I had a Nikkormat, and in 1972 I began studies with Lisette Model during my visits to New York. In 1975, my husband and I traveled to Sicily where I took my first medium format pictures abroad. In 1978, I began to travel alone. I concentrated fully on my photography in a way that was not possible at home Rugged travel wedded me to my work. Alone in foreign cultures,stripped of other roles, I stayed in touch with my gut. For me, part of the lure of photographing while traveling is getting closer to strangers and their lives. I began doing that in Tennesseee and Alabama, and continued in Guatemala, Peru, Nepal, South Africa, and most recently, Poland.

Q: Photography’s entered an age of speed, ubiquity and automatism thanks to digital cameras. In looking at your work, the consistency of technique is startling. Can you talk a bit about how you settled on the camera you use (30 years ago) and why you’ve stuck with 6×6, black and white?

The medium format camera satisfies me. It can be transported easily and is mechanically sound. My challenge is not format or color, but deepening my perception and range of ideas. I am interested in making expressive pictures. Black and white pictures work for me as poetry and metaphor in a way that color does not. I have tried color and I have tried digital. Neither gives me the sense of depth that I feel with black and white. Good images come slowly. 6 X 6 film is my “page”.

Q: You studied with Lisette Model. Was she a teacher of technical specifics or generalized inspiration? Did she point you in the right direction and say “go”?

I love performance (theater, opera, and film) and I think that they influence my vision. I am not conscious of drawing inspiration from a particular source when I work on the streets, though in Diane Arbus’ work, I saw the latitude that strobe gave with a medium format camera, and I chose that way of working.

In 1972, I found a place to go regularly and take pictures. and I have never found its equal. It is a market in Scottsboro, Alabama, situated on the courthouse square. I went month after month and walked around the square for a few hours. At first I photographed everything and anything, but gradually focused on dolls and people. Making close-ups of doll heads taught me how to get closer to people. In making some of my group interior shots, I function in the same way as I might on the street during a festival or fair. I position myself to frame and shoot, as though I am invisible.

Lisette’s critiques dealt with technique such as lighting, positioning to take a variety of pictures and print tonalities. She never questioned my subject matter or asked the meaning of my pictures. She taught me to go for my attractions and please only myself. Lisette had strong convictions about everything. She gave blunt personal advice. The essence of what she said is: You are an artist. You must be selfish and not give too much time to others. Marriage is a problem for photographers because they need to be free. Your children are almost grown. Your civic work is done. Your husband needs to spend some time alone. You must have the freedom to create your pictures.

Three Images:

Caroline and Bullet Hole

I met Caroline in the French Quarter and heard that she had lived in her car for a while. I saw her in the car and asked to take some pictures.

Text heading of ‘Wheels’ section from Chapalingas:
“I wanted to open the door and leave the rusted jalopy
He mumbled, ‘I might as well be a yak.’We could not go on.

White Bucket, South Africa

In this instance there is a story to tell.
The family had moved to South Africa from Rhodesia where the boy’s father fought against the revolution. They said that the housekeeper’s daughter was their adopted daughter. He had a corporate position working for better race relations in South Africa. The children were playing. The boy put the bucket over his head and I took a picture.

Bass and Bundle, Guatemala

The man was carrying life on his back, its burdens and its music. He appeared as an icon in the landscape.

Text heading of ‘Ropes’ section from Chapalingas:
“Ramon, strap my corpse to your white mule. Take my body up the Chavin trail.
Bury me in the Pojoc cemetery. Dress me in my photo vest and canvas hat.
Scratch on a stone to mark my grave, ‘She rode to the heights led by a stranger.

2point8 thanks Rosalind Solomon for her time. Text of this interview copyright 2006 Rosalind Solomon.

Three Questions for Alec Soth

I first saw Alec Soth‘s photographs at the Whitney Biennial in 2004, and unlike the rest of the work I saw that day, I remember exactly where the prints were — in which gallery, on which wall. In October of last year, Soth gave a talk in San Francisco, and showed a video that quickly described his working style. Soth is shown trying to persuade a passerby to be his subject. There’s snow on the ground, and Soth’s trying to convince someone he’s just met to stand still while he readies his camera.

Most of Soth’s work is done with a large format camera, and as such, might seem outside of topics related to street photography, but if you spend time with his portraits, they seem to be aligned with a street tradition, be it Sander, Arbus, or even some of Sternfeld.

Alec Soth, from “Dog Days, Bogata

Soth is a busy man, and Joerg Colberg at Conscientious recently transcribed a wide-ranging interview. To follow-up, I thought I’d ask him three questions about tactics, and am pleased Alec was able to take the time to craft a response.

2point8 in bold:

Your portrait subjects aren’t necessarily (capital “O”) obviously interesting.  They come across as *people*, first and foremost, rather than “people with crazy tattoos,” or “people with weird hairdos.”  When you decide to photograph someone, is it because you’ve seen something deeper that you want the camera to reveal, or do you gamble and hope the processes of photographing will reveal something in your subject that you haven’t yet seen?

I just try to stay aware of what catches my eye and quickly analyze my reaction. I ask myself, “Am I attracted because of the hair and tattoos or is it something deeper?” What do I mean by deeper? Sometimes I use the analogy of ‘across a crowded bar.’ Why are two strangers attracted to each other across a crowded bar? Of course some of this is a surface attraction (hair and tattoos again), but there is something else going on beneath the surface. You just know it when you feel it. When I’m out looking for pictures, I’m really just looking for that kind of feeling.

