Saturday, July 19, 2014

Q & A with Bryan Formhals

Bryan Formhals is a photographer and personal injury lawyer based in Astoria, Queens

BA: We chatted a while back but we've been drifting in different thought patterns since then. I’m trying to figure out where you're at with street photography. You seem down on it lately. 

BF: Yeah, I don't like it very much.

What don't you like?

I don't really know. It's a mix of stuff, I guess. I try not to get too locked down in any ideas. I'm one of those types that's non-committal and will jump around. I guess POTB would be a good indication, no?

Sometimes you show streety stuff there. 

Oh sure. I like street photographs. Or candid photographs in public. But you asked about street photography and I assumed you were talking about the culture that has developed around it, especially online. That I don't like.

The culture of the high priest street photographer going to Mount Broadway to bring back the visual tablets for the rabble. That whole thing?

Yeah, that sounds pretty good.

I agree there's a lot of bullshit surrounding street photos online. But I don't go along with the premise that the whole thing is bunk. I think it's still a valid form. Do you?

Sure, it's valid.

You just don't like the egos and baggage? Or what is it?

Yeah, and how it's sort of turned into this "calling" for people, there's almost a weird religious aspect to it that bugs me, and makes me uncomfortable. But that extends into other forms of documentary photography as well. The heroic photographer. The visionary. The seer. Street photography as self-help.

Or maybe photography in general as self-help. It's one of the most accessible arts after all. That attracts dilettantes.

Yeah, for sure. But I think it's great that photography can be therapeutic. People need hobbies. And photography is a good one. It's my hobby of choice.
Was it Keenan that set you off? That was a good rant by the way. He seemed to hit a nerve with you.

That's all theatre. Just cranky guys sitting at the bar talking smack.

Those threads led to some interesting philosophy around street work. Because he's working under the model that I think you find fault with. He's going out to hunt for scenes that express some "vision". Then returning with his fresh kills. It's the same system we all use. Which is what makes it hard for me to discredit entirely. But I think you're ready to bag it.

The internet is kind of like street photography. You wait around and watch a bunch of shit go on and then every once and a while something interesting actually happens. The internet creeps me out.

Would you call what you were doing on your now deleted Tumblr street photography?

Um, which stuff? The color photographs from New York? 
That's mainly what I was thinking of. 
Yes, for sure, that's street. I also showed a longer edit of a Los Angeles book. The B/W. But it’s street photography too I guess. Personal documentary, diaristic.

from Los Angeles 26, Bryan Forhmals

I'm wondering how much your thoughts and doubts about street photography contributed to you dumping that stream.

Eh, that was more to do with the concept of  "the stream". I tried an idea. Showing a longer edit. Then deleting the edit, starting with a new edit. I think that way of thinking can work, but I got bored with it. But yeah, the photographs are certainly in the street aesthetic. That doesn't bother. Older stuff. Nothing I can do about it, except re-edit and remix it.
One aspect of street photography that is a bit, well, fake, is the tendency to put images out there with no context to reinforce their mysterious aspect. And it works well for some. The less you know about the scene the more effective the photo is. But I think deliberately adding written context could be an alternative approach. Go out and make good photos, then describe the incidents.

What was he thinking!??!?!?!? Yeah, or nothing to do with the incident. I mean, what I love about street photography is the walking.

But that's a separate thing maybe than just straight photography. Maybe it's not even the same art form.

Yes. But I think photographs can and do stand on their own. I love a great photograph. BAM!!!! That's it.

Doesn't that put photographs in a heroic position? It's the great white trophy hunting street shooter going out to find that very thing. Photos that stand on their own. So what's not valid?

I don't think I said anything was invalid. It is what it is. I love trying to make a great photograph.

Sorry, bad wording. But you have a problem with that model. I'm trying to pin it down.

Getting messed up film and shit. That rocks. I enjoy making candid photographs. That's kind of fun. But at the same time it creeps me out these days. 

