The Loose Documentary of Andy Kochanowski

(A.g.’s note: Eric interviewed Andy Kochanowski. Check out his origin story, Life as a Burn My Eye Member, and his interesting advice to photographers. All photographs are the respected copyright of Andy Kochanowski.)

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Eric: Great to have you Andy. Let’s start from your beginnings in photography. When did you first pick up a camera and “discover” street photography?

Andy: Let’s get the terms right, Eric, I like to think of it as loose documentary. What I do is watch and wait until something interesting happens.

But the beginning, that must have been back in the ‘90’s when I was traveling a lot to London after I got done with school. I had learned how to develop film and built a small darkroom in my basement, and began to travel with a Canon AE-1 that I had bought a couple years earlier and shooting Tri-X at night when I wasn’t working. I had never picked up a photo book, though I did have a subscription to Photo & Darkroom magazine that (I think) was then edited by Mike Johnston, The Online Photographer. I shot quite a few rolls in SoHo, Leicester Square, which were close to where my firm had a flat. That was my first introduction into just being there and looking. The results were predictable and boring of course, but since I’d never seen anything else I thought my photos were pretty good.


How has your approach and style evolved over the years? How would you compare your early work compared to your recent work?

My real shooting began a number of years later, probably around 2004. I did a number of projects, some self-assignments, some stringer work for a news agency and some websites, basically things that would have me shoot in a structured way on weekends. That was in the waning days of film, and I literally got the Canon out of the drawer and began shooting Tri-X, Ilford Delta, Polaroid 35mm film (yes, there was such a thing), and whatever else fit into my developing tank. The shot of the guy lying on a lounge in the middle of a parking lot was shot on the last roll of Polaroid instant slide film that I ever had. By then I’d discovered this guy named Winogrand, and some other guy named Eggleston, and some Swiss guy named Frank. I was lucky enough to live in an area that had a world-class photo bookstore (Book Beat, Oak Park, Michigan) and something clicked. By a lucky coincidence that also began my photo book collection, which, if things ever go really south, has appreciated nicely. Do you have any idea what some first editions go for?

I was more attracted to color the second time around, and began a few years of fumbling around trying to find my own style using color. I shot on Fuji slide film and did a few projects with a rare Kodak film EPH 1600, which had a lovely grain if you got it just right. The photo of the boxer with his girlfriend on my site is shot on that. You have to see it printed to believe how nice that stuff was.

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You know I live around Detroit, but the city really isn’t that great for spontaneous photography. There are too few people per block, and ruin porn never interested me. What I gravitated to was a frame that has a type of formal composition. Within that I look for color combinations that strike me as right, and something in the frame that isn’t quite right. Does that make sense? I think most of my better shots—or what I think of as my better shots—have some kind of classic geometric structure but also something out of place. I tend to be very deliberate about the aesthetics of the frame.

Film ended when the slide films I liked started disappearing and labs contracted, so I went digital. It’s been all color for a number of years now. I’ve been shooting the same way for these personal projects for years whether or not it’s gel or silicon behind the lens. As I build up a collection of images I like, fewer and fewer make the cut. Like most people who do this, I get drawn to particular tropes and themes. The challenge is to get something that works, right?

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You are currently based in Detroit and do a lot of traveling for work. How would you compare the work you do in Detroit versus abroad?

Well, I said what I wanted to say about Detroit before. Sad to say I don’t think it’s very inspiring to me, though there is certainly a set of photos I’m itching to do in the suburbs. But that’s my business.

I am in New York quite a bit, and Dallas, Houston, Chicago, and abroad. Spent some time in Hong Kong over the last couple of years. I feel a sense of liberation when I end up somewhere I don’t know, and start walking. Then I often end up doing little more than working the light, like the photo of the chunky guy in this empty New York space. Those kind of photos are all about luminescence and color and don’t need to be about anything else. When I get good and lost and start to run out of steam I quit and try to figure out how to get back to my hotel.

All of my favorite un-posed photos have come from these impromptu walks. It’s better if I can’t even communicate with the people around me, there I am, Mr. Fly on the wall.

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Having shot for a while, I keep a mental log of a few basic types of photos I like to assemble together. Maybe it’s a windows series (a true staple of our genre, true, but I still like it) or hair, or hands, or a family unit, or a certain look or something about a certain time, the way people are walking or standing. It all goes in and gets edited later.

Who are some early photographers that influenced you and your personal vision?

I mentioned the classic guys. Probably have to add Saul Leiter, who is undergoing a renaissance just now but who was all but forgotten ten years ago, some of the 1960’s and 1970’s Magnum guys. I’m jumping around, but Meyerowitz, Koudelka, Kertesz, then Erwitt and Helen Levitt of course. Gene Richards, Bill Owens of Suburbia fame. Jeff Mermelstein, Philip Lorca DiCorcia. A now almost forgotten ex-Magnum photographer, Jeff Jacobson, what a visual intelligence that man has. I quite enjoy Crewdson’s setups. I like to look through a lot of stuff. It’s best in books. If you haven’t read it already, Errol Morris’s “Believing Is Seeing,” is a wonderful book about what you see. I like to see someone’s focus on a project for a concentrated time, when the creativity is high. Look at Winogrand’s “1964” if you can lay your hands on it. What an output in a year.

