This is a video interview I did with Brian Soko in Chicago about a year ago. Enjoy his images and a transcript of the interview below!
Brian can you introduce yourself to the viewers out there?
Brian Soko—I’ve been shooting in Chicago around 15 years now, known Eric for a few years. Life is good.
Can you share more about your personal history? How did you discover street photography?
I was born and raised in Chicago—moved to Memphis, lived in san Francisco for a while. When I picked up a camera I was going a lot in life. I just got out of a hospital for intensive reasons, and I felt lost. My ex girlfriend had an old Pentax K1000 on her bookshelf. I didn’t have a job, didn’t know what I was doing in my life.
I suddenly decided to go to Walgreens, bought some black and white CW film and haven’t stopped since then. I’ve been a musician my entire life, and wrote for a while—but it wasn’t until I discovered photography to express how I really feel.
What kind of music did you play?
I grew up playing jazz. My grandfather was a jazz musician in Chicago, and it has been in my life ever since I was small.
How do you think your experience in jazz influenced your street photography?
Jazz in general is so conducive to Chicago. On those fall days you see the guys with the fedoras and the trenchcoats, and its windy, and everyone looks stoic, and you got John Coltrane playing—it’s a good fit.
What are you looking for in the streets?
I look for quiet moments. The work week its hustling, and I am drawn to people who can find quiet moments in a big buzzling city. And I don’t know why, maybe it is because of my past—I am looking for solace photographically.
How do you think your photography reflects your personality?
My work tends to be pretty dark—pretty bleak. But my personal life, I am opposite. But I think it stems from when I first started, I got out of the hospital, went through a lot of issues—and I was looking for solace and quiet moments in my life. And through photography, I was able to relate to others.
I think I’m photographing myself, and will always be drawn to people like that for the rest of my life. I’m going through changes and metamorphoses in life, I’m having a baby, and things are happier deep inside, but I will always relate with those people and that view.
During those 15 years, how would you say your work has evolved?
I’ve gotten a lot harder on myself. I’ve experimented more too. I used a flash for awhile, still do sometimes. But I’m still looking for the same type of moments. I’m more discerning now, but still look for those moments.
I think the reason that the greats did this for so long, is that they didn’t stop learning. Once you think you’ve acquired a certain style, you find something else you want to pursue or show.
For example, I’m currently doing a project in Gary, Indiana which is strictly portrait work. It’s a run-down industrial town that left many 3rd and 4th generation people behind. Now I want to show people for who they are—no hype, no emphasis— just people and where they live.
When you shoot in Chicago, how much do you interact with your subjects?
I never interact with them before I photograph them. Sometimes i’ll take a shot, they’ll ask me why I took a shot, and i’ll interact and have some laughs. But generally I don’t interact much. I see the photo, I take it, I leave. The only time I interact is when they want to engage me.
How has your documentary work been pushing your boundaries?
I’ve always been good with people, and the people in Gary have been left. Their grandparents came from Mississippi to work in the mills, and now they’ve closed down. Its obviously very different—I have to interact and have them trust me. Its changed the way I’ve worked a lot.
However at the end of the day, I still love street photography. I love to walk around, and it’s the only thing I’ve ever done when everything kind of dissipates. My personal problems go away, money problems go away, relationship problems go away. Its funny that there are so many people, but the only time I can find solace.
There is a lot of darkness, emotionally and aesthetically. Can you share your philosophy of black and white?
I see everything in black and white. I’ve experimented a bit in color but it isn’t something I’m interested in. I like the way that things look broken down to their basic elements. Just people. And not to mention, Chicago is conducive to black and white. all the old character, architecture. I don’t have much of an interest in color. I probably never will.
What exactly about black and white that draws you?
It feels more artistic to me—I can get my point across more in black and white than color. I started in black and white film, and now shoot exclusively film again. I feel I can get my personal viewpoint and style across a lot easier than in color.
I respect people who can work in colors, and they do great work. But I just love black and white.
Can you share your journey from film to digital and back again?
I started with film, just film. Then I moved to digital, and shot it for around 8 years. And recently just last year, I finished my personal website. Going through my old stuff, I really liked my old black and white stuff the best, the film stuff.
Now I’m developing my own work, and going to print it, I feel I am not going to just be taking snapshots anymore. I feel with digital, I didn’t have ownership of it. Now when I shoot film, I feel I’m making photographs now. I don’t feel I’m just sticking the card in the computer and immediately processing. It feels more organic, and I love it.
Can you tell an aesthetic difference between your digital vs film black and whites?
I can see it a lot. I used to spend a lot of time to make my digital photos look like film. I just can’t do it. You can add as much grain as you want, but you don’t have that certain feel for a black and white film photograph. I think with black and white film, I also enjoy the process more.
