“I had seen knife blades flickering under the street lights of Hell’s Kitchen and punk rockers having sex on the hood of a car at dawn on Houston Street. A camera seemed like the only way to capture the crazy stuff which was happening almost every night, ”
Imagine New York city in 1970’s. A time when vagabonds and drug dealers were taking over abandoned buildings, roads were populated with pimps and prostitutes, prisons were overburdened from the high rate of crime in the city, hideous graffitis adorned the subways and they were considered highly unsafe.
Matt Weber was a 20 something high school drop out at that time. Driving taxis proved to be a good way of earning money and thus started his nightly sojourns along the mean streets of New York. What he saw, he wanted to immortalise, those fleeting moments from the streets. Armed with his then newly bought Canon AE 1 and a 50 mm 1.4 lens, Matt started his journey in the streets of New York this way 30 years back, printing his own pictures in his kitchen.
“Using Ansel Adams’ three books “The Camera, The Print and the Negative” I was able to figure out all there is to become quite good in processing and printing B&W photographs.
Shooting strangers in various tones of intimacy or conflict is as mean a task as are the streets on which they are seen. You need to get close to the subjects, and it often can be very intimidating. Once Matt sold his taxi after 12 long years of capturing life on the streets and ventured out on foot, he missed the anonymity and the safety that the taxi had provided so long.
” I found myself nervous and unsure of myself for several years. Eventually I worked out some ways to get past the fear of confronting strangers, and things got much better. I still have moments of hesitation which I am sure almost all other photographers have too.”
It’s a story of melancholy more often than it is of elation. Like most New York photographers, Matt had found his muse spots – Times Square was a good place to wander around. In Matt’s opinion, Coney Island was much better ten years ago, and East Village was a better place too. New York is still the busiest city in America. Matt has always wondered what he would do in other large cities. New York has moved on.
When Matt moved on from the enclosure of his taxi, there came a choice that he had to make. No longer in the shade that gave him to opportunity of capture his subjects unseen, he would have to approach them or stage something up. Was he completely against props?
I have never used props, but if I did, my fake work would probably be very good because I have a decent imagination, and I am very good at capturing action. I expect that with a few talented actors and a decent budget, I could probably make instead of take, some interesting pictures.
“I like my early work when I was just shooting without any care for pleasing anyone but myself. As one learns more about photography, some of the spontaneity is sacrificed
Often, there is a revelation of a kind in one’s work and it get’s difficult to match up. Those are the times that you become your biggest competition. Capturing so many emotions for the last 30 years on the street, what were your top moments?
I like my early work when I was just shooting without any care for pleasing anyone but myself. As one learns more about photography, some of the spontaneity is sacrificed as you try and do things which subconsciously you have seen before. I admit to having a huge library of images in my head which can sometimes shape the way I shoot. I just try and respond to what I see with enthusiasm despite the many years of wandering around.
“Most of the time, what I thought I saw starts to diminish and falls apart, but every now and then the people fall into place perfectly and at least one of the people has something special about the way they look
Why do you prefer Black and White over color for street photography? Have you ever thought of or engaged in an alternate theme?
Almost all of the talented photographers I grew up admiring shot in black & white since it was the only way to shoot with a decent ASA up until the late 1980s. Shooting action with Kodachrome 64 was difficult, but I am glad I have some in my archives.
I am happy to take a nice landscape, or a shot of any animal, but as a “city boy” the opportunities to shoot people are everywhere. Once again, I think that my influences were photographers who also found people to be the most satisfying subjects.
Most of the time, what I thought I saw starts to diminish and falls apart, but every now and then the people fall into place perfectly and at least one of the people has something special about the way they look
Love the concept of the subject, and moments decaying and again rise into harmony. Would love to hear more. Any particular example you would like to site? Like for instance maybe a particular shoot you remember doing?
A picture of many people can be challenging to shoot with everybody filling the frame in a pleasing way. The possibilities are endless, and most of the results are subpar.Perfect or near perfect compositions of moving people are extremely hard to come by. When all the subjects are doing something and look like they belong in the frame, then a “nothing moment” can be very nice indeed!
You have some beautiful pictures of couples being intimate in public. In this age when we talk of right to privacy and voyeurism is frowned upon ever more, did you face with a dilemma while shooting or even abuse or confrontation?
I have had countless confrontations but not just for intruding on couples. Photographing kids is more difficult in this 21st century world. People are scared of having their images used in unflattering ways, and I am aware of the fact that I have done this more often than I should have. I can say that my work is “Art” but that can be a cop out and I know that I have taken many pictures which have irritated people and will probably take a few more down the road. This is one of the downsides of what I do, and I have to try and be fair while at the same time, not be timid while I document New York City.
Matt, like every one of is, was lucky enough to feel teenage love a couple of times. The difference is that he took the feelings and applied it to an art. Matt is neither entirely sure about his inspiration to shoot couples and neither does he question his own motives.
I have photographed many fights and squabbles, as well as plenty of sad pictures. I want everything, and have compared my need for the next good image to the way a stockbroker wants to buy the next hot stock. Money is what drives most people and fortunately I just want the next image. I suffer from the “what have you done lately”syndrome. After a few weeks of not shooting or being productive, I start to feel like I better start trying to get out there and shoot some more pictures. That is what motivates me the most.
In this age, when almost everybody owns a mobile phone or digital camera and can be seen capturing everyone or everything they do , it is a mistaken belief that this genre is for everybody. Which is why more and more people are attracted towards it. But in reality, Street Photography needs lot of patience, skill and dedication and also courage. Matt is a veteran in this regard.
On Flickr, the Hardcore Street Photography (HCSP) has 36000 members. Clearly, the art form is very popular. Even then, this genre remains ignored. Why is it so? Also do you think Street Photography has become cliched?
I am shocked at how popular this particular type of photography has become. Almost every person who has been shooting for more than a couple of years is offering classes in how to shoot “Street” I think that you go out and take pictures, and should be driven by how terrible the majority of them are! With time they will get better, and reading books and going to exhibits should be enough to show one what the possibilities are.
Like anything you do, you will get better with practice. There is a problem with today’s street photography. and that is that since “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery” many people do copy others, and there is a tidal wave of similar images. For instance there is only ONE Bruce Gilden, and he seems to be a guy who many want to imitate, but nobody has succeeded. One of the worst traps to fall into, is copying yourself! Many have found their best shots are too tempting to not try and recreate. We must move on, and I am including myself in the afflicted as far as this is concerned.
As Dorothea Lange, best known for her Depression-era work, had said “The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera”. This perhaps is truly apt for street photography, as it shows un-manipulated scenes. It reflects our society as it is.
Sometimes it is good, but often portrays the darker side. While trying to document New York through his lens, Matt said “I often say Motion & Emotion are my two favorite things when I’m wandering around town looking for things to shoot. Kissing is nice because love is certainly the best emotion, but a good fist fight is motion and very strong emotions in one picture.” For me however, love wins! At the end of the day, it is the image of love and tenderness that stays and speak volumes.
Seeing NYC the Matt Weber way
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