Alex: I am happy to start a series of exclusive interviews on Eric’s blog with this interview with Tom Young (yotung on Flickr) – a “journeyman” street photographer based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Keep reading more how he combines his interest in the urban environment and society in his street photography!
To start this interview, present yourself to our readers.
I am an urban planner by profession, and a street photographer by fascination, you could say. My interest in street photography is very closely related to my professional work. It is partly an aesthetic interest, and partly an interest in how people act in and use public spaces. We are quite often very different people out in the city than we are in private, so this difference between the public face and the private one is intriguing to me.
Street Photography is known thanks to internet, with a lot of blogs, websites and social networks but also for the mobile generation, a great time of popularity. This is a real moment of success for the genre or is only a fact of more opportunities to have visibility?
I’m not a media or sociological expert, but I don’t really believe that there is a widespread awareness or appreciation of street photography. I threw a small framed print of one of my street photos into a secret santa gift exchange this past Christmas, mostly because I’d forgotten I needed to bring something to the party and I didn’t have anything else available. I hoped maybe someone would appreciate it, but no one really got it. “It’s a dude in an alley” was the confused response.
I do think that the internet has made it more accessible to the people-watchers out there, those who enjoy viewing or photographing humanity in all of its varied forms. And the internet has definitely made it easier for street photographers to connect with others who share the interest. But is this a real moment of success and awareness about street photography? No, I’m not really convinced of that.
What do you look for when making a good street photograph?
Well, I think I make a lot more bad ones than good ones. Good street photographs are very hard to make and thus far I don’t feel like I have many that I feel truly proud of.
But my photographs are usually structured around two different themes, which I alternate between depending on what my mind seems more attuned to that day. Sometimes I look for strong physical environments with interesting light, settings which are strongly graphic on their own, emphasizing shapes and lines, perhaps offering a contrast between light and dark, and just needing a person or people to complete them and give the scene purpose.
Other times I am more focused on the human details. People’s public faces when they are alone are often so impassive, so distracted and disengaged. And people in groups can often be false, put on, giving a performance for friends or acquaintances. People doing these things can be sometimes be interesting, but what really intrigues me is people revealing something of their private selves while out in public, letting their guard down.
At some point I hope I will become good enough that I can meld these two different approaches into one, combine the emotional and the aesthetic.
I think I see a slight preference for the color in your photos…
Absolutely. I am sometimes tempted to convert to black and white if I think it will emphasize shadows or lines better, or if I am working with an image that has fooled the AWB on the camera and I can’t quite get the colours right. But I find that if I revisit the photo a few weeks or a few months later and try it again in colour, I often end up switching it back. Colour is how we see, and my goal is to share what I see with others, so it just seems like the natural choice most of the time.
What are the masters who most admire?
I admire both Saul Leiter and Alex Webb for their use of colour, light and lines. Webb is stronger with respect to his use of dramatic spaces punctuated by people. He creates really incredible compositions and uses shadow and light to great effect. Leiter makes wonderful collages out of cluttered urban environments. I appreciate both of these approaches.
More on the emotional side of my street photography equation, Helen Levitt and Bruce Davidson are both really fantastic. I think they have both managed to capture a lot of emotional honesty in their photos, something which I would love to be able to do better myself.
I think that the best street photographs are fundamentally snapshots that have an element that can surprise. Are you agree with this statement?
I agree that many good street photographs have that quality to them, leaving a first impression that the shot was a casually or even carelessly taken image of a candid scene, but on second viewing revealing a more complex structure, an intensity of emotion, etc., that was not immediately obvious.
I don’t think that encompasses the entire breadth of street photography, though. When I think of Alex Webb’s images, or those of Trent Parke, there is often an powerful intentionality to them that immediately leaps out at you, a sense of a carefully composed whole that then invites you to investigate its individual elements. I think these types of shots are equally “street” but would not wear the label “snapshot” very comfortably.
You use still analog cameras. What do you think about film photography?
I am pretty much a neophyte with respect to film photography, but I have a collection of old film cameras given to me by my dad. I think digital is less intimidating and has fewer consequences. You can go out and shoot 500 photos in a day and think nothing of it. With film you have to really understand your equipment, be more intentional with what you shoot and get it right the first time. If I had more time on my hands, I would love to explore film more exhaustively.
Any plans or goals for the future?
I’ve recently started promoting myself and I’m going to do more of that. I think there are plenty of street photographers out there who are better than me, but I think there are images that I have made that are beautiful and which speak to something; I’ve realized that I don’t need to be as good a photographer as I want to be in order for that to be worth sharing.
As far as shooting goes, I plan to work on getting braver. This is probably the toughest part of street photography for me (and I know I’m not alone), giving myself permission to shoot people up close. On the days when I feel bold, I tend to make much better photographs, so I’m going to work on feeling that way on a more regular basis.
Which photographs really stand out to you from Tom’s images above- or what he says? Show some love in the comments below!