Richard Bram: In Color!

Richard Bram, long-time member of iN-PUBLiC, is renowned for his black and white street work, but has recently seriously begun making color street photographs. The premiere exhibition of this new direction will open Thursday at Lunasa in NYC and run through the end of August.

126 First Avenue (between 7th and 8th Streets)
New York, NY

In anticipation of this show, Richard and I discussed his career, the new work and the recent popularity of street photography.

It seems like its been nothing but change the last few years. How has coming to NYC impacted your work on the street? I moved from LA to NYC where there’s a noticeable difference in activity on the sidewalk and in public. I imagine London and NYC are a bit more similar, yet likely entirely different in their own ways too.

The way I work and what I choose to shoot hasn’t really changed at all. I’ve always worked in New York and was usually here once or twice a year while I was London-based. In some ways, it is easier to work on the streets here. It is so crowded that no one notices another guy with a camera in a city swarming with tourists. It is more relaxed in terms of walking around with a small camera and making photographs than it seems to have become in London. I have recently spent quite a few sunny afternoons working on a couple of corners in SoHo, making photos very close-up of shoppers and tourists. No one takes any notice other to occasionally grumble about my standing in the way.

However, the mood is more suspicious than it used to be in both cities. There are a lot more ‘No Photography’ signs everywhere. After years of the government telling them to always be afraid, that the Terrorists are everywhere, the general background level of paranoia is higher. The police generally have better things to do than bother with someone suspiciously taking pictures of the Empire State Building or a Papaya Dog storefront, but the ever-increasing private security guards are more hostile and full of themselves than they used to be. They seem to feel, as they do in London, that they own not only the territory of the building that hired them but the public sidewalks around as well.

New York and London are very similar in the most important way in terms of Street Photography: they are dense. The sidewalks are filled with people on foot at all hours. The physical structures of the two cities create entirely different moods, though. London is a low city, rarely more than five or six stories anywhere. The streets are generally narrower and more irregular. This gives it a calmer, quieter atmosphere then the tall, vertical grid of New York. The streets themselves are often wider here but feel smaller and tighter. Manhattan can be almost overwhelming: There are more neuroses on view per square yard than any place I’ve ever been.

“There are more neuroses on view per square yard than any place I’ve ever been.” Is that something you’re looking for when you’re shooting? I know generally street photographers don’t have an agenda when they shoot, however, I know that often you’ll notice patterns in your work that might hint at something your unconscious might be interested in pursuing.

Consciously, I don’t think so. But as I said last year in the interview portion of Nick Turpin’s “in-public in-sight” film, New York City may be the most extroverted place on earth: Everything is just out there for everyone to see and hear. Walk a little bit in any direction on a busy avenue and you’ll see every sort of person imaginable from all walks of life. It’s certainly what makes life here interesting and often exhausting. I’m not sure it is something that I seek directly in my photos, but it is something I notice when I’m out in the city. People are wound up, maybe it’s job pressure, the crush, the lack of private space, the dirt, the unrelenting noise, lack of sleep, social pressure.

I do think that my state of mind at any one moment shows in the photos, as they do in the photos of anyone who shoots regularly or expresses themselves via the visual arts. Looking through contact sheets, what is on view is the psyche of the photographer as much as the subjects of the images. One particular example springs to mind: In September 1997 I had living been in Britain for three months, adjusting to being married, in a new life in a new country. My friend Susan Lipper was in town and I asked her to take a glance through my contacts from those first weeks. She quietly looked them over and said that while she saw some very good images, mostly what she saw in them was distance, anger and alienation, which pretty well summed it up.

This relates to a couple of inter-related themes that I do see crop up in my work: couples and the ‘odd person out,’ often both (or should I say all three) in one photo. Often in my life, I’ve felt as if I were that third person, the one who doesn’t fit, so I tend to notice it in others when I’m watching people.

