Thursday, October 2, 2014

Full Interview: Street Photographer Richard Bram

The October 2014 issue of Popular Photography published 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 fourth and final installment in the series, featuring Richard Bram.

Poor Richard Bram. While preparing the article on street photography for Popular Photography, I had to take a chainsaw to his words. Due to space constraints I had to cut him down to 500 words—when in the original interview, he was just getting started.

As you're about to find out.

Richard has a LOT to say!

Photo © Richard Bram

Richard Bram on Street Photography
"A photograph taken on the street is not necessarily a Street Photograph. Mere faces along the sidewalk, no matter how sharp and pretty the light, is not enough: The best photographs work on more than one level."

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

RB: Street photography kind of snuck up on me. My photographic career began in 1984 at the age of 32 after a lack-luster business career. Deciding to earn a living doing something I actually loved, I declared myself a photographer. I had to earn a living in a hurry so began doing basic public relations work. At first this was mostly taking pictures of presentations, dinner speakers, corporate newsletters and such. Doing this well is not as easy as it sounds: It requires a sharp eye and fast technical skills to have everyone looking good at the same time.

After a while, I noticed that there was often something else happening at an event, off to the side or in the back room that wasn’t so pretty or comfortable and would photograph that too. My clients were not interested in seeing these pictures but I was. These out-takes, the “indecisive moments,” became the roots of my street photography. After I moved to London in 1997, I found myself in a new life in a new country. I used my camera to come to grips with my new home as I walked. That is when I really began to regularly shoot in the street and my vision as a street shooter grew from this.

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

RB: Like many Americans of my generation, my first influences were the photos in the magazines that came into our house, especially LIFE and National Geographic. When I started out, I was working almost exclusively in black and white and fell into what could be thought of as a ‘classic’ style. I emulated Kértesz, Cartier-Bresson, and Eisenstaedt; that is to say beautiful, romantic, poetic. I had studied a lot of Art History at university. This helped me internalize a sense of formal composition that is crucial to my style, even when a photo seems completely informal.

In the course of my self-education at the Library, I found the work of Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand. I loved the sharp observation, ironic humor and social commentary of Frank's seminal “The Americans.” It was Winogrand’s “Public Relations,” though, that really hit me in the eyes. Tilted perspective, no obvious or formal grace and composition, backlit, hard light; I was shocked - what was this stuff? I put it all back in the stacks and left it there for many years but couldn’t get it out of my head. But after a few years shooting public events, I began to see similar things and understand what he was getting at.

More recently, Joel Meyerowitz in both his photos and his writings has meant a lot as my style has shifted to more complex compositions. The biggest influence in the last dozen years, though, has been my fellow photographers of Through of my involvement there has been a shift in my style away from the ‘visual one-liner’ to more complex images with greater emotional ambiguity. While I think my irreverent sense of humor still comes through in a lot of my more recent photos, both content and compositional style have shifted, less formal and balanced, dealing more with chaotic situations, but without losing control.

It’s a very fine line between just random pictures of people on the street, no matter how close one may be and something with real content. This is the mistake most would-be street shooters make: A photograph taken on the street is not necessarily a Street Photograph. Mere faces along the sidewalk, no matter how sharp and pretty the light, is not enough: The best photographs work on more than one level. My fellow iN-PUBLiC members have helped me see that.

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

RB: The resurgence of Street Photography is gratifying. Frankly, I attribute a lot of it to When iN-PUBLiC was founded in 2000 by Nick Turpin in London, there was literally no place on the web dedicated to serious street work being made by living, working photographers. I think iN-PUBLiC has had a major influence on this resurgence by taking a stand early on to define what we think good Street Photography is. Since then people have certainly disagreed with us and will continue to do so, but by creating the debate it has helped raise the bar. More and more people are beginning to get it.

The Museum of London’s “London Street Photography 1860-2010” exhibition was the single most successful exhibition in the history of the Museum. Over 60,000 people came to see it, 10,000 in the first week. This alone testifies to the popularity of the genre. People connect emotionally with photographs made directly from reality. Today there are many collectives that have followed but to me, the 23 members of iN-PUBLiC represent as a group the gold standard of the world’s contemporary street photography.

