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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.
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.
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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Currently you are a staff photographer at the Star-Ledger in New Jersey tell us your photographic journey.
I took a high school photography class my sophomore year and I became hooked. I attended the Rochester Institute of Technology on scholarship and while in school I interned at 4 different newspapers throughout the US. After graduation I returned home to the Washington DC area where I freelanced for the Washington Post for almost 2 years. I took my first staff job at the Dubois County Herald in Jasper, IN and was there for 2 years and then another 2 years at The State Journal Register in Springfield, IL. Since 2000 I have been on staff at The Star-Ledger and NJ Advance Media in New Jersey.
Is it more difficult making a living as a photographer than before? Yes! I’m fortunate to still have a staff position but a number of publications have cut their staffs. Friends of mine who won a Pulitzer Prize were even let go by their papers. There is more competition with the popularity of digital photography and less work to go around with budgets being cut. You just can’t be a talented photographer now, having good business skills are essential for a successful career. Sadly as I finish writing this, the whole photo staff at the NY Daily was just fired.
Is photojournalism a degree and career still worth pursing? Yes because stories will still need to be told. We live in a more visual society than ever before. Yes, there is a lot of competition but the cream will still rise. Also, with the rise of web publications there is a bigger demand for quality photo editors. More and more students coming out of school are not becoming photographers but are going into editing and multimedia. Students need to be realistic with their skills but also be willing to put in a lot of work because someone else will.
Has social media changed things for better or for worse? There can be arguments for both! With the internet and social media we have become more visually aware than ever before. One could even argue that social media has also devalued what a photographer does. Everyone is a photographer and we judge pictures by likes but not if they communicate anything while giving content away for free.
What’s the difference between documentary and street photography? There doesn’t have to be a difference but I would say that there is more of a trend in street photography for photos that rely on graphics or quirky compositions. These types of photos might be visually fun but they can start to look a lot like each other. I feel that documentary photography relies more on photos with intimacy and emotion although they can be graphic also. The strongest photos rely on strong visuals, a decisive moment and either emotion or intimacy that makes you feel something.
Are you more of one than the other? Both! Earlier in my career my photos were more based on just graphic elements. I’m striving for more intimacy and emotion in my photos these days. There are too many street photography photos where you are just the observer and you don’t feel anything. I guess working for a newspaper has made me want more than just something that is pretty. I was lucky early in my career to be surrounded by some really talented photojournalists and great photo editors that pushed me for something more.
Here is some great insight from one of my mentors who was responsible for 4 Pulitzer Prizes where he use to work
The Language of Photography in the Newsroom
By JOE ELBERT
The Washington Post
TWP pictures fall into categories: informational, graphically appealing, emotionally appealing and intimate. The right combination of these categories in a single image becomes an award winner.
INFORMATIONAL — This is the lowest standard of photography. I often refer to these images as real estate pictures. Shortly after I joined TWP and edited with a photographer, I knew that something just wasn’t clicking. The photographer explained that he had been taught to see each assignment as shooting an overall of the battlefield, and getting a mug shot of the winning general. We still shoot informational pictures, but we know when they’re needed and do not see them as a standard. Pushing informational pictures is lowering the bar.
GRAPHICALLY APPEALING — Most newspaper photographers discovered this trick in the early ’70s. Hell, they even won awards. But these are not a case of fitting an art form. They resulted simply because wide-angle lenses were developed. A photographer with a limited sense of composition could create an image that suddenly had dimension and depth. These images are intellectually appealing but don’t have much emotional impact. Many newspaper photographers consider these stunning, and too often rely on composition alone to carry a situation.
EMOTIONALLY APPEALING — Photographers talk about capturing moments. Cartier Bresson, one of the five founding fathers of Magnum Photo Agency, titled his 1952 book “The Decisive Moment.” The challenge was to push the concept of decisive moments from the magazine world into newspapers. Patience, sensing the environment, and intuitively sensing when the moment will occur are the building blocks for capturing emotionally appealing images. The skill is very much like that of a wildlife photographer’s, but the subject is humanity. This involves a lot of sitting in a blind and waiting, unnoticed, for the picture.
