I recently had the chance to interview Todd Gross, currently one of my favorite color street photographers when I was in New York about a month ago. We sat down at Jackson diner, had some great Indian food, and chatted about street photography for about 45 minutes. Watch the interview above or you can read the transcript below.
Eric: We are at the Jackson diner in Jackson heights, Queens in New York. Why don’t you introduce yourself?
Todd: My name is Todd Gross and I am a photographer from Queens.
Tell us more about your photography and how you got started.
I bought a camera—that’s essentially what I did. I had some money to burn and always liked cameras. So why not buy one? I did and it suited me. I had no idea what I was doing at first, but I really don’t know.
How old when you first started shooting?
I was in my mid twenties.
You had an artistic bent?
I was an artist without an art.
Can you expand on that?
When I was a kid I liked drawing Mad Magazine-styled cartoons. But I wasn’t any good at that.
So I stopped–I got discouraged. I was always looking for something.
I picked up guitar, but I could only play three chords. So I was always in search of something. And the camera was just another thing. Until digital photography actually. I saw photoblogs – the first ones.
What were the first photoblogs you stumbled upon?
The first was ‘Lightning Field’ by David Gallager. I was blown away. Wow you could go out and take pictures and put them on the internet?
When was this?
This was late 2000. And I thought to myself: “That’s pretty cool, I want to do that.” I was working doing web stuff at the time coding websites. So it was right up my alley. So I ordered a 100 dollar camera from Apple.
Apple sold cameras?
Yeah that was my reference at the time. I went to the Apple site, and it was $125 and it took 640×480 pixels. I walked around and hand coded my own blog– no CMS, no database, no nothing. All flat html. And that was it—I was up and running.
A few months later I got a response. And you know when you’re on the internet you get a positive response—forget about it. It is like crack. So I was like, “Oh, wow, people are interested.” I’m not prompting them, and they’re writing me about the photographs.
It was 4-5 months after I started the blog. I was in Las Vegas. I was checking my email—and I got messages about my photos. And I was thinking, “Wow, this is really cool.” I took it further and further, and got more obsessed with it. The camera wasn’t good enough, and I got a better camera, and digital wasn’t good enough so I went to film.
So you started with digital?
Yes—actually no. I started with film, but this was a few years before – when it was b/w.
Todd in black and white?
Yeah. I took a photo of a police motorcycle I was very proud of—which I printed myself. That was as far as I went, all the prints went to the drawer. They didn’t go anywhere.
It wasn’t until 2000-2001 when I got a digital camera, and got really into it.
Usually people start from film to digital—it seems you went ‘backwards.’
I think people do that most of the time because people think of photography as digital photography. Then they go back and rediscover film.
I did start with film, so when I went back to it. The reason I went back to it was a photo I saw online. A guy had a Lomo and took a photo of a red dumpster in Singapore. And he blogged about it. This was ‘Eric Alba’ – he’s still out there. He is a visual effects designer.
Something about the red of the dumpster really captivated me. And I was like wow, I really wanted to do that so I was in search of color. I liked the look—I always wanted a Lomo. He had a Lomo, so I bought one. It was the LCA. Which is actually a real camera. It’s not bullshit.
So that got me started in film, and there was a lab called Spectra at the time. It used the Fuji Frontier system so the prints were off the charts. They really popped. In fact, the early blog –I scanned the prints and put them up. I scanned the prints on a flatbed. So at home, I did that for 2 years, I have stacks of prints. 4×6 prints.
What is it about color that draws you to it? Why color for you?
Its been said before—but the world is in color. I just respond to it instinctually. I just like color. I see it, I feel it.
I did start with black and white, but I don’t know—there is something about it that never really worked for me. So now maybe you can say that black and white is artificial—why would you see the world in black and white when its in color? It seems like a filter on its own. It is kind of a ridiculous notion, because they are fantastic black and white photographs. We don’t see the world in black and white, and I just like color.