Do you see value in photographs that exist in and of themselves, or do you think the special part comes later in editing? Maybe any photos at all can work if they are edited/sequenced properly?
Sure, I see value in that way of working. I think the concept of the 'special moment' is something I try not to think about. When I'm out working, I'm looking for photographs and scenes, compositions. I don't know if they're special or not. It's an equation, and you certainly don't know what you have until you start editing. You might have an initial hunch but that's something I'd be skeptical about in terms of leading to a decent photograph.    
I certainly think that photos tend to work better in a nicely edited and sequenced book. There's almost an infinite number of ways that various photos can be edited and sequenced, and that excites me. I spend a good amount of time in my archive trying to find new patterns and ideas. I'm starting to share some of that stuff on my Journal which is a format I'm enjoying right now. It helps me think and stay organized, on task.

This goes back to the street issue because I feel very strongly about street work and certain photos hit me hard and I think I know why. But what are you drawn to? What makes you tick with a camera? 

The mix. My tumblr is perfect. I want that to be my photography. I want to appropriate all styles. How do you do that?

Yeah, I meant your own shooting. I know what you put on POTB. But if street photography is suspect, where does that leave you?

Well, right now I like shooting with the Mamiya 7 most. So that makes me a boring landscape photographer. No matter what you do, you fall into a trope or genre.

Where are these boring landscapes? Online?

Nope. I'm going to finish the book first. But it's more than landscapes. It's my first attempt at something more along the lines of psychogeography.

Psychogeography is about navigating the city in an improvised manner in order to gain a different perspective from the standard paths we walk. It's also about how the built environment impacts our psyche and emotional state. Basically, walk out the door, look around, and allow your eyes, intuition and feelings to lead the way. 

OK. I will wait and see. 

I'll show you some photos soon. But I don't want anything published on the web. I'm going to start working on the edit. And make a bunch of prints. I have an extensive journal from every outing as well.

So that's the root of the new journal Tumblr?

Kind of. I've been writing for the last year and half as well, but not much on the web. Basically, the photobook as novel approach. Like Kwiatkowski. We're working on a book as well.

Can you talk about the Kwiatkowski book?

Yeah, sure. It's a riff on true crime. Well, true crime TV shows. About people disappearing.

Not creating any mental image yet. With photos?

In specific landscape. Photographs and words.

It's your writing and his photos? Or a mix?

A mix. We've transcribed a bunch of shows which we're mixing in. . We have some text from scientific studies, conspiracy theories, etc.


Yeah, it's fiction.

I can't get my head around it at all. I've gotta see the final thing I guess.

Yes. We don't even know how it's going to end. We're just taking the ride.
You seem to be constantly stopping, starting, reworking, rethinking. Going back to LPV even. And now the new journal...Do you have any thoughts or nostalgia about LPV? 
No, not really nostalgic. I want to take it off the web too. And will at some point.


Don't want to renew the domain? I don't know. I'm just thinking it might happen. Not soon.

It's still a good resource. 

I got a bunch of flak when I removed my blog last year. I suspect you'll face the same shitstorm.

In five years? Nobody will have the slightest clue what it is or was about.

I can't really think that far ahead. Maybe that's a problem.

I don't advise it. It doesn't end well for any of us.

Why did you end LPV? Is there a simple reason?

I didn't enjoy doing it and wanted to focus my limited time on my own stuff. Also, I was sick of being a promoter. That type of publishing is difficult. You've got to be good to make it worth it.

You didn't promote it that hard.

It was fun. But I don't like magazines. I don't read them. Why should I make one? The game is book publishing.

What about the Kwiatkowski book? It's the same equation. You'll be a promoter. Or the one with Stephen?

Photographers' Sketchbooks, Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals, Coming Fall 2014

Yes, that's true. It's not my favorite thing to do.