INTIMATE — Working with truly gifted photographers helped me to realize that we could push the decisive moment and emotionally appealing images a bit further, and I chose to call this category “Intimate.” The description scared off the wannabes, and I came to know whom to work with. I can’t give you a description of an intimate picture; it’s something that can be felt.
Walk us through your creative process when you’re out photographing? First, my question to myself is what do I want to say? I use to go a hundred miles an hour and right into looking for a photo but realized that some of the best photos are right behind me. I now like to walk around the periphery of a scene. Looking at the light and shadows and how they playoff each other. Then I look at the people, their relationships and their body gestures asking myself what really is the story here. With this knowledge I try to predict where moments will happen. I like to by the fly on the wall when I’m photographing but not the fly you want to swat. There are two ways to take a photo. The first is where the photo is completely candid and the subject has no idea that it was taken. The other is when a photographer gains the trust of a subject and then they start to ignore the photographer. One way is not better than the other. A talented photographer can be very inconspicuous even if the subject knows they are there and especially when there is a lot of drama going on around them.
Do you capture your street photos simultaneous when you are working on assignments or do you shoot on your days off? Both! You have to have a balance with work and personal photography. Otherwise you spend all of your life documenting other people’s life and not living yourself. I incorporate street photography into my daily assignments and especially on photo essay projects for work. I also have a couple of personal long term street photography projects I’m working on too. The light mirrorless cameras have made it easier to carry a high quality camera more frequently. I currently have a couple of the Fuji models I use in addition to my Canon work gear.
What’s your favorite subject to photograph? Generally speaking people. I like the diversity of subjects I cover being a newspaper photographer. That being said I specialize in documentary essays.
In regards to your photography, what are you most proud of? Producing high quality work on a consistent basis. Anyone can get lucky with one photo but working hard and producing quality work daily for my publication shows my value to being on their staff.
Is there something you’d like to improve on in your photography? Any challenges you take upon yourself? Getting closer not just physically to my subjects but emotionally. I know I and others sometimes get in a formula on how we like to shoot it be either a certain lens, a distance to a subject, a time of day or style of light. It’s good to break away from this and change things up. Years ago a friend of mine was a photo editor a small paper and a rodeo was coming to town. The staff of 5 photographers went to shoot it as a team project. They were allowed only a limited number of rolls of film with one camera and their favorite lens. Then they were told to give their favorite lens to the photographer to the right of them. The photographer who liked to shoot all long lens sports with clean backgrounds now had a 24mm lens!!!! As a staff they were challenged to work differently but as a whole they produced some great work. Things like this are great to do and occasionally push yourself to see and not get to comfortable.
Was there a photo or photographer that had a lasting impact on you? A couple – from a pure traditional street photography aspect Magnum’s David Allan Harvey and Alex Webb have been influential. I was fortunate to work with former Washington Post Photographer Carol Guzy who has won 4 Pulitzer Prizes. Her photos are visually amazing with a lot to say on important issues. Lastly, legendary LIFE Magazine photographer Bill Eppridge was a friend and mentor.
“A journalist does not necessarily imply ‘artist’ but you are not going to make your point if you cannot make a picture that people will stop and explore…the ‘artist’ in one instant must establish a sense of time, a sense of place, a moment of importance, a moment of aesthetic beauty all in the same frame, one moment in history. In terms of importance, the fewer of these present, the less significant the photograph. Anybody can take pictures, but not anybody can become a photographer.” – Bill Eppridge
A favorite photo of from your own collection – I call it “Endless Summer.” I was working at my first staff job in Jasper, IN, and it was the 4th of July on Beaver Lake. The kids felt comfortable around me and just ignored me as I took their photos. To me this photo is timeless.
Any advice to you’d give to photographers? Work hard because if you don’t someone else will. There are less job opportunities than the past and more photographers looking for work. Be flexible and diverse in your skills but be able to specialize or show an editor why you are unique and should be the right photographer for the job. Use all the tools and tricks of the trade but make your own photos and don’t feel you have to copy a style. Your pictures should rely on a moment and emotion and not on how you light the scene. Otherwise you’re bringing yourself down to just technique. Also extremely important is to understand the business of photography. Making a living through street photography is not an option for most photographers.
To keep up with Aristide Economopoulos’s work:
Instagram – Follow @aeconomopoulos
Website – www.aristidephoto.com
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