Today, social media have rapidly spread the phrase ‘street photography’ itself around the world. Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, &c. have all added to it. There are now hundreds of sites and blogs everywhere offering advice both good and bad about what street photography should or should not be. There is bit of a ‘coolness’ factor that’s become associated with the term that tends often to over-ride content and quality, but this leads us to your next question…

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

Like all things, social media are a mixed blessing. They have given voice to a very large number of great street photographers whose work would never have been known widely in the past. The proliferation of blogs, information sites, archives and such give people an unprecedented access to all sorts of photography, completely unfiltered and available to all.

The flip side of this is that a lot more people say to themselves “I can do that.” Everyone has a camera, not least on their phone, and these are often better than the expensive digital cameras of ten years ago. But the truth is that very few people can “do that.” To make a great photograph regularly is terribly difficult. Even the greatest photographers made very few in relation to the numbers of frames they shot. Street Photography is a heartbreak: so many frames, so few photographs.

There is another problem as well: Without any sort of filtration, self-anointed ‘experts’ are everywhere, blogging, offering courses, workshops, YouTube videos, books, distilling all the knowledge and wisdom they have gained after five whole years in photography! It is hard for someone who truly does want to learn and improve their work to find proper guidance, getting only advice and comment on Flickr groups from people who are well-meaning but as inexperienced and unlearned as themselves.

Good images posted are almost immediately buried beneath scads of ordinary ones. Clichés are endlessly repeated: long shadows, old market people looking glumly at the camera, couples sitting in cafés, homeless people looking wretched, lots and lots of people’s backs, telephoto close-ups of no one in particular, and people against advertising signage, all accompanied by “You nailed it - Great capture, man!” in the comments section. I’ve done all of these myself so it’s easy to recognize, but I have learned not to show most of them to anyone. W. Eugene Smith said he was going to write a book called “Photography Made Difficult.” I wish he had – it would be much closer to the truth than anything found from instant gurus.

For me, social media have helped disseminate my own work around the globe via my own website,, as well as Twitter and Facebook. It has helped me network with curators, publishers, educators, gallerists and get my work before their eyes as well. I’ve had articles, exhibitions and acquisitions come my way through this.

But the only way to truly rise above is to be a ruthless editor of your own work, absolutely sure of the quality of what you show. If there is a ‘coulda-shoulda-woulda’ in your head as you look at a photo, it’s out. Madison Cawein, a brilliant painter and dear friend once said to me “Never show anyone bad work – it will come back to haunt you.” As the writer William Faulkner said, “You have to kill all your darlings.”

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?

RB: Sometimes I think of my work – especially here in New York - as going for a walk, with attitude. I go out of the door and start walking in one direction or another. I might see some interesting light going down a street and head over to see how it looks on pedestrians as they pass through it. I’m a bit impatient and don’t like to stand in the same place for a long time. If I am working and working one location, there probably is not really a picture there for me. However, if it is a very busy corner and the light is good I might move around the scene as long as the light remains.

Many of my most well-known photographs were made while I was on my way doing something else, but I always have a camera with me – therein lies opportunity. The thing about street photography is that you are always looking, but you rarely know what you are looking for until it’s in front of you. It’s the challenge and delight of seeing something strange appear in real life in real time and throwing a rectangle around it.

I’m not really a pre-conception sort of photographer. There is nothing wrong with that approach, however, and it can often help bring clarity to one’s work. The last time I really worked to a theme was a series I did back in Kentucky in the early 1990s, “Big Hair and True Love,” featured last year on Slate’s ‘Behold’ blog.

Another good example is Australian photographer Jesse Marlow’s “Wounded.” We are all more fragile than we care to think. Jesse noticed people walking around his native Melbourne with bandages, crutches and the like. He began looking for this and shooting every example he came upon. He took hundreds of photos of damaged people over two years before editing it down to the very best few and producing the book. Too many people would put them all out, but Jesse knew that for the project to go somewhere, it had to be tight edit of superb photos. Again, editing is the hardest part of all.

