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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Robert Herman Talks About "The New Yorkers"

When I first met Robert Herman at a portfolio review, and saw The New Yorkers, I felt I was looking at a soulful, dead-on look at the city I was born in. His project was so fully realized, so sophisticated and compelling.

I see a lot of what people call "street photography," but it's mostly an unconnected series of images they have taken. Few photographers have the eye, the grace and the ability to really see, in order to make great street images.

Robert has all those qualities, along with a driving passion to more fully realize his own aesthetic. I knew right away that I wanted to talk with him about his work, and this city.

Give us a brief background of your photography career

I've been a photographer since I was at NYU Film School in the late 70's. However, my love of images began much earlier. My parents owned movie theaters in New York City, Long Island and elsewhere. As a child and a teenager I was able to watch movies in their theaters. Cinematography became one of the references for my sense of light and composition.

For a while, when we lived in Long Beach, we had a screening room with two 35mm film projectors. I remember watching Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny as well as some feature films at home, which my father projected for the kids. I used to go with my father when he went to work. I saw Blow Up in 1966 when I was 11. At that age, it was overwhelming.

When I was 14, I worked as the candy guy and an usher at the theater in Brooklyn. It was 1970 and I got to see a lot of the movies over and over again like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, A Dream of Kings with Anthony Quinn, Friedkin's The Boys in the Band and Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson. Watching the same movie over and over until the narrative began to recede and the image itself moved to the forefront had a profound effect on the way I saw the world.

Seeing images on a big screen shows deep spatial relationships on a two dimensional canvas. Along with the great photographers such as Frank, Callahan, Bresson, Strand and Kertész, I was also inspired by modern painting: Motherwell, Picasso, Matisse, Pollack, De Kooning, Rauschenberg and Keifer.

It wasn't until I was at NYU Film School that I truly applied myself to photography. I needed some electives to fill out my schedule and I decided to take a class in the School of Education: An intro to Black and White. I could have taken a similar course in the School of the Arts, but the emphasis there was more about technique. I was afraid that I wouldn't have the space to develop a "voice" if the emphasis was on technique. I just wanted to shoot and see if I had anything to say.

My first photography teachers were Len Spier and Steve Price. Class was a very simple process of going out and shooting developing and making contacts and seeing if there was anything worth printing. They were both very helpful in identifying strong pictures and giving me the freedom to let myself wander.

Here are two images I made that first year:

I was directing an experimental narrative short and shooting it on 16mm color and black white reversal film. This led me to experiment with slide film, particularly Kodachrome. I realized I wanted to use a reversal process because unlike color negative you didn't have an intermediary i.e. the photo print processor making an interpretation about what the colors were originally. What you saw was what you got. It was and is the most beautiful film ever made, but for exposure the most unforgiving. There was no push or pull processing in those days. I was using my father’s manual Nikon F with a 50mm 1.4 lens at the time. Kodachrome was a great way to teach yourself how to make exposures based on reflective readings through the camera of different parts of the scene unfolding in front of you. An F-stop off in either direction or you would not have a useable image.

Three books on photography had a great influence on me: I had seen Harry Callahan’s 1978 Color book--it was a revelation. I had never seen images that looked like those in this book. I was taken by the formal composition, his love of color and the distortion of wide-angle lenses. The second was Robert Frank's The Americans. I studied this like a textbook; Frank's images became embedded in my consciousness. The third was Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960 from a group show put together at MoMA by John Szarkowski. This too, was an eye-opening exploration of the many ways the medium of photography could be explored.

It was these three books along with Paul Strand's work, On Reading by André Kertész and Thomas Merton's Geography of Holiness that informed my sensibility. I drank in all that information about what was a great photograph and tried to make photos that approached that bar.

Perhaps, the real turning point occurred when I was visiting my girlfriend, a film editor working on a film in Mexico. I went down there for a month in January of 1981. It was a great opportunity to make photographs.

The filmmaker had a big house in Tlayacapan. A woman named Sylvia and her two children were staying at the house at the time. They were refugees from Bolivia fleeing the fascist government. Sylvia and I became friends and one day she gave me a book to read in English: About Looking by John Berger. It was a revelation.

Reading John Berger and shooting Kodachrome in Mexico, I found my “voice” as a photographer. It was a truly special gift from one outsider to another. Berger is a clear and brilliant writer about art and photography. The book. was a breathtaking, life-changing read. I recommend to anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of art and life.

