All images © Bryan Formhals
FDS - Hi Bryan. We’ve known you for years already: you are a photographer, a writer, a blogger, a publisher. There’s plenty to talk about, so I guess we could begin from when you started shooting. How did that happen?
Bryan - In 2004 I moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis because I wanted to pursue screenwriting and leave the midwest. I wasn't all that motivated as a screenwriter and suffered writer’s block after finishing a script. So I picked up a point and shoot camera and started to take walks around Hollywood and Downtown Los Angeles. I was hooked after that and eventually found my way to Flickr where I joined HCSP, one of the larger street photography groups. I learned a lot from a Hin Chua, Raoul Gatepin, Ben Roberts and few other people. I started to study the history of photography, checking out photobooks at the library and reading photoblogs. I was obsessed and from there I started to photograph with more intent and with projects in mind. That was around 2006 when I was living in West Hollywood.
FDS - Yes, we remember you being an admin there, that’s where we met. Actually, that was the place where plenty of people connected. On our side, we definitely learned a lot from that group, and from the people you mentioned, too. It’s quite interesting to note that the whole social network thing, was considered by the “serious” photographer as the amateurs’ toy back then. Now, ten years later, things have changed a lot, and you can see all of those people being very active on Instagram or Facebook. Still, we feel like the discussion, which was the most exciting bit of being on any shared platform for us, lowered a bit (quantity-wise). Or maybe it just moved somewhere else. Or even, couldn’t it be that it’s less evident now, as it got lost in a plethora of shared images and self-promotion, somehow? You’ve always been a very active blogger and user of the internet in general, what’s your perception of that?
Bryan- In the fine art and documentary community, whatever ‘public’ conversation that exists is on Facebook, and to some extent Twitter, although my feeling is that there aren’t too many photographers using it regularly. I don’t regularly engage in many public conversations these days because I don’t find them all that useful. I’d rather be doing other things. My day job keeps me thinking about the internet 50 hours a week, so when it comes to photography, I tend to prefer conversing with people at events, like photobook salons. That’s why I started doing the podcast. The face to face conversations with other photographers is what I found the most compelling and interesting, although after finishing two seasons of the podcast, I don’t know that those conversations have much interest to many people. The big problem is that most podcasts are interview based, and unless you know the photographer or are interested in their work, you probably won’t tune in. I’m not sure I’ll continue with that formula in the future, if I decide to keep doing a podcast.
So, I’d have to say that I’m rather pessimistic about the value of a broader conversation on the internet for fine art photography. Facebook groups just tend to be reduced to shouting matches and status games. One big wild card is private Facebook groups, I’m in a few, and I’ve heard about a few others. A controlled, private group can lead to some interesting conversations. Perhaps that’s where all the good conversations are taking place. Other than that, you have a handful of writers doing book reviews and some commentary, those get shared on Facebook as well, but the conversations seem to happen on individual photographers pages, so unless you know them, you’re probably oblivious.
Genesee Ave. © Bryan Formhals
FDS - We feel that, despite said community, the naiveté of the beginnings was kinda lost over time: the potential audience was much smaller, and there used to be more to learn: it was like a blank page that needed to be filled with content, thoughts, discussions. Now it’s a lot more about the allure of having the possibility to reach a wider public, hence most of what you find on the internet nowadays is self-centered, it’s basically promoting your own work.
On a side note, we want to go back to the street photography thing, as it’s the scene we’ve followed more closely over the years: plenty of time has been invested in trying to define everything, and to re-discuss the whole idea of it. Of course we didn’t succeed, and the matter suddenly became somewhat futile. As a result, many moved on, kept doing their own thing, but just gave up with the idea of naming it anyways.
Despite all the hype around street photography nowadays, to us it’s as dead as it’s never been. It’s a scene that has grown to the point of self-sufficiency, the audience is big enough now. As a consequence, no one feels the urge to establish a dialogue with the fine art and documentary community. It’s weird if you think that Garry Winogrand wasn’t keen on giving a name to what he was doing, and he wasn’t interested in secluding his projects in some niche. Instead, he indeed set that dialogue, and he was rewarded with some well-deserved recognition. Nowadays, most of what we see in the “official” SP scene is an endless list of contests, but you’d be hard pressed to find people who’s actually willing get out of their comfort zone in there.
Are you still attached to that idea of photography? HCSP and others provided a substantial contribution to it, but also kind of paved the way to a diaspora: some people stayed, some people left. What do you think about this whole -very weird- process?
Bryan - I’m not really attached to the idea of street photography because I don’t know what it really is, other than some vague idea about photographing people in public. In terms of my own process and approach, I definitely work out in the world, so walking and observing in public is important but I don’t go out with the intention of photographing people these days.
