Tell us a little bit about how you got started in street photography. What made you decide that that is the genre you wanted to explore?
I moved to Los Angeles several years back to pursue screenwriting, so storytelling has always been a passion of mine. I picked up street photography as another way to explore narrative expression, using a different medium. Photography seemed like a natural progression for me. A couple years ago when I first started shooting on the streets I had no idea it was an actual thing. It wasn’t until a friend mentioned I was shooting “street photography” that I began to research the craft, realized what I was doing and of course, fell in love with the whole culture and history of the process. I spent an entire Summer, almost daily, shooting downtown. I then stopped for a year to pursue other endeavors. I recently began shooting again, and have rediscovered my passion for it.
Is photography your primary occupation or do you have a 9 to 5?
Photography is just a hobby. I spent twelve years in Asset Protection in San Diego, then moved to L.A. to pursue writing. I’ve had some modest success, but it never turned into anything substantial. Eventually I decided to return to college to finish my undergrad, after taking the last 20 years off to work. So now, going to school full time gives me an opportunity to shoot again for fun.
When you do street photography do you photograph casually while walking around or do you step outside with only your camera and the goal to be entirely focused on finding photographs?
As much as I’d like to claim I shoot casually and without scheduling, I don’t. I have a wife, two kids and a really tight schedule, so when I book time to go shoot the streets, it’s a focused, time sensitive endeavor. In fact, I’m not one of those street shooters you see casually meandering along the sidewalks, smiling and taking it all in. When I start, I’m on a mission and completely focused. It’s strange, because I never wanted to be that kind of personality when I’m in a creative space. I see so many other shooters taking their time, slowing down, chatting with people, taking in the sun. For me it’s like, get the fuck out of my way! I never intended to be that guy, but when I’m shooting, I’m there to work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m having an insane amount of fun while I shoot, and I don’t take myself or my work too seriously, but when I’m shooting I’m shooting. I’m not there to do anything else.
Are there days when you just do not feel like photographing?
As a writer and creative person in general, of course there are days when I don’t want to create. It’s the curse of all creative people -- making the time to get it done. So yeah, there are days when I don’t want to shoot, but the writing cliche applies to photography too; I don’t shoot because I want to, I shoot because I have to. I’m always on the lookout for my “white whale” when shooting, it’s part of an internal game I play with myself. It keeps me inspired to move forward. Every time I’m out there I stumble across a new story, a memorable moment, or unique person that inspires me to keep shooting. So despite the days I don’t want to hit the streets, I know I can’t live without it anymore. It’s a cathartic, cleansing experience for me now and shooting the street is always on my mind, no matter what I’m doing.
What kinds of things/events/people are you attracted to in the street? What makes you think: “okay, this is the photograph I want to get”?
I try not to get caught up in expectations or defining what makes me think “this is the right shot”. I feel once I start defining the parameters or ingredients for a photo, I’ve stifled my creativity. It’s important for me to maintain a complete openness to the moment, which is something I work on in life, not just shooting. I think being open to the impermanence of life is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s the experience of being open to constant change that has given me my ability to capture it when I see it on the streets.
Though I only started shooting a couple years back, I’ve spent over a decade working on being present to life, and available to the people and moments around me. So when I stumbled into street photography, it was easier for me to notice the spontaneity of life at any given moment. I think having already worked so hard at being present gave me a better sense of how things transpire on the streets. I can see a moment about to unfold just in time to capture it. It’s part of why I’m not the guy, as explained earlier, who can just meander, chat and “maybe” get a shot if it comes along. When I shoot, I quickly try to immerse myself into my surroundings, from shot to shot.
Do you think that street photography that is not in some way confrontational stands a chance at being interesting?
I think what a street photographer considers immersion and being present in the moment is thought by many to be “confrontational”. So we need to first step back and reassess the words we use when discussing the craft. I would never use the word “confrontation” as it obviously implies negative aggression. I’m not trying to put lipstick on a pig, but it’s important that people new to this form of photography understand that getting close to our subjects and capturing the narrative is paramount to the creative process. Whenever someone uses confrontation when describing street photography, or begins the personal space rhetoric, I point out the historical, artistic significance of work we see in our local museums. It was the same so-called confrontations that gave us work by Gilden, Winogrand, Meyerowitz, etc. To deny their ability and freedom to insert themselves into the moment, denies humanity of the very art we covet. It’s a misunderstood craft in that aspect. We don’t want our space invaded in public, but we want to admire and cherish the work created from that same so-called “confrontation”. With that said, no, you don’t have to be close to get amazing shots. I’ve seen countless images by amazing photographers who shoot from a distance and capture the same brilliant images as those I just mentioned.
