January 16th and 19th, 2011
New York City-based photographer Amani Willett was recently featured in the book Street Photography Now and is a long-term member of the highly respected iN-PUBLiC collective of street photographers. His photographs have also been included in the books ReGeneration: Telling Stories From Our Twenties and Dawn of the 21st Century: The Millennium Photo Project. He has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among many other spaces.
In this full-length interview he talks about his years working at Magnum Photos, why street photography must evolve as a genre to survive, and his decision to enter a photography MFA program in the midst of a successful career. He also shares with us 15 new images not previously published or shown.
fototazo: Talk about how you got into photography, becoming a photographer, and your background in photography.
Amani Willett: Ever since I can remember I always had a feeling or a sense that I would love photography if I ever tried it. And it’s one of those things where I always had it in the back of my head, I said well maybe at some point I’ll try it, I’ll do that later, I’ll do it later. So I never got around to it until junior year in college, but at that time I did two things. I became the photo editor of the Wesleyan Argus and I also took a summer intensive course in photography that was, I guess it was a three-week course. And those two experiences confirmed my thought that I would love being a photographer and I was hooked from then on.
So from there I moved to Seattle after college and interned in a few galleries, but very quickly moved to New York after that in the fall of 1997 and was looking for ways to jump into the field and was just lucky enough to meet someone who was able to introduce me to Bruce Davidson and then I was able from there to get an internship at Magnum Photos. So that was really my first education I would say, in photography. You know I’d had the intensive course, but that was mainly a technical class and it was only a few weeks and I’d had the newspaper experience but again, that was serving a very limited purpose and also since I was the photo editor I didn’t have a mentor or someone to learn from, I was mainly learning on the job so it wasn’t as if there was a whole knowledge base that was opened up to me. And at Magnum obviously there was that knowledge base and those mentors.
Magnum really fundamentally shaped who I am as a photographer and how I look at photography. It’s such an insular little world there that especially it being my first experience, I was very impressed by Magnum, it really can sweep you up and drag you in and be all consuming. It was an experience where it felt as if there was Magnum and then there was everything else. And their sense of history and their sense of high achievement there, most of the photographers have been very successful, has a way of rubbing off on you and you get swept up into this sort of Magnum culture and it seemed like the only way to really be a photographer and that approach to photography was documentary in style, but with some sort of artful or, you know, original twist, something that set you apart, you had a way of seeing that was unique. And that was very important. So it wasn’t just photojournalism, it was recording the world, from your own unique perspective and that’s sort of what gave me the way to be a photographer.
f: Did you have a particular kind of mentor or influence from...
AW: I would say there were some really wonderful people there. Alex Webb is really the person who got me interested in color photography. Up until that point I’d only been shooting black and white but when I saw Alex Webb’s color photographs, it really changed my perspective just about the way the world could be seen. And that excited me tremendously...he made me excited to go out and try to show people how I see the world and my hope was that it would excite my viewers, seeing my own unique perspective on the world. And you know, he did this for me…the way that he used color, and compressed space, as well as working with decisive moments and also surrealism. He is a master, and he really combined those elements which are important to me to this day in photography in such an amazing way.
And then Paul Fusco, another Magnum photographer, was probably the first person who took a serious interest in what I was doing and was very supportive and I think for any, not that I’ve made it by any standards but, I think when you’re just starting out having that person there who can be supportive and simply tell you that what you are doing is worth while and that its worth the energy and the commitment is tremendously important. Because without that it can be very frustrating at times when you’re just starting and you’re trying to find your direction and because photography is a very technical medium, so that takes a long time to grasp but beyond that you need to have something to say. So its just grappling with those two issues, its great to have the support.
So Paul Fusco was that support for me and he would meet with me regularly and look at what I was shooting and give suggestions, he introduced me to people so I was able to show my work and get a variety of feedback from people in different areas of the industry. So I’d say without him I really wouldn’t have maybe pursued it as intensely as I did or maybe I wouldn’t have even had the belief that I should be doing photography, that I could take it to the next level.
f: What about the agency itself, I think a lot of people are probably pretty curious about the day-to-day life there.
AW: Magnum is an exciting place with a lot of strong personalities and as a result there’s a fire and energy there that’s unrivaled in any other place I’ve worked. It’s incredibly exciting to be a part of the experience, but there are a lot of egos and butting heads. And with any cooperative as large as it is, obviously there are going to be some differences of opinion as to how things should be run. So, it’s this amazing ideal that they’ve set for themselves of having this cooperatively run agency, but when you get as many people who are as successful together as they have been you’re going to run into some issues, and there’s going to be conflicts and things are not going to run as smoothly as they might otherwise.
