This is another installment in our continuing series where we talk to photographers whose work we’ve appreciated on Flickr.
This week we feature gumanow.
cinemafia: Many of your photographs are done in the street photography vein and are taken in public at close proximity to strangers, often with them obviously aware that you are photographing them. Many people would find this kind of photography uncomfortable or impossible, yet others seem to thrive on it. What does this overt process mean to you, and how do you think it affects the people who see the end product?
gumanow: First off, let me say that I am honored that you and discarted have selected me for this interview. Thanks!
I would have to say that I thrive on getting close. Sometimes now I wish I could get even closer. Yeah, many photographers find it uncomfortable to shoot close. A lot of the time my subjects think I’m shooting behind them or they got in my way and are sorry. If they do see me, I usually give them a nod or smile. Most of the time this disarms them – I did say “most” of the time!
When I first started out shooting street I was uncomfortable with getting close to people. I started out shooting from the chest without the camera to my eye, however, this lead to a lot of very poor results. This was one of my first street shots of people. You can see in this shot by the position of my shadow that I don’t have the camera up to my eye. I shot this from my chest and you can tell by the level of the perspective. Now I shoot exclusively with the viewfinder to my eye. I still feel nervous, uncomfortable, scared, and my heart races. But after the first few shutter clicks I feel right at home and energized.
I’ve heard from a lot of beginning street shooters that say if you get close you are interfering with the “slice” of life you are trying to capture. And while I’m striving for that slice, sometimes being a character in the shot is interesting as well – and that interaction with people. By putting the viewfinder to my eye I am in effect saying, “I’m taking your picture!” I’m not going to hide or pretend that I’m not. How they react to me is just as much part of the “slice” as anything else.
I’ve also seen a lot of shots using a telephoto lens from far away and the photographer still gets noticed. My approach is to get into the action, be a part of the street scene. Most of the time people don’t notice me and when they do, I try to get the shot in that split second between when they first notice me and when they react. Sometimes a glance your way can really make the shot.
Affecting people who see the end product? I think it affects people differently. As a street photographer, and consumer of others’ shots, I try to look at the shot from the shooter’s point of view. I try to get an understanding of what it might have taken to get the shot. For the casual viewer I don’t think they pay attention too much to how close you are to the subject. They shouldn’t have to. Even in war photos, I don’t think the general public understands how close the photographer is to the subject.
cinemafia: Street photography, as the genre is commonly known, has become very popular in recent years, especially with the rise of websites like Flickr and magazines like JPG. This means that there is a larger base of people contributing to and experiencing street photography, perhaps not always with the same intention or in the same context that the “old masters” of the genre brought to the game. Do you think that street photography today is as meaningful today as it was 30 years ago? How do you think street photography fits into the fabric of human culture?
gumanow: Absolutely! I think street photography is just as meaningful today as it was 30 years ago. I grew up in New York City and remember those streets that Friedlander, Winogrand, and Meyerowitz shot back then. I remember the smell and the feel of those streets. I can remember the stench of piss and rotting food in the alleyways or subways on a hot summer day. I can remember buying my first new camera in 1974 at 47th Street Photo and walking through Times Square fearing for my life with $400 in my sock. I think there is a feeling of nostalgia I get when I look at the “old masters” work.
Thirty years from now, we’ll look back at the great street shooters of today and see people talking on mobile phones, carrying bottles of water, texting, the clothes we wear, etc. We’ll put it in context of the bigger world, what was happening. Look at Frank’s work, and you have a portrait of America that shows how we really lived in the 1950’s, not what was spooned to us in Life or Look magazine. I hope we’ll see street photography in this way in the future. It’s not so much a documentation of the time and place, but more about how we interacted, lived, dressed, and dealt with our fellow man/woman.
cinemafia: Often I’ve found that professional photographers use street photography as a form of relieving stress, a way to get away from the confines of commercial photography and just get out in the world and break some rules. However, it seems that the industry may be absorbing some of the characteristics of street photography into commercial work. Do you believe that street photography can be a means of living, perhaps even a lucrative one?
gumanow: Yeah, I see commercial photography blending in some street stuff as well. I’ve also seen some wedding photographers shoot in a street style. I think I remember you telling me you were asked to do a wedding because of your street style, and that is awesome that people see street as an accepted style. Would love to see the results of that!
If you can make a living at commercial photography and you love doing it, that’s great. For me, I like to mix it up with pinhole and medium format urban landscapes. This gives me a break from street shooting sometimes. So I would have to say I don’t see street shooting as being lucrative on its own. I think if you can find a way to use your street shooting style and transfer those skills over to commercial, wedding, or portraiture, then you’ll have a better shot at some cash, something that the masses would hang on their wall. There are probably just a handful of photographers that have made money doing any type of photography, and I don’t think street is lucrative by any stretch of the imagination.
cinemafia: Your work is done on film, which for the most part has crossed the point of being the default medium in professional photography and gone over into the realm of legacy, amateur and art photography. Do you see yourself as an advocate for the continuing use of film in the professional arena, or perhaps simply a traditionalist? Or something else entirely?
gumanow: I guess calling film “art” is a compliment … but legacy and amateur? Did painting and drawing become legacy and amateurish when photography came on the scene? Maybe I should be more of an advocate for film? Maybe I should give up the typewriter I’m answering these questions with? (I can be so sarcastic sometimes!)
