Welcome back Michael. You took a hiatus? How long?
Well, I’m afraid there’s no simple answer to these questions. The “welcome back” may be somewhat premature, however. I did step away from photography for a while, if not taking photographs is what you mean, yes. I remained firmly in the photography world as a writer (I write for magazines like Photo Life), and I remained a judge at the World Street Photography Organization. I just didn’t feel the urge or the need to actually pick up a camera. I sold most of my equipment and for a whole year only took a handful of photos using an iPhone. It felt good. So, although the dates are blurry, I was away from the game of making photographs for a solid year.
What did you do during that time?
Well, as I’ve said, I wrote for magazines about photography and I also did some judging. I am a teacher by profession and I began in a new position, which required me to focus on getting settled into a new environment. I am also teaching a new course and needed to write some curricula etc. I traveled some during that time. I teach classical world, so I traveled back (after many years) to both Rome and Athens and didn’t make a single photograph in either place. It felt wonderful! I worked on a writing project with Martin Sheen. I also got into collecting expensive mechanical watches and learned all about that world.
Why were you away and what made you come back?
I’m not really sure why I felt I needed to step away. In a piece of writing, which you reference below, I talked about how street photography is overrun with bad photography and I think that was part of my decision. I was just seeing too much of the same. Everyone copying each other and producing so much of the same. It became very boring for me. You know, underexposed photographs of people lurking in shadows amidst splashes of color in the backdrop. How many of those photographs does the world really need? Or photographs of people passing in front of billboards and aligning with something in some way that apparently is ironic or interesting. Oh look, a woman with a pink shirt walked in front of a pink billboard. Snap.
Then you have the photographs of kids jumping in and out of water, young woman on cell phones, or people holding umbrellas. So much of the same. Do I sound bitter? I’m not really, truly, but I am tired of it all in some way. The unimaginative repetition is visually exhausting for me. I recently judged a competition with nearly 2000 images and it was truly disappointing how many were repetitive and familiar. Now, I want to be clear, I’m not saying that there is no good street photography out there, or no good street photographers. I’m just saying that they are becoming very hard to find amid all the noise. The fight to find good, creative, original work by sincere, kind, collegial photographers was draining.
I was tired. I was either seeing bad photography or running into ego-driven self-important photographers – often both in one package. I was also put off by the “workshop” explosion in street photography. Because no one can sell street photographs, everyone became involved in selling street photography workshops. It felt icky to me. It felt like a pyramid scheme. I didn’t want to be part of that hustle and so, without doing so, I drifted off the radar. At that point I felt as though it was a natural place to step away and do something else for a while. I’m happy I did.
Don’t you think in today’s world you need to promote yourself to get your work seen. To inch one step closer to your goal whether that’s publishing a book, or have a solo exhibit…isn’t self promotion inevitable even at times it may seem like “ME ME ME”. What do you recommend?
Absolutely. But I think it can be done with taste and moderation. I think it can be done with a respect and kindness toward others. In fact, I think you might gain more ground by supporting others than by merely promoting yourself. That’s been true for me at least. I think the community would benefit from more, well, community.
With the workshops, people see an Eric Kim whose making six figures and think this is an opportunistic time. You’re basically saying many shooters have the wrong motive. Am I correct?
Well, are you an artist or merely a business person? Yes, I do think you can be both, but it is a dance. I think some of the people selling workshops are primarily just business people, some very successful, but their art is suspect to me.
In fact, with some of these people I cannot even really find much of a body of work. Doesn’t that raise any flags for the people forking over their money? I think if I were just about business I’d chose something like real estate, not photography (laughing). Make those very average six figures into seven or eight figures! Art is about something greater and deeper than making money, at least it used to be.
Why does all of this bother you in that you see the same and people copying each other, etc?
I’ve never been a fan of copied art. I mean, paint by numbers, okay, if you need to relax. But painting by number and trying to get gallery representation? That’s a new phenomenon. And, to be clear, it doesn’t “bother me”, I just find it to be counterproductive to the evolution of the genre.
Clear the air for everybody. I saw the online backlash when you wrote that article about how street photography is running itself into the ground, therefore you decided to take a step back?
I’m not aware of any backlash to that article, particularly. Although I don’t read online forums, so maybe I missed something. I think most people took it to mean that I was, personally, burnt out and needed a break. Fair enough. My claims about the genre as a whole were, I think, largely dismissed. I don’t think there is a lot of appetite for genuine aesthetics-related conversation in street photography. I don’t see too many people writing about street photography from an informed place. I mean there are a lot of people writing (and YouTub-ing) about it, but few of these people have a background in art or art history etc. The conversations are not even skin deep most of the time. I just watched a video where a guy claimed that Edwin Land (founder of Polaroid) whom he mistakenly called Travis Land, invented the reflex camera. Wait, what? I mean come on. Then, when anyone does write genuine criticism (I mean that word in its true sense) there is backlash. No one wants to be told that their art sucks. I get it. As I always say, the lack of commercial gallery interest in what we call street photography today speaks volumes. Indeed, nothing more need be said, really.
