Street photographers Orville Robertson (New York), Richard Koci Hernandez (San Francisco) and Ibarionex Perello (Los Angeles) recently got together to speak about the topic of street photography and how they each practice and observe the tradition. This article is an extended version of Words on the Street, published in Nueva Luz Volume 15#3 (2011).
Ibarionex Perello: Is it easier to define what street photography isn’t rather than what it is?
Orville Robertson: One thing is that a lot of people don’t even want to call it street photography. I call it street photography but for a lot of New York street photographers that I know, it’s just simply photography.
Richard Koci Hernandez: I approach it from a different place in that I’ve always known it as street photography. Like even when you Google street photography, you are going to get the school of street photography. So, to me it’s more of a traditional thing. I think in general this is the one thing the most street photographers don’t care about is what it’s called. We know it when we see it. We know how to practice it and so the label isn’t that important.
Robertson: I love the word. I think it’s very descriptive of what we do.
Perello: With landscape and portraits there seems to be a very fixed idea of what makes a good image. With street photography, it seems more fluid, less rigid. For you, what’s involved in good street photography?
Koci: For me I’m after one thing and I respond to one thing and for me it’s the sense of mystery. It’s that sense of other-worldliness. The more ambiguous the image is sometimes, the more I read into it, and the more I respond to it. When I take a look at great photographs by Garry Winogrand, Leonard Freed, Elliot Erwitt or Robert Frank there’s always this sense of mystery, but also a sense of the absurd or odd, even if it’s just odd body language or light.
Robertson: I don’t really know what I want when I go out there. I’m just reacting. It’s like there’s a voice inside my head that when something interesting happens, it screams at me to press the shutter. And I don’t squeeze my shutter; I slam my shutter to get that instant that this voice tells me, “take the photograph now”. My photographs are all about the timing for the most part.
Perello: Yes. For me, it’s about observing and catching the moment where all these disparate elements that normally don’t have a relationship to each other suddenly converge within the context of the frame. It’s that moment of recognition and the ability to capture it especially when that moment includes that telling gesture.
Robertson: You can be fooled by that. I mean I know that I have my own trigger point. When somebody points, I automatically take the picture. I’m like Pavlov’s dog. And I notice this with a lot of photographers that there are certain gestures that people make in their photographs that they fall sucker for and sometimes it turns out to be just a bad photograph. However, there are times where it helps to create magic and you have to look at it. But when it happens you look at it and go I don’t know how I did it and it takes on an almost out of body experience.
Perello: Do you instantly know that you’ve got it or does that come later?
Robertson: There are plenty of times when I take a photograph and I don’t even realize it, but when I go back and look at the negatives, even with stuff ten to fifteen years later, I can remember taking it, but not necessarily feeling that it was remarkable at the time.
Koci: You are really hitting on something that I’m really glad to hear you talk about, because I don’t think a lot of people talk about it because I think it sounds a little weird. I mean there is a voice. It tells you, Now! Now! Now! And I’m trying to listen to it all the time. Your voice may be slower, but mine is very fast. I think that in a funny way that there is that moment of clarity, that moment of being lost. You are shooting, but your lost. It’s almost like what you said, ‘out of body’. And when you go back and review what you did, you can’t believe it. This is a rare time where I’ve heard someone else share that experience.
Robertson: Yes, it’s kind of scary sometimes You look at some of the pictures you’ve taken and it’s not even admiring how good or bad they are, but it’s just that you are wondering what came up from within you to recognize this moment. A lot of people who don’t shoot street photography don’t understand how quickly we have to react. Sometimes, you see the moment building up slowly but sometimes the moment between reaction and taking the picture is like one-tenth of a second.
Perello: With street photography, the challenge for me seems to be less about controlling what’s happening in front of the camera, but rather getting myself into a state of mind to be receptive and ready for those moments when they happen. How do you prepare yourselves?
Robertson: One simple thing that I do when I first start shooting is I make eye contact as much as I can with people and I hold the eye contact. That’s the key for me because I’m paying much more attention to what’s going on. It’s always intimidating for me. I don’t care how long I’ve been doing it, to take out the camera and start shooting. So, I know I’m ready when I can hold eye contact.
Koci: I love this. We share inner moments, but our approaches are completely different and I love that. And I’m not expecting it to be the same process.
Robertson: That’s what makes it all so magical.
Koci: Absolutely. I on the other hand have a different approach. I have difficulty walking and holding a conversation with someone. I can’t do that, because all I’m thinking about is pictures and what’s happening around me. The moment that I get on the street and I have to take more than twenty-five steps anywhere, I’m in the moment. I can’t focus on anything else. From walking out my door to where my car is parked, I’ve already looked at three places just to make sure that there isn’t something to be photographed. A thousand things are going through my head, my eyes are darting and I begin to take pictures in my head, even before I’ve taken them with my camera. I am somehow forced or trained or lucky or just push myself to feeling like I’m in that zone all the time. It’s a very exciting place to be.
Robertson: It’s a rush. When you are seeing things in front of you, it’s truly like there are pictures everywhere. There’s always something interesting going on. I mean you sometimes see these videos of these famous street photographers running around like monkeys taking pictures, but that’s not really how it happens, but that’s how you feel inside. Internally it’s exciting, but on the exterior it appears very boring, because to everyone else it looks like you are just walking around. It’s really unbelievable the concentration that you can summon up.