I think with a book there's an increased expectation of impact. You know or hope that it will be around a while and lay down a marker.  Maybe a magazine can do that too but it's more difficult. But for someone or for a culture immersed in ephemeral streams all day, a book is a like a rock on shore to grab hold of.

Yeah, books are cool. I should buy more. Ha.

What did you learn about your photo process when working on the photo process book with McLaren?
I learned that every photographer struggles with many of the same issues. No matter how successful one becomes, every new project or book comes with the same set of challenges. It was also inspiring to learn that many photographers are consistently working on several projects or edits. The most interesting photographers are always challenging themselves and pushing forward. Or just going for walks. 

I could never just work on one thing at a time. I've got about 10 projects going right now. I've been photographing the internet as well.

How do you do that?

Taking pictures of the screen. Digging around. Going into archives.

Like Michael Wolf? Or Ryan Brubaker?

Yeah, but not Google street view. Other people's photographs.

Taking actual photos of the computer? Or screen grabs.

Actual photographs. I mess up the lens. Smear stuff. All that dumb kind stuff.

OK, so what's the project about?

No idea yet. It'll be some narrative though. Mixed with text again. Probably with a sci-fi angle.

It's always a narrative for you. Or is it?

Yes, for the most part. Wannabe filmmaker.

Can a photo just exist for its own sake, not part of an edit or story?

Yes, absolutely. That's probably when they're most enjoyable. Photographs are awesome.

Yes they are. What pictures do you rephotograph? Is this a work project?

I've been rephotographing from my Flickr and Tumblr favorites. That's the source material.

Bryan Formhals

What do you put on the lens?

I put hand sanitizer on the lens. I do double exposures as well.

What does that look like in a photo?

It looks cheap. And digital and fake. But also kind of weird. I don't have the guts to show this stuff yet. Ha. Digital is so ugly.

Hmm. So it's sort of about the nature of the internet? Or about the culture of screens? I think you showed some photos of TV screens a long while ago on your Tumblr or somewhere? Can't remember where I saw them.

Yeah, all of that pretentious stuff.

What's ugly about digital?

It's either too clean. Or it has a cheap look to it. I like it. The internet is ugly as well. It's visually unsettling.

"The internet is ugly...It's visually unsettling."

I don't understand.

The aesthetics of the internet. Look at all the random information. But your experience is going to be different than mine....naturally.

I think your information streams are much wider than mine. I've got to funnel my internet into a little tidy box or it overwhelms me. That's why I'm not on a lot of platforms, just a few that I can manage.

Right. And also, the amount of time spent online. I'm in the web most of my waking hours. I read too much of that stuff.

Yes, that’s good and bad. But I think most people have considered this issue and come to some personal resolution.

Yeah, talking about the internet is annoying.

I'm less concerned with it than with what I can discover online. But it's the ether we all breath. The soup. It's like fish discussing water.

Ha. Yeah. I like information.

Are you still going to downtown NY to shoot those busy street scenes? Or were those from a phase that ended?

I'm probably done with that. For candid stuff, it'll be with the Mamiya. Or the random snapshot when I'm walking around.

What was the motivation when you were doing it?

I walk on 34th everyday for work. The moving masses. I wanted to try to work that as much as I could. Fly into the crowd. That type of stuff. Winogrand.

 Most of it is on 34th. Some on 5th Ave. Some in the East Village.

Why the Mamiya? Why not the X10?

Oh, I love the X10! But I’m not going to shoot candid street stuff with it. Any more....

Why not?

Done with that. It's too aggressive for me. I don't like sticking a camera into a scene that way. It's exhausting shooting like Winogrand. I like staying back with the Mamiya. Yeah, landscapes with people in them.... I like Nguan too. The Hin Chua style. Ha. 

Did he put his name on it? I think others have done that. 
Didn't you call it low entropy? Ed Panar. Irina Rozovsky.
I can't remember if I called it that. Social Landscape? It's usually less dependent on reflex. More considered.

That's what I enjoy the most right now. And shooting with off camera flash. I'm into taking trains now. I'm exploring the LIRR.