When I graduated from film school, I needed a job. I had been shooting production stills on student films to build up a portfolio. After some really miserable employment at some film production houses, I finally got a paying gig on a feature: Vigilante, with a reasonably sized budget,and Fred Williamson and Robert Forster as the leads. I was given the opportunity to expose slide film under numerous lighting conditions. I basically was allowed to shoot as much film as I wanted for what turned out to be six months. It was a great education in spite of the extremely harsh relations between the crew and the producers.

The crew was "camped out" in a Brooklyn Key Food parking lot for a few weeks, hoping to match the light. Waiting around, day after day, I began shooting photographs in the Greenpoint neighborhood in between set-ups. I found this to be much more interesting than production stills. I had to find my own subject matter and decide what made a compelling photograph. For a while I was spending almost as much money on my own photos as I was making in salary.

One of my favorite photos from this period is in The New Yorkers:

Tell us about The New Yorkers

The New Yorkers
is a book of color street photography made mostly on Kodachrome spanning the years 1978-2005. I identified with the struggle and vulnerability in people and how tough it is to survive here. I was feeling vulnerable myself and I saw this everywhere I went.

At first, New York seemed extremely chaotic and confusing and the images in The New Yorkers are representative of my most successful attempts to work through this confusion. Making pictures was my method of getting to know myself and to feel connected and understand my surroundings. It is a dialogue about my love/hate relationship with the city. I felt I was an outsider.

To quote Picasso:

"Painting isn't an aesthetic operation; it's a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires."

The book has images that depict how humans interact with and are affected by media. A great deal of the city we live in, even back in 1980, was surrounded by advertising, graffiti, signage and store window displays etc. I was fascinated by this two-dimensional world creating a dialogue with the physical world.

The New Yorkers is also about space and how we inhabit it. We are so crowded in on each other, open space always comes as a surprise. There is a visual relief we all appreciate when we turn off a crowded street onto a relatively uncluttered view: the little parks, alleys and mews.

Most importantly, the book is about my fellow city dwellers and how they interact with the environment around them. Some are survivors, some are crushed by the city, and some are just managing. It takes strength to survive. You must develop a sense of self and put much effort to continue to thrive and grow as a human being. A photograph of someone whose heart is momentarily open to a stranger's camera says more about a New Yorker than I ever can in say in words.

Talk about street photography and what it means to you

Street photography is a way of keeping things real. It's a great feedback loop and it requires discipline to focus your awareness when shooting, editing, printing and presentation. Photography is a language, and teaching myself to become fluent made me work towards making better pictures. Showing my work to my friends, to curators, and my teachers at the School of Visual Arts and in galleries is an enlightening and ultimately rewarding process. Testing your work in the real world such as these pushes you to improve, as is true of any art.

Street photography, the way I have practiced it, is to be an observer. When I was shooting film I would take a walk and use up a few frames to "warm up" to get myself in a Zen state of mind. Inevitably, on a good day, I would start to see details that previously had gone unnoticed. There were a few maxims that I had about my method: Treat everyone with respect, be without judgment, and do not make exploitive, easy photographs.

I did not set out with a plan, except to try and make strong pictures. For a very long time I resisted having an idea about a body of work and then looking for situations or setting them up to complete it. I wanted to maintain spontaneity and authenticity as much as possible.

What is your favorite neighborhood? Borough? Subject?

Soho was my favorite neighborhood to shoot in. I lived in the narrow building on the corner of Kenmare Street and Cleveland Place where the Storefront for Art and Architecture is now. Soho has very good light because of the low buildings and the architecture was quirky and interesting. It was a great place to teach your self street photography. Unfortunately, Soho has changed so much since then that today they should just put a dome over it and call it a mall.

A photographer can only see something for the first time once. This may seems obvious but it is precious. I didn't want to tarnish this with a preconceived notion when I went out shooting. To paraphrase John Berger, if a photograph is a surprise for the photographer, it will be for the viewer as well.

I was aware that there were patterns emerging and with careful editing, bodies of work could be made. One of my first was inspired by abstract 20th Century paintings. I realized that many images I had shot of torn advertising on walls could be printed 20" x 30" and larger as a homage to the paintings of Motherwell, Pollack and Rauschenberg. When I received a commission from Craig Barnes, the art director at Workbench, I had an opportunity to produce the work the way I envisioned it.

An example of this:

How did you approach shooting? By being invisible on
the street? Asking permission?

At the beginning it was mostly by being invisible. I didn't want to interfere with what was happening in front of me. It seemed at the time that was a purer way to go. I was looking for the decisive moment and the best way to do that was to be an invisible observer. I let my heart and body take the pictures, and use my head to edit them later. After a while, I became comfortable enough to approach people who were interesting and ask them if they would allow me to take a few pictures. I chose not to aggrandize or to judge my subjects and thus allow something authentic through onto the film.