From a day-to-day perspective, again I haven’t been there since 2000 so I’m sure things are completely different at this point, but at that time everyone was still shooting film, so there was a production side of things where images were being processed, scanned, printed in the black and white lab and then sent out as distributions and again at that point they were just implementing a digital archive.
So that was the big project while I was there was trying to figure out how to create this archive and you have to be impressed that they were able to have the foresight to understand that this is what was needed. Looking back now it’s obvious to us to transform from analog to digital, but more importantly for an organization with the history of Magnum to be able to have a digital archive that would be accessible and figure out a way to get all the images into that archive. A lot of other agencies didn’t see how important this was going to be and have since become obsolete. Magnum at least, did realize this and put a lot of effort into making sure that they did have a digital presence and that their archive would be able to be accessed easily.
f: Maybe using that to jump back to your evolution and career, why did you decide to leave Magnum and where did you go on from there?
AW: Well, I decided to leave Magnum basically because it was time, you know those moments in your life when you know you’ve gotten what you can out of something, and it was a great experience, but it was time for me to grow further and I was excited to try to apply what I had learned there in my own career. And so once I left Magnum I began to try to create a freelance business for myself. I looked at all the foundations that I knew existed in New York. From working with Magnum I had a list and a knowledge of a lot of different foundations, so I approached them to see if I could work with them shooting different initiatives funded by the foundations and I also tried to meet photo editors and see if I could get some editorial work.
This was also at a time that the industry was changing, things were beginning to move into the digital realm so, but also - as we’ve seen - the media industry has just changed completely in the last ten years so the opportunities that were available for photographers, especially in heyday of the Magnum era, were really starting to change, and there weren’t the same opportunities and the ways of doing business began to shift dramatically. There were once staff photographers at all magazines, but opportunities were now more freelance, magazines were getting rid of their staff photographers completely and the same business model that worked for the Magnum photographers would not work for young photographers anymore going out into the field, and I think that I was naïve about that, and that took some adjustments after leaving Magnum, seeing the realities of the editorial and foundation world, and what it might be to get work at these places. But also I think even definitions of success within the field had to sort of be reworked and changed. So I did do some editorial work for different music magazines, news magazines, I worked for a few different foundations, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I wasn’t able to make my whole living that way and I had to bring in other work, shooting weddings, doing stock photography, even working in other, unrelated industries.
f: I was going to ask you a little bit about iN-PUBLiC, how you got involved, any thoughts that you have of being part of a group of street photographers, what benefits it’s brought to you, and any thoughts you have on the group and the site.
AW: At the time it was a pretty revolutionary idea, to form a site and a community based around an idea. So Nick Turpin was really into the idea of using the Internet to foster this community and this identity among some photographers so he invited a few people from London to join and then some American people joined and I just happened to see the site one day, I can’t remember how I found it exactly, but was really impressed by the images and I thought it was really wonderful the care and thought that had been put into the site, and then the strength of the members work I thought was really impressive and so I decided to send them an email and some work and asked, you know, for them to consider having me join the group and about a month later they sent back a reply and that’s how I joined iN-PUBLiC. And it really is a great forum, you know, the internet in general obviously has changed the way photographers are able to foster community, have a place to show work, whereas in the past, before the internet, it was much harder for certain projects to earn an audience. The internet has really opened up the field, and what’s great is if you are making work, you can show it, and iN-PUBLiC has for whatever reason really resonated pretty well with the public, it has a very good reputation. Nick has done, I mean, an amazing job at making sure that the work on the site stays current, that various museums and curators and magazines know about us, and so, yeah, it’s been a wonderful experience.
My only regret is that I personally don’t like social networking sites that much, I don’t like being on social networking sites, I don’t use Facebook all that much, so it hasn’t really worked for me in terms of fostering a community. I don’t participate that much in terms of showing new work online and talking or having discussions with other members online through our discussions forum, it’s just not really in my character to be doing that, but it has enabled some pretty amazing opportunities for me, I get emails all the time from people who have seen my work on the site, and want to use an image for one thing or another or want to show my work in some gallery or want to include my work in some book, or want to give me an assignment. So it’s been amazing actually.
f: Over time you built up a successful freelance business putting together work from different sources, and then you decided to go to graduate school, in the midst of that success. Why did you make that decision and how has it been?
