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Interview: Film, Street and Candid photography since 1970 – with Robert Herman

By on Dec 18, 2013 in Travel Feature | 0 comments

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Michelangelo Antonioni made his film “Blow Up” partly based on photographer David Bailey’s “Swinging London” creation – the catch-all term applied to the fashion and cultural scene that flourished in London in the 1960s. Years later, it inspired an 11 year old to become a photographer. Robert Herman was a starry-eyed youth who watched as many Hollywood and international films as he could, a favourite being Antonioni’s Blow Up”.

Brooklyn born Robert Herman began working as an usher at a movie theater owned by his parents. Soon, the stories took a backseat and instead, the images lingered on in his mind. A few years later he entered the world of street photography.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Robert Herman has just released his monograph ‘The New Yorkers.’ He has been shooting on the street since the 1970s.

With Herman, on photographing the streets

 

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What was your inspiration for getting into street photography?

I fell in love with the images the cinematographer’s made: their use of light and composition. Later on when I was in Film School at NYU, I wanted another way to be creative that did not involve a whole crew of people. So I enrolled in a black and white still photography class. Using my father’s Nikon F, I began shooting on the streets of New York. In that class, I found that I had a natural affinity for still photography and I continued to make photographs. After graduation, I worked as a production still photographer on feature films. During the downtime, between takes, I made images for myself in the neighborhoods near the film locations. I found this much more compelling than the movie stills I was making for the film production company. 

How have things changed in regards to street photography from the 1970′s-80′s?

In the past, people were much less aware of the camera, so it was easier to make candid and authentic photographs. These days everyone is so conscious of the media, social networks and the power of the image. Also, there was a lot more graffiti in New York and this made for an interesting dialogue between the walls and the people on the street. The city has been “cleaned up” and corporatized, and for me as a street photographer it is not as interesting.

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Why did you choose a Kickstarter campaign when you had offers from publishing houses?

The untold story of book publishing today is that many artists, even famous ones, have to put up the funds to have a book published. I was shocked by how much money these publishers wanted to have The New Yorkers printed and distributed. In return for having a publishers imprint, which at first I really wanted, I would have to give up control over the editing and design process and not receive a royalty on the first edition. I did some research and realized that I could produce the book at a higher quality, for less money, keep my vision for the book intact and actually make money on the sales from the very beginning. The flip side of this process is that if you publish a book yourself, one has to do your own distribution and marketing.

Most street photographers prefer Black and White over color. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of B/W photography had expressed his preference for Black and White, and many after him have done the same. It could be that color overpowers the subjects, and we tend to digress from the intention of the photographer. For me color can make or break a picture. However, I love the positive vibes that a color photograph emanates.

On choosing between black and white and color and the art of silver-gelatin printing

 

I started out shooting and printing Black and White. There is nothing like the feeling of watching a print come up in the developer.  Teaching myself how to make really fine silver-gelatin prints, (which took years of practice), was the best education I could have had. But it dawned on me that by shooting color transparency film, in my case Kodachrome, one could see what was there, no contact sheet or print was necessary. With color negative, I was at the mercy of the print lab, their quick and superficial interpretation of what I had seen was disheartening. With slide film, I avoided the middleman.

 

But back to the main question: I love shooting in color. In the beginning I was influenced more by painting, as opposed to color photography. Seeing a Matisse, a Motherwell, or a Rothko in a museum made such an impression. Seeing Matisse’s  ”The Piano Lesson” or Motherwell’s “Elegy for the Spanish Republic” took my breath away and had a big influence on my color photography and showed me the power of color and abstraction.

The light of the late afternoon sun in winter was glorious. That is why, among other reasons, I liked shooting in Soho, Little Italy and Tribeca. There were no tall buildings to block sunlight and light is what makes color truly come alive.

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You like making images that find the transcendent in the seemingly mundane.  Tell us more?

Blessed, New York, NY 1981 comes to mind. It is just a torn advertising on a wall on Broadway, something most people wouldn’t notice in their busy city lives. Having had the experience of standing before a Robert Rauschenberg at the Museum of Modern Art I saw the possibilities of what a photo of this torn paper could be, that is, making a print the size of a large painting. A few years later, I finally was able to  produce a 40” x 50” Cibachrome print. It was eventually acquired by Holly Koons McCullough, for the Telfair Museum in Savannah, GA, for their permanent collection.

