What were you doing when these photos happened?
I spotted the blue car while my wife and I were out getting donuts at this shop in D.C. And I took the other one during an average walk around my neighborhood.
Were the donuts good?
The donuts were awesome. The shop is called Astro Doughnuts. We tried their crème brûlée flavor and some other kind that had bacon on it; both were excellent.
Do you talk to anybody during your average walks around the neighborhood?
Occasionally. Sometimes people get angry when they think I’ve taken their picture, or they’re puzzled to see me photographing detritus or found objects. One time, I snapped a few shots of a pothole filled with water near a gas station and a woman approached me saying, “Thank God! We’ve been trying to get someone down here to fix that.” I explained that I was an artist, and I’m sure that just made me sound like a weirdo.
How do you elaborate on the work that you’re doing? Some must be curious to know more.
I don’t recall ever having in-depth discussions about my work with strangers. I spend more time trying to allay people’s fears because they assume a person with a camera is up to no good. At best, I blend in and they ignore me, which is great. That said, one time a man approached me when I was taking photos of shopping carts in a parking lot. He asked if I worked for the local paper, and I replied that I took pictures for myself. He lingered for long enough that I offered to take his portrait, and he seemed really happy to participate.
Do you like taking portraits?
I definitely want to experiment more with portraits, though I haven’t done it much. I generally prefer the rawness of candid street photography, but Bruce Davidson’s Subway is probably one of the most beautiful photographic series of all time and it largely consists of formal portraits in an informal setting. In a different way, I admire Chauncey Hare’s subversive family portraits. He took simple photos of smiling people sitting proudly in their homes, but because of his stark use of black-and-white and his detached, wide-angle framing, he undermines the families’ efforts to appear content.
I love Subway! I watched him present some of its photos once, and was drawn in to the stories and how some images were confrontational (as subway encounters can be) and some a stolen moment. My favorite from that series is the woman on the platform.
I really envy the fact that you got to see Davidson present Subway. He seems like such a soft-spoken guy—in contrast to his very aggressive, intimate photography style. I’ve read that he frequently asks for permission before taking pictures, which makes it even more astounding that he’s able to capture such natural expressions from strangers. I agree with you: “the woman on the platform” is a beautiful photograph.
I can see your affinity with Chauncey Hare’s work. Yours similarly looks at the starkness of things. That’s not to say emptiness, but the way these things relate to one another in a given context. So: the relationship between curb and car tire; angle and arc; shiny blueness, brick, concrete. Something exciting is happening there.
Yeah, it’s hard for me to compare my stuff to Hare’s because I’m in awe of his work (and that of everyone else I mention here). But actually emptiness does get at what I love about his pictures; he drains the nostalgia and sentimentality out of his subjects. My pictures fail to do that, so I view his art as a challenge to my approach. I really like that you broke down the curb/car picture into those basic tactile components. The idea of a fragment of the world representing the whole appeals to me.
Is it his wide-angle frame that drains the nostalgia and sentimentality, along with the black-and-white and the arranged clutter of things?
Everything you mention contributes to that effect. Some of my favorite Hare photographs are actually his pictures without any people in them. That’s where I feel the artistry in his compositions is clearest. He intended his Protest Photographs series to make a purely political statement, so he downplays his abilities as a photographer. But there’s no mistaking his amazing eye for composition when you look at his landscape work.
How conscious are you of working within a consistent personal style?
I don’t actively try to work within a particular style. However, I am more willing to refuse certain photo opportunities these days. When I first started out, I would see an interesting person and practically chase him or her down Gilden-style to get the shot. Now I’m much more willing to hang back and just let compositions come to me. That unconsciously shapes my style.
Do you shoot with other cameras?
I alternate between two digital cameras and my phone. Film still intimidates me. What cameras do you use?
I have an old digital camera that needs updating. A friend loaned me her film camera for a year, and the three rolls I shot were illuminating. You will see when you handle a film camera; it is a wonderful, delicate beast.
Yeah, my mother has offered to let me use a few of her old rangefinders. They intimidate me, but I will give them a try eventually. The first pictures I ever took were with cheap Kodak disposable cameras. Part of me wants to mess around with those again because they impose so many creative and technical limitations. Or maybe I'm just too lazy to learn how to use a rangefinder.
Do you carry your digital camera everywhere?
No, it varies. I took that picture of the guy in the green shirt with my phone. While I generally prefer to shoot with a full-fledged camera, the phone affords me more creative spontaneity. A camera prepares me to “look” for pictures, which can lead to good work, but many of my favorite compositions popped up unexpectedly.
What do you think of other photographers who shoot with their phones? David Alan Harvey and Gueorgui Pinkhassov, for example.
Pinkhassov is a master in any medium; I love his cell phone work. I know Joel Sternfeld did an entire Steidl book comprising iPhone photographs. And I’ve been blown away by some of Ron Jude’s phone shots. You can take great photographs with any camera.
Have you seen the documentary How to Make a Book With Steidl? Sternfeld’s iPhone project was featured in it.
I saw part of it on Netflix. Haven’t finished it yet. I have Netflix ADHD.
Take your Ritalin and do finish the documentary.
I promise I’ll finish it!