Who are some color photographers you are drawn to? I know you like Eggleston, Martin Parr and Saul Leiter. What about their photos are special to you, and who are other photographers who inspire you?
It’s almost the same question. I think initially I was captivated by the pop of color, lets say Martin Parr. When I first saw his work I never saw anything like that—that flash during the day with the color popping in that way. To me it looked real, but another world, and I was totally captivated by that.
Eggleston too– you can’t miss or escape the color. You can’t miss it. And I don’t know, it’s kind of hard to explain for me it is –just instinctual. It is what I’m attracted to. It’s like explaining why I like chocolate, it tastes good. Or why do I like to drink beer? Its just something I like—I just feel.
It is probably subconscious. It’s something that I don’t think about. I wrote somewhere on someone’s blog when I see a lot of color I run to it like a fly to shit. And I mean that—that is something, we all walk around and something catches our eye.
So one of the things for me besides maybe something unusual on the street or an interaction is color. I can be walking along and glance to my left and see a really big red and blue and ill go down there and check it out.
When it comes to working in color, I see you have a good sense of color harmony. For example there will be nice shades of red against blue, or the orange and the brown of a coffee stain. Are you looking for a combination of colors when you’re shooting?
I don’t think about it much. There may be specific examples—a few years ago when there was a wall in soho which was bright pink. I walked by one day and saw the sun hit it so I said I had to make a photograph. To me, that is half a photograph (the light). You need some action or content, but when I see that – it is half of it. Its something I’m attracted to.
Now I know when photographers are interviewed and say its instinctual and have a hard time explaining things—its true. It’s just, who knows for whatever reason we are attracted to certain things. You just go for it.
One thing I like about your photos are that they are a good reflection of who you are as a person. Looking at your photos and now looking at you in person I think your photos are very authentic—they are very instinctual. Many of your photos are simple, down to earth, not pretentious— with a good dash of humor. But some of them are a bit serious. Can you talk about how you think your personality in your photos reflect yourself and one another?
I like to laugh, that’s for sure. Everyone calls me Mr. Jokey. That’s how I get on in the world. It’s probably to break the ice or make certain situations bearable—I just like to joke. It just comes out.
I explained before, but I was a bit disappointed that the stuff recently is a bit jokey, one-liners. I’d like to show more of my other side—my ‘dark’ side. Which I think is another aspect of my personality.
I can be a little aloof, removed, and brooding. I used to think that was the side that people saw in the photos. And to the point that people weren’t really sure that I wanted to show them to people. There would be times where I would think: “Oh they will see the man behind the curtain!”
But our photos reveal who we are. And that was maybe something I was shy about showing. My friend Elliot said my stuff is dark. And I said, maybe that’s not a good thing.
Now I think my work is now a bit more humorous, full of life. I kind of want to go to that other side. But I don’t think it’s something I can capture. The photos come out and depend on where you are in your life, and I think that dictates what comes out.
When it comes to your shooting process—you mention how you went to digital to film, and now you are shooting a lot of digital too nowadays. Can you tell the differences and strengths/weaknesses of both. What you prefer at the end of the day?
Like I said, any keeper that I’m proud of that I like at the end of the day—I would want it to be a film image. Because film looks better. Film is photography.
I feel that with digital you’re almost like cheating. It’s not real, it’s a scam. That camera manufacturers have just found a way to turn a profit every couple of years.
Of course, you can make a great photo with any camera and I’m kind of kidding about that—because I shoot predominately digital now.
Even when I review and edit them and I might like an image—I still look at it, and say—”Well, its all right, its okay.” But it’s just how I got into photography in the first place. I got into it with film, and I really enjoyed using different stocks and seeing the differences between them. And pushing versus pulling processing and all that kind of thing. And that’s the look, the feel that I really want. I just don’t have the money right now to really really shoot film. So that holds me back.
