I first met the photographer Robert Herman when participating in a photography contest in Italy for which he was one of the jurors. Robert and I hit it off right from the start, and so I asked him if he would come with me to shoot some street photography in Naples. A request to which he very kindly agreed.
In my time spent shooting with Robert he has been a great inspiration to me, and through his guidance I’ve came to see my home city with fresh eyes. What’s more, Robert’s Hipstamatic work (published as The Phone Book in 2005) made me totally reconsider the idea of shooting “serious” photography with a mobile phone.
In this, the second installment of a two-part series, I talk to Robert about his working methods, what he looks for in a shot, and his experiences of doing street photography in Italy.
Robert, the times we’ve spent shooting together have been really exciting for me. Those days were a continuous process of discovery in which I gained an almost entirely new way of looking at Naples.
Thanks Luigi. When I first met you, you were primarily a travel photographer – and a very good one at that. But as we spent those consecutive weekends talking about photography and shooting on the street, I saw that you began to relax and become more bold about making photos. I noticed that you were beginning to identify and empathize with the people you photographed. As a result, your pictures began to more accurately reflect the things that you care about, becoming a personal window onto both the world around you and into yourself.
Thank you Robert, it means a lot to hear you say that. Let’s talk about your own experiences of shooting street photography in Naples, You’ve visited the city several times now. For those who don’t know you, can you talk about your relationship with Naples – particularly as a photographer, but also just more generally?
In 2015 I was invited by Roberta Fuorvia/New York Photo Stories to teach a workshop in Naples, Italy. In the class we did a lot of shooting on the street. When I arrived there, I began to realize that I was in a better mood than I had been in a long time. It was like entering a place that was different, but at the same time it felt familiar. I felt at home.
Everywhere I went there was something compelling to look at: the people, the buildings, the light. Even when I got lost on the way back to my little rented apartment, I didn’t mind. Every time I turned a corner, it surprised me.
Naples reminded me of shooting street photography in New York City during the early eighties. The people out on the street were themselves, living their lives in public; I hadn’t seen that in a while. For Neapolitans, the street was an extension of their homes. And for the first time in ages I wanted to photograph everything I saw.
One of my students, Viviana Rasulo, and I started seeing each other. She came to New York for a visit, and then we went to Rio de Janeiro together. It was clear to us that we had something special. So, for the past four years, we’ve been traveling back and forth as much as we can to see each other.
I am starting to feel a little like a Neapolitan. My Italian is still terrible, but in spite of my difficulties with learning a new language, I’ve gotten to know some wonderful people who’ve become great friends and colleagues. I am very grateful for all the love and support I found.
I make pictures on the streets of Napoli as much I can. And after four years, I think I have the makings of a book about Naples. I am currently editing it and getting a team together to get it published.
What is it that you are looking for when you walk the streets with your camera? Do you already have some preconceived ideas of the kinds of shots you hope to find? Or do you try to keep an empty mind and simply know a shot when you see it? Can you talk us through your process?
I try to make photos that tell a story and yet still leave a little mystery. When it works, something new and unique is created. In order to achieve this, I always try to keep an open mind.
I find that many photographers go out shooting with a plan. And as a result their plan becomes more important than just looking at what is appearing in front of them. Thus their photos, although well made, don’t have a spark, a mystery. I’m always looking for that random, unexpected thing that takes a photograph to the next level.
The art critic John Berger said that if a photo surprises the photographer, it will surprise the viewer. I want to be surprised.
This definitely comes across in your work. I feel like you totally live photography, and are ready to shoot anything at any time. But as with many great professional photographers, it seems like you already have a clear vision of how a scene will translate into a photo before you press the shutter. Is that right?
Well, yes and no. As a street photographer I go out and listen to my instincts, my body and my heart; always trying to be in the moment. I can use my head for editing when I get home. Shoot from the heart, and then edit with the head.
That’s great advice, Robert. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your experiences of shooting street photography in Naples, Italy. If you haven’t already checked out the first installment in this two-part series of posts, you can read my conversation with Robert about New York street photography here.