Monday, November 19, 2012

Street Shooter: Jonathan Auch

All Photos: Jonathan Auch

Many photographers do the majority of their shooting on the street, and yet, would never consider themselves "street photographers." It's a term usually reserved for that segment of photographers that involve themselves with shooting fast, candid, people shots caught in odd/unusual juxtapositions with each other and/or their immediate environment. People need not be present, but the good street photographer has a prolific assortment of people shots, usually shot up close and personal in compositions and scenarios that can range from dynamic, to surreal, to subtly off kilter.

Back in the late sixties and early seventies street photography was very much the vanguard of art photography, arguably culminating with its patron saint Glimmer Twins, Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. Of course, color and more importantly, large format photography heralded a sea change in the universe of photographic art; and street photographers and their itty-bitty cameras were relegated over night to the been there, done that dust heap of photographic history.

And still, it refused to die. Today, street photography is a genre that can elicit equal amounts enthusiasm, or exasperated sighs. No, you won't find it hanging much on gallery walls anymore, but it lives on within the photographic diaspora, and if you grow up in any large city and have a camera- it's hard not to try your hand at a practice that so readily and effectively sharpens your eye, timing and composition skills like no other. 

So what drives present day street photographers? Why practice a genre some have likened to bygone jazz or (egads!) "classic rock;" why persist taking pictures that some would insist are little more than cliched one liners? Some practitioners proclaim that far from dead, it remains a slowly evolving art form- Bruce Gilden a more contemporary master of that evolution. And others still will shout, "Art be damned, it needs to continue if only for the sake of documenting the history of urban communities as they change and evolve all around us."

Jonathan Auch is a true believer that carries the tradition well into this digital age. You can see and feel the intensity of his passion and involvement both in the vision and quality of his imagery. His compositions are dynamic to be sure, but there's also a subtlety and well defined humanity that separate them from the "in your face," or more vulgar paparazzi style images that some shooters seek out. Chance encounters, furtive glances and wayward juxtapositions that predict and contradict- the lingua franca of the theater of the street, body language and nuances we automatically react to without consciously noticing; these photographs are anything but one note wonders, with plenty to see- not all of it obvious. That's always been the hallmark of a competent, mature street photographer: an ever varying degree of details, cues and clues that both challenge and reward- smack dab in the foreground, or hidden in plain sight.

Street photography is not that different in approach or style from standard photojournalism- except there is no story save the one before you, always changing and forever the same, and there are no celebrities, other than the anonymous crowd of potential "stars" in the making (thanks to you). Any experienced photographer knows that if you take enough pictures shooting absolutely blind (especially on the street), you'll eventually come up with a few keepers. When you look at the consistency and sheer abundance of quality pictures that Auch has made however, you quickly realize that although the compositions that he photographs may be lucky or accidental- his results are anything but.

Fortunately, in addition to sharing his images, Jonathan was also willing to engage in a little give and take on the nature, purpose and creation of his work...

SB: Cutting to the chase- why practice what many may consider a dying art form (ie- "street photography"), and what do you bring to the mix?

JA: The first question is contentious. I'm not sure that it is true. Street photography has had a sort of resurgence. Flickr, Google+, Tumbler and Facebook (to a lesser extent) have become outlets for street photography communities. Last year London put on its first Street Photography Festival. There is an increasing popularity of 'tips and tricks' websites, street photography workshops and blogs. Even well established photojournalists are trying to get a piece, as traditional outlets for paid journalism vanish.

Two books and exhibitions have recently been produced of Vivian Maier's recently unearthed street photography of 1950's Chicago. Both have been tremendously received... But the question was not whether street photography was/is popular, but rather, "is street photography dying?" There are certainly more people practicing some form of street photography than ever before, but to answer a question with a question- is any of it any good?

If any of it was really extraordinary, if there were photographers out there trying to answer the questions I need answering, or making the observations I think are important- I wouldn't be trying so damn hard to take the type of photographs I take. What do I add? How you place yourself in any given genre of art or photography? I could tell you what I think makes a good photograph... but I will let someone else place me, if I get placed at all.

Like poetry, street photography deals with metaphor, figurative language, symbols and the juxtaposition of seemingly unlike objects. Even a simple photograph, a picture of a face for example, can and should have more meaningful attributes that go beyond mere representation. The beauty of street photography, if it can be classified as a broad genre at all, is that it is free of the need of context. To beat the metaphor dry- like poetry, you do it because you love it. You don't get paid shit. Most of what you create is a failure and most of what is created, is trash.

SB: How has digital technology changed and facilitated your vision as it pertains to this work? 

JA: All of my pictures are digital, in the sense that I use digital cameras, and I process them on the computer. Being able to tone or process the images on the computer has garnered a greater aesthetic control over the image. For many years I was an exhibition printer for James Nachtwey and others.  The printing process has not become any simpler or easier, but does afford more precise control, and there are more aesthetic choices that were simply not available with traditional methods. Fundamentally, I take pictures the same as before, the same as all photographers before me. I take pictures of things that strike my interest. If you try to take photographs of what you think you should take, rather than what you want to take, you will lose interest- you will become bored. Take photographs of what interests you, combine that with a little aesthetic knowledge, and you develop style.

