For this week, I am featuring Bryan Formhals, the editor of the street photography magazine la pura vida. The man has done a ton for the street photography community in whole, and is also a moderator at the hugely popular Hardcore Street Photography Flickr group. His passion for street photography is highly apparent not only through his story-telling images, but also through his writing and commentary. Read more to learn more about his great insights and images.
1. Hey Bryan, tell us a bit about your background with street photography. When did you start shooting street and what prompted you to do so?
I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 from Minnesota and had been doing some writing. About a year after I arrived I developed writers block and started taking my digi P&S on my walks around the neighborhood.
I also would photograph my friends at the bars and such. I really enjoyed it and I figured I’d try to learn a bit more. I naively thought my street art and signage photographs were street photography, so I searched Flickr for street photography groups and ended up at Hardcore Street Photography. I quickly learned that my definition of street wasn’t really accurate.
There were some talented admins in the group: Hin Chua, Raoul Gatepin, Ben Roberts, James Wendell, Michael Simon. They really set me in the right direction and told me the photographers I should be looking at, so I spent time at the library and online researching everything I could about street photography, becoming more and more immersed in the genre and history.
The online community at HCSP was really interesting as well because we were all trying to learn, and learning from one another, supporting each other through comments and banter.
After that, I really immersed myself in it and would spend as much time wandering around Los Angeles shooting on the street. I quickly learned that you have to accept failure when you’re shooting street because it’s so bloody difficult to really put it all together in a frame and create something unique and interesting.
2. The online photography gallery that you curate, la pura vida, showcases some exceptional photography from people around the world. How do you find the photographers you feature, and what do you wish to accomplish through the site?
LPV was born out of HCSP and Flickr. We started with monthly shows that we were edited from submissions to the Flickr group, so that’s how we found the photographers originally. And still, many of the photographers I feature are found through Flickr. I have a network of people and groups that I follow which really allows the work to filter up to me.
I also subscribe to a few hundred photography blogs so I find work through them as well. And these days we get a healthy number of email submissions.
I’m not sure what I want to accomplish through the site. Its sort of been an experiment from day one and that’s kind of how its remained. Things move quickly on the web, and are always evolving. Right now I’m really interested in the synergy between the digital space and the print space. We have a big re-design in the works that will include a bit of re-branding (LPV Magazine) and will culminate in the publication of our first print issue.
I’m really interested in how the web allows you to bring different photographs and photographers together quickly and easily. We’ll do edits that have work from all over the world, and are continuing to figure out new ways to present work. James Turnly is an associate editor and he’s doing some really interesting stuff these days, not only on LPV, but on his great blog Two For the Road.
3. How does being a moderator for the wildly popular Hardcore Street Photography Flickr group complement your street photography interests?
I’ve been a member of HCSP for about 5 years now. I spent a few years as an Admin and those were really interesting times. It forced me to look at an insane amount of street photography and make decisions about photographs. What works? What doesn’t? I had to make choices day in and day out and after time patterns started to emerge, so after awhile it became easier to spot the photographs that were unique and offered something more than the standard street cliches.
I really owe everything to HCSP. Through the group and connections I’ve made there I’ve essentially learned everything I know about photography, not to mention meeting many people that I consider some of my closest friends. There are people coming out of that group that are doing some amazing things, like Joni Karanka and Maciej Dakowicz who run the Third Floor Gallery. You have Ben Roberts who was PDN 30 2010. The groups founder Hin Chua is probably the most intelligent photographer I’ve every met and right now his work is really starting to take off after years of hard work.
The group can be a bit coarse and it’s not for everyone. The day to day banter is much like sitting in a local bar where everyone knows everyone, but we all at one time or another walked into the group not knowing anyone so I like to think we’re welcoming even if we can be a bit sarcastic at times
4. There are a lot of differing opinions when it comes to defining “street photography.” How would you define it?
That’s an excellent question and something that comes up all the time in HCSP. I’m of two minds on this. On one hand, there’s the very clinical definition that I go with: candid photographs of strangers in public places.
I think for most people that’s what it’s all about. But the more you really dig into it, you start to realize that it’s about more than a simple definition. It’s really a philosophy or ethos. Most of the great street photographers that I know are almost religiously devoted to the experience of making photographs in public. They have to be out in the world, roaming around, wandering and seeking out those small moments.