Near its core, photography is about timing.  Whether or not a moment is perfect, it’s still a slice to be put on a slide and observed.  When you’re photographing people (on the street or inside) your choice of when to trip the shutter is a *serious* decision, considering what it takes to set-up a large camera.  How does that decision happen?  Do you look at your subject at the moment of exposure from beneath the cloth, or do you poke your head out and see what’s going on, eye-to-eye?

As much as I’d like to, I’m afraid I can’t hide under the dark cloth. When the exposure is made there is a film holder on the back of the camera. So I’m out in the open looking at the person, but I’m usually not looking them in the eye. I wouldn’t say I’m seeking a ‘moment’. I’m just waiting for everything to settle. I like things still and quiet. I like the subjects withdraw into themselves.

In learning about your approach to your work, it seems like you’re open to your project telling you what it’s about, rather than vice versa.  How much of your work is a learning experience, in that you have these photographic/experiential goals, and within those, things may happen that change your course and show you something new?  Or shorter, how does the element of surprise or newness influence your projects?

Oh man, that is the whole game. I hate having the whole thing planned out. I mean, yes, I generally have a working plan. But things change dramatically. Discoveries are made. I could never be a filmmaker working shot by shot through a script. The whole process needs to be fluid.

Discussion: Gus Powell

Gus Powell, a NYC-based photographer, put out a great book of street photography a few years ago (with J&L Books) called “In the Company of Strangers“. I’m grateful that Gus was able to spend some time answering a few questions about his work, and street photography in general, to add to Discussions here. 2point8 in bold.

I admire your book, and as frustrating as it is not to find more work by you online, it’s also a pleasure. I have this great hard-bound book to thumb through. All of the photographers I’ve spoken with for 2point8 at least dabble in digital, and some are digital-only. Have you avoided the pixel rush, and how?

I am big on photo books and even though I had the benefit of growing up in New York and was able to spend a lot of time as a kid looking at the collection of photographs at the Modern and elsewhere . . . I think that almost all of my knowledge of the history of photography came from books. Though I love that there are so many pictures available to see online I still think that there is nothing like seeing a body of work in a book.

I do a lot of work with the digital camera but it’s all for editorial or commercial clients. I have tried to make my own pictures in the street with the digital camera, and continue to try to, but for whatever reason, real or imagined, I end up feeling like a pedophile. Even if I am taking a picture of a tree and a trash can I feel like a creep with a big lens and a mirror flapping away. I am sure that eventually the equipment will move on and there will be some sort of rangefinder camera that will do the job . . . and that I will be able to move past my Humbert Humbert feeling.

I enjoy the liberating quality of digital, the 400 plus slots open on the chip vs. the 38 on the roll; and also the ability to work in such low light . . . but I tend to overshoot . . . and I also feel like so much of what I learned about timing by working in the street gets thrown out the window. Rather than waiting for that one moment when things will come together and taking a single frame . . . I will tap the button four times and end up missing the moment. My favorite thing is when I come off of a few days of shooting digital for a job and return to film and do my own work. I am more willing to try and make a picture than I normally am with film and at the same time more careful than I normally am with digital.

There seem to be two strains of (peopled) street photography – the Arbus line of intimate portraits born from curiousity, interaction, and access; and the Winogrand line of composed chaos, stolen moments, and bodies in motion. Neither are mutually exclusive, and your work is in the latter camp. Did you deliberately choose that end of the see-saw, or did your interest in street work of this kind evolve over time?

I have always liked the extras in the background of movies . . . that little bit of humanity playing out in a landscape and informing what happens in the foreground. I have wanted to make pictures that are without an obvious protagonist and that become interesting as photographs while being made from insignificant moments in real time. There was a time when I had a square camera and tried to do some single protagonist environmental portraits in the street . . . there are a few pictures from that time that I am fond of, but making that sort of “bust” image has never been as exciting or pleasing for me as trying to make a picture of an entire “frieze” of people moving about. It seemed like a way of looking/describing that only photography could make possible. The idea that because all of this was stopped at this moment and because it now exists as a photograph you can look at all of these little details of gesture, fashion, and color . . . you can endlessly compare and contrast the different human beings that were only beside one another for a moment . . . that’s been something that I think I learned from Garry Winogrand (particularly his picture of the women on the bench) and later with Joel Meyerowitz.

There is the Winogrand quote: “I photograph something to see what it will look like photographed.” Which in the context of the type of images he made says a lot . . . given that the way the viewer of the print is able to read space, light, movement, and humanity in a way that it could not have been perceived at the moment the picture was made. There is always something that initially invites or seduces me to make a picture but then what follows is an effort to reject that very thing, to push it to the side of the frame and try to add more to the image or to simply compose that initial siren into a larger context.

In your afterward, you mention Frank O’Hara. Sometimes I think O’Hara’s output is less about the poems and more about Dedication to the Project. I had a friend who, when contemplating purchasing season tickets for baseball, said, “I’m going to have to go to a game on days when I don’t want to go to a game.” How are your lunchtime pictures a product of dedication to a fixed span of time & location, day after day?

The pictures I made are definitely a product of the time and space that they could be made in. Someone once noted that the fixed parameters of the project were a bit like the form of a sonnet or a specific rhyme scheme. I suspect this was brought up in part because of the project’s connection to O’Hara’s Lunch Poems . . . but I do think that I made a lot of pictures that I never would have made had I had more time and space available to me.

