Interview with Robert Herman, Part 1: New York Street Photography

Flowers, ph. courtesy of Robert Herman (©)

The photographer Robert Herman has been a friend and mentor to me over the last few years. Robert is best known for his book The New Yorkers, documenting life on the streets of his native city between the years of 1978 and 2005 in an often mysterious and cinematic style. It was this particular collection of images that initially drew me to Robert’s work, and in this post I talk to him about his background in cinema and his experiences of shooting New York street photography during what was undoubtedly one of the most exciting periods in the city’s recent history.

LLS:

Robert, I know you studied film early on, but I’m curious to know how you initially got into photography. Which came first, photography or cinema?

RH: 

Well my photo style was heavily influenced by watching films, so they kind of developed together. When I was a young teenager, my father owned a movie theatre in Brooklyn and so I could watch a movie as many times as I wanted. I saw Blow-Up by Antonioni in 1966 when I was 11 years old. In the next few years, I saw Easy Rider, Zabriskie Point, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and many more. After seeing a movie a few times I’d already know the story inside-out, so I began to notice other things: light, composition etc.

Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) was a major influence on my sensibility, and I saw it many times during it’s short two-week run. His use of daylight, color, framing and his placing of the characters within the mise-en-scène of the streets of Los Angeles had a profound effect on my shooting style. The environment surrounding the people in The New Yorkers is as important to telling the story as the people I photographed. The walls, the graffiti, the streets, the quality of light and the color create the context of their lived experience.

When I was a cinema student at New York University, I made three short films. One was A Story for Lisa: an experimental narrative short, shot in 16mm color and black and white reversal film. Filmmaking is a collective process and I needed to do something creative that wasn’t as dependent on other people and large sums of money. Photography was something that I could do by myself, it was an opportunity to be creative as much as I wanted.

So, I took an intro course as an elective in still photography.

Shooting in black and white, I learned to develop, make contact sheets, edit and make prints in the darkroom. At the end of the class we had a little exhibition and it turned out that I had two really strong photos and I began to realize I might have some talent.

Amazingly those two photos actually had an afterlife: one became an album cover for a jazz bassist, and the other became a poster that was distributed around the world.

Miriam, New York, NY 1978 ph. courtesy of ©Robert Herman
Heat Wave, New York, NY 1978 ph. courtesy of ©Robert Herman

LLS:

What about street photography? When did you start to work in this genre?

RH:

I began shooting on the street right after my first photography class. In the beginning my color work was on negative, but I was very unhappy with the little prints I got back from the lab. I started experimenting with transparency film; first Ektachrome and then Kodachrome.

What I loved about slides was that what you saw and recorded on the film was exactly what you got back from the lab. There was no printer in the middle making decisions about color or exposure.

Using Kodachrome, I taught myself how to make good exposures with my manual Nikon F. Kodachrome was a very unforgiving film, so it was real challenge to learn to make good exposures; if the exposure was a stop off in either direction (under or over exposed), it would be useless most of the time.

Simultaneously I began shooting production stills on student films to build a portfolio. I wanted to be able to make a living after graduation. In 1981, I was hired to be the production stills guy for the film Vigilante. And here began another part of my education, learning to make strong photos with good exposures under many lighting conditions; daylight, tungsten, or HMI. 

I was shooting Ektachrome for the film stills. We were on location a lot of the time, and often hours would go by with nothing to do. So I decided to shoot my own street photography using Kodachrome in the neighborhoods near our film locations. In many ways the streets surrounding the film shoot were much more compelling than the film we were making. I made many strong photos during the eight month long shoot, and some of them became part of The New Yorkers.

Train conductor, Long Island City, NY 1985 ph. courtesy of ©Robert Herman
It’s A Whole New World, Long Island City, NY 1985 ph. courtesy of ©Robert Herman

LLS:

Who and what were your early influences?

RH:

A friend gave me a copy of Robert Frank’s The Americans and it blew my mind. I studied it like it was a textbook. Why were his pictures so strong? I started to deconstruct the language in the frame and the language of where the photos were in the book. How did the left-page photo talk to the right-page photo? Why was there a blank page sometimes?

I bought a copy of Harry Callahan’s 1978 book Color. His brilliant use of Kodachrome just astounded me. It showed me what was possible. With those two books, I started to make color Kodachrome images with Robert Frank’s language in mind. After a while I began to develop my own style. Thirty years later I finally published The New Yorkers, which was my homage to The Americans. 

LLS:

And what inspires you today?

RH:

I just saw the Garry Winogrand exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. I’ve always loved his work, but this show, with his Kodachrome slides projected on the wall had a big impact. Winogrand’s style of composition and use of color was a little less formal than mine and it opened me up again to experimentation.

I still love taking pictures. Walking down the street and seeing something that might make a strong picture is amazing. It’s so much fun. I can walk for hours just looking and experiencing the life on the street. Even when I’m depressed, I’ll see something and make a photo. I can’t help it, it’s a part of my nature.

LLS:

Let’s talk about New York street photography in a little more depth. Your book The New Yorkers documents a city that is always exciting. But you also happen to have documented NYC during what many would consider to have been one of its most vibrant and creative periods: the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (for example, I saw one of JM Basquiat’s “SAMO” tags in one shot). Were you aware that it was an exciting era even then, or did you largely take things like Punk, New Wave, Hip Hop, graffiti and the downtown arts scene for granted at the time? 

RH:

I lived in Soho/Little Italy when it was still inhabited by artists. Little Italy was still a neighborhood, not a one-block tourist attraction. It was a very exciting period in NYC, before gentrification; before the corporations started buying everything and forcing out the little shops.

When I made the photo with the SAMO tag, I had no idea who Basquiat was. I saw the “SAMO is dead”, the blue jeans, and the red door. I shot a whole roll of Kodachrome to get just the right picture. I knew this was something special.

The most exciting thing about this time for me though was simply that I’d decided to become a photographer. I was learning a new language that I loved. Every day was an opportunity to learn more about the craft of exposure with a manual film camera, teaching myself to pay attention in a different way and finding new ways to express myself in a photograph. 

SAMO is Dead, New York, NY 1981 ph. courtesy of ©Robert Herman

LLS:  

Obviously NYC has changed considerably since the early ‘80s – both for better and worse – but what about in terms of street photography? It’s statistically a safer city, but that may not make it a more interesting one for photography. Nor even necessarily one that’s easier for shooting street photography. Have you noticed a clear change since those days?

RH:

It’s safer, but it’s more boring in some ways. Everyone has a cellphone. Making strong pictures of people has become more difficult. Real estate has become so expensive, and because of that the little shops that made New York so unique are disappearing and being replaced by corporate international brands. It sad for me to see that cities across the world are all beginning to look the same.

Having said that, sometimes being bored is a good thing. When I see something that has potential, it really pops out. And that is great. I am always paying attention.

LLS:  

How do you feel about the state of street photography today? Is there still creative mileage in the genre?

RH:

Street photography will always have a future. Most importantly, because it’s a document; a record of what something looked like in a public space at a certain time.

LLS:

I couldn’t agree more. In fact what I’ve always loved about your New York street photography is that it captures the moment in such a pure and instinctive way. Those times, and that particular manifestation of New York City, are gone. Yet they really live on in your work.

Thanks for taking the time to talk about your New York street photography, Robert. In the second part of this interview series we’ll be discussing Robert’s more recent experiences of shooting street photography in Naples, Italy. To see more of Robert Herman’s work please take a look at his website: http://robertherman.com

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