Robert Herman has been a street photographer since his student time at New York University in the late 1970ies. Back then, he started to capture New York, the city’s beautiful diversity of people, reflections and unique coincidental moments on rolls and rolls of analogue film. His collection The New Yorkers depicts a time and place any young artists today would have loved to live in. It is not a secret that life in ‘70s/’80s New York meant first of all one thing: struggle. Nevertheless, looking through Robert’s inspiring body of work from that era, it is not difficult to understand why so many young artists still decided that it was worth the fight. What would be more inspiring for a street photographer than the rough and honest life of New York City?
In the foreword to your collection The New Yorkers, I read that you have spent a lot of time in a movie theater as a child and watched one particular movie over and over again, until concentrating solely on the image. What movie was that and what fascinated you about its cinematography?
When I was young, I saw many films in my father’s theater in Brooklyn. Blow Up and Zabriskie Point by Michelangelo Antonioni, and of course many American films, like Easy Rider and Butch Cassidy. I loved the cinematography in natural light: the bright saturated colors and the formal composition of the images. Watching the same films over and over again embedded into my unconscious and continues to influence my way of making pictures.
What made you switch from filmmaking to photography?
Photography was my way of being creative everyday. Filmmaking requires a great deal of money and a film crew, etc. After graduating from NYU film school, I found work as a production still photographer on independent feature films. In between takes, there was so much time to kill, that I decided to buy extra film, specifically Kodachrome, and make my own street photos around the filming locations. I fell in love with the beauty of correctly exposed Kodachrome transparency. One of my photos from The New Yorkers, Greenpoint, NY, was made while we were on location in Brooklyn. The woman hanging the clothes from the window lived directly behind the supermarket parking lot where our film trucks were.
Looking at your photographs of New York in the ’70s and ’80s today, the life you are depicting seems so beautiful in its harshness, romantically melancholic. What was your feeling about the city back then? How did you experience it as an artist at that time?
I chose to shoot the everyday people and situations near where I lived in Little Italy, Soho, Tribeca, and Greenwich Village. In a way, I was rebelling against the glamour and fashion of the time. I identified with their struggle just to survive, just as I was. My empathy and identification with the subjects translated into strong photos.
What’s the story behind your photo Eyepatch?
I came upon the temporary construction wall of orange and white diagonals and was attracted by the graphics and the beauty of the sunlight falling on the scene. I made many pictures with the same overall composition. I chose this one because it is a metaphor for the one eye that a photographer uses when he looks through the viewfinder.
Your portraits in that series appear to be spontaneous — is that true? How do you go about taking portraits? How do you pick people and how do you approach them in the streets?
When I go out to shoot, I respond by instinct, for portraits it is a similar reaction. I feel an affinity for the subject and I take it from there.
Can you pick one of your favorite pieces of that series and tell us a little bit about it?
One of my favorites is Boy with the Big Glasses. I was feeling fragile back in those days and his seeming vulnerability mirrored mine. All photographs reveal something about the photographer… and The New Yorkers is a reflection of my state of mind. In other words, my
street photography is both a document of a place and time as well as a self-portrait.
I read that you loved the spontaneity of photography to begin with. And many of your pictures from The New Yorkers seem to prove your ability to catch the right moment at the right time — timing is everything. Is that the reason for you switching to digital photography at some point? What are your feelings towards digital vs. analogue photography?
I miss analogue photography, especially Kodachrome very much. The quality of color, contrast and it’s archival properties made it the best color film ever invented. Unfortunately, Kodak stopped making and processing the film in 2005.
Digital photography has its advantages… it’s relatively low cost, not counting all the extra hard drives to store the images. (laughs)
In many ways, there is no difference between analogue and digital. Making pictures still requires an eye. It’s not the machine that makes a strong photo, it’s the unique personal perspective of the photographer. That’s one reason why I made my second monograph The Phone Book. The photos were all made with an iPhone and the Hipstamatic App. And part of my rationale was that strong photos can be made with any camera.
Would you be able to shoot another series about New York these days?
I am shooting another series in NYC as well as in Naples, Italy with my iPhone.
Despite the digital aspect — in what way do you think will your future NY series distinguish itself from the one back in the 70’s and 80's?
I am sad about the loss of the Mom and Pop shops that made NYC in the 8O’s such a strong subject for a street photographer like me. Now that the city, and particularly Manhattan, has become so populated by corporate chain stores like Starbucks and H&M, and everyone is constantly talking on their mobile, I wanted to make a body of work that was less about the background and put more emphasis on the subject.
This new body of work is women going about their daily lives in Naples and New York. More than any time in history, women have the freedom to express their unique sensibility, It is my celebration of their incredible individuality.
Photography is a language, learn to speak it fluently.
What’s your advice to young photographers?
Talent is only the starting point! Making pictures continuously is essential to building on that talent. Practice, learn, shoot some more. It’s the cliche’ of the Ten Thousand Hours., this is especially true for photographers.
Secondly, what separates talented amateurs from professionals is the ability to edit their own work and create a context for a body of work. In other words, shoot with the body and edit with the head. You have to be able to do both extremely well.
Painters are very aware of what has come before.Study the history of photography. Find the monographs of the photographers you are drawn to. What makes a strong picture? How is it constructed? What is it that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. A good photograph has something invisible at its core.
For books, try to find the underlying principle that creates the sequencing: Why is a certain picture the first image in the book, why is another the last? Why are two pictures chosen to face each other on the left and right-hand pages? Photography is a language, learn to speak it fluently.
What are you up to these days? Any plans/projects you want to share with us?
Currently, I’m finishing up the book dummy of my black and white work while I was living in a rural farm community in Georgia, USA from 2003- 2005.