Would you ever use a telephoto lens in the street?
I don’t personally use telephoto lenses for street, and I know it’s an age old debate. For me, it’s another parameter people like to insert into the craft. I have no idea why photographers debate over shit like this to be honest. Who cares what anyone uses to capture street photography? I certainly don’t. With that said, I’ve never seen a street shot taken with a telephoto lens that I liked. It’s just not appealing to me, but that’s personal taste and we all differ in that respect.
When it comes down to it, the camera itself is just a tool I use to capture and share a moment with others. If there was a way to do this without a camera at all, I’d sign up for that technology. Some photographers worship their cameras, lenses and other equipment, but that’s just not an important part of the process for me. I’m only intrigued by capturing unique moments I can share with people. If I can capture a moment using a toilet paper roll and saran wrap, then I’m ok with that.
How do you push yourself to get closer, to get the shot? How do overcome hesitation?
I think it comes back to being available for unique moments. I’m in the Bruce Gilden camp when it comes to getting close. I have no inhibitions in that sense. I’m also 6’3 and 250 pounds, so there’s no way my subject misses me. There are some photographers who can be a fly-on-the-wall, like Bresson. They can just float around and capture from a distance. I’m not that guy, you see me coming, so I just roll with it and shoot. I do try to get close, but only as close as I need to in order to capture the moment or subject the way I think will best tell the story. If that means from across the street, or up in your nose, then so be it.
However, I’m not a dick about it. I mean, I’m going to get close, but if a subject loses his shit, I’m going to do my very best to defuse the situation. I’ll discuss the shot, who I am and what I’m doing. I never want to walk away leaving a subject angry, that’s just not cool. But I’m not going to stand there and be abused, or spend 30 minutes explaining myself either. I’m generally very nice about the whole thing, but sometimes a subject just refuses to listen to reason, or has no interest in the rights the law provides me as a street photographer. That’s when I just walk away.
With that said, is photography introspective and meditative for you or is it energy filled and intense?
I don’t think these are mutually exclusive emotions when I work. When I’m out there, I might be in a meditative space for sure, it’s the only way I can stay present to capture anything that comes up. However I do it with energy and focus. I move pretty quickly and don’t stand anywhere for too long. The energy in any one spot seems to ebb and flow, so I like to move forward whenever a spot on the street loses momentum. I like to be in thick of it, the hustle of the street. I think I accomplish it with a mix of those things, not one or the other.
Walk us briefly through your mental process as you are working in the street. What thoughts are running through your mind?
Man, I’m not sure anyone wants to know what’s going through my mind when I shoot. I would equate it to a Jackson Pollack painting, in the sense it’s totally erratic and moving. My eyes are everywhere, my pulse is off the hook and I’m in a really creative, explosive space. Sounds weird when I say it that way, but it’s true. Every street photographer understands the split second. It’s that split second that makes the difference between a brilliant shot, and complete shit. Sometimes, the best shots come when you can see the moment before it happens. So for me, this requires being quick and meditative at the same time.
There’s a shot I recently grabbed of a man walking by another man in a wheelchair. They were only yards apart and I had to sprint across the street, line up my shot and capture it just as these two people came together. I need to be sharp and ready, so my mind is constantly searching, hunting for the next shot when I’m out there. This is part of the excitement for me, as I’m sure it is for most street photographers.
You offer prints for sale on your website. Do people seem to be inclined to buy your work? Do you think that there is a viable market for street photography?
My first solo show was at Blackstone Gallery, in downtown Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to sell several pieces from that show. I’ve also sold some work from my website, but it’s rare. Selling street photography is difficult, unless you’re one of the big daddies I suppose. But I’ve never met a street photographer who’s in this to sell their work. I mean, it happens, but most of us do this because it’s a lot of fun. If we can sell a shot here and there, awesome, but I don’t put much effort into that part of the process.
