Eric’s Note: I am pleased to interview Caspar Claasen, Amsterdam-based street photographer on his new book, “What are you doing?” I have featured Caspar on the blog before, in 2011 as a featured photographer and on his work in Moldova. When I was in Amsterdam earlier this year, I also had the chance to catch him in real life- and the man is definitely passionate about his street photography and art.
To find out more how Caspar put together his new book, keep reading below!
1. I know you covered this in a past interview, but for those who are first getting familiar with you and your work, share with us how you first picked up a camera.
The first camera, I remember it was a dark blue colored point and shoot, was handed to me when I was a very small kid by my mom, who I guess just wanted to have her hands free being busy raising two boys alone, who said: “why don’t you do this”. And a few years later, when I must have been about 14, I bought (or probably someone else bought me) a very simple Nikkormat SLR, which I loved.
I still have some photos from the first roll of B&W film I put in that camera, which took me a whole 4 week holiday in France to fill up, with photos of trees and fields and some good ones of electricity lines and posts. But it didn’t get serious back then, although I later did do a photography course where I learned how to develop and print my own film, which I long time ago completely forgot how to do. And I also remember taking my camera with me and taking photographs on the street and of a student demonstration and of street artists and such – where to start?
But then that clunky Nikkormat broke and I didn’t have the money to get it fixed or get a new camera. This is early nineties here, before digital, before I had any regular job or career. So it took me more than 10 years after that, including a blue monday in Art Academy, to get myself a new proper camera, and even more years to get a digital SLR.
Anyway, about three or four years ago I bought a Panasonic Lumix GF-1 with a 20mm pancake lens (I still only use that lens) and decided to shoot strangers in public spaces. Oddly enough, even though I didn’t actively take many photographys all those years, it had been on my mind for a long, long time and I was not unaware of or ignorant about street– or candid photography, it just wasn’t the right moment until then.
Maybe fear got in the way as well, probably did. But since then I’ve been out photographing as often as I can, and thinking and reading and studying about it too. Not a day goes by without it.
2. One of the things I find fascinating about your work is how you are able to create visually complex images that aren’t complicated. Can you share why you choose this way of working?
I think most of my photos are actually visually very simple and straightforward. Reason is I like a photo to be easily understood. Or easy to grasp, even if something that is hard to understand is going on. I’m not a big fan of trick shots with a lot of reflections and layers and light, where you can imagine the photographer being very smart and purposely creating something you have trouble visually understanding, just for the sake of confusing you.
I try to work with what is already there. And then try to show you what I found interesting or funny or moving. Like that, I believe photography can be timeless and not just following a trend. I sometimes like to see candid photography as being documentary photography without being newsworthy. It’s about those minor incidents that are easily overlooked.
3. How would you describe your vision in photography and what do you want your viewers to take away from your photos?
To me, photography is simply about telling stories. Or a small poem or song, if you will. Like I think Diane Arbus said, I also truly believe that there are things that would go unnoticed if I didn’t photograph them. That, to me, is the one most straightforward reason to take photographs.
In addition to that, the best compliment some people have given me is that since they’ve seen my photography, they experience their daily commuting differently. They tell me they now notice those little details, fleeting moments, they didn’t notice before. Which is truly a fantastic compliment.
4. I love the vibrant and fun colors of your photos, yet not all of your photos are necessarily “happy photos”. Can you share why you work primarily in color and perhaps the darker meanings behind some of your photos?
I started with B&W when I was young and inexperienced. For practical reasons (I could develop it myself) and nostalgic reasons (I wanted to imitate the classics). But later on I became convinced that, to me, it wasn’t real. Unless you are a dog, life is in color.
Also, I do like to play with color, with patters and shapes and tones. To me, painting in B&W would be equally illogical. I mean, if I am trying to show you the extraordinary in the ordinary, it makes sense to show it like it really is – in color.
About the darker meanings… I guess it’s true quite a lot of my photographs tend to be quite lonely. I have a lot of shots of isolated people doing silly stuff, all alone. That might say something about me, yes.
5. One of your strengths in street photography is to capture more of the scene and see the “big picture”. Has developing this panoramic vision been something you say you were born with or cultivated?
I think that is inherent to my type of photography – I do try to have a proper foreground and background. And it has improved over the years, sure. To me a good photo is, naturally, not only about what happens, it should be presented in a clear and visually attractive way. So there should be as less noise in the frame as possible.
It’s in editing too – I have dismissed many interesting shots because there were annoying elements in the picture that distracted from what in fact was a very good action shot. You know, the hand sticking out someone’s head, those things… But to say I was born with panoramic vision… come on
6. Also branching off that question, your photos have strong composition and geometry. When you are shooting on the streets, is this something you try to do purposefully or something that is now second nature to you?