But don’t get me wrong—obviously digital photography can allow you to take a great photo.
For you it’s all about the color. In terms of the aesthetic of color digital photos vs a film photo, assume you do the proper post-production to a raw image. How do you see the differences in both of them. How would you describe the aesthetic differences?
The difference is the colors right away. I’m not somebody who likes to mess with the images too much in Lightroom. I don’t like to spend a lot of time.
Maybe its because I don’t have the skill to make the digital photos look the way I want them to look. Perhaps some people are better at it—getting the colors to look nice. Perhaps I don’t have the knowledge or the patience to do it. In film I don’t have to bother. With film I scan it myself—if I have a good exposure were good to go.
When you’re scanning your color film, what scanner do you use and what settings do you use?
I use the Epson v700 or v750, I forget. The settings? I go between Vuescan and Silverfast. You get different results. In fact, I feel it is a different digital interpretation depending on what software you use.
Generally I find Silverfast will right away give you a punchier image. In Silverfast I will use the Kodak Portra preset seems to work pretty well. If I’m in Vuescan I adjust the colors myself, because the presets suck.
Generally I prefer the vuescan—it gives you a flatter and more neutral scan.
What films do you shoot with nowadays?
Kodak Portra and Fuji Pro H.
Which do you prefer?
I kind of like the Portra but they’re kind of the same. It’s not like back in the day when you could try different flavors each week. Kodak had Portra UC (Ultracolor) which was a bit more saturated. I used to use it all the time—but its gone now. But the Portra is great.
Now that you’re shooting primarily digital, your camera is over there—the Nikon D7000. And a 24mm lens, which is like a 35mm equivalent. How is it different shooting in the streets in digital versus film?
You can’t help but get out of control with digital. Sometimes when I review them later, and I pressed the shutter for what reason? It’s a double edged sword. I like the freedom to shoot whatever I want.
Sometimes with film I might hesitate to take a shot (which could be a good shot). Now when I go back to it, I find it difficult because I’m so hesitant (when shooting film). Because I’m so aware of each frame that I doubt myself. Am I sure, am I sure, am I really really sure? By then its over.
So with digital I’m not quite focused on trying to capture everything I see.
I don’t know if I can even add anything new to what has been said. I feel that I have even read or seen interviews where this topic comes up before. People know the pros and cons. I’d just say, if you are stuck with one and haven’t tried the other—you should give it a try.
When people are looking at your photos, what do you want to communicate to the viewer?
I just want there to be a genuine piece of me in the frame. I want to have a successful frame, and have myself in it.
So showing your personality through your shots?
Maybe I’m successful at it—but its hard. I think of it as a form of expression. I’m not out to document, even though I might try to capture what is literally in front of me. It’s expression.
Can you also tell us about the role of social media and your work? Tumblr, Flickr—how has social media helped you?
Where else am I going to put it? It’s a double edged sword. Its nice that people see the photos. But sometimes I get too caught up in the favorites or who is looking at who—and that is definitely not the point. And that does take your eye off the ball.
But at the same time, you get inspired and encouraged—by seeing what others are doing. It makes you want to go out and give it a go.
My hats off to photographers back in the day who had to literally go and show each other their prints. How much photography did the greats look in a day compared to what we do now? They weren’t seeing like 30-40 different people –what they are doing each day. Who knows, maybe every couple of weeks or the weekend, they had one friend—who knows, they kept going. I don’t know how they kept going.
Even you said you don’t have too many photography contacts in NYC, in person.
I don’t have any. But also that’s me. It has to do with who I am. Not necessarily everyone else. Maybe New York also. It might have been different if it were a smaller city—fewer people shooting. You know you would run into so and so. Here you can just forget it. I know there are 500 people shooting street photography in midtown in Manhattan. I don’t necessarily see them, but I see Gilden. I don’t see him a lot—but I have seen him on 5th avenue a few times.
On the online world, whose work do you like to follow?