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When you’re well-known mostly for being well-known (or is that unfair to you?) you get some blowback on your workshops, right? My view on workshops isn’t that dogmatic, I feel a good one can help broaden your vision a great deal. What really expanded my photographic eye was a three day workshop with Gene Richards in Woodstock a few years back. That was a semester’s worth of  education in maybe 20 hours. We did a little shooting but mainly what we did was talk and think. Gene showed us some sequences of his work, and talked us through about perceiving the scene and showing its essence. There were maybe 6 or 7 people in the group, mostly working photojournalists. Later one of them published a prize-winning book of a project that he shared galleys with us, another shot for a major magazine, so the talent level was pretty high. Everybody was spellbound by the experience. I think you need that jolt of understanding from time to time, else you get stale, you know? Hanging around in an echo chamber isn’t good for you.

I keep waiting for a week to free up to spend with Jeff Jacobson talking photography. Maybe later this year.

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What would you say that your photos say about your personality, and how you see the world?

I’m not sure one can say really anything about that without sounding like a blowhard. Nor do I think that your personality necessarily shows up through your output. You did some Bruce Gildenish flash stuff a couple years ago, yet you are not an aggressive person. I don’t find our type of photography to be particularly macho, and getting in someone’s face just to get in their face and do a close up shot is, in my view, rarely successful (and somewhat repellent). But in real life I do some fairly high stakes work in my profession and being shy or retiring isn’t part of that job description.

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So putting aside my personality, I think I’m pretty good at looking at stuff and getting a little something out of not very much. On pure photographic skill, I’m about a 2. Don’t know flash, and am happy to have a good autofocus to help me out. But I’m fairly observant, and have seen a whole lot of photography, so maybe all that works hand in hand.

I’ll tell you what, I still like a good gag shot and so do the punters. My fire hose-in-the-eye guy got something like 1,800 favorites on Flickr before I disabled public viewing. Yeah I know it’s not really cool to have a funny shot, but people who say that usually don’t have one in their portfolio, you know?

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You are a part of Burn My Eye– can you share the benefits you have gained from being part of it and some visions you have for the collective?

Don’t you think the whole collective thing has gotten a little out of hand? When we started BME there was Turpin’s in-Public and maybe the German guys’ Seconds2Real. Now there are what, 50 groups? I got invited to the Polish guys’ group, Un-Posed, about the same time we formed BME. I’m the only one there that doesn’t read Polish, though I speak it fairly fluently, so I’m a bit hampered. But they’re a talented group of guys, so even sharing portfolio space with them is cool. Put that aside though, every time I look up there is somebody new carving out some sliver of space throwing a bunch of pictures up on a screen.

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I’m flummoxed about the utility of most of these groups to be honest. You can’t sell the stuff we put out in galleries and can’t really use it commercially because of release issues, so what do all these groups do besides sit on a server somewhere?

BME got some good buzz, and the guys there were mostly well-known, so we got started at the right time, I guess. The benefit of BME is pretty basic, some of the festivals that need content like to get a nice package of photos, so you get invites to shows. We’ve had several and are doing something like three more this fall.

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I’m probably the wrong guy to ask about visions though, I’m not the visionary type. No one at BME, or really any of the groups that recently sprang up, is what I’d call a commercial, working, press pass and event photography group. Let’s just say I’m a bit dubious about the notion that any non-commercial photography collective has a long future. I thought that maybe a good group from a single country like Oculus could do a mini-Magnum, but I see that they have all kinds of changes internally. We’ll see. Maybe it’ll be a Nick Turpin-type of project where we’ll publish a best-of book in a few years. Or not.

What are some lessons you have learned from photography that you wished you knew when you started?

Dude, it’s all a work in progress. Don’t get too excited about yourself. Have perspective. You know, the usual stuff your Mom tells you.

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Who are some contemporary street photographers you recommend people to follow?

That’s a toughie. I can’t tell you about a lot of obscure bands either.

I know the same people you do who are making the rounds. Some are good, some are not so good. Most of that pale hipster photography tends to bore the shit out of me. So does sun-drenched Mediterranean stuff. Anything that was shot so it could be posted online I’m a bit skeptical about.

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So I don’t know that I’d recommend anyone follow anyone before they have a good book or two out there. I prefer to have a bit of distance before making some decisions about people. But since you insist, I’m certainly not alone in this, but I think Kate Kirkwood should be quite a bit better known in the real world. I’m looking forward to seeing what Charlie Kirk does with his Istanbul stuff. I like Missy Prince’s sensibilities, or maybe just the color palette she uses. Chuck Patch, great eye. I really do enjoy a few of the in-Public guys stuff. A few others.

What is some advice you would give to aspiring street photographers?

Don’t shoot just to get your shot in a Flickr pool. Give it a few years before you think you have a dozen good photos. The photos you like today you’ll cringe about next year. Brush your teeth before going to bed. Don’t take advice from a guy in an interview online.

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What are some projects you are currently working on? And is there anything else you would like to mention that I haven’t asked?

Not saying another word, Eric. If I told you I’d have to kill you, and you’re a nice guy. And your girlfriend must be a saint.

More Photos from Andy Kochanowski

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