When I first started photography, it was all about both the process and result. With digital, I could get the results fast. Now I do this longer, and I’m getting older, the process is more important. Its how it makes me feel, when I’m mixing the chemicals, developing the film, and hanging it up. The process is important to me.
What are some tips and advice you would give to someone starting off in film?
Tri-x. I love Tri-x, its not very expensive it’s a good film. You hear how people say its expensive? Its not true. There is a company, Arista, it is similar to Tri-x but its about half the price. Tri-X is 5 bucks, Arista is 2.50.
Also know that you’re going to mess up some film–it is inevitable. I just messed up a roll the other day. But I would highly recommend it to anyone to at least learn it and try it out. It’s a completely different process. It slows me down, it makes me think more.
The last 7 years I didn’t shoot much in digital, sometimes 40-none in a day. But for someone who hasn’t shot film, I highly recommend doing it. It changes the whole process. It makes it more personal, I believe.
What are your thoughts on gear?
I’ve never been one to buy into the whole gear thing, but I do believe its how you see things. Not the gear you have—it your personal view. Your own life experiences. I don’t think it’s the gear. I’ve seen people shooting with $7,000 cameras, and $100 dollar cameras. Funny enough, the guy with the $100 cameras often take the better shots.
If you started photography again, would you have done anything differently?
If I did it all over again, I would do it exact the same way. Maybe I would self-promote more? But the whole process of how I’ve grown as a photographer has meant everything to me. I don’t know if I would change anything.
Maybe I would have never shot digital—and stuck with film.
You’ve been shooting for 15 years–why haven’t you shared your work much?
I don’t think its that were frightened or hesitating to put our work out there—we just want to work. I know I just want to work.
Can you describe the street photography scene here in Chicago?
Chicago is a nice scene, there are some darn good street photographers here. Andrew Steiner, Jason Martini, Satoki Nagata, Nima St. Lux.
When I first started doing it, the only other person I saw was Jason. It was only us two. Now theres more people doing it—but it’s a very supportive community. I’ll get together with Satoki, grab a coffee, look at one anothers’ work—but we will be critical and honest. It has benefited me.
It’s like that in Chicago, you don’t see any of those guys having much interest in having wars with people. We just want to work, and it’s a very tight knit community.
What dreams you have for the Chicago street scene?
Recently I attended the Miami Street Photography Festival, which was very nice. They’re doing it again in December.
One of my dreams is to also host a Chicago Street Photography Festival, hopefully by next summer. We will try to get a nice space, some nice finance, photographers– and it will be a blast.
The last few years street photography has been experiencing a “renaissance.” What do you think is driving this?
I don’t know—I think about it a lot. Accessibility with technology? Everyone is looking at the same masters, but there is a huge influx of photographers. Maybe social media? I think its good.
I think social media can be detrimental in some ways—but overall good that people are very interested in the genre.
Who are some street photographers (classic and contemporary) who inspire you?
Gary Stochl has in a big way—he was that loner guy walking around in Chicago. I love Winogrand, Moriyama. I love David Carrol’s work in New York, he shoots everything. Hes amazing, works in film. I really am influenced by the work of Satoki Nagata. I knew about his work for a long time, only been hanging out the last 6 months.
What are some tips or advice you would give to aspiring street photographers?
Immerse yourself completely. Really try to shoot as much as you can, and do it for yourself. Don’t show everything you shoot. Think about why you are shooting—why you are drawn to a subject. Think about your life experiences and what you want to say.
There are a ton of people shooting, but only a handful of people who are saying something about who they are. Go out there and do it for yourself, and try to develop your own voice.
What is your keeper rate and how do you edit your photos? How do you know if a photo is good or not?
My keeper rate is dismally low. Last year I had only 2 photos I was proud of, four I thought were good. My keeper rate is very low—but when I find something I really like, the last thing I do is rush the process. I take my time.
Now if its film, ill develop it, study it- look at it later. I try to get emotionally detached from the photo, where I see it more objectively. I will sometimes sit on a photo for 6-8 months. Maybe I’m not working on it the whole time, but looking at it. Seeing things I didn’t see last time. Maybe doing little tweaks.
The keeper rate in photography is low enough, I think it is even lower in street photography.
How do you know you have shot a good photo?
It is always content. The photos I remember are the ones that hit me in the gut. I appreciate good compositions and light, but the ones I remember are the ones that have emotional impact.
I have a story: There was a guy on State Street who smashed his car, who looked high. He punched a cop. They took him down, then I got on my stomach, and waited for him to look at me—then I clicked. There was a connection to the viewer, the subject, and myself—which I thought made it great. I think its about the emotional connection.
What are some things people should look forward?
Life is good, I’m having my first kid in September. Busy as heck, but I’m working on my Gary project, and not going to show it until its done. Hopefully by the winter—other than that I’m gonna do my stuff.
Where can people see more of your work?
Street-photographers.com Brian sokolowski.com
Black and White