What was your worst experience shooting on the street? Best?

I was shooting on the street on Kings Highway in Brooklyn at night. I was heading back to the subway. About a half a block ahead of me 4 teenagers were walking in the same direction. I made a long shot of them from behind and thinking nothing of it I went into the Dunkin' Donuts to get a drink before getting on the train.

As soon as I entered the store and was about to order, the four teenagers attacked me for taking their picture. One of them knocked the camera out of my hand. It fell on the floor and the lens broke off. Another was reaching in his backpack for what appeared to be a knife, but luckily, he changed his mind.

No one in the store was helping me. I noticed that my fingernail had broken off and I was bleeding. The teens fled out of the store. In shock, I picked up the camera and wandered outside to the sidewalk. I was amazed that no one had offered to help.

A minute later a police car arrived. They asked what had happened and did anyone know where the teens had gone. Someone had called the cops! A customer said that they had gone upstairs to the train. We hurried up to the platform and there they were, waiting for the train.

We did a line up in the train station, I identified my attackers and we all went to the local precinct. They were arrested and charged with felony assault. Their parents arrived and finally about 4 in the morning I asked the officers for a ride home. They said that only happens in the movies. I then asked them to at least take me to a different subway line so I could get home. During the ride they chalked this one up to "cultural differences."

A few months later, an assistant DA called me and suggested we make a deal. The teens would plead guilty to a misdemeanor and they would be obliged to pay me back for my broken camera. It would all be handled anonymously through Victims Services. For about two years, I received a check for $17 every few weeks or so, until it was all paid off. I knew that I didn't want to wreck these kids’ lives, and imagined that their parents were probably very hard on them. The stress of the attack faded over time. It was the only time in 30 + years of street photography that I have ever been assaulted.

When I was living on Kenmare Street, my landlord was a man named Harry. At 85, he still owned and operated the tire and tube place on the ground floor of my building. I thought he would make a great subject. He was still changing tires himself and he had an ever-changing crew of employees and customers. He was kind enough to let me hang around and make pictures. It was one of my first opportunities to shoot a long term project and teach myself portraiture and photo journalism.

What is your favorite neighborhood? Borough? Subject?

Soho was my favorite neighborhood to shoot in. I lived in the narrow building on the corner of Kenmare Street and Cleveland Place where the Storefront for Art and Architecture is now. Soho has very good light because of the low buildings and the architecture was quirky and interesting. It was a great place to teach your self street photography. Unfortunately, Soho has changed so much since then that today they should just put a dome over it and call it a mall.

The New York skyline photograph was never what interested me. I lived in neighborhoods and it was there my source of inspiration and my sense of identity and craft began to grow. I've lived in seven different apartments in New York City. I like to shoot where there is some possibility of having direct sunlight fall on the subject. The light is the beginning of the magic in a photograph. In New York, tall buildings block most of it. But downtown and in the Boroughs that light is available for much of the day. It makes all the difference.

What have you learned about yourself, the city and this project?

Photography saved my life. I am bi-polar and I had a great deal of difficulty functioning for many years, particularly before I was correctly diagnosed. Making photos gave me hope for my future. It was my belief that as I began to heal, I would have something valuable to offer.

Survival in NY is really tough for the little guy and that can range from the small business owner, and the struggling artist or the homeless, I identified with all of them.
In my better moments I think that empathy is a road to some sort of peace. Without being sentimental, I try to reflect that in my pictures.

Photography is very expensive, and much of the time, like many artists, I was living on the edge. The great thing about street photography is you don't need a client or a plane ticket, just a roll of film and a camera.

How has New York changed since you began shooting (in terms of the landscape, people, difficulties, etc.?

Obviously, the city has changed enormously since 1978. The crime rate is down. We all feel safer. Most of the graffiti is gone. The city now is more homogenized and more corporate. One of things I always loved about NY was the sense of a neighborhood. You could get to know the small business owners. They were the ones who had a real vested interest in keeping on eye on things. You got to know these people over time. If you were in a jam they would be inclined to help you and they for the most part were truly kind people.

Corporations have made real estate much to expensive for the small storefront business in NYC. Landlords leave spaces empty until they get the rent they want. The cost of an apartment has risen as a percentage of income. It wasn't as brutal to be an artist in 1980 as it is now.

The law has changed somewhat in terms of where you can shoot because of the threat of terrorism. I don't agree with the restrictions, but I understand the impulse of the lawmakers to limit photography.

On the street, the average person is much more conscious of the power of the image. As a result it has become harder to make unfettered images with short lenses. People have a greater tendency to not want to have the picture taken. Some innocence has been lost.

All images ©2010 Robert Herman

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