So, yes, was I frustrated by a lack of reception by trying to initiate a deeper conversation about the genre, and the crisis I think it is in aesthetically, yes. Did I run away because no one appreciated what I was trying to do, no. I’ve been writing opinion and criticism for twenty years, my skin is much thicker than that. However, I really do wish that more people in the street photography world would try to understand what we are seeing in the genre and how (or how not) it fits in with the greater conversation of photography and the history of photography.
For example, my work in my book, The Human Fragment, is directly descendant of Mark Cohen’s early work. It not a copy, and anyone who knows our work would agree on that, but it is related. My work and his work share some DNA. Yet, no one, not one person, ever, has initiated a conversation with me about this obvious lineage – about how my work in “in conversation” with Mark’s work. I find that tremendously disappointing as an artist. I guess I long for a bygone era. I long for those days when artists bothered to know about those who came before them, in a genuine way, and worked to find an “opening” whereby they could join a larger conversation. Maybe in the days of the Chelsea Hotel when artists sat around (mostly stoned or worse) and worked to understand things intellectually, not just from an ego point of view. Today is seems to just be me, me, me. Look at my work, isn’t it great? My work is my own. It’s new. It’s original. It’s all mine.
Link to HUMAN FRAGMENT BOOK HERE
So what exactly reignited the passion or was it just simply being away taking a breather.
I’m not sure the passion is reignited, Tim. I mean, yes, I am making photographs these days, at times. But, I am not really passionate about street photography any more. I think this comes from two places. One, everything I’ve said so far in this interview. Two, that I have made my contribution to that genre. I think my work in The Human Fragment is unique. Now, let’s be clear. I am not saying that it is good or iconic. No. Yet, I am saying that I made a body of work that is consistent, recognizable, and unique. It is in conversation with others, like Cohen, but it stands on its own. I will defend that claim indefinitely. I can be accused of many things, but no one who knows art history can claim that I just copied someone else or made photographs that were already recognizable. That said, that work came to an end. I just cannot make “that” work any more. It’s done. It is what it is. Good or bad, it is its own thing and it is finished and will now have to live out its own life. This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be a photographer or make photographs, however. I am, by nature, a photographer. I will always have that urge to capture time and make it my slave. That doesn’t go away. At least I don’t think it does, does it?
Talk about your new work. Were these created during your hiatus? Reminds me a bit of William Klein. What inspired this?
The camera I am using inspired this work. I am using a Harinezumi, which I have used for years. Most notably, I made my book, Michael Sweet’s Coney Island, using the Harinezumi. Although those images were in color. In fact, those images are all about color and its vibrancy etc. Ever since that project I have been curious about what the Harinezumi can do in monochrome. So much of the work we see from this camera is in color. I also like how the camera is so unpredictable. There are no settings. You cannot really subjugate the camera. The camera, in some way, make you its slave. I point and I shoot. I then wait and pray that the camera is on my side. I like that it adds distortion and blur and, sometimes, things that I cannot even explain. More than once I have looked at a photograph after arriving home and have not been able to even identify what is going on or where I made the image. These photographs take on a life of their own. As for William Klein, yes, I can see where you are coming from – about the blur etc. Yet, as a great admirer of Klein (and a fanatic about understanding photographic lineage) I would be cautious to make any comparisons myself. I think, perhaps, where we converge is in that no one appreciated his images when they were first made, especially in America. I think a lot of people also don’t get my work here. They don’t get the “blur” and the abstraction. This work is proving successful for me overseas, but here in North America it is seen as very sub-par in comparison to my work with a “serious camera”. And that’s fine. I am not looking for anything with this work. I am merely satisfying my own curiosity about the Harinezumi and black and white photography.
Link to Michael Sweet’s Coney Island
Sneak peek into any projects you are working on? New book?
I don’t think I have the energy for a new book just now. Publishers these days are very demanding about how much of the work you take on yourself. No one wants to invest in your book if you are not committed to going out and peddling that book everywhere! I just cannot do that right now. I have two book still under active contract with a publisher and I need to promote those books and that work, for now. As for new work in general, well, I am making a few photographs here and there. I am not taking anything too seriously at all. I’m just a guy with a toy camera. Someday, more down the road, I want to return to photography more seriously but not street photography. As I’ve said, I have made my contribution there. I think I want to tackle portraits next. I know nothing about making portraits and that seems exciting to me. I love to learn new things.
Keep up with Michael Ernest Sweet’s work on Instagram – Follow @mesweetphotos
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