One of my favorites is Mark Powell, Locaburg on Flickr. He is probably my favorite. He does something that nobody else does—he has an original approach. Its not quite street portraits, street photography—his personality is directly involved with the content he produces. I don’t know how to put it into any other way.
One thing that drew me to your work is that your work is very different from the typical ‘Cartier Bresson’ photo. It reminds me more of Eggleston, Steven Shore, Martin Parr—maybe ‘Still Life Street Photography.’ There are some people who say ‘but its not street photography unless it has a person’ or this and that. To you what is street photography and what does it mean to you?
My definition is that street photography is whatever, whenever. It can be anything. I have seen several definitions. But photography where you react spontaneously where you react to your environment whether it can be something still in the streets, or people moving about—whatever. As a photographer if it is a spontaneous reaction to your environment, then it is ‘street photography’ but everyone has their own definition.
Some people would say its not street photography if its not in black and white, or somebody doesn’t have a banana peel on their head. I don’t know-everyone has their own definition. I wouldn’t say I have defined it for myself, I just go out and I shoot. Sometimes I’m inspired by a particular photo I’ve seen, sometimes it just comes out of thin air, I don’t know. I wouldn’t define it. Lets not define that [street photography] Eric.
I totally agree with what you say. Tell us more about your editing process, how do you know if your photo is good?
It is fucking torturous, I pull out my hair every single time.
Lets talk digital versus film. I’ll look through the digital stuff and I say, what am I doing? I’m looking for the keepers—so I’m kind of anxious.
I don’t look forward to the editing. That’s why I’m several weeks behind. I just put it off. Then I’ll have a binge, look through a lot of stuff—and do a quick edit. Then look at it a few times, figure out which I prefer—then that’s it. Then go.
I’m not necessarily my own best editor (true of a lot of people too). There are probably frames I totally passed over which might be good frames, but I can only go by my judgement.
How do you judge your photos? How do you know that it is good?
It changes over time, but well—sometimes when I’m out shooting I’ll think it’s a keeper. But when I review it later on, I think there are times I cant necessarily see its actually shit.
Then other times, I think its not a really very good shot—but I guess there is something here, and that ends up being something that people respond to. So I don’t know.
How much of the photo do you take into consideration, in terms of form versus content, versus color, etc?
It’s all different. A lot recently, there is a lot going in the photo. Like a gesture or a couple of elements come together.
I would actually have to be honest, I think 70% of the time I know the second after I take it if it’s a keeper. Then there are little ones that you discover in editing that you didn’t consider the first time.
So it’s different but I think most of them you kind of know. I wonder what you think? When you’re out shooting, you have a good idea if something is happening or not?
For me, I try to shoot a lot in a project mindset. So if I shoot my “Suits” project I’ll look for suits, etc. but it seems the way you shoot is from the gut. You stroll around and shoot what is interesting to you. Maybe like a ‘stream of consciousness photography.’ How does that tie into your idea of working on projects? I don’t think you really work in projects.
That is true, the project is me—the project is ‘Quarlo’.
Who is ‘Quarlo’? What does it mean?
It comes from an episode of ‘the outer limits’—the original TV show. We control the vertigo, we control the horizontal—you too young? Its an early 60s show, I think it was like a twilight zone ripoff, 2 seasons. When I was a kid—10, 11. The re-runs were on, and it would be on channel 9, local television and it would be on 11pm at night.
So Quarlo was from an episode from called ‘the soldier’. He is a soldier from the future, stranded in 1962. As a kid the name just stuck with me. Its weird, its obscure, it has a Q in it. So I remembered the name, and I used it for a lot of things.
Is it your alter ego?
It’s just a name, it reminds me of the way that Duran Duran took the name from Barbarella, the movie. Its that kind of thing, a name that came from some other place that caught my attention. I like the Q, that its like—what is that? It has a bit of mystery.