Almost all of the pictures were made on my lunch hours in midtown Manhattan while working a full time job. Some days I had a few hours and other days I had fifteen minutes . . . but each day I wanted to make something. This meant that my sensitivity was turned up . . . whatever that tick it is that one feels which inspires them to raise up the camera . . . it had to be sensitive to far less of an “event” than it would have been if I had all day to go out and make pictures. This directly led me to try and make pictures that were really of nothing at all. Where a “narrative event” might usually be something to want to point the camera at . . . a “light event” or “color event” might be all that the sidewalk would offer that day . . . and it would have to be enough.

I recently saw a small book (will track down name/photographer) by a young man who was so enamored with Frank’s “The Americans” that he took-off on a cross-country bus journey with his camera. In the preface, he talked about how he was advised to shoot color – that it HAD to be color. Can you say a bit about how your choice to work in color, and do you do your own color darkroom work? And is all this work 35mm?

Like most photographers who began in the pre-digital days I started in black & white and then moved to color. But I can’t say that I ever had much of a relationship to black & white. I work in color because I live in color and I am interested in making pictures that are of what I see rather than translating it an extra level by converting it to black and white. Some of my favorite photographers are black & white people (Robert Adams and Koudelka would be high on the list) and I get so much from their pictures but it’s still color that draws me to a place and to raise the camera.

All of the street work is 35mm and then there is the landscape and peopled landscape pictures (Lost & Found series) that are 120mm 6×7. I rent a color darkroom by the hour and do my own printing. The hardest thing is to try and make prints that I think reflect what I was seeing. There is a real impulse to make things more contrasty or punchy then they are in life . . . and I try to stay away from that even though it can be appealing. It’s a bit like trying to make a pie with as little sugar as possible . . . to be willing to let the fruit speak for itself.

Street photography can be a challenge, not just in its inherent difficulties, but in the sense of confrontation. You see something and the challenge is to step-up and capture it. If you miss it, you fail or get lucky. Books and gallery shows highlight the successes. Can you talk about how you work around failures or fallow periods?

I often think about how painters have the opportunity to show their sketches and that these images are judged by a different set of criteria then what their paintings are. Unfortunately photography doesn’t really have a space for that. We have good pictures and then all that other stuff. I keep trying to get people, (most of all myself) to view those pictures that are not winners as sketches. Often it’s those failures that lead directly to the success. Sometimes this has something to do with a composition you try out, or with working at a certain location at the wrong time, or often these “photographic sketches” are the important transitional picture that pushed you to move five feet to the left. There are definitely moments where a certain “bad” picture was what led me to move myself to the spot where the better picture was made. The latter could not have been made with out the former.

I think about baseball too . . . that a guy who can do something 30 percent of the time is considered a tremendous asset to the cause. The numbers are even lower for street photography . . .

And lastly it’s the act of making the pictures, the act of looking, that I like more than the rest of it . . . the editing, printing, showing, etc . . . all of that becomes a difficult and intellectual part for me . . . while the act of walking towards strangers with the light at my back . . . it’s intuitive and it makes me smile . . . and that moment is completely independent of the results . . .

“The Juggler”

This is one of those pictures that is a direct product of working within the constraints of the time and space that was available to me when I had a fulltime job. There is really nothing going on that “merits” being photographed. It was the reflected light (something I believe you call the “no flash corner”) that slowed me down and made me want to work at that spot, and then the mixture of folks who are passing through the space and others who are waiting in the wings to get onto the bus. The moment I chose is one that falls between two beats . . . where things are awkward but organized at the same time. . . and what you are able to see in the image can only be seen in the photograph. What I love about it is that there is really no obvious way to describe what is happening in the picture . . . and yet there is something about the way the information is presented that makes you keep looking at it.


This is a picture that I am not that crazy about on its own, but I do like the way it interacts with the picture of the woman that is opposite it in the book. The scale of the figure in the frame and the fact that he is all alone are both unusual for my pictures from the street and in many ways I think the image has more to do with the work that I am now doing in medium format. I like that there is something terribly specific about him, his gesture, his props, etc. and at the same time the story is incomplete. He is more representative of a type of person than a specific individual. I think this also reflects some of that interest I have in “extras” in the backgrounds of films. This is something that I have been trying to work on with in my recent work.


This picture was made directly across the street from the large statue of Atlas that is at Rockefeller Center. When I saw the seated shoeless man playing with the little blue ball it seemed like he was echoing the statue he was facing. It’s one of those images where the sidewalk has offered up something that is going be there for a little while so I enjoy trying to take advantage of that extra time and try to add something else to the picture. I pushed him to the side of the frame and waited for some other “event” to happen that I could build into the picture. In this case it was the folks greeting on another after leaving a funeral that had just ended inside the church. I often work in this way when i have “a fish in a barrel.” I have an image in the book that includes a woman passed out on the steps of the public library. On her own she was enough to make some sort of a picture of. But making that single protagonist picture is not very interesting to me. So I stuck around while she napped and eventually other “characters” walked onto the stage to make for a more interesting picture.

Thanks again to Gus. The Powell’s are winning 2-to-zip in surname discussion stats. Here’s more work by Gus, and even more.

Discussion: Mark Alor Powell

I don’t know how best to introduce this next interview, other than to say, if you appreciate photography, you should be glad a digital camera made it into the hands of Mark Alor Powell (website / flickrstream). Mark makes photographs of Detroit and Mexico City, and his work has widened my eyes considerably over the last few years.

Mark’s photos prove there are still new ways to address concerns that have engaged photographers since the beginning. When. How. Why. What for. His pictures are street photos and stoop photos and photos inside where-the-heck-am-I places. They’re honest recordings of people in the kinds of hidden spaces that exist behind rundown buildings, down paths you haven’t yet taken — somewhere near the crossroads of access and insight. I’m glad I got the chance to pose a few questions to Mark, and am grateful for the time he took in crafting his response. 2point8 in bold.