I have some theories as to why it appeals to so many photographers when they are starting out. Mostly it’s the lowest barrier to entry for some type of documentary photography, and I think many beginning photographers want to ascribe some type of social value to their photography, so capturing what’s going on in their cities feels like something valuable. I do find the ‘street photography’ brand ridiculous these days and representative of many of the bad trends I try to avoid on the internet and in photoland, as you somewhat stated above. There’s some photographers that fall into that genre whose work I appreciate but as a whole it’s not a genre I find that appealing. Naturally, one could go look at my work and easily say that it’s street photography, and that’s fair assessment! I make my photographs in public, and there are definitely candid photographs of people in my projects, but I feel that aspect of my work is behind me.
As I mentioned above, I rarely photograph people in public these days. If I do, it’s more incidental, and they probably aren’t aware. I find the aggressive, up close and personal style of street photography to be borderline unethical these days, especially from white male photographers.
Lastly, I tend to think street photography, more than most genres, is definitely more interesting a good decade or more after the photographs have been created. In many ways, I view that type of work through the prism of history, more so than I view it as ‘art photography.’ So, I think there’s value in it. In the future, through machine learning, AI’s will sort through the billions of photographs that have been made and organize them in new and exciting ways, making connections and insights that human curators can’t see. That will be exciting.
Genesee Ave. © Bryan Formhals
FDS - Yes, “incidental” is the word. We’re not attached to the “street photography” thing either, when it’s considered as a genre on its own. But, we’re very attached to that idea of endlessly wandering and shooting whatever catches your attention. That’s the whole point of it. And we definitely agree on your last point, about that kind of photography gaining value years later, and the possibilities which AI might offer in the future.
Doesn’t it sound like the opposite of what we currently see in fine art and contemporary photography? There seems to be a huge effort on trying to create something completely new at all costs, which in most cases will be forgotten in a minute or so. Don’t get us wrong, there’s plenty of interesting stuff out there, but there’s also a desperate need for attention and immediate visibility, which is probably easier to get when doing some conceptual work, as it is mostly centered on the “idea” and it doesn’t necessarily need to be a long term project. It’s like photographers get somehow asked to produce more, faster, and anytime some succeeds in coming up with something interesting, a new trend has been set and many will suddenly stop what they were doing to follow that instead. Doesn’t it look a bit ridiculous, too?
Bryan- Now you’re getting into the territory of criticism and theory, which are important for any artist to understand but not as important as cultivating your own ideas, and pushing yourself, as you stated. I think what most people find frustrating is the hype machine surrounding conceptual photography and art. It’s the work that gets the attention, and on the internet I think that drives some people crazy. I’ve learned to tune it out the last few years. One of the reasons I shut down LPV Magazine was because I didn’t want to be in the business of choosing which photographers or projects were important. That comes with a lot of responsibility and I didn’t feel I had the time or desire to do it the way it should be done.
There are a lot of artists doing all types of work and there always have been. Someone can become successful for various reasons and those reasons are not always based on merit. It’s an art ‘market’ in a capitalistic system. It’s not going to be fair or equitable. It’s going to be driven by profit. The business side of the art world doesn’t interest me all that much. I make my living in the corporate world so I spend a lot of time thinking about marketing and business. I can only take so much of it! So when I’m pursuing my work, I’m most interested in ideas, learning and simply being out in the world experiencing and making photographs. Being out in the world and walking is much bigger than art. It’s in my DNA. It’s philosophical and spiritual.
For me, that’s the base from where I start. These days, I do firmly believe you need some type of idea for a project before you start, at least I do. The last few years I’ve started with an idea of a place I specifically want to go to, and through editing I get more of a sense about what I’m trying to say through the photographs. I don’t know if it comes off in the work, but I feel much more confident in what I’m doing. I’ve done a few appropriation projects as well which are rooted in a concept or idea. So I feel going forward, the ideas need to come first. How you execute on those ideas is what makes the art. There are also a lot of photographers making good work through the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ method. That’s fine. All I care about is the final result, the book. As my friend James Luckett told me once in a forum, “It’s all conceptual!”
FDS - It is, indeed. We wrote an article recently, where we compared a bunch of books, all completely shot in London. You could see very different approaches in there, some leaning more towards the documentary end of the spectrum, and some were more like the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ method you mentioned before. But, what we were saying was that no matter the will of the photographer, all of them had their share of ‘chance’ and ‘intentions’. We’ve seen the very same elements in there, only they were balanced in a different way: in some there was a bit more of this, in others a bit more of that, but you could see traces of all of those basic elements nevertheless.
So, we’re adamant that you need an idea, regardless of whether it comes first or later, during the editing, but often it looks like the idea is everything, and the content, the photography, is ultimately scarce. It feels a bit unbalanced sometimes.
But again, you said it all already, and we’re now interested in hearing more about the process in your photography. You said you start with an idea of some sort, but how defined is that? Is it just a very vague canvas or do you go out knowing what to expect? Do you really need a camera to shoot, or is it also a matter of seeing things before, maybe on the way to your workplace, or while otherwise engaged, then go back later and finally take some pictures?