The anecdote about Susan looking at your photographs is interesting because I’ve run into that as well, where people will tell me that my photographs evoke emotions or ideas that I never thought of. I kind of shrug it off, and say, “I suppose” but I also see what they’re saying. It’s interesting. Clearly feedback is extremely important, and you’ve had the benefit of being surrounded (virtually!) by some of the most interesting street photographers working today. How has being involved with iN-PUBLIC impacted your work?

The impact has been both virtual and literal. Living in both London and New York, I’ve met nearly all my iN-PUBLiC colleagues in person, and in London we’d get together regularly at a Clerkenwell pub for drinks, a meal, and lots of conversation. Here in New York, our interactions are different. We do contact each other and get together individually to see an exhibition or for dinner or a drink, but rarely as a group.

Being involved from the very early days with the photographers of iN-PUBLiC has had a tremendous impact on my work. First of all, having a community of like-minded shooters, all dedicated to keeping the standards of our genre high sharpens one’s critical faculties. This is the hardest and perhaps the most important part of being a serious street shooter – learning to edit, to know a great shot from a good one, and an ordinary one at a glance. All of those ‘if only,’ ‘almost,’ and ‘except for’ shots go right into the bin.

One thing that has certainly happened because of my involvement with iN-PUBLiC is a shift in my style, away from the ‘visual one-liner,’ to more complex images with greater emotional ambiguity. While I think my sense of humor still comes through in a lot of my more recent photos, both content and compositional style have shifted a bit, less formal and balanced, dealing more with chaotic situations, but not losing control. It’s a very fine line between just random pictures of people on the street, no matter how close one may be, and something with real content. This is the mistake most would-be street shooters make: A photograph taken on the street is not necessarily a Street Photograph. Just faces along the sidewalk, no matter how sharp and pretty the light, is not enough: The best photographs work on more than one level. My fellow iN-PUBLiC members have helped me see that.

They have been and continue to be a source of blunt, sharp critique that keeps me on my visual toes, as I hope I am to them.

It’s been just over 10 years since in-public arrived on the scene, and in that time we’ve sort of witnessed an explosion in the popularity of street photography, which has been partly fueled by the internet, and places like Flickr. As with anything, it’s brought about some great things, and some not so great things. What are your thoughts on the current popularity of street photography? Do you look at more street photography now because of the web? Has that influenced your work? Added new sources of inspiration?

The resurgence of Street Photography is gratifying. I think iN-PUBLiC has had a major influence on this resurgence by early on taking a stand to define what we think good Street Photography is. Since then people have certainly disagreed with us and will continue to do so, but by creating the debate it has helped raise the bar. More and more people are beginning to get it. The Museum of London’s “London Street Photography 1860-2010” exhibition is the single most successful exhibition in the history of the Museum. Over 50,000 people have come to see it since it opened in mid-February, 10,000 in the first week. This alone testifies to the popularity of the genre. I think people can connect with photographs made directly from reality.

The flip side of this is that a lot more people say to themselves “I can do that.” Everyone has a camera, not least on their phone, and these are often better than the expensive digital cameras of ten years ago. But the truth is that very few people can “do that.” To make a great photograph is terribly difficult. Even the greatest photographers made very few in relation to the numbers of frames they shot. Street Photography is a heartbreak: so many frames, so few photographs.

The ability to coldly and harshly edit one’s own work is the most important skill. Sad to say, but most of what I see on Flickr lacks this ability; the critical faculty is missing. Good images posted are almost buried beneath scads of ordinary ones. Clichés are endlessly repeated: long shadows, old market people looking glumly at the camera, couples sitting in cafés, homeless people looking wretched, lots and lots of people’s backs, telephoto close-ups of no one in particular, and people against advertising signage, all accompanied by “Great shot, man!” in the comments section. I’ve done them myself so it is easy to recognize, but I have learned not to show most of them to anyone.

One can make these images and have them be original and clever, but it is desperately difficult to do. If this has influenced me in any way it is to avoid these things completely, to make fewer images that do not rely on the visual gag, the one-liner. Are there good new photos being made? Of course there are, all the time.