I have a background in art and have been working as a visual designer for more than 10 years now. That should explain the composition and geometry a bit. Also, as I said before, I like my photos to directly communicate what’s going on. Strong composition can help that a lot, can direct the viewer in the right direction and sometimes even tell it’s own story.
7. You work the streets alone yet you stay connected with the street photography community at large via the internet. Can you share how the internet has helped your work and also how it may have hurt your work in some ways?
I work alone because the quiet and discreet way I work cannot be done in a group, or even with two people. Most of the time I feel other people are already enough in the way of me and my subject…
Without internet I would not be a photographer. That simple. I have not been doing this that long, and in those few years especially Flickr has been by far the most important teacher and source of knowledge and creativity and motivation. By seeing other photographers’ work, by reading comments and discussions, threads, and submitting to groups and then try to figure out why a photo is rejected or accepted. And I met some very friendly and talented other photographers via Flickr.
So so far, it hasn’t hurt my work at all. Besides that, I can’t compare since I’ve never been a photographer before the internet. Maybe the overload of good photography makes it hard to get the amount of exposure and praise you’d want… but that would be a silly argument.
8. You recently self published a book on a collection of the best work of your street photography. Can you share the process how you edited, sequenced, and laid out the book?
For anyone starting out with any form of art, be it photography or film or writing or sculpting or design, whatever, the hardest lesson is editing. I thought I knew something about that, having worked as a designer for quite a while now and as a photographer a bit shorter… I thought I was used to axing my personal favourites for the greater good, but making the book was axing at a whole different level.
I started with simply collecting my best shots, and trying to put that in some sort of storylike, logical order. That immediately got rid of a few dozen photos, and some favourites too.
The hard part was that I wanted the sequence to be a double layered continuity: a bigger one from the first to the last photo, and a smaller one on every spread. Meaning that the two photos on every spread should have something going on between them, but should also relate to the ones before and after them.
And preferably not always the most obvious connection too. So sometimes I might push the viewer a bit to spot the relation between two photos, which I hope keeps them alert and surprised and tickled while browsing through the pages.
9. What compelled you to make the book,and what makes it unique from seeing your work on your website?
I wanted to have something that could act as a portfolio that I could hold in my hands and give to other people, be it curators or publishers or fellow photographers. Sending a link is fine, but a book is still just that something more genuine. It is what it is. It also forces you to make something final, definitive. Which is a different experience from most online portfolios.
And, whether you agree with that or not, it does make you look a bit more serious about your photography. You have put in a serious effort, and like that take yourself serious too.
But mostly it is meant to be used as a handout. However, I would not be opposed to selling a few copies either, not at all. It’s a lovely Christmas present btw…
10. Going back to your photography, who are some photographers and artists (outside of photography) have influenced your vision that you give credit to?
The first photography book that truly stunned me was this big Robert Capa book my brother once gave me for my birthday, long time ago. Until then I didn’t know photography could really hit out to you like that. And of course I could also mention all the masters everyone already knows about, the Erwitt’s and the Parr’s and the Van der Elsken’s…
Much more recently, I think the Street Photography Now book is a monument, no candid photographer should do without it. Same applies to the In-Public site and the ever controversial but incredibly informative and educational HCSP group on Flickr. These three literally changed my life a few years ago.
But probably some influences came much earlier and from all over the place. How about the paintings of Edward Hopper? The Dutch Masters’ paintings I saw as a kid in museums in my native Amsterdam? Books and stories by Murakami or Raymond Carver? MTV (when they still showed videos)? Twin Peaks?
11. A question that often isn’t asked much to photographers but is very important is “why do you take photos?” what do you ultimately want out of your photography?
Because I want to show you something I believe you wouldn’t see if I didn’t photograph it. It’s a very basic and somewhat childish thing, really.
12. What are some other projects that we can look forward in seeing?
I’m not really a project based photographer because I work quite intuitively. But sometimes projects come to me, meaning I notice I have taken similar photographs or am drawn to similar subjects and then pay more attention to that and start keeping track of those. I have a few of those ongoing series, which can be seen at both my website and my Flickr site.
Personally I’m curious about how the Meantime series is going to develop. It’s about uncanny candid photography without people. You can track it here.
13. Who are some people you would like to give thanks to or a shout out to?
Regarding the book I would like to thank my fellow countryman and photographer Peter de Krom. He has advised and helped me with the editing and sequencing and has been a decisive factor in solving some problems I kept running into. Besides that, he could well be the best contemporary candid photographer in The Netherlands.
14. I know there are lots of talented photographers out there who aren’t as well known . Who is one photographer that you recommend us to check out?
Besides Peter, who I just mentioned above…?
15. Anything else you would like to mention that I haven’t asked you yet?
Not really. Thanks for having me, Eric. Much appreciated.
Cheers Caspar, thanks for the interview!
What do you think of Caspar’s sense of humor and his colorful street photographs? Have you also thought about publishing your own book? Show Caspar some love in the comments below and share your thoughts about book publishing as well!