Street photography is abound these days, but good stuff can be harder to find. Enter Markus Hartel. Markus is a New York based street photographer who produces some truly stunning work. He also photographs in color, which is rare when it comes to street photography. His images are memorable and unique. I sat down with Markus (virtually) and we talked about all things photography. Here’s the highlights from that discussion.
One of the most striking aspects of your work is your diversity when it comes to style. For example, your work from â€œChinatown with Uliâ€ is similar to what I do â€“ little snippets of the human fragment â€“ a handbag or a stray elbow. This work is quite abstract for street photography. Then, when one presses on through your work they come to color shots, traditional reportage, double exposures and so on. My question, then, is this: Do you have a style?
Most of my work is black and white with a signature tonality and punchy blacks, but of course I constantly experiment with other forms of expression. at the moment I shoot quite a bit in color and enjoy it immensely – the human fragments started out as something that I did rather subconsciously by moving in closer, but I detected that the viewer could still recognize a lot of the energy and emotion of the shot and I’m working this “style” into a series at the moment.
Can you tell me a little more about the series?
Ambiguity is something that seems to work well in photographs, as I think that the viewer likes to fill in the blanks… like a visual synecdoche the series takes this to another level from classic street photography.
Backing up a bit, when did you first pick up the camera in any kind of serious way?
I had the the first serious, or rather professional, encounter with a copy camera in a printshop in 1987, then again in the mid-nineties in the studio for catalog work, and I started doing street seriously in NYC in 2003 and got hooked.
Why street photography? Have you ever tried anything else, studio or fine art etc.
I did catalog studio work and tabletops on and off for advertising and this kind of work, the repetitiveness, the predictability, bores me to tears. initially the vibe in the streets piqued my curiosity and later on became a creative outlet next to various desk jobs in the advertising world.
Being a complete novice when it comes to studio work, I’m curious to know if any of that time spent working on catalogs helped to inform your street work in any way?
I think anything we do contributes to another in some fashion and studio work helped me immensely to understand the technical aspects of photography, not only the camera but quantity and quality of light, composition etc… street photography doesn’t offer many of these elements at all times and by nature we become the masters of improvisation, a little bit like a jazz musician.
Do you find it more difficult to shoot the streets now than say a few years ago? In other words, do you think it’s becoming more difficult?
What’s becoming more difficult is to constantly change my vision and redefine who I am as a photographer, hence the constant switch between various styles of expression in question #1. I do think however that with experience it’s becoming somewhat easier to approach people and being able to sense if a scene is photograph-able or not. I normally avoid dealing with authorities, so that’s a non-issue for me to begin with.
Do you ever shoot 35mm? Is this staying constant or are you gradually moving toward or away from film?
I hardly ever shoot 35mm film anymore, I just gave away a big bag of film and hold on to a few rolls. I’m happy with the results I’m getting from digital and honestly, I don’t feel like developing and scanning every day anymore.
What do you think the future holds for 35mm film? Should we all rush out and sell our M6′s?
35mm film may be limited in availability, but it’s far from dead and people who like shooting film will keep it aliveâ€¦The M6 (TTL) is a fantastic camera and will hold its value better than the current digital offerings. A negative is tangible and a film shot has a certain character to it that is hard to achieve with digital. The good old “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder” is very, very true.
Does the intangibility of digital images worry you? That is, are you concerned about being able to properly archive your work for future generations? Like you said a negative is a tangible thing, digital images are not.
It took me a long time and a lot of back-and-forth between film and digital to finally wrap my head around a sound digital strategy, which for the time being is for my own sake… I think for future generations we’d need to stow prints of our best work away.
What are your thoughts on color street photography?
I love shooting in color, especially the liberty that digital photography gives me, as I can decide on a whim if I want color or black and whiteâ€¦ when I shot film, I had to pack few rolls of color film or even had to carry a second camera.
I’m known for using little cameras. I use the Ricoh GR Digitals most of the time, but have also been known to use the Holga and even disposable cameras. I don’t care. I like little camera for where they allow me to go and for the fact that no one on the street takes me too seriously. What are your thoughts on gear? Do you need a Leica to be famous (laughing)?
Over the years I’ve used a whole lot of different cameras. I still have two original Ricoh GRDs, which I love, and a Lumix LX-5 which I sometimes use. Gear really is secondary, I have taken great photos with the GRD, a Canon EOS, Olympus Stylus Epic and countless other cameras. I always to go back to rangefinders, and the Leica happens to be the most ergonomic camera in my hands. Fame doesn’t come with gear – Daido Moriyama comes to mind, he photographs on film with a Ricoh GR and other point-and-shoots.
Yes, Moriyama has been a huge influence on my work. He’s amazing! Tell me about one of your images which you think is iconic – which might outlive you?
“Kids and Fire Hydrant” is one of those photos that always follows you around and never go away, no matter how hard you try to lock it away in a closet forever.
It sounds like you are no longer a fan of the image. Can you explain?
I still like the photograph, I’m just tired of it being a representation of who I am as a photographer. There is a whole lot more to see than just one photograph.
Given social media, internet, and the sheer number of photographers, do you think the age of the â€œmastersâ€ is over? That is, do you think our generation will have its Robert Frank or Daido Moriyama, or just a big mess of nobodies all clamouring for the greatest flickr count?
Recognition doesn’t necessarily equal talent and the photographers who are able to market themselves successfully will be known as the “masters” of our time. Take Vivian Maier for example, her work was completely unknown and now her work is highly regarded in art circles and I’m sure something equally interesting will get unearthed some day…
Canadian Photography Online recently asked me in an interview what I thought of the explosion in street photography and its popularity. I responded by noting what we really have an explosion of is camera owners and not necessarily street photographers. How do you feel about all this? Are we being taken over by street photographers?
More people with cameras equal more images and noise to wade through, the fact that subjects in the streets are accessible to anyone makes matters explode exponentially, I like to think of it as a fashion fad, many people just don’t have the stamina to stick around for an extended period of time, but only time will tell.
Who do you admire most among the greats and why?
Garry Winogrand, his frames are oftentimes complex and may seem cluttered, but there is a lot of deliberate genius behind the madness.
I agree. Okay, before I go I have to ask, as you are a New Yorker what are your thoughts on Bruce Gilden? Would you walk over and chat with him if you see him or would you cross the street and go the opposite direction? (laughing)
I ran into Bruce Gilden twice on 5th Avenue and took a photo of him once and we exchanged a quick “hello”. Photographers are a strange bunch.
Markus, thank you so very kindly for this chat. It’s been wonderful. I’m an admirer of your work and look forward to seeing a lot more of it. See you on the streets of New York City!
Markus Hartel is a New York street photographer based out of New York City. You can view more of his work, or sign up for one of his fantastic photo workshops, on his website MarkusHartel.com. You can follow him on Twitter @hrtl.
Michael Ernest Sweet is an educator, writer and street photographer. His first full-length collection of street photography is forthcoming in late 2013 from Brooklyn Arts Press. Michael divides his time between Montreal and New York City. Visit his portfolio online at MichaelSweetPhotography.com. Follow Michael on Twitter @28mmphotos.