AW: I think that it took me a long time to realize who I was as a photographer and who I am as a photographer and I’m still learning. I think it’s a life-long path of sort of figuring out what you’re really interested in, its immensely fun to go on that journey because you’re constantly learning more and more about yourself and what your interests are, but as you know it can be frustrating as you’re trying to sort through all the images you’ve made and really see what matters most to you. And so I think originally when I left Magnum and set out to make a freelance career for myself, I was concentrating too much on the idea that I wanted to have a successful career, whatever that meant in my head, being a freelance photographer. I didn’t even know exactly what that meant, but I’d always felt I’d wanted to make all my money from photography, and I was maybe focusing more on that then actually what kind of images I wanted to be making. I found that when I was shooting assignments, I wasn’t always all that interested in what I was shooting specifically and I was always looking for something just a little bit more. So I think you and I have spoken about this before, but often times if I was going to photograph an event, some sort of rally, I was always more interested in what was happening in the crowd or in some little dark alleyway along the route rather than the event itself. I was always constantly more interested in the subtleties of what was happening, or taking images that were asking more questions then answering questions, and obviously when you are working in the commercial arena, for magazines, or for newspapers or foundations, you really are making images that are as easy to read as possible, and also not only that it just wasn’t as interesting to me. Its sort of been a long process for me as I’ve realized more and more that what was fulfilling me were the images that I was making not on assignment, but just personally, in my personal life. Those were the images that I wanted to be making and concentrating on. Its been a ten-year evolution for me, leaving Magnum and arriving in graduate school, as I want to pursue making images for myself.
f: And is there something about graduate school, and the structure of being in school that you think will help facilitate that growth and that movement towards an exploration of, I guess what maybe you could term more creative projects as opposed to assignment work?
AW: That’s the hope, I guess. I have never had any real formal training in photography, I did the intensive workshop, and I worked at Magnum, and I’ve taken a continuing ed class here or there, but I’ve never really studied art or photography. I decided it would be beneficial for me to have a formal training in my field, and then also the space to create work, a sort of controlled intensive space to create work for a few years, but maybe most importantly, I think, a lot of photographers probably feel this, but, when you’re making work for yourself, and you don’t necessarily have an audience that you’re showing it to regularly. It can, one, be hard to motivate yourself to keep making the work and two, I think you question a lot why you are making this work, or who’s it for, or what’s the point, but when you have a group of people that you’re showing it to regularly, that’s really exciting, and there’s a reason to keep making it, and to keep pushing, so I was excited for that experience as well.
f: From here let’s start talking about your work a little bit. Talk about your approach to making work, everything from kind of what cameras and film you’re using to if an image leads to an image for you or if you create an idea for a body of work beforehand that you then pursue...talk a little bit about your processes and working methods.
AW: When I first started making pictures, it was an analog world, so I started shooting black and white film, and then, once I got to Magnum, I wanted to pursue color, I started shooting Kodachrome, like many other color photographers did. Originally I was working with 35mm cameras, when I got to Magnum I switched to using a Leica M6, and that was my main camera for many years. Subsequently I’ve added a Mamiya 7II and shoot color negative film with it and I’ve also recently added a Toyo 4x5 field camera. And then I’m also shooting digitally, currently with a Canon 5D Mark II.
My approach to making work is unlike a lot of artists. I use the world as my inspiration and my stage and my set, so I’m out sort of looking for pictures. I have in my head ideas of what interests me, so I know the things that I’m going to be drawn to, but I don’t set up specific shots before I take them. So unlike a lot of photographers or artists there is an approach that’s more journalistic or documentary in nature to the way I make my work and you know I think for many photographers who make work in the same area I do that it is a challenge to be in an artistic community because most work is preconceived or conceptually based, so a lot times artists, or more conceptual or artistically trained photographers don’t know what to make of people who use the real world for their inspiration. It’s hard to see what we’ve done in making those pictures, where it’s easy to see what Jeff Wall has done, you know, he’s elaborately constructed these tableaus or Gregory Crewdson, but what about Tom Griggs or Amani Willett who are just out making pictures in the world...it can take a little bit more effort to explain why what we are doing is artistic or relevant.
f: Another part of the process and working method question would be about specific parts of your process: making lists, putting images on the wall and living with them...what have you found that helps you?