I’d like to think of myself as more of a traditionalist. I love the feeling of film in my hands. I love the whole process of rolling it, shooting it, waiting for it, developing it, seeing it come out of the tanks, printing it, and sharing it with others. I think we are seeing a resurgence of people doing things like knitting, sewing, and painting. I believe we’ll see a resurgence of people using film to do their art photography as well. I’m currently helping/working with several photographers in my own darkroom that have made the move back to film. I really enjoy turning people on to the darkroom.
Here’s the other side of the story. As a kid growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I always dreamt of being a photographer someday; I had a darkroom when I was eight years old with my dad, and now share my darkroom with my kids. I poured over magazines and books of photography. I studied National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Life, and Look. When man landed on the moon and I saw the first photos of the earth from space, I was blown away and wanted a Hasselblad. When I saw the work of Feininger, I wanted a Leica. Of course, the camera doesn’t make a great photographer, but try telling a teenager that a new pair of the most expensive Nikes don’t make you jump higher.
Well, I’ve worked my whole life, always buying stuff for my kids (and ex-wife), and never really bought anything for myself. My loving second wife “made” me go out and get myself a Leica M-series since I’ve wanted one my whole life. She’s a great, dear person, wouldn’t you say? With the price of film cameras falling, thanks to digital, I could finally afford one. In fact, I went out and purchased a Rolleiflex about four months ago. I still have my eye on an Hasselblad SWC though! I figure the investment in M-series lenses will convert over to an M-series digital rangefinder in the future. Wishlist: A full-framed M-series rangefinder so that I don’t have to give up my focal lengths. Pet-peeve: Digital focal length conversion factors.
cinemafia: Do you have any words of advice for photographers who may be considering taking up street photography for the first time? Or for those considering shooting film for the time?
gumanow: Read, look, consume everything you can about street photography. Find a street photographer that you enjoy. Try to see how she/he got the shot. Did they shoot it straight on? What was the focal length? Where did they place themselves? Understand how your camera is going to react in different situations. A game that I play in my head is “Guess the Exposure.” OK, sometimes I don’t do it in my head, and I involve my wife … she thinks I’m nuts. I don’t care if you have automatic exposure (AE), program mode, or whatever other mode. Get to know and understand light. Here’s how you play: As you are walking down the street, or as you walk out of your house or apartment, guess the exposure you think your light meter is going to give you based upon Sunny 16. If you don’t see a shot for a while, figure out the exposure in the shadows, in the bright spots, behind you. Always be doing something that is going to help you out when you need to react fast to something. Another good game is “Guess the Distance,” between here and that light pole. How did you do? By doing this, you will become better attuned to changing conditions and can react to whatever is happening in front of you, or behind! Sometimes the best shot is right behind you; never underestimate that!
Also, take it in steps. You don’t have to go out and immediately get close to people. It does take some warming up. But you should realize that getting good street shots involves getting into the action, not from the sidelines. Put away that telephoto or portrait lens. You’ve got to take the bumps and elbows if you want the good shots. (Sorry for the basketball reference again) Once you feel comfortable, use a wide-angle lens so that you can get more of the scene, and get close.
Expect confrontation: What are you going to say? Are you going to make up a story about a photo class? Are you going to tell the truth? Are you going to give them a compliment? Is it even safe to take this picture? There are certain shots that I just don’t take. Once you get in the groove you’ll know which to take and which not to take. It’s a matter of personal choice, comfort, and statement. But most of all be ready with what you might say. Know your rights and stand up for them. You have the right to take pictures just as much as the government has the right to take pictures of you from the tops of buildings without your consent.
Shooting film for the first time? I would recommend a good high-speed film, at least ISO400. Anything less and you aren’t going to have enough exposure latitude for shadowy areas. Get to know your film. I would recommend staying with one film for some time. Get to know what it can do and what it can’t. I’m shooting Ilford HP5+ right now and buy it in bulk, 100’ at a time. I usually buy five rolls of 100’ at a time. This saves on shipping costs. I’ve gotten my cost down to about $1.50 per roll.
Get to know your camera and all the settings. I highly recommend a manual camera with a 28mm or 35mm lens for good street shooting. Get comfortable with light and metering. A good manual film camera will last you a life time.
But most of all, have a good time. If you aren’t having any fun, go read a good book.
To see more of gumanow’s work, go here.
Interview by cinemafia.