Perello: What do you make of the trend of street photography as a group event?
Robertson: I always, 99.99% of the time, shoot alone. Once in a while a friend of mine will come into the city and we’ll get together and we may or may not shoot, but to me you shoot alone. You don’t end up with your photographs looking like all the other photographers you’re working with. I really get annoyed when I see people like that. They are in love with the idea of street photography but when you take a look at their work… and I’m being a little bit rude and cruel – I don’t look at many of them as what I call real street photographers. There are a lot of people who think that they are, but they are not.
Perello: A whole new generation of street photographers have been inspired and influence by watching street photographers on YouTube. And until fairly recently, you never had much of an opportunity to see a street photographer at work beyond what you saw in their images or read in a book. Do you think this is resulting in a lot of lackluster mimicry?
Robertson: I mean we all mimic. You know that there are so many photographs that have been taken that you can’t go into it believing that you are going to be astonishingly original. It’s all been done. It’s the way that you photograph it, without being preoccupied with how to make it distinct. It just happens. You just photograph. That’s all there is to it.
Koci: Just to piggyback on that thought. I really think that Orville is so right. When you really look at the heart of street photographers that are true artists, they look at themselves as “the vessel”. They are not looking to be this or that. They are just like, ‘I have to do this and nothing can stop me from doing this’. I mean I think you really know when you can go out in the street and you can shoot for two hours and you know that if there weren’t any film in the camera, it would still be okay. Then you are on to something, because then you are doing it out of pure joy.
Robertson: Yes, when I’m out there I’m just thinking about making my next picture. That’s it.
Koci: Yes, and what’s good is that all the pictures that I miss, what I tell myself is if I got the pictures all the time, I’d never come back.
Perello: What impact has the use of the camera phone having on your approach street photography?
Robertson: I shoot with my iPhone as well. I call them little snaps, but the iPhone is a serious camera, because it does one things that these other digital cameras don’t do which is when I push the button, it takes the picture. It has almost no shutter lag. I know of several street photographers who are using their camera phone very seriously.
Perello: It’s interesting to see how the ability to immediately share the images impacts how I share the work. Before, you would be very selective what you would share, but with the iPhone, the images can be shared almost instantaneously.
Koci: I take it very seriously. Tools for me have never been very important. I bought early into this idea that I needed a Leica. I broke the bank, ate top-ramen for years until I finally bought a Leica and then I saw these other guys with Pentax K1000s and they were seriously kicking my ass. I realized early on that it wasn’t about the gear, but it’s about the person behind the gear. So for me, if the thing records an image – I don’t care – I am on it. I want the tool to serve my purpose. Right now, the reason why I take my phone so seriously is because it serves my purpose.
Perello: How does our society’s obsession with electronics, particularly cameras have on street photography?
Koci: For me, there’s too much awareness of the camera and I think it’s a society thing. The moment that people see a camera, they know it’s a camera. We are very image conscious. Look, I am very, very sneaky, like ridiculously sneaky. So, the phone helps that even more now. I cannot tell you how many pretend phone calls I’ve had where I’m not talking to anyone, but I’m making a picture.
Robertson: Yeah, I’m really starting to notice that too.
Koci: You can get closer to people with the phone. The other thing I do is wear headphones all the time, because when you have headphones one you don’t exist to people. They think you ‘re listening to music.
Robertson: And they don’t bother you.
Koci: And when it comes to sharing, I like to be more of a curator. I like to make the stream of my images very, very tight. If you look at my images, even with a quick glance on a page or a screen, it’s very consistent and I’m not very impulsive with what I share. I actually think that the key to whatever success I enjoy with social media and the number of people that follow me is based on the idea of scarcity. I mean I look at a Cartier-Bresson or a Robert Frank book and I’m thinking that those one-hundred and twenty pages comes out of their entire life. I mean that’s curated to no end.
Robertson: I post a lot of work on Facebook. I’m kind of known as one of the Facebook mega-posters. I love doing it. It’s kind of my way of exhibition. I really am enjoying it – more than I used to – the idea of a virtual exhibition. I think that they are wonderful. I still love the physical print, because you can see much more detail. You can be much more in control as with your website. It’s an amazing process, which I’m starting to love more and more as I get involved with that.
Perello: Do you guys have any other ideas about street photography that are important that you don’t think we’ve touched on?
Robertson: I think it’s important to say that I think too many street photographers are unwilling to discuss their work. They think that from what they read that photographers like Winogrand didn’t talk about his work. Winogrand talked obsessively about his work. It just didn’t happen so much in the classroom as it did on the street when he was photographing. That’s where he was happiest. If you aren’t able to talk about your work, you don’t have a clue as to what you’re doing.
Koci: The good final thought about the practice and tradition of street photography is that it’s like a fine wine. What you do now will get better over time. When we are out on the street, in the moment, it’s not that sexy. It’s so familiar to us. The power that street photography has is that the best work of street photographers ages well over time. It becomes a record of time and the times we are living in.
Richard Koci Hernandez