AW: I think one of the main reasons I actually went back to school is because I don’t think I’m a great editor. And while most pictures I make mean a lot to me for whatever reason, they don’t necessarily make sense to other people in groupings or in series. Where as an artist I think when you’re dealing with your own work, you obviously have connections to everything you’re making so it makes perfect sense to you why they should be connected but, that’s not so for everyone looking at your images. Depending on the kind of work I’m making, you know, I’ve done projects where it’s pretty specific. I went to Vietnam a few years ago and made a body of work there and it was in some ways a fairly easy project for me to edit because the concept was pretty simple and I knew what to do with the images. I guess I would say the ongoing project that’s most important to me is just the images I make on a daily basis from my experiences and that’s much harder to put together, because it’s much less clear what the subject is. What I do is I’ll make 5x7 work prints of everything that I shoot that interests me, I’ll hang ‘em up, I’ll look at them, and most importantly show them to people for two reasons, or, for a number of reasons. One, it’s great to show people your work and actually, physically show them image by image because I find when I do that, I know that I’m excited, I become aware of the fact that I’m more excited to show them some images than others so it becomes a way to [identify] what’s most important to me and maybe what I should be concentrating on, so that’s number one. Number two it’s, as I’ve been saying, it’s really hard to edit your own work I think most photographers will admit this...it’s really useful to have other insights into your work and to see what other people are getting from your photographs.
Graduate school has forced me to be more aware of what I’m interested in and maybe recognizing those interests in my pictures. So I do feel a little bit more aware now than I did six months ago about what images should work together. Possibly. We’ll see.
f: From here I was going to move into looking at the evolution of your work and the work itself. You’ve moved from some of the more specific documentary-style projects earlier in your career, working in Thailand with elephant camps, orphanages in Tanzania, as well as your 35mm street photography, to a kind of still, posed portraiture and landscape photography as well as working in larger formats. It also seems like in general that you’ve shifted from using a visual vocabulary of soft edges, shallow depth of field, and an allowance for camera movement, like in your Deeper series, and also in a lot of your street work, to harder lines, cleaner, clearer and more frontally composed images. Can you talk about those evolutions in your work?
AW: Wow...that’s sort of a hard question to answer. I am a pretty thorough and obsessive person in many ways so whatever I’m thinking about at the time, or into at the time, I sort of get really focused in on that and really stuck on those ideas so I’ll go through periods where I’ll be really interested in isolating people or subjects from the rest of the image and that will offer obviously a softer and shallower depth of field and I’ll just be really intensely focusing on making those sorts of pictures, and then for whatever reason, I might be out and have by chance have taken an image on the street that was more geometrical and composed and liked it and then get really intrigued and [make] more images like that. So I would say that’s the trajectory it follows: maybe making an image, liking it, and then obsessively trying to make more images like that that image for a while. Until I see something else that I’ve made and get really interested in making more images like that one. Obviously another [factor] is where you are in your life, what’s going on in your life, where you are in your career, how long you’ve been working. When I first started I think what was most natural was to make images that were more journalistic in nature and more like what I knew which was the very limited world of Magnum. So as I moved away from that and was exposed to many different kinds of photography it really opened up my mind as well and made me interested in other kinds of imagery. So I think it has a lot to do with one, my personality and my ability to really focus on specific ideas, and then two, the environment that I’m in and being influenced by what’s around me in terms of images and also personally, you know, how I’m growing as a person.
f: I was noticing that there are a number of visual themes in your street photography, window reflections or objects or people associated through color or cell phones or distributions of isolated figures across an image. I was wondering if there are certain things that when you see, they trigger you to make an image. A follow-up question to that would be when you make an image, if you are the type of photographer that knows that it’s good.
AW: Right. To answer your first question, this is the interesting thing, I very intuitively make pictures so it’s a very emotional process for me, making images, so I’m not necessarily aware that, “Oh, wow, there’s a cell phone or, wow, look at how this sweater is juxtaposed by the color of that neon sign across the street, I’m not thinking like that when I make pictures, I’m just reacting. And through what I’m emotionally drawn to, the themes in my work emerge. So it’s not a conscious approach or a methodical approach to saying I need more images like this, like that, although I think that contradicts what I said before about, you know, really honing in and making sort of similar images so I don’t know, maybe…that’s interesting. But I don’t know, it’s a tough one. I don’t really consciously make pictures.