Detroit vs. Mexico City. Your photographs from both places are remarkably similar. Planet Powell, almost. The pictures are a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, regardless of whether they’re from the States or Mexico. Can you talk a bit about what each place means to your eye?

Detroit has so much imaginary space, most everything has been ravaged, stripped down in such a way that it is great to just be there and fill in these places that are looked upon as failures by most Americans, and photograph successfully on my own terms — using my imagination. For me Detroit is exotically dysfunctional. I love it and accept it for what it is.

There really isn’t any crowd to speak of in Detroit, so finding people and seeing them usually means they are contrasted heavily against backgrounds that are like nothing else one finds in normal “successful” US cities. Detroit’s space appeals to my own aesthetic of a person who grew up watching and loving apocalyptic films like Rollerball, Omega Man, West World, Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run. I really like to find myself in places that allow me to fantasize and let people move me to see their own expectations of themselves, within their reality, normal everyday things, then in turn creating new illusions and perspectives within an act of photography. Detroit makes this easy really, it gives me the feeling of “what happened here,” with its own lucid causes and effects of how the city has come to its current state. The city gives you a direct line to imagine it and see it–lots of useful “if onlys” and “what ifs” come to mind. It really appeals to my desire of seeing things otherworldly and fictional, a little like living inside an imaginary force field because once you cross Eight Mile, the city you feel and know as Detroit goes away.

Detroit really taught me to see things and people as temporary — eventually everything passes, becomes a ruin. Detroit is everywhere.

Mexico City is the polar opposite in terms of crowds, it is always full of people, so many personal realities mingling together can be rather confusing, hard to focus, yet certain scenarios, “the way I am seeing” patterns are always emerging for me and I like to see people the way they fall into place in terms of how I may be feeling on any given day. Wandering through Mexico City, its vastness of humanity and extremely dense scenes, is not unlike destinies of paths crossed between subject and photographer; it feels a lot like consciousness itself the way the city flows and presents itself to you.

My mood tends to manifest itself here more, turn outward — Mexico City can match any thought and offer it up anytime for examination and contemplation photographically — right in front of you really, you’ve just got to see it and feel it and be in touch with it internally. So really it is a lot more about receptive choice in Mexico City. Lots of options, just like picking bright oranges.

Disco ball man. Blue tarp man with the hat. Very Important bra woman. Your portraits are portraits not only because they’re often close-ups of faces, but because of what surrounds the subject; their environment. Do you pass-up photographing people who aren’t in intriguing settings?

I like to think that a setting becomes intriguing after the fact and seeing it later as a picture. When I pass up something it is usually because I’m not seeing it or feeling it or just plain have missed it.

The Very Important Bra woman photo is a lady that used to hang out behind the metal shop I worked at in Detroit. The bushes and trees in the background were places where she would have sex with people for money — she was the neighborhood whore. There are all these abandoned lots in Detroit; nature has reclaimed them, New Edens in abundant patches are reclaiming the city. The idea that she was having sex behind the shop was a little bizarre and I liked the setting for what it could offer as a photograph and commentary. I went out there to talk to her one day and she wanted to show me her goods, I didn’t really want her to go all the way because the picture would have become a little too obvious in her nudity, I liked the out of context result of seeing her in the black bra. It keeps the picture wider open for interpretation.

Disco Ball picture is of a gardener in Coyoacan — I see him often, and he and I are pretty good friends. In the garden, there just happens to be a lot of disco balls lying around because his boss produces events and puts on a lot of parties. One day we were talking about how he keeps in such great shape, he started showing me his exercises and I couldn’t resist having him show me near the disco balls. I like that the woodpile where the ball rests seems a little crushed, as if the ball came crashing down from the sky. It answers some compositional questions for me. The photo also has some very folkloric religious styling, yet without the prerequisite Virgin of Guadalupe you see in a lot of Mexican documentary photography. At the time I was using my canon G2 doing a lot of shots while not looking at how the picture was composed inside the screen, trying to discover interesting accidents.

The Blur Tarp Man was as simple as seeing him walking along from across the street. It just started to rain and I went running behind him, I got lucky with all the blue in the setting. I like that it is from behind, he becomes universal and can represent all the campesinos coming into the city to work or beg. A kind of country-meets-city super hero.

What I appreciate most about your images is that they’re decidedly “of the street” but they don’t look like they’re hit and runs; you’re clearly spending time with people. In fact, many of the portraits are indoors, as if you’ve been welcomed inside by these fantastic subjects into these remarkable interiors. There’s a layer of visible trust in the photos. Can you talk a bit about how you go about creating this?

I try to make people feel good about themselves. I like to tell little white lies to get into situations, using compliments and stuff. I just try to make people feel comfortable. I use anything to keep the focus off being photographed. I’ll tell people that I love their necklace or their shirt, or the painting on their wall, or say I got a pet just like theirs, or tell them about my uncle back home, I got to take a picture for my uncle, please, he has to see this. I’ve found that when a picture is meant for someone else, people seem to think it is all right for you to take it. Recently, I’ve been answering ads in classified listings and pretending to buy whatever they are selling, just to get inside places that would be impossible to discover otherwise. If I can’t make an impression right off, I suppose I could fall on traditional approaches, introduce myself, take no pictures, ask formal permission. I could always go back. People are always happier to see you a second time, right? Surprisingly I rarely go back, it just wasn’t meant to be. Though, if I can make a picture the first time, I like to go back and explore more. I really try not to force matters and just go with the flow.