As photo fodder?

Well, I've only made one trip on the LIRR. I went to Port Washington and wandered around for a few hours. I'm shooting mostly landscapes. Delta 3200 with the Mamiya 7. I don't know where the project will go but the plan is to hop on the train and get off at random stops and then never go back. I'm becoming fascinated with Long Island.  

Bryan Formhals

The great white photo hunter getting on the train... One of the 10 ongoing projects.

Yep. Will probably take a few years. Or maybe a few months? I have no idea.

I have a psychologist friend who does research on multitasking. Apparently it creates some unhealthy mental repercussions. At least for kids.

I don't consider it multitasking. They’re just ideas. Depends. I haven't formulated a story yet.

If your attention is divided 10 ways, where does that leave any one project?

No idea. It's my personality type. I like playing around. I recently figured out I'm an ENTP. We like to start stuff and never finish it.

I think I was diagnosed as letters once but I forget what the label was. Is there a label for people who forget stuff like that?

I don't know how other people do it. And it's futile to try and do it any other way. It'd be like asking me to start walking backwards.

I've seen that done. 

Is there an optimal way to make art? A formula? Does one require the right personality? Or habits?

The optimal way is to follow your gut I think.

Something like that. If I get bored, I stop. Ha.

Who have you discovered online recently that excites you?

Elizabeth Huey.

What's her story?

Elizabeth Huey

She's a painter. And makes snapshots. Street scenes. The camera looks really cheap. I mean, the photographs look like they were made with a cheap digital point and shoot. I visited her website and spent more time browsing around than I normally do.

I'll dig her up. Have you seen this guy? Cliche subject. But done with skill.

Yeah, tropes are fine. Typology. Whatever.

Elizabeth Huey sounds perfect. The ones who don't come into photography invested with ideas about method or perfection or ideology are usually the freshest. I'm just speculating based on the fact she's a painter. And she does "cheap" work.

Right. Just make photographs. I guess I'm trying to play some filmmaking fantasy. But I don't mind.

What filmmaking fantasy are you talking about?

I wanted to be a filmmaker coming out of college.

You studied filmmaking, right? Or film theory?

No, not in college. But two of my good friends from college did. So it rubbed off on me. They got me into thinking that way. Also about novels and shit.

I wanted to blow perfect bubbles that drifted into the sky before bursting. And after all these years my dream has paid off. Novelists don't think like photographers. But you knew that.

Yeah, I have no idea how they think. Ha. Writing is hard.

Novelists and filmmakers think like you. They think in narrative. They have 10 stories going on in their heads. Photographers think about that perfect bubble sailing away.

I can do that too.


John said...

It's good to see intelligent voices like these take a stand against, or at least state discomfort with, the current "Street Photography" culture online. Distancing oneself from this scene isn't a bad idea- photography deserves better. But perhaps such troubles have long been a part of its game.

Regardless, thanks for sharing this great interview.

Rachel said...

Please interview Elizabeth Huey, she's a sweet mystery on Instagram that needs to be unravelled

Anon Blogger said...

Every time I see this particular person surface in the "street photography" world I'm perplexed. BF seems to have nothing to say and his pictures, while not unpleasant, are a random grab-bag. Maybe he should sell lessons on self-marketing, the true turn-key to visibility in the internet and book realm. Street photography in general seems to be on a long slow slide away from substance and into quirkiness--lacking such substance the chosen champions embody the same styrofoam palette.

bryanF said...

Dear Anon Blogger:

I'm perplexed as well because I really don't have much to say about street photography, and don't think my own photographs merit much attention. In fact, they don't get much attention.

And I don't actively promote myself. I don't submit to blogs. I don't go to portfolio reviews. I don't spam my facebook wall.

I share my work on Tumblr and Flickr. That's it.

The primary reason people want to speak with me I gather is because of what I did with LPV, which was promote other people's photography and discuss what's happening on the internet.