Interview with Robert Herman

Photographer Robert Herman has a lot of experience in the photography world, particularly in street photography. We asked him to answer a few questions for our readers.

What drew you to street photography?

Robert Herman

When I was growing up, I was exposed and entranced by images on film from a very early age. My parents owned movie theaters and I was lucky enough to watch the same films over and over again.

As a film student at NYU and making shorts on 16mm, I needed a creative outlet that would allow me to experiment with making visual imagery on a daily basis. I wanted something I could do by myself without a whole crew one would require when shooting a movie. Using my father’s Nikon F, I took an intro to photography course and learned how to develop film, make contact sheets, edit and print.

Photography was something I could do everyday and it was my attempt to make some sense out of the seemingly chaotic environment that was overwhelming me when I first came to the city. For someone who was very shy at the time, it was my entre’ to getting to know people and my surroundings. Being a photographer gave me a sense of identity and it was my way of paying attention and celebrating the details of ordinary life. The seemingly mundane could become extraordinary when it was transformed in a photograph.

Tell us a little about your book, The New Yorkers.

The cover of The New Yorkers
The cover of The New Yorkers

The New Yorkers is a collection of my NYC street photography shot on Kodachrome mostly from the early 80’s. It was a challenge to measure the light and expose Kodachrome accurately. I found out very quickly that an under or overexposed transparency is basically unusable. So, I worked out my own personal zone system, using the reflective meter in the Nikon. Exploring the streets of Soho with the great photos of Frank and Callahan in my head, I was learning to trust my intuition.

It is a personal journey that echoes my emotional state at the time: my isolation, my loneliness, and my identification and empathy with and for the outsider. But it is more than that: it is my celebration of light, color and formal composition. And it is a record of my discovery of one of the things that the photographic medium is uniquely suited for: the juxtaposition in the frame of the unlikely and the random to create a new meaning that didn’t exist before the photograph was taken.

You can get signed copies of The New Yorkers on Herman’s website, or check it out on Amazon.

An image in Herman’s book, The New Yorkers
An image from Herman’s book, The New Yorkers
Another image in Herman’s book, The New Yorkers
Another image from Herman’s book, The New Yorkers

Tell us about your exhibit “A Walking Dream” that was shown in Columbia.

From my artist’s statement for the show:

“Entering Cartagena for the first time, as the old walled city began to appear in the distance, something strange and mysterious began to overtake me. I was not in Cartagena, a city by the sea on the northwest coast of Colombia. Suddenly I was in a ‘Cartagena’ of my waking dream.”

I also realized quite quickly, that the push to increase tourism, and the resulting modernization of the city was going to make what was “old” and to my eyes, beautiful, disappear. So for two weeks, I wandered the city, for as long as there was daylight, shooting and documenting as much I could: the color, the decaying walls, the graffiti and the street.

Sometimes, all the stars align, that what I shoot for myself is compelling and valuable to other people. Inspired by my images, the organizers of the annual film festival in Cartagena, FICCI, chose my images to represent the next year’s festival: the walls marked over the years, layer upon layer, and these marks reveal the layers of history of Cartagena.

My photographs were used for the poster, the catalogue, the official video that incorporated my images, and for signage and billboards throughout the city. In conjunction with and sponsored by FICCI, a solo exhibit was mounted simultaneously at the Museum of Modern Art. Having my work appreciated by so many of the people was amazing. Walking around Cartagena, seeing my photographs everywhere I went, was truly a highlight of my life.

A shot from Cartagena
A shot from Cartagena

What’s The Phone Book? Tell us about it and share a picture.

The Phone Book is my new monograph that was published by Schiffer in the fall of 2015. I began making photographs with the iPhone in 2010 and started taking it seriously when I discovered the Hipstamatic App. Surprisingly, it was the limitations of the iPhone/Hipstamatic that made it such a compelling choice: the square format, the fixed lens and the slow ISO. Unlike a DSLR that has a five-shot burst, it forced me to slow down. There was no zoom, no telephoto; if I wanted to get closer to the subject I had to move. I felt closer to my previous analogue practice than I had in a long time.

Using the Hipstamatic App gave me a seemingly exponential number of lens/film pairings to choose from. After some experimenting, I found a lens/film combination that pleased me. I wanted to echo my previous street work with Kodachrome and Tri- X. Using a clean “lens” and a “film” combination added warm saturated colors to the image. For black and white, I used the same clean “lens” with a high contrast, grainy “film”. Most of the photographs in the book were made with these same lens/film combinations.

Although I’ve moved from shooting film to the DSLR and then to the iPhone, my method has remained consistent throughout my thirty five-year practice of street photography. I am drawn to the spontaneous, unforced event. I see myself as a vessel witnessing and recording a moment in time and space. I respond to the visual stimuli before me, making decisions based on instinct and experience. In the past, there was always a part of me that found it slightly inauthentic and artificial to go out with a camera and look for pictures. The iPhone allows me to put aside this artificiality and shoot whenever and wherever I am. It is a joy to always have a camera with me when the muse strikes.

Images from The Phone Book
An image from The Phone Book
Images from The Phone Book
An image from The Phone Book

For aspiring photographers, what education advice would you offer?

When I first started shooting, I went to bookstores and looked at photography monographs and studied them intensely. As I began to figure out why I was drawn to certain photographers, I was inspired to create a unique point of view.
I shot a lot to make the technical aspects became second nature, and began to shoot from the heart, to learn to trust my instincts in the moment.

To create a coherent body of work, I was brutal in my editing, but I had to learn to forgive myself for all the weak pictures that are inevitable. I began to understand that the secret to making great photographs is the understanding that failure is a given and that success is the result of process and persistence.

A few years ago, I went back to school to get a Masters at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. After shooting on film for so many years, I realized I had to catch up and become fluent in digital photography. It was a thorough, one-year “boot camp” that was life changing. It was here that I learned so many of the technical skills that I use today.

In the end, I am my own best teacher: photography is an amazing feedback loop for me, both personally and professionally, but I have to be out there shooting and editing for the loop to work.

Learn more about Robert Herman and his work on his website.

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