Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Full Interview: Street Photographer Melanie Einzig

The October 2014 issue of Popular Photography posted my article, Street Cred. To prepare for that article I had the privilege of conducting interviews with four of the top street shooters active today—Jeff Mermelstein, Melanie Einzig, Jack Simon, and Richard Bram.

Due to space constraints, only a portion of the interviews actually made it to print. Here's the second of the series of the full interviews, featuring Melanie Einzig.

 Photo © Melanie Einzig

Melanie Einzig on Street Photography

When I used to tell people I did street photography they would say, "so you photograph homeless people?" Now everyone knows the term.

MR: How long have you been doing street photography and what got you interested in it?

ME: While in Israel at age 15 I took a lot of street photos without being aware that it was what I was doing, and then again in India at age 18, borrowing other peoples' cameras because I'd left mine at home. As I told my parents then, I didn't want anything to interfere with my direct experience. They told me I would regret not having a camera, and they were right.

After that, photos became more diaristic for me, an ongoing documentation of my goings-on in New York. It wasn't until I took a job at AP in my early 30's that I started shooting with more awareness on the street. Then a trip working for Joel Meyerowitz in Italy clinched the deal that I would put a whole lot of time and effort into making pictures on the street.

MR: Who were/are your influences--current or past?

ME: My first photography influence was Diane Arbus. My mother took me to a show at the Walker in Minnesota when I was young. The photos haunted and enchanted me. We also had a Magnum book at home called "America in Crisis" that I looked at a lot. Then it was Brassai in college; someone brought his book to show me in etching class and I thought: I shouldn't be etching, I should be photographing.

Then I saw photography by Helen Levitt, Weegee, Garry Winogrand, Raghubir Singh. I discovered their work at the great Photographer's Place bookstore in Soho. That store no longer exists. Then I worked for Joel Meyerowitz in Italy as I mentioned. And last but not least is Ben Asen, a photographer and friend (I consider him my mentor). He has supported me day-to-day for years. Ben taught me most of what I know about making a living as an event photographer, which I enjoy very much. He makes personal work as well. Ben is also a very decent person with a good moral compass and that is one of the greatest influences one can have in life. 

MR: Street photography seems to be undergoing a revival these days. Do you agree? What do you attribute this to?

ME: As Colin Westerbeck said about twelve years ago at the end of Bystander: A History of Street Photography, "…perhaps street photography readies itself for a renewal of the cycle that has made its history great." He predicted it.  It's not just street photography, anything "street" seems to be exciting people these days. When I used to tell people I did street photography they would say, "so you photograph homeless people?". Now everyone knows the term.

I'm not a sociologist,  but maybe street photography is a reaction to the corporate and commercial control of things. The "street" seems like it could be the opposite. All the fake scenarios and staged and mediated media and imagery that we are fed is contrasted by the real life of the street, with it's lack of touch-ups and art direction. But then again people quickly turn these photos into their own "show" and post on their "networks". However, I am excited by the renewed interest in this kind of work since it seems there was a little lull since the 70s.

MR: Has social media been a good thing for street photography?

ME: Sure—It's been a great way to have the work seen because galleries and museums don't seem to be that interested in this kind of work until it looks dated or becomes "vintage". The group I joined back in 2004ish, In-public, has been a great way to meet people. It was an early collective of street photographers who connected over the internet and inspired many other groups to come into being. We have published and exhibited work together. I'm sure there are downsides to social media and a lot of high school banter and in-fighting goes on but I try to tune it out.

MR: It seems like the Internet has become a great platform for photographers to share their work, but the downside is there are a lot of mediocre photos being passed as "street photography" out there. What do you do to get your work noticed and to rise above the noise?

ME: Frankly, I should do more to get my work noticed. I'm very lazy in this department and I've been quite lucky that anyone has noticed my work. I like to think the pictures themselves have a life of their own that resonates with people. Being part of In-public certainly helped with visibility. That has been a popular site for some time. Also, I've been fortunate to a have a few curators and writers take interest in my work and exhibit and/or publish it. I'm so grateful for those opportunities because they feel very pure. These are connoisseurs who see the value in the work beyond how it can be useful to them. And they articulate and curate things that leave me feeling like the work is truly seen and understood.

MR: When you go out to shoot, do you have any ideas in mind about the kinds of photos you want to capture? Could you talk about the plusses and minuses of preconception as it relates to street shooting?

ME: When I get too intentional my photography seems to falter and I get bored. Sometimes I say: I really need to see something funny or wacky very soon I'm going to feel like life is bland. And then eventually I do. The other day I saw a guy balancing two coconuts on his head with an orange in his mouth and plums in his palms. I wanted to take a photograph but I was worried that if he objected, all the fruit would fall and he would yell at me.  I didn't take the photo but I felt like my universe was back in order because this guy existed. Or yesterday, I went to the Puerto Rican Day parade, it was crowded and hot and I said to myself: If you can just get out of here with one good photo it would be great. So that's the only kind of preconception I go for these days. I think one has to enter with a kind of openness to see what is really there, not what you want to see or think you should see.

MR: Are you ever confronted while doing street photography? How do you handle it? Do you have suggestions for diffusing situations where someone stops you?

ME: Once and a while. It is not fun and kind of scary. The best solution is look the other way like you weren't photographing them at all. Then they feel like they may have been imagining you were taking their picture. If you are not forced to run (once I had to tear into Grand Central and run into the crowds downstairs like in a movie) then I recommend apologizing. Just explain you take great pleasure in photographing people in public. If they are really upset you can offer to delete the photo. I'm sure I would catch hell from other photographers for saying that.  But, I'm not doing this to upset people. I'd rather have them feel happy I made an interesting photo of them.

MR: Have attitudes towards street photographers at street level changed in recent years? Do people react differently to you now compared to  when you got started?

ME: There was a time when I went mostly unnoticed or pegged as a tourist. People are way more conscious of the camera. I noticed this after September 11th first. Then with the iPhone mass addiction feeding our narcissism people became quicker to notice if you were taking a picture of them—sometimes, even if you weren't.

Lately I think people are relaxing and understanding what Diane Arbus said long ago that: "one of the risks of appearing in public is the likelihood of being photographed." One day I was photographing a parking attendant and he said to me in a totally charming way, "you can put this on Youtube, my tube whatever tube you want!".

MR: Color or Black & White? Why?

ME: Black and white until 1997 and then color since. Sometimes I transfer a digital photo to Black and White for a wedding or just to see what it looks like. Color is more challenging. I feel like the abstraction of black and white automatically makes it interesting. Something about color is so beautiful to me, so alive. I usually dream in color even though people used to say dreams are in black and white.

MR: Since this is Pop Photo, I have to ask: What camera & lens do you use for street photography, and if you're shooting film, do you have a preference?

ME: I use a Nikon D600 with a 35mm lens. And always have the RX100 in my bag. When I shot film, towards the end, I loved Fuji Press 800.

MR: What advice would you give to an aspiring street photographer regarding camera and lens choices?

ME: Choose a camera that feels right and rely more on your eye and your heart than other technologies.


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