I sort of feel that way. Walking and exploring the city are big part of why I’m drawn to street photography. These days my approach is much more aligned with Eggleston’s ‘democratic’ way of looking at things. I just go out to make photographs. Sometimes those are landscapes, sometimes candid photographs of strangers, sometimes random still life’s. At this point for me, it’s just about making interesting photographs that are in tune with my visual philosophy.
5. Describe your most favorite street photograph that you’ve taken. When and where did you take the photo, and why is it special to you?
The more years I shoot street, the fewer and fewer photographs I find acceptable. Think it works that way for many people.
My most recent acceptable photograph was this one from the summer. It was shot at the intersection of Bedford Ave and 7th St in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The epicenter of hipsterville.
I’m happy with it because I exercised some patience with the scene which I usually don’t. I saw the girl on the crutches and the girl reading the book. I knew they weren’t going anywhere. I call that an anchor. Something within the frame that you can build around. So I put myself in position and framed the wider scene, getting all the details that I wanted in the background. Then I waited a few moments. Making multiple exposures as people passed. I thought I was done but then I saw this girl with an iced coffee crossing the street so I stuck around. As she approached I made a few frames and was fortunate enough to catch her messing with her hair.
The way I explain it, the photograph sounds really constructed but when you look at it I think that it feels like a very fluid moment. For me, it’s the kind of street photograph I want to make. Shapes, color, nice light, a few human moments but nothing necessarily ‘decisive.’ Everything in the frame has to come together for the photograph to work.
I’m a big admirer of Joel Meyerowtiz and I think this type of photograph is sort of a nod to his great street work.
6. As of late, street photography has become wildly popular with many exhibitions and documentaries springing up. What do you think is the future of street photography?
Yeah, its been interesting how popular it has become the last few years. I still don’t think that it’s necessarily going to gain much recognition from the fine art world but that’s fine.
To me, the reasons for its popularity make sense if you take a look at the rise of digital cameras and the internet. More people have cameras these days, and when they start they tend to photograph their immediate surroundings, family, friends, their homes, pets, etc. Those that become more obsessed and interested in photography eventually need to find new subject matter, so they walk out the door and head into the street where there’s an constant and endless supply material.
I think the future of street photography will revolve around the ubiquity of images from all over the world. Everything will be documented and there will be huge amounts of material to work with. But how do you make sense of that? I hope more and more people start collectives, blogs, and small mags to help sort through all of the work out there.
If that happens, you’re going to see the culture of street and documentary photography become even more complex, fragmented and nuanced.
I’m excited about it and I think people such as yourself who are putting the work into developing engaged communities are going to be the key in the online space. The more open we are with collective knowledge, the better off the genre will be in the future.
7. What tips would you give to aspiring street photographers in the community?
When I first started getting immersed in street photography, that’s all I would shoot. I’d burn through rolls of film and would get frustrated that I wasn’t bringing back interesting photographs.
Then I received the best possible advice from my friend Raoul (Gatepin). He told me in the simplest of terms, “shoot other things.”
When you’re starting out you don’t necessarily have an understanding of the basics, like understanding light, form, and composition. Shooting strangers in public is incredibly challenging. You’re aiming at moving targets. If you take some time to photograph other subject matter, you have more time to think about composition and light. You’re not rushed. You can figure out the geometry, the light and all the visual elements that create harmony in a frame. There’s no pressure. If you’re shooting digital, you can make a dozen exposures.
Plus, this takes your mind off watching the flow of the street which can be exhausting. When you become hyper attentive on the street you start to notice every small gesture, you start to anticipate movements, and interactions. It takes an incredible amount of discipline to be that attentive. Your brain can’t really handle that for extended periods of time, much less deal with making decisions about composition and timing.
When you make a habit of looking at everything in your perceptual window on the street, then at some point humans just become another element. You don’t feel rushed. You know there will be other moments as you continue to walk. And with time, the work you’ve done figuring out composition and light will become more instinctual. You’ll be able to look out onto a scene and know where to stand, and where to put your framelines.
Coming home with an interesting street photograph is a rare achievement. Since you’re out there you might as well photograph anything and everything that interests you. I’ve found taking that approach makes me much more satisfied with my photography.
That’s the long version, the short version is “shoot, shoot, shoot”as we like to say in HCSP.
What did you think about Bryan’s interview? Show him some love by asking him a question or leaving a comment below!