So to go back to the other question, I guess its just what I’m really emotionally responding to at a certain time, I just keep making images like that they’re very similar. I’m not making images of specific things or even of specific subjects. For example, this winter I made a whole bunch of pictures over December and the beginning part of the January and I’ve picked out all the ones I’ve liked and it wasn’t so much later that I realized they’re all of trees and I wasn’t specifically or purposefully photographing trees, it happened to be what I was drawn to as I was out in the world making pictures, but also when I was editing.
And then for your second question I think, for me at least it’s pretty much impossible to know if I’ve made a good picture because sometimes you could be having the most amazing experience and you take an image of it and you just know it’s going to be amazing because you’re having the best time of your life, but then you come back and look at it later and you realize without the way you were feeling in that moment, specifically, or without the other factors that were contributing to the greatness of that moment, your photograph really doesn’t reference that moment in the right way, or it doesn’t really reflect the feeling that was in that situation. But, sometimes you’ll be out looking for images and you’ll take a picture that for whatever reason isn’t that interesting in reality, but there’s something very interesting about it as recorded on film. So I never know until later. And often if you look at your work too quickly after making the images, your mind is working in a way that you think you know what you’re going to like, so you gravitate to the images that you preconceived as being good, but in reality those probably aren’t even the good ones. Sometimes you need time, even six months, before you can go back and really see what’s interesting about a series of pictures. Or even twenty years, you know, sometimes you won’t really pick the good ones or know what’s the true meaning of the images for much longer periods of time or the meanings will shift and at different times, different images will be important.
f: Do you ever wait to look at images, to give a chance for the emotion to be a little bit more distant?
AW: You know I don’t, but I definitely revisit things all the time.
f: There’s a lot of fluidity between what you might call documentary work, fine art work, maybe even photojournalism in your photography. Do you think about your relationship to those genres, do you feel there’s a need to kind of define yourself personally or for the gallery and museum world?
AW: Well, because Magnum was really my first education in photography, it really had a hand in shaping the way that I make images, how I compose images, and it really helped to establish my point of view. So while I don’t consider myself a documentarian necessarily, I’m always approaching my subject matter in a certain way which I guess some people could construe as a documentary style, but to tell you the truth all these labels pretty much end up annoying me. [laughs].
To me it doesn’t matter, I’m not really concerned with those labels or those genres specifically, I’m just making images the only way I know how and the way that I like to. So if they happen to incorporate elements of different quote-unquote styles that other people see then that’s fine. However, it does make it difficult if you want to show your work in different arenas, the way the photography community is set up it does help to be able to be labeled as a documentary photographer or a fine art photographer or a commercial photographer. So my approach and my quote-unquote style hasn’t necessarily helped, even though it’s the way that I like to shoot it doesn’t make it easier in terms of promoting my own work. It definitely makes it harder.
I think the clearer you can be about it, the more successful you’ll probably be. But that’s just something I’ve had to come to terms with because I can’t really change how I make work, or else it’s not going to be authentic or honest so I have to just make my work the only way that I know how and hopefully some people will get it.
f: I was going to ask you a little bit about your own sense of yourself as a photographer, about things that are strengths, things that you’re working on, where you’re at with your sense of self as a photographer.
AW: Well, I think it’s probably always easier to talk about weaknesses than strengths, its easy to be aware of what you’re not doing well and if you think about photography, you’re out there making images and if you’re lucky 3 out of 10 are good, so you’re always failing a lot more than you’re succeeding when you’re making pictures. I think that for me, the things I always need to be mindful of working on are editing, and I don’t think I’m as strong as a portrait photographer. I think I have strengths elsewhere besides portraiture, probably because in some ways I’m not all that interested in portraiture in the traditional sense. I like the idea of people in relation to place, but not necessarily someone sitting for an encounter where we make a portrait. What else…you know, technically, I think photographers are always striving to learn a little more and become five, ten percent better at what they do because it makes such a big difference in how the work looks in the end, so I think there’s always the technical considerations to consider as well as the conceptual considerations. Other things I’m not as good at are working on specific projects, I don’t preconceive, and I’m pretty bad at preconceiving ideas and going out and executing it. Again, I think ultimately because I’m probably not all that interested in working that way
f: Do you want to throw any strengths in there as well?
AW: Yeah, yeah. I mean I think I’m good at identifying how color and composition can combine to create interesting imagery.
f: I was also going also ask if you had any comments about what you’re looking for from photography or from your photographs themselves.