Last year, Bob Dylan said he doesn’t give away his secrets. All of us have particular ways of working, and some of those we keep close to our chests. Your images stand out because they’re so different from ninety-nine percent of what’s out there. What do you think you’re doing differently from everyone else?

I don’t think I have any secrets, but what I do have is passion and a craving curiosity for adventure. I think the kind of photography I’m doing is fueled by my own personality. It becomes less about technique and more about expression and experiences. Everybody has their own deep choices they make while photographing.

This photo was taken in Iztacalco, Mexico City. I was visiting a friend, and on his street in front of his house, I noticed this taxi driver in a towel. It was in the middle afternoon so it was quite odd to see him there. This shot had no interaction on my part, in fact I had to be quick, so I took a hip shot. I saw the KISS t-shirt, but didn’t see the man with a handcart until afterwards. Iztacalco is one of those places that seem like everybody is sleeping inside their apartments, taking long siestas, not a lot of people on the streets, so situations really stand out over there.

This is from a series of photos I did showing American ex-pats living in Mexico City and who I had met through American Benevolent Society. Adam was battling schizophrenia and had a mouth full of bad teeth. We played pool together every Thursday and I volunteered to keep him company and talk with him. I helped organize a dentist for him to get dentures and went with him several times, held his hand until he was comfortable with the final painful procedure when the dentist pulled out some really black stumps. The photograph is from his last appointment when he finally got his teeth–it is really about him being reborn, seeing himself with a proper smile for the first time in fifteen years. I like this photo because it is ominous with the red reflected two-sided mirror, kind of him confronting his demons — he was often delusional about “lights, words, photographs” as he would call it. The police were spying on him; words would appear on his apartment walls, people were photographing him with bright flashes while he was sleeping. He told me he trusted me only because I was an American.

I met John in my neighborhood one day; he was doing odd jobs, mowing laws and stuff. I actually had quit smoking for a few months, he offered me a nice Kool menthol, I took it, he started to tell me he wanted to kill his girlfriend, strangle her, she had kicked him out of the house down in Alabama and he then worked his way back up to Detroit where is mom was living. He was pretty heartbroken. After our meeting, I really never wanted to see him again; he kind of spooked me out with his talk of murder. Well, it didn’t turn out that way, I continued to see him around and I found he was just a chronic liar and a drama queen with really fucked up stories to tell, he just needed some attention and maybe someone to listen to him.

I was really fascinated with his stories, he’d tell me these amazing fabrications, for instance, how he was the only white guy in the Mexican Latin Counts gang in Detroit, or if I wanted anybody knocked off, he’d help me, or how he shot his brother’s leg off because he found out he was raping his stepdaughter — that was true I found out later. He also told me he found his brother dead of a heroin overdose and dumped the body in the Detroit River. Never found out if that was true or not.

One day he knocked on my door and asked me if I could help him with a photograph. He wanted a picture of himself dressed as Rambo in order to advertise his new business that he wanted to call Rambo Constructions, with the byline—”Discount for Teachers”. The introduction was all I needed to start photographing him.

I eventually began to trust him as a friend and invited him to live in my shed behind my house for a while, that’s where I kept some chickens and they made good company and some great photos. We used to barbecue together and drink beers in my backyard late at night. I’d say goodnight and he’d go back inside the shed until morning came when he’d knock on my backdoor to let me know he was up. He started bringing all this stuff to the shed that he’d found in the streets and inside abandoned buildings. He had a pretty large collection of stuff — old lawn mowers, dishes, rakes, broken flashlights, and started making a home out there.

John loved to be photographed and he was someone who cried and laughed a lot, got drunk a lot, made dramas. He especially liked to listen to that song “I Want to Know What Love Is”, and sang it like a sick Romeo, a real performer who wore his heart on his sleeve in front of the camera. He eventually moved into my unfinished kitchen, set up a little cot and then later moved upstairs into an extra room for around four months.

John took me to his mom’s apartment one day on Detroit’s Southwest side, they argued the whole time they were together. She listened to John with her hand in the air, directly in front of John’s face to block her view of him. Yet, I could tell John really loved his mom and his mom loved him. Saying goodbye, they gave each other a warm hug, then John reached into his bag and gave her a gold rimmed plate he found that week.

The photo was taken inside the elevator going down to the lobby, on the day I first met John’s mom.

Discussion: Chuck Patch (part 2)

Here’s part 2 of the interview with Chuck Patch, a street photographer who’s excellent work I came across on Flickr. Part 1’s here. I’d like to thank Chuck for the time and energy he took in crafting his responses.

There are more of these interviews/discussions in the works, and hopefully a roundtable at some point. 2point8 in bold.

Lately I’ve been liking photographs that have mystery. The “wtf?” element. The longer it takes me to figure out what’s happening in a photograph, the more I’m intrigued, especially when everything’s clear, as if the photo’s pretending to be simple, at face value. Your pictures show an attraction to both humor and the unexplainable. Can you talk about the appeal of what’s never been seen before?

I think the wtf gene was in the original photograph pulled from the primordial slime. Despite all the stuff we can do with computer graphics there’s still something in anyone who looks at a picture that wonders if that was really there. And practically from the beginning there were those who manufactured it for the camera and those who just tried to find it for “real”. In still photography that question about reality is always there in some form. Even if it’s only to figure out how the photographer managed to coax something utterly abstract out of a medium designed to be anything but. Like if you’re looking at a Brugiere, you’re thinking, wow, he did that with a piece of paper and scissors. Obviously there are all sorts of ways of getting the feel of something discovered into a picture, but in the kind of photograph I’m most drawn to it often seems to be about revealing something, only it hasn’t quite yet been revealed, at least not completely, yet. My favorite pictures seem like little epiphanies, even if you don’t really know what the scene is about there is some kind of perfection about to happen, that has just happened or is happening. There’s a kind of anticipation that is less about seeing something that’s never been seen but seeing something that is just-right but only right now.