With digital technology, everyone has a camera and everyone can take photographs. I don't have a problem with that, but now anyone can say, "I am a photographer." That is just not the way it works! Just because you can take a photograph using affordable and incredibly efficient technology does not make the photograph any good- or you a photographer. People do not look at photographs and they do not read. Those cultural symbols and myths that are important have been turned into cliches, one line jokes and glibness. The so called democratization of photography, isn't about democratization, although there is some of that, it is about commercialization. With commercialization comes commodification, and a dumbing down to reach as broad an audience as possible. What had life and spontaneity when relating to people is then swallowed and regurgitated to sell things. Most photography is advertisement, or looks like advertisements. Street photography included.

 We use photographs differently now, as a society, and as photographers. The constant streaming and distribution has changed how we interact with photography. I read recently that "10% of all photos ever taken were shot in 2011." There is a certain commitment to print which I enjoy; it becomes physical, it slows time down, both for the artist and the viewer. Good photographs create an ambiguous sense of time, and deserve some time in return.

SB: Your portraits are studio like in quality but retain a gritty street edge; how did they originate?

 JA: I showed Bruce Gilden my work and he asked, "Why don't you shoot verticals, Jonathan?" I told him, "Because I don't like them." He didn't seem to think that was a very good answer, and neither did I. It was however, a truthful answer. I've never liked vertical photographs. 

My earliest reference for photography was cinema. I grew up on movies, and it was through my love of movies that I had any reference for photography when I started taking pictures. Unlike many  photographers, my family did not take pictures when I was young and I never owned a camera until I was twenty. So being the highly competitive guy that I am, I took Bruce Gilden's question as a challenge- and resolved to take only vertical portraits.

I started taking portraits by asking permission on the street, something I almost never do. All of the people in the photographs are strangers and I only take two frames of each person. I tell them what to do, so I can get the photo I want. They are close, and simple, and honest. I want the face to tell the story.

This current series of portraits is taken in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where I live. I take photos of the people who interest me, but I also want to show the diversity of a neighborhood rapidly being gentrified. All of the people in the essay were either born there or are life long residents.         

John Berger once said, "I have to concentrate my attention on a particular one and then she or he, as frequently happens in daily life, looks up and returns my gaze... But when one returns my gaze, her or his expression is such, its intensity is such, that our faces might be only a few centimeters apart. The expression, although modified by the face's character and age, is always similar. It's intensity is not a question of emotion, or of pleasure or pain. The face looks straight at me and without words, by the expression of the eyes alone, it affirms the reality of its existence. As if my gaze had called out a name, and the face by returning it, was answering, "Present.'"

SB: Finally, how do you see your work evolving in the future?

JA: Hard to say. As I shoot more, I am less concerned with a literal, journalistic style. I think it serves a purpose, I just don't find it particularly interesting to look at. I have grown weary of the cliches which proliferate the genre. I get sick of looking at the same images. When I look at photographs, the ones I pause on are more 'open.' They allow you inside, both emotionally and psychologically, and the things depicted in them are aesthetically unresolved. The trick is to keep up a sense of humanity in the photographs as they become more abstracted, which is very hard and very rare.

SB: Thanks, Jonathan, both for the insights regarding your own work and the comments on much of what is going on. I think the ring of truth most apt in that last statement- as it applies to the work and history of known artists, and as a heads up to those in mid career...


Eric Rose said...

Wow great blog there Stan! Have you checked out Domenico Foschi? He is doing some interesting street stuff.

Stan B. said...

Thanks, Eric- always great to find good young shooters out there!

Will check that out...

Eric Rose said...

The climate for street shooting here in Calgary is pretty chilly and I'm not referring to the weather. Street shooters are generally looked at as being creepy. Well at least the run and gun types anyway. I think it's easier for the younger shooters to get away with it, we old farts are all lumped into the deviate category. Geez and I don't even drool,,,,yet.

Stan B. said...

No question that attitudes have now changed all over. Back in the day, a guy in the street with a camera would be little more than a curiosity, or a minor nuisance at worst. Now, you're either a pervert or a terrorist. As always, a lot depends on how one handles themselves. And there's no doubt that there are some idiots who kinda enjoy thrusting their cameras into people's faces- there was that infamous video a couple of years back of that idiot who would literally jump in front of people from behind a corner. Their actions as vulgar as the work they produce.

I think a lot of people see... Bruce Gilden's work, for instance- and unfortunately reduce it to crass 'in your face' copies that eliminate all traces of artistry. Accentuate the obvious, eliminate the subtlety and nuance; there's a price to be paid for that- in the 'art' that's produced and the way we're perceived. And that's saying little of the overriding paranoia already out there...

Siddhartha Joshi said...

Fantastic article...and lovely shots!