Interestingly enough I discovered the work of three current iN-PUBLiC members through Flickr, David Solomons, Paul Russell and the newest member Mark Powell. And it was really by following their streams that I learned about their work, rather than say looking at a nicely edited selection on their website. Naturally, they’re pretty good editors so the quality was generally higher than the norm, but they’re still pretty open with sharing their work. It is true that making a great photograph is terribly difficult but I also think there’s incredible value in looking at the near misses, especially from skilled photographers.

In terms of editing your work, what’s your process? Do you look at the photographs right away after you’ve been shooting? What makes you decide to go through the work of processing a photograph? Do you categorize the work by type (I’ve always liked Michael David Murphy’s ‘The Phyla of Street Photography’) When do you start to solicit outside opinions?

I understand what you mean about looking at the B images vs. the A images. It gives an insight into a photographer’s way of thinking and editing, and can give one ideas about looking at one’s own work. I just don’t have the patience to wander through Flickr, or maybe I’m just too lazy. I do look at photographers who I see recommended by other, but don’t just go trolling through very often.

When I look at a contact sheet or the latest download from the card, I go through them pretty quickly, tossing the obvious dogs and mistakes, and putting at least one star (or a red outline) on anything of possible interest. Anything that has potential will get a basic processing to see what may be there, adjusting exposure and contrast as I would in the darkroom. The best images usually stand out pretty quickly. But then I might sit on them for a while, weeks, even months, while the immediate memories and emotions around the picture fade so that I’m left with just what’s in the rectangle, the image itself. After a bit of time, I’ve often found that images I liked right away become less interesting, and occasionally go “Wow! How did I not see THAT one before?”

I hadn’t seen Murphy’s “Phyla” article before – thanks for that. It is a very good analysis of what makes the best just so. I don’t directly categorize by type but more by subject – couples, crowds, dogs, kinds, signs, public transport and so on, that helps me find them later. (I think of Erwitt’s comment, something like “Contact sheets are like toothbrushes: one doesn’t normally show them to other people.”) After I’ve pondered them myself for a while, I ask a very few people for opinions, usually when I’m beginning to edit for a show or a presentation. By then, I have a good idea of what’s there but may not be sure about a few. Weighing these opinions will usually help with a final decision. But there is always a caveat when asking other photographers: They will prefer photos that are closest to the sorts of things they shoot themselves.

How do you envision this color work evolving? Do you think it’ll evolve into a project like Big Hair & True Love? The debate about whether or not to work within the confines of a project comes up frequently amongst street photographers. I know for some it really helps them focus and refine the work, while others prefer to less structure and try to avoid confining themselves to themes. And then there are others who will shoot, shoot, shoot and find themes and a project during the editing process. I know that might be sort of an involved question but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

As far as projects go, I tend to be more of the latter type, the editor who sees themes emerging in the editing. For example, I have recently noticed a lot of photos that have someone standing out from a group, a person there but apart. This may have emerged from my own life experience. We moved a lot when I was young, and this continued into my adult life. I have often felt like a third wheel, someone who was not really a part of the group, thus notice this when I’m shooting. This is trickier to see and record, as it isn’t as brightly obvious as was “Big Hair…” was in the early ‘90’s.

In making some recent edits, I have been trying to consciously break the tyranny of place and chronology, to organize more by mood and distance. This is difficult as I remember images in my head based on just that – when and where I was when I made a picture.

Another problem with editing a theme via the image inventory is that some images will be color and some black and white. They do not often mix well when put together. My personal preference is for all one or the other. As I shoot more color and the depth of the back-catalog deepens, it will be easier to put together a thematically-related body of color work.

But for now, I have to get out and shoot! I shall continue to work as I always have, walking the streets with my camera. The difference now is that more often than not it is a camera recording color images digitally. I still go out with black and white film, but much less than I used to. The photographs I make are the same as I have always made, but with the added difficulty of the complex variable of color.