I like what you said here about this image. That describing a particular situation is “prosaic and probably disappointing.” In the new William Eggleston documentary, he talks about how photographs and words “don’t have anything to do with each other.” Thoughts?

I haven’t seen the Eggleston film, so I’m not sure I understand how he meant it. When I made that comment about the picture, I simply meant that there was nothing particularly wondrous about the situation. In this picture and a lot of others I suppose, the effect comes from what was left out while trying to make it look like nothing was left out. So you can’t see the stairs, or the parade or the hundreds of other people running around and even the other people on the same ledge, which you don’t really see either. Photographs and words may have nothing to do with each other but words certainly can have a powerful influence on how you see a photograph. Studiously avoiding the dispensation of information is part of the art of titling photos, even those that are untitled. My life seems so much more marvelous if you don’t know how boring most of these events were or how utterly uninvolved in them I often was.

How did your eye develop? I noticed that you were in your 20s when you took most of these shots. When did you start with photography, and who were you looking at for inspiration?

I started taking and developing pictures when I was 11, I think. My dad taught me how to use a darkroom. Of course I looked upon Popular Photography as the sine qua non to good photography until I was into my 20’s. I covered a lot of this ground in my answer to your first question, but I will say that as important as books and exhibitions were, an awful lot of influence at first came from a close friend and, I guess I would say, mentor who was part of that photo coop I belonged to. He was and probably still is a terrific photographer who steered me into this “straight” approach by persuading me to stop cropping images, to try to make prints that resembled the original scene as closely as possible in tonality and contrast. That led inevitably to the whole social landscape thing – Winogrand, Friedlander, then Evans and Atget, all of whom I found very difficult to understand, which made it all the more important to understand them. Since then I’ve tended to like pictures that are more like lyric poetry than grand opera. I’m spectacularly ignorant of the photography scene of the past 15 years or so, but the figures I look to now are people like Martin Parr or those guys on the In-Public site, at least one of whom, Nils Jorgensen, is posting on Flickr now.

What brought you to the place where you took this?

I had a friend who was in the Progressive Labor Party back in the early ‘80’s. They were a particularly rabid Stalinist group and my friend was forever trying to recruit me. I’ve never been a big believer in faith-based anything and the PLP always struck me as the closest thing I’d seen to a fundamentalist religion without being one. I went with his local party, or cell or whatever to a bunch of different demonstrations. This one was in South Milwaukee, where the local Nazi party was having a rally. This was a big Polish neighborhood and I think there was a significant Jewish population living in that area. I could be totally wrong about that. Anyway, there were loads of police and I probably shot about 6 rolls of film of people screaming and waving signs and banners and even a small skirmish between the PLP and the Nazis. I remember taking this picture because it was funny, but I also felt just like that guy: “here I am. This is really creepy and I sure hope nobody notices me!”

This was my first trip to New York as an adult. I had driven from Madison with a bunch of friends and we were staying in a huge, unheated loft in Manhattan in January. I was just wandering around lower Manhattan doing my Cartier-Bresson manqué thing, clutching my camera in my right hand with the strap wrapped around my wrist. I’m embarrassed to say I had even covered my camera with black electrical tape to make it less conspicuous, as if! I saw these women come out of a store and, here we go again with the disappointing explanation, one of them forgot something and had to run back and get it. I hung around the parked cars trying to look “inconspicuous” – I’m sure the electrical tape helped – and took two or three pictures. I didn’t even notice they were different species at the time. I was always annoyed that I didn’t get the bottom of the left woman’s shoe in.

Always take pictures that people point out to you. This was July 4th in DC, always a huge event and it was about 140,000 degrees with 175 percent humidity. My wife, then girlfriend, tapped me on the shoulder while I was shooting something in the direction of the Lincoln monument to point out this scene. I would never have seen it otherwise. I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened.

They had just opened a huge new hospital in Madison and were having an open house. I went to everything that had “open” on it in those days. The tour took you down miles of corridors and they had these little medical exhibits set up along the way. I have no idea what this guy is demonstrating, but I love the sunglasses and handlebar mustache. He was very obliging about posing.

Discussion: Chuck Patch (Part 1)

People fawn over flickr for good reason, it’s a simple and cheap way to get your photos online. The upshot is you can discover people who’ve done (or are doing) great work. When I came across Chuck Patch’s street photographs from the 70s and 80s, I thought, “who is this guy?” So I asked him a few questions. We’ll spread the answers across two posts. 2point8 in bold. (Part 2 of this interview is here.)

I remember coming across your (Old Silver) photos and wondering what the story was. How did you come to street photography, and why did you pursue it all those years?

These pictures were all made from prints, which means, by definition, that they were taken at least 10 and more likely between 20 and 30 years ago, since I haven’t really printed anything in about 10 years. The earliest date from around the time I was part of a photo coop in Madison, Wisconsin in the early 70’s and I was hanging around with a bunch of other photographers. It was great thing for me for a number of reasons, a couple of the most important being that we were all fanatical and that none of us, at least at first, were associated with an academic photography program. We ended up teaching each other the history of photography and every day it felt like being the first one to discover something. I started carrying a camera everywhere I went at that time and didn’t really stop until just before my son was born about 15 years later. The real mystery is why I don’t have more good pictures and the best answer is that I’m hopelessly fearful. I could fill about two gigs of storage on that site you have where photographers can describe the shots they didn’t take.