 

When you go out in the street, do you take candid shots or you like your subjects to pose?

I’m usually opposed to posing. When I’m doing my street photography I respond to the authentic, unmediated moment.  Once a subject notices me, it changes their response and they become more guarded. Of course, there are photos in The New Yorkers where there is the awareness of the camera, and I’ve included these images because something magical came through. In my portrait work, awareness of the camera is a given and I work with the subject to capture a spontaneous emotion in what is a controlled environment.

 On the revolution of iPhonography:

In over thirty-five years of shooting, I have had very few incidents of someone objecting to my photography. Remaining somewhat invisible to the people passing by is something one learns very early on in order to make strong pictures and for reasons of self-preservation. Recently, I have been drawn to making pictures on my iPhone, because candid photos are becoming harder and harder to make with a big SLR. The iPhone is the camera I always have with me, and it lends itself very well to an authentic photograph. I have been using the Hipstamatic App to make square pictures which I find challenging and a way of keeping things fresh. As of late, the iPhone as an image capture device, is becoming more accepted as a vehicle for producing compelling fine art photographs. In that regard, I have been able to make prints up to 30” x 30” that I am very pleased with.

 

Herman is always experimenting, and just like trying out the iPhone, he has also ventured in to making a short film consisting of still photographs only. “Sylvie Went Shopping” starts with a woman who went shopping. Her day ends with a sexual fantasy that was triggered by the shopping trip.

Elsewhere he confesses that the project did make him uncomfortable but probably that is why it was so interesting to do. the fact that his parents owned porno movie houses, created conflicting feelings in him about sex, imagery and image making. One interesting project after another, Robert Herman now plans to publish a book that has photos taken with his iPhone in New York.

 

What inspired you to make something like Sylvie Went Shopping?

Sylvie was my thesis project for my Masters in Digital Photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

I wanted to see if I could create a narrative in still photographs. The project evolved from making pictures of my friend, Robin Dann, as she shopped. Working together, we realized that shopping can be a solitary experience that triggers one’s desire and imagination when provoked by the fashion and the advertising.

The images became a video installation at the SVA Gallery Thesis Show, as prints hung on a wall in sequence, and as a hardcover book. The project was an exploration of how these different mediums of print, video or a book change the method and the experience of storytelling.

 

What are your favorite shots? Why are they your favorites?

Eldorado, Little Italy, New York, NY 1983 is one. I was sitting at the kitchen table in my loft on Kenmare Street with my girlfriend at the time. Suddenly, I had the feeling that I had to go out and shoot some pictures. I said, “I’ll be right back” and walked around the corner to Mulberry Street.

 

Almost immediately, I came upon the two cars parked on the sidewalk in that beautiful afternoon sunlight. The boys walked by, and I had my photograph. This photo taught me to trust my instincts and listen to the “little voice” inside me, even if it seemed inconvenient or inappropriate.

 

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Don’t Look Now, New York, NY 1981 is another one off my favorites. I came across the sunlight shining through the glass onto the mannequin in the storefront window. I framed up the shot and almost immediately the guy runs in to the frame and jumps on to the little ledge and I clicked the shutter. It is a perfect illustration of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. I prepared the environment so to speak: serendipity conspired with me to make a photograph that was much more than I could have imagined. 

 

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What next after The New Yorkers and Sylvie Went Shopping?

I am currently working on a book of my iPhone photos taken in NYC and around the world over the last three years. I have been fortunate to travel to many countries around the world including Johannesburg and Istanbul, to name just a few. I’m very excited by this new work and I’m looking forward to completing this collection and having it in the bookstores and on Amazon sometime in late 2014.

 

Robert Herman’s work is part of the permanent collections of the George Eastman House and the Telfair Museum in Savanna, GA. His photographs are also in many private collections including Wstin and Marriott Hotels. In 2011, images from The New Yorkers were exhibited at the Istanbul Photography Museum. Most recently, his solo exhibition “A Walking Dream,” was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in Cartagena, Columbia.

Find Herman on his website and buy his book, The New Yorkers.


Seeing NYC the Robert Herman way

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