With the popularity of street photography these days, there’s also an appetite to learn and pick up pointers. There are some blogs out there that offer insights but not too many. I think many people new to street photography often suffer from a lack of feedback or knowledge sharing. With that said, what tips or words of wisdom would you offer photographers that are hungry and just hitting the streets.

Several thoughts in no particular order:

Educate yourself. Go to the library (it’s free!) and look at pictures by great photographers in books like “Bystander: A History of Street Photography” by Joel Meyerowitz & Colin Westerbeck, or “The Photographer’s Eye” by John Szarkowski. These are seminal texts. It is easier to study a photograph if you can hold it in your hand and contemplate it. Why does a particular picture hold your interest – or not? Where are the subjects in the frame? What is going on in front, in back, in your head? Look at photographers’ monographs and decide who you like and who you don’t, and think about the reasons why. Why is this photographer considered great even though you may not think much of their work? You can disagree, but you need to understand what the attraction is.

Whatever camera you have with you, DSLR, rangefinder, or camera-phone, know it backwards and forwards so you can use it fast! Know what it will do and what it won’t do. All cameras have their limitations, so learn what they are and work within them. With most compact or point-and-shoots the biggest problem is shutter lag so learn to anticipate and compensate for it. The difference between getting a good photo and one that doesn’t is a fraction of a second, and will not wait while you’re fiddling with the gear. (As my mother used to say to my father on family vacations, “Bob, while you’re fiddling with that camera, the herd of buffalo is moving on.”)

Bad weather can make good photographs.

If you are nervous about getting close to your subjects, the best place to get over it is the big public event, like a parade or street fair. There are crowds of people, all with cameras, all taking pictures right and left. You will not be noticed. Dare yourself to see how close you can get to your subject. Can you take a picture of a stranger while standing right next to them? A big crowd is the place to practice.

The two most important tools are a sturdy comfortable pair of shoes and a well-used wastebasket. Shoot a lot, then throw out most of it.

Do not worry about asking permission first. If you do, the result will not be what drew you to a scene or what you saw happening in the first place. It may still turn out to be a good photograph, a good casual portrait, but it will be different. If they see you, they see you. A fast smile and a humble manner will get you past it. However, respect your subjects as fellow human beings. If someone says, “Don’t take my picture,” don’t take their picture! There are always more people and other photographs elsewhere. “The better part of valour is discretion.”

Most of the time you will not come home with a great photo; no one does. Do not be easily satisfied. This is what I see most often: lazy ordinary pictures, in focus, exposed properly and with nothing in them at all. Yawn.

Beware the Siren call of the funny costume.

You must learn to be your own toughest critic. If there’s an “if only…” or “I should have…” or “A second earlier…” the photo does not work. No amount of excuses will make it do so, no matter how hard you tried or what you hoped would be there. It is either in the rectangle or it isn’t.

While it feels good, pay less attention to the “Great picture, man. You really nailed it.” Listen to those who say ‘That doesn’t work” and ask why not. Attaboys teach you little – tough critics teach you a lot.

A story: In 1994, I was accepted into a major show called “100 Years of Street Photography.” One of the jurors was Colin Westerbeck, then curator at the Chicago Art Institute. I threw a whole lot of photos in a box and took them with me to the opening. As I walked in, there was one of my photos hanging between Stieglitz and Evans. I was floating on air. There I met Mr. Westerbeck and asked him if he would take a look at my pictures. He said that while he didn’t have time for a full critique, he’d take a quick look. He flipped through them without speaking and at the end he said “There are some very good pictures here, some ordinary pictures, and some I never should have seen. You need to be a much better editor of your own work.” I was brought right back down to the ground hard, and never forgot it.

If you are hungry, don’t look to Street Photography to assuage the hunger. You will not earn a living from it directly.

Enjoy yourself. Go throw some light on pixels or film. Photographer, go make photographs!

All Photographs ©Richard Bram