I actually never heard the phrase “street photography” until a few years ago. I’m sure the term existed back in the 70s, but I just don’t remember hearing it. My friends and I called it “straight” photography and the main thing about it was that in order to get a good picture you just had to be there. The idea of “making” photographs seemed ludicrous. Pictures happened. Your job was to record them when they did. That’s still my basic approach. When you always carry a camera you start seeing everything in photographic terms, and you start relating everything you do to photographic processes, or rather, the process of seeing things as photographs. It’s addictive. The problem was that I grew up and it became harder to do this. I decided while I was in college that I was never going to do this for a living. I don’t why I felt that way really, but somehow I simultaneously entertained the notion that I didn’t have the technical chops to do anything interesting professionally and that what I’d probably end up having to do would be really boring. The little bits of commercial work I picked up consisted largely of photographing bankers and real estate agents for advertisements. I hated the academic stuff I saw coming out of MFA programs even while I knew I couldn’t equal the technical skill those kids had picked up. And by the time I quit, I didn’t really know anybody I could show my new pictures to. It just seemed very insular and I began to feel that I was simply deluding myself into believing I had something I didn’t. I gradually stopped; by about ‘94 I wasn’t shooting more than a roll or two a year and sometimes no rolls a year.

Your work from that era was (naturally) in film. In your current work, you’ve been using a digital camera. Can you talk a bit about the benefits/hazards of both, without saying that digital’s great because it’s fast, cheap and easy?

A quick correction: the vast majority of what I shoot is film. That said, one of the things that pushed me back into photography was buying a Sony Cybershot about 3 years ago. It’s basically a snapshot camera, but I was surprised at how good the picture quality was. Besides, it was so fast cheap and easy. Sorry. But I could stuff it into a pocket and get decent pictures without hauling around a “real” camera. So for the first time in over a decade I started carrying a camera with me everywhere again. After that, the Leica went into the shop for repairs and a tune-up, and later I bought a student SLR from my son whose own interest in photography was helping fire-up mine again.

To be honest, I would probably shoot almost entirely digital, but I can’t really justify laying down the money for a camera that can equal the feel and handling of my 47 year old Leica. I have no religious affiliation with film; while I like the look of film, I really like the look of digital too. I love its clarity, the accuracy of the color rendition and the wide wide exposure latitude. The lack of dust and scratches on the negatives! I don’t think there’s anything magical about the film aesthetic. I don’t think black and white looks “more realistic”, and the argument that it’s more artistic or “expressive” just annoys me. And God help me, I have never thought the look of the grain was really neat. I like film for what it is and what it’s been, but to continue shooting film, especially black and white, which I’m sure I’m going to continue doing for a while out of pure habit, is like making platinum prints or something. It’s becoming an anachronistic technology and using it will increasingly be recognized as an affectation. There’s a place for that and a certain kind of artist who can make that work, but I’m probably not one of them. Or if I am it’s by accident because I’m too old of a dog to learn a new trick.

One thing I’m going to miss about film is its slowness. The time that elapses between when I push the button and see the picture helps me separate the hopes from the reality of an image. In some ways being able to see an image right away is just confusing for me. I like having a bunch of unprocessed rolls sitting on the shelf. It feels like money in the bank. Running 36, or 72 or however many frames through the scanner can feel like Christmas because you’ve had some time to separate from the initial moment and it’s like experiencing it again in a totally different, totally visual way. It’s one of the luxuries of not depending on this for a livelihood.

Particularly with street photography you can’t avoid the faster, cheaper, easier aspect of digital. I think of street photography as the garage band of the visual arts. Because it has the lowest technical threshold, a lot of people can participate and it moves the aesthetic back to the initial act of recognition, which I like. I know, it’s incredibly easy to Photoshop anything to death, and most of what you see is sterile dreck, but that kind of dreck has always been out there. There are also undoubtedly some new age Uelsmanns, but there are also a lot more people just shooting for the fun of it because the digital technology gives you really good images at much lower cost and where a lot of people end up going is out on the street, because of course, the street photographer is a romantic character. And then they put them up on Flickr (or whatever) where people from all over the world can tell them how wonderful their images are. Incredibly, many of them really are wonderful. So people who could never in a million years get even the smallest gallery to hang a show that about a 100 people might see now get thousands of eyes for 25 bucks a year or less. In the end, what is truly fascinating about digital photography is that it’s less an aesthetic than a social phenomenon that ends up fundamentally democratizing a medium that, as far as I’m concerned, was being strangled to death by the art school/gallery/museum complex. And surprise, there’s what looks like a resurgence of street photography.

Discussion: Raul Gutierrez

Here’s the first installment of Discussions. We’re kicking it off with Raul Gutierrez of Mexican Pictures. 2point8 in bold, Raul in plain text.

I like what you said about how it doesn’t matter if the street is on the other side of the world, but it makes me wonder about how street photography challenges what we know and what we don’t know. When you travel, does it help or hurt to be the outsider? Meaning, if you know your own backyard, by extension, do you know a bit about all backyards?

Unless I am photographing my own family or close friends I always feel like an outsider, perhaps because I am a product of several cultures, none of which I fit into neatly, or perhaps simply because I am a shy person. Travel can accentuate the feeling of being an outsider especially if I am ethnically distinct from the people I am amongst, or if I find myself in an environment that is foreign. But not always. I feel much more uncomfortable in a “normal” middle American home that I ever do in the third world.