AW: Evolving questions that you should be asking yourself for your whole life, thinking about what your relationship is to the medium at that moment, its meant different things to me at different points. At the beginning it was simply the ability to make technically proficient images and then be able to tell simple stories through them with documentary images so that was the first goal. Then, from there it sort of evolved into a more complex idea of what it means to tell a story, and what it means to ask questions and I think currently my relationship to the medium is as a way to explore what’s important to me about the world and to think about some of the deeper questions and explore some of the deeper questions that I have about my existence, what it means to be a father, I’m a new father, so what it means to be committed to a family, and it’s just, yeah, it’s just a really terrific way to be able to explore some of these ideas in a really considered way.
f: I mean it almost sounds like a way of reflection on where you’re at in pretty much all other parts of your life. And on who you are foundationally as well.
AW: I think it’s a way to see a reflection of where you’re at, but also it’s a way to discover who you are, because I think it provides a different perspective on how you relate to the world. I think it actually can help you understand where you are and help you discover where you are and not just reflect upon it.
f: And has your ability to get that understanding from photography been there from the start or is it a way of insight that you’ve gotten more over time.
AW: I think it’s a very complex proposition, it’s a very complex idea to consider how you’re relating to photography and what it means to you, so I think its sort of an evolution and something we’ll be thinking about the whole time you are a photographer or are involved with photography because ultimately if you’re able to answer that question, for me at least, I’m not sure what the point of taking pictures would be anymore. So, you know at certain points you have some clarity, but then it gets complicated again, and obscured a bit, so you need to then start working out some new ideas and try to figure out, because you’re always changing as a person and so you’re relationship is going to be constantly evolving and changing to the medium as well.
f: We talked about some of the thoughts you had on editing, did you have anything else you wanted to add about editing or about how you edit?
AW: Personally for me editing is one of the great challenges of the process. Especially and specifically because of the way I work, I sort of shoot and then try to see what it means afterwards which can be a pretty tough road to go. There are times when I shoot specific projects, for work or what have you, where it’s much easier to do an edit. That being said, I think it’s invaluable for all photographers to seek outside opinions on their work and on their projects because it really does help you to see with great clarity what interests you most about your work and get some really great ideas specifically about what your work is about that you might not have known if you hadn’t talked to people. The other thing is often times when you make a picture, it’s the experience that you are holding on to, and you don’t really have the ability to see the imagery, when you’re looking at the imagery you’re just thinking about the experience, and if it was a great experience, it can really cloud the effectiveness of the actual image. It could be a horrible image and you’ll never be able to understand that.
f: The next question I have for you is about inspiration and influences. Who you are currently exploring, looking at, and then also who you would consider long-term influences on your work.
AW: You know, it’s actually a tough question. I’m actually constantly looking at photography, and painting, every day I’m looking at new work, but it’s hard for me to tell you specifically who I’m thinking about or what work is sitting with me. Let me just take a quick look at my recent bookmarks and I’ll tell you [laughs]. I’ve been looking at Eric Fischl. Emmet Gowin. I’ve been looking at Jeff Farc. Minh Chao. Jo Ann Walters. Matthew Pillsbury. Jason Salavon. So it’s a wide variety of work. A lot of it’s conceptually-based and others of it are more straight photography, large format, but the ideas I’m considering or addressing in my work at the moment are really around family, history, and memory, I would say. And there’s a bunch of ways that I’m thinking about working with that, one is a more traditional documentary way of approaching photographing my family and my life, another way is I’ve been doing collages that relate to the idea of time itself, but also more recently to experience and memory, as I see them, and the history of memory of my experience of my family. Additionally I’ve been doing a project on the Underground Railroad which is another way of thinking about history and memory and what different sites mean, and what significance they hold, even as time evolves, you know. What was the other part of the question?
f: People who have stayed with you as long-term influences.
AW: Yeah, sure. I think for me, the reason I started making color pictures was seeing the work of Alex Webb when I was at Magnum, just the way he was using color formally but then also composing and compressing space was really, really interesting to me and I just hadn’t ever considered looking at the world that way, so that was profoundly important in my development. But then the other people at Magnum subsequently who I was interested in were [Gueorgui] Pinkhassov, Harry Gruyaert, and after leaving Magnum, I was still interested in a lot of the Magnum photographers, but over time I would say some of my other influences have been Nadov Kander. Karen Simon. Larry Sultan. Philip Lorca-diCorcia. Crewdson. Todd Hido. Those are probably all at the top of my list.
f: I have two questions for you that go beyond your work and are bigger questions about photography. What is your thought about street photography as a genre today, where it stands in relationship to its history, and also to its future.