I do plan to start printing a lot of work at the end of this Summer. I have a lot of new images I’m going to share, print and have for sale. But again, it’s really a bonus and not something anyone should expect. I don’t remember who it was, but someone once said street photography doesn’t sell because no one wants a picture of some stranger hanging on their wall. I thought that was an interesting perspective. I do a lot of street portrait work, close ups of strangers, so I get that. I know others who do a lot of HCB type work, where it has a very artistic, wide use of shadows, distant subject appeal that resonates more with buyers. They seem to sell pretty well, and even though that style does not appeal to me, maybe it pays for that photographer to keep shooting, and that’s always cool.
The last century produced some legendary street photographers. How come contemporary shooters are not celebrated? Do they not have the same dedication to the craft of street photography? Do they not yet have substantial bodies of work? Is street photography not considered a serious art form anymore?
I would argue there are more amazing street photographers now than any time in its history. However, I think the congestion of images being shared, and the availability to view images in a growing market of image-sharing websites has saturated the market. As a result of this, maybe we’re just overwhelmed by the constant stream of images pushed in our face on a daily basis.
I think as a society maybe we’ve become desensitized to art in general from this phenomenon. In the decades prior, we had to work a little to find the exceptional artists, we had to go buy a book, or drive to a gallery to see our favorite author, shooter or painter. Now, we can find him in the time it takes to click on Google, and, living in a society where speed trumps patience, many will click through a series of Moriyama images like they’re slamming down a Big Mac.
I also think there’s such an influx of camera phones now, everyone is essentially a photographer, or thinks they are anyway. It’s difficult now to push through all the garbage online to find that gem. But, those gems exist, and when you take the time to search through a thousand so-called photographers on sites like Flickr, you’ll find that one guy who just blows your mind, the real deal. I’ll spend hours on these sites sometimes, just to find those photographers, and they’re out there. You just have to find them, and that’s difficult in a world where we expect everything immediately. So we can’t say the best photographers existed years ago. The best photographers are here and now, but you need to go find them and take the time to enjoy their work. I guess what I’m saying is, slow the fuck down.
There’s also the argument of editing. Too many photographers who are good, share way too much online. It’s important to edit your work down to the very best and only share that. But again, the access and ease of sharing has become second nature to us as a society, so we just share at will, losing those special gems in our batch of images. I think too many good shooters surround their best work with crap. I’m guilty of it too, but I’m actively working on slowing down the images I share, and it’s really helped.
As for street photography being an art form or not, I’m not going to answer that because it’s not my place to judge what is, or what is not art to someone else. There are some shots by Koudelka I think are more artistic than any Picasso, but art is subjective and the “art or not” discussion is a trap no street photographer should ever get caught answering. You’ll always get it wrong.
Why is street photography important, if at all? Is it just about pretty images or is there more to it? What is, in your opinion, its value? Is it documenting the state of humanity at a certain place at a particular time? Is it to elicit emotion?
I think this falls into subjectivity again, but personally, it’s all in the process for me, not the result. It’s nice that some people enjoy my work, but in all honesty, when I’m done taking the image and editing it, I’m moving on to the next moment. I guess what I’m trying to say is, the importance of street photography to me is the experience of being there, and capturing the moments and people that intrigue me. As I mentioned earlier, I’m also a writer, so I might have a different objective when I’m out there. I’m looking for the story, where shit gets nuts and people do the unexpected. There’s art in that moment when I capture it in my camera. After that, who knows? The image just becomes a record of an experience I had, and the experience of the subject or moment I captured. It all happened there, and you missed out on the good stuff as an observer of the image after editing. But at least, as an observer of the image, you get a taste of what really transpired, and that makes me happy.
What are your plans for the future? In what direction are you going to take your street photography?
This is a hobby for me, so I have no expectations. I don’t want to corner myself into a certain way of doing things. I’ve done that before with other endeavors and it became stale and tiresome. So to keep it exciting, I don’t set limitations or expectations on my street photography. I’m currently working with another photographer on starting a collective. I’m also planning another show for the end of the year. I might also have a deal with a publisher in Europe, if they can find the dough to make it work, but I’m keeping it all in perspective. For now I’m just enjoying the ride and having a blast wherever my camera takes me.