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?

RB: First of all, I am very fast and very quiet ands people rarely know if I have made a picture of them until after I’ve done so, if at all. I almost never ask permission first, because if I had, the result would not have been what drew me in the first place. It still might have turned out to be a good photograph but it would have been different. If they see me, they see me. A fast smile and a humble manner usually gets me past it.

I can always play the ‘idiot tourist’ too – this may get me a sneer of disgust but nothing that will hurt me. I’ve been shouted at a few times but never struck. Mostly I just ignore it and walk away fast. I’ve never deleted a photo on demand. However, I do respect my subjects as fellow human beings. If someone says flat out “Don’t take my picture,” I don’t take their picture! There are always more people and other photographs elsewhere. As Shakespeare’s Falstaff said, “The better part of valour is discretion.”

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

RB: The mood is more suspicious than it used to be, which is ironic as there are more cameras everywhere, including those attached to phones, than there have ever been. There are a lot more 'No Photography' signs everywhere. After years of the government telling them to always be afraid, that the Terrorists are everywhere, the general background level of paranoia is higher.

However, the police generally have better things to do than bother with someone suspiciously taking pictures of the Empire State Building or a Papaya Dog storefront, but the ever-increasing private security guards are more hostile and full of themselves than they used to be. They seem to feel that they own not only the territory of the building that hired them but the public sidewalks around as well. But at least in New York one is generally ignored in a city swarming with tourists, all of which have big cameras dangling from their necks.

MR: Color or Black & White? Why?

RB: Yes. I refuse to be pinned down and I like both – it’s like drawing and painting. I have always shot color in my commercial work since the very beginning. Originally it was black & white that was new to me. But shooting color extensively in my personal work is relatively new. In many ways I am still coming to grips with it since I decided in 2010 to pour my energies into it. There are a lot more variables to deal with in color, and a lot more ways in which a photograph can go wrong. Then again, the photograph can be about color itself, or even a particular color which is fun and challenging.

I shoot all my color digitally now. I’d always printed my own b&w work and one of the frustrations I had was not being able to print color. Now that inkjet printers have improved to such high levels, I can sit at my desk in the light and make big beautiful color prints to the same standard that I make my black and white prints in the darkroom. I still shoot all of my black & white on film as I prefer the way it records monochrome tones to the look of an image converted from a color original, even with high-grade specialized software.

MR: What camera & lens do you use for street photography, and if you're shooting film, do you have a preference?

RB: Whatever I have with me; Today it’s a Leica M9 with a 35mm f2 lens. Occasionally I use a 24mm f2.8 as well, and once in a great while a 50mm f2. If I shoot black and white film, it’s a Leica M6 with the same lenses, but with a yellow contrast filter. I use them because they are relatively small, compact, manual and have no shutter lag. The first cameras I remember using were early rangefinders like my Dad’s Argus C3 or Mom’s Yashica Electro 35. Thus when I bought my first Leica, a battered old M3 that I still use, it felt comfortable and familiar. For me they are the right tools for the job. I’ve made good street photos with my pocket camera, a Canon Powershot G12 and even with my iPhone.

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

RB: There are a number of fine small cameras that have become popular for street work. I’ve heard many good things from friends about the current Fuji line-up as well as others made by Sony, Panasonic or Ricoh. However I really can’t comment on them as I haven’t used them myself. Buy the best that you can afford, but keep it small and simple.

Make sure whatever you buy is fast to use with minimal shutter-lag. Normal to wide-angle lenses are best if you truly want to your viewer to be involved with your subject. Don’t lust after the newest, latest and most expensive with all sorts of complex shooting modes. This only gets in the way of making pictures and will not by itself make you a better photographer. Keep your photo-making variables to a minimum so you can concentrate on what will be in the rectangle. When it is all over, that is all that counts.

—Interview by Mason Resnick
Excerpts published in Popular Photography, Oct. 2014.

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