AW: I actually just wrote a paper last semester, a brief history of street photography and its current relationship to the art world and I think it’s a tough genre because there are a lot of practitioners who are very traditional, very conservative in their approach to what they would define as street photography, and in a sense if it were up to them, it really hasn’t changed since the heydays of the 60s and 70s in New York, photographers such as Winogrand and Meyerowitz.
So they would define street photography as: images made in public, that have not been doctored or altered in any way and in which the photographer has not interacted in any way with the subjects. So if people were to keep making work that same way over and over again, you know it’s possible that it will be different because the 60s and 70s do look different than the 90s and the 2000s and there are different concerns, obviously, you know different times within society, but I think to really evolve the form and the genre it needs to be at least open to considering some other kinds of ways of working, whether that means even allowing manipulation, to photograph in terms of people compositing views of the street, I don’t know. But to just repeat the form as it has been done I think won’t gain much traction outside the fanatics that are seriously committed to the genre
f: Would you go so far as to say that a conservative view of street photography is holding it back as a genre today?
AW: Holding it back? Well, it’s interesting because its sort of enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the past five to ten years…
f: In its traditional form?
AW: In its traditional form, yeah. And I think that’s primarily because, well, two things, one, digital cameras were invented and so now the ease of shooting and making images has allowed people who otherwise would not be even be making photographs to start participating, so its easy to go out now with either a point-and-shoot or SLR digital camera and make terrific images. So the bar to enter into photography has really dropped. That combined with social networking and online communities has really also allowed for a way to share and for people who have an interest to find each other on the web. So are all these, I think there are over 400 groups on Flickr dedicated to street photography, so, you know, its really just allowed and inspired a lot of people who otherwise hadn’t been thinking about photography at all or street photography specifically to start participating.
I think we need to be careful, if we want it to have a future it needs to be allowed to evolve in some way. I’m not saying specifically what that evolution will entail, but it does need to be allowed to evolve. There are some really interesting photographers, such as Peter Funch, working with compositing and I think his work is really fresh and interesting and it needs to be at least considered by people who would be quick to dismiss it.
f: The other question on larger issues of photography is about any sense about future trends in photography, about where we’ll be in 25 years, a vision that you might have personally about the trajectory of photography.
AW: I honestly really have no clue. I mean that’s sort of what’s exciting about being in photography at the moment. There is this incredibly rapid revolution taking place, with, you know, the digital revolution, and the ways people are thinking about what constitutes photography, the norms that we’ve held for so long are just changing so quickly that it’s really hard to say where its going to take us. I mean obviously digital imaging is going to be even more pervasive and the way we are able to capture is going to become even quicker, faster with smaller equipment or on the other end, with just better and better resolution and detail and clarity, so…yeah, I mean photography has always been driven by its technological process and evolution so that’s going to be a big part of what defines where it goes is what’s invented and how the technology progresses, but specifically what’s going to happen? I don’t know. In some ways I wonder if at least there will be some faction of photography that gets sick of all the artifice and all the compositing and all of the, I don’t know, staging and this and that and then maybe, you know, there will be some renewed interest in straight photography. I don’t, you know, it’s hard to say [laughs]. What do you think?
f: What do I think? I agree, I think that, and also tagging on to what you were saying about the 400 Flickr groups and the kind of explosion of people with photography, I think as the materials get better and better at cheaper and cheaper prices, I think there’s going to be even more confusion about the lines of professional and amateur photographers and photography, and I think that’s kind of exciting. I mean, I love the idea of it being a very egalitarian medium, maybe dovetailing that into the site and idea of looking for microgrants to support emerging photographers, you know, hopefully it won’t be such as issue that photography and good quality cameras will be available to a wider socioeconomic spectrum, and maybe that will help create more diversity in the voice of photography which I still think of as fairly limited on some level, to a certain spectrum of people. I think it’s something we’ve talked about before, some of the larger and most famous agencies tend to have people who come from pretty wealthy backgrounds.
f: Finally and the last question, do you have advice received or learned over your career that you would pass along to other photographers?
AW: That’s a really good question, Tom [laughs]. If I got some really good advice, I definitely haven’t heeded it yet, so [laughs]…I don’t know. Maybe my advice would be to listen to people when they give you advice and follow it. Because I certainly haven’t.