So you mention that the mission is ‘Quarlo’—showing who you are.
I often think I should have a project, if I want to be more serious.
I don’t think you have to. Just follow your personality.
I think I have very loose ideas, but they are based on areas in the city—and people in the city. It’s not really a project.
You shoot a lot here in Queens, you are from here. You are a 10 minute ride to Manhattan.
5 minute on the train, I’m in midtown Manhattan.
I look at your Queens and Manhattan photos and find differences between them. How are they different to you?
When I go to Manhattan, I’m very self conscious. That’s where there are a lot of people shooting—where famous street photographers have done their work.
So I think I should show more queens, because its under-represented. And I know it so well. So I do try to do that. But I have to admit, there is the action in Manhattan I miss. But I think at the end, I get more unique work in Queens.
Much quieter work in Queens?
Compared to where? It’s crazy—it all depends. In Manhattan you can go off the beaten track and go into a residential area, and shoot there. Now I have to push myself further, not be so lazy, and go a little bit farther.
How do you think you will take your work to the next level?
I really don’t know. Do I need to? That’s a question. And I’m not really sure how I could do that. What would be ‘farther’ ? To be a guy with a book or something?
I think lets put it this way—I’ve only shot really seriously for 7 years maybe? That’s not a very long time.
Longer than most people.
Maybe I don’t know. I think I’m learning, I don’t think I really have gotten to that point where my style has been cemented in my brain.
Where in I go out—and yes, I do it. I still think about what I do sometimes. In terms of subject matter, but I don’t think I have it all down. So maybe that would be taking it to the next level. Feeling more secure in my mind about what I’m doing. But when you question yourself, that is how you push yourself.
What are some other insecurities you have about your work?
That it’s shit? Haha, no but its true. I’m shocked that people show interest. Really. I’m much more critical these days. A few years ago I loved everything I did. I got the prints back, and I’d be like wow—now, I’m so hyper critical. In a way it’s a little more work.
But that’s a sign you’re developing as a photographer? To look at your photos and say they are ‘shit’.
I can second-guess the operation of a paper bag. I’m the type of person that I just focus on criticism. I could find what’s wrong with this painted glass. I can see the faults.
When I look at the photos, even when I got one I’m kind of happy with—I still see the faults. What I could have done better, or maybe how I envisioned it in my mind.
To people who are predominately shooting in black and white, interested in shooting color—and maybe people who are interested in making the shift (film). What advice would you give them?
Just do it. I don’t know, if I would have a lot of advice –except here is a camera, film, just go to it. It depends on the person.
Any cameras you recommend in film cameras?
I shot many years with a Nikon N80, a cheap plasticky autofocus SLR. Its really cheap now. If you had Nikon lenses, you could get them under a hundred bucks, it’s a full frame, it’s a great camera. Autofocus is a bit wonky compared to todays camera. But its great. Very light, inexpensive, good way to get into film. But anything will do it. This one right here [pulls out Olympus XA].
Tell us about the Olympus XA.
It is a miniature rangefinder focus camera. It has aperture priority. Great 35mm lens. Its fantastic. Slip it into your pocket, and when I bought it a few years ago but I didn’t start using it until last fall—after carrying this DSLR around for a year and a half. I was like wow—I really did enjoy just walking around with a tiny camera in my hand. Especially in my girlfriends parents neighborhood—in northeastern suburban Philadelphia. You don’t want to see the guy with the SLR creeping and taking photos of your front lawn.
Now that I think about it, I think there are times I walked around with my Olympus XA and got weird looks—like it’s a stealthy kind of thing. So everybody has to go figure it out for themselves ultimately. Whatever works.
Last question: Any shout-outs you would like to give? Anything else you would like to mention?
T: Eliot, i think you should pick up a camera and start shooting.
Anything else people should watch out from Quarlo?
No, just look at the flickr, tumblr, my website.
Thanks a lot for your time Todd. Peace out.