Whether I have a camera or not I am always making photographs in my head. I do this when I walk out the door to the corner store and I do it when I am on the other side of the world. I see no difference. Sometimes the actual photograph infringes on the memory because of some technical or artistic limitation prevented me from capturing what I saw, but in my head the images are perfect.

We all have certain environments that excite us on a visceral level that allow us to do better work so that we can forget the technical and just make the pictures we already see.

I don’t know why I’m drawn to certain faraway spots on the map, but I’ve felt the pull most of my life. In a way, I feel taking pictures in those places is cheating because it feels easy. I much more admire people like Eliot and Mark who discover the surreal outside their front doors.

Can you talk a bit about how curiosity works–how it enables you to get deeper into the moment and closer to your subject?

Photography for me = emotion. So when I am looking for something to photograph it is my curiosity about the little mysteries I encounter that propels me to try to find a way to tell that story in a single image. This is one of the reasons I use wide lenses even when shooting people. When you shoot a portrait with a long lens you can sneak a shot of the subject from across the street. With a short lens that is impossible. You have to be physically close. Holding up a camera invites a reaction, possibly a confrontation. I find those moments of inflection hold small truths that suggest a more complex narrative.

There is a maxim in screenwriting: “get in late, get out early.” What it is saying is: get to the meat of the thing, go for the solar-plexus, but leave some unanswered questions. In photography you just have that one moment to tell the tale. The images that compel me most not only tell a story of a particular moment but suggest an entire world.

When I was in Asia, I thought about something you’d written; a tip to take photographs when you’re ready to leave, after hanging out for awhile, which says something about cultivating a particular kind of experience from which good photographs can emerge, rather than going in and trampling all over everything, uncaringly. I get the impression that when you travel you’re making as many friends as you make photos.

In the third world, the sight of a foreigner will often cause a stir. In these situations I leave my camera in the bag for quite a while because showing up camera ablaze and causing a ruckus leads to a certain kind of picture. Many will smile and pose. Some will frown and turn away. Some will ignore you. But I find in these moments people wear masks for an outsider. I prefer to hang out for a while, camera holstered. In most places this means drinking tea, sitting on a street corner, sharing dinner, or studying the items in the market. Some people will befriend you, some will forget you’re around, some will always be hostile. The masks, if not gone, are at least lowered, and the photographs I get are truer portraits of the people I encounter.

Where does street photography stop for you, or is it all wound-up in the same aesthetic? The horse festival, the photo studios – even though they may not be “on the street” per se, they have that street feel; something’s being discovered, you’re there in the midst of it, and you’re following something intuitive that leads to an unknown destination.

I would consider most of the photography on my site street photography as my definition of street photography is uncomplicated: ie “man with camera walks around with no particular destination and photographs what he finds”. Some have called my stuff documentary photography but my definition of documentary photography is that it must be undertaken with the goal of covering specific subject to reveal some truth. Travel photography I define as touristic. If it should be on a postcard, it’s travel photography. Some would say that travel photography, at it’s best, is the record of a journey or a place, but I can’t separate the term from the popular cliches of the genre.

Do you think a camera is a kind of license, and if so, what does it give you license to do?

I wish having a camera in hand gave me license to photograph all I encounter, but I try to be respectful and put the camera down when asked. Also there are cultural sensitivities to be dealt with. In Muslim countries I don’t photograph women for example. This said, I normally photograph first and ask later as the very act of asking generally breaks the moment. But as I noted I tend to hang out a bit before snapping a shot, so the number of people who have asked me not to shoot is surprisingly small.

In our culture, photography and images are cheap. They are everywhere. And yet oddly, many people in the West chafe at being photographed. In places with many tourists, people also chafe at being photographed because they feel exploited. Then there are places where images are rare, and personal photographs more precious still. In that third category of place, cameras have a special power, and people are unafraid to look into a lens. Still, I try to not just be someone who is just taking away images. I always travel with a polaroid and as much SX-70 film as I can carry. I snap polaroids and give them to my subjects as parting gifts. (an example) The only problem with this approach is that word travels lightning fast and soon everyone wants one. So my technique is to snap the polaroid, and while the crowd gathers to look at it, I quietly slip away.

As a sidenote, I was walking home tonight and saw the most amazing scene through a large basement window covered with a somewhat translucent curtain. A father was standing with a woman’s bathrobe over his shoulders staring at a television. At his feet two toddlers wrestling. The mom sat nude on the couch in all her chubby glory. It was surreal and beautiful and I could have easily snapped a picture; I wanted to take one, but I didn’t because I didn’t feel I had license.


This one is personal, not of the street. It was one of those images that just comes together in a flash. I was with my wife and baby at a wedding on a ranch in West Texas. The ceremony was finished and we were waiting for an old school bus to take us back to the ranch house for the reception. My baby wanted to breast feed and there was no waiting… so my wife walked with him into the woods and knelt down. Just then the clouds parted bathing the place in spectacular yellow light. I snapped one picture, the last on the roll. My wife hates the image by the way.

This is an illustration of my “hanging out” method. I had been playing ball with these kids for much of the day. When a fellow traveler came along (a friend from the road) they completely forgot about me and rushed him.

This is another perhaps more typical example of the technique:

This is a picture of a father and a son, both horsemen. The father had been negotiating the sale of a horse for an hour or so and I had been observing and joking around with the buyers. When the son showed up, the father brought him over to meet me. The boy was a bit sheepish and grabbed his dad with a big hug. I quickly snapped this picture. They didn’t flinch. I don’t think I could have taken this image an hour before because I wouldn’t have had the trust of the father.

I’d like to thank Raul for his time and generosity. There’ll be more discussions/interviews like this, soon.