You said that being out in the world is in your DNA, and as a consequence we believe that you are describing a specific state of mind, something that accompanies you throughout the whole day. Concepts might sprout from that disposition too, so when we talk about our idea of photography, we’re referring to one where the ‘process’ has no definite beginning or end: ‘process’ might be related to a specific project, but also to being a photographer in its broader sense
Skyway © Bryan Formhals
Bryan - Each project has started from different impulses, and the way I view them changes over the years, especially as I edit and put together my book dummies. In fact, I don’t consider any of my projects to be complete yet! I haven’t officially published any books, only a few book dummies. I’m waiting to see how the book dummies hold up over time before I decide to pitch them at reviews or self-publish.
With my last two projects, I started with an idea of a place I wanted to go to and just started from there. Skyway takes place in Queens, where I decided to walk between the two main airports in NYC, La Guardia and JFK. I would go out, walk for three hours, then go back another week and start from where I left off. I did that for about a year and then decided to break up the routine and randomly visit the areas in between to fill out the project, so it evolved from there and the main hook for me was that you can’t catch a flight between the two airports but you can walk between them. I found that absurd, and fitting for a place like NYC. So, the project is that view of Queens, and for me as a transplant, and someone who hasn’t lived in Queens for more than few years, it represents how I feel about the borough from a pedestrian perspective.
The other project takes place in Long Island. I live in Queens as I said, and I had a desire to get out of the city and take a commuter train. Long Island always struck me as a strange part of the wider New York area so I wanted to take a look. I decided to shoot black and white, Delta 3200 basically because I liked the look of the film from when I shot it a few years earlier and was frustrated with color. It was a good choice. I feel much more comfortable shooting black and white for landscape work.
Genesee Ave is the one book dummy that I feel is complete. That project took place in Los Angeles, right at the end of the Bush era as Obama was making his run for the presidency. I felt my time was up in Los Angeles, so in many regards it’s a going away project, although it started as a desire to explore color, which is kind of dumb, but this was several years ago now! That project for me came alive in the editing process which took me about 4 or 5 years.
So, these projects are all biographical and revolve around my desire to observe different aspects of the geographical areas where I live. The thing with walking and making photographs is that you have a lot of time to think as well. Trying to articulate that part of the process gets complicated but the easiest way might to call it a ritualistic type of mediation. The ritual is fundamental which is something I hadn’t considered until the last few years.
Long Island © Bryan Formhals
FDS - You’ve founded a collective years ago, Strange.rs, and as some of us FDS were part of it since the beginning, we have some first hand information about it. The concept of “power through aggregation” was one of its main catalysts, which somehow made it a place to develop ideas and projects collectively, and not just to publish portfolios or personal projects. It was a very tricky thing to accomplish. Of course the group pulled it off several times, but still it’s not easy at all. If you look at the profusion of collectives you see nowadays, that particular matter looks more and more relevant. Any thoughts on this?
Bryan - Well, first I should clarify that I was a co-founder. It was a group of us at the beginning. I’d been in another collective previously that ended up not working out, so that’s one of the reasons I wanted to try again. It didn’t work out with Strange.rs as well for various reasons, mostly because I was skeptical a ‘democratic’ approach to a collective could be productive, and I also wanted to focus my energy on my own projects and LPV. There’s only so much energy you can put into projects, especially while trying to earn a living.
In general, my feeling about collectives is that they can be very beneficial for the right type of photographers. The sense of community and sharing resources can do wonders. But I’m also somewhat skeptical because most collectives don’t have clear objectives and when they are populated by amateurs, they tend to not be a priority. I think collectives need to be more ambitious and become larger publishing and media companies with a business as well as creative incentives. But most photographers that I’ve encountered don’t want to devote energy to publishing and business, they just want to make and share photographs. So perhaps collectives need to diversify and have members that are interested in writing, publishing, business development, etc. Again, that type of ambition requires financing and that’s really where the monumental challenges come in. Most amateur collectives simply do not have the will or desire to go down that path.
I think the collectives that exist right now are good, and productive, but I haven’t seen anything that’s really caught my eye in terms of innovation or ambition. I think it’s nice to have a collective platform for sharing projects, doing group shows, and most importantly sharing ideas and feedback, but as a consumer of content, I don’t really care where I see the project these days, it’ll most likely come from a link on social media anyway, there’s really no need to follow a collective closely.
FDS - You wrote a very interesting book with Stephen McLaren, “Photographers’ Sketchbooks”, which digs deep into many of the process-related matters. It’s a great source for inspiration, but did delving into many other photographers’ approaches affect your own way to work, too? And, on a side note, a few months ago we read this article by Blake Andrews, and it made us think a bit. You are well aware of how important it is to actually shoot, just like developing your own vision and refining a personal way of working, and of course Blake Andrews likes photobooks as we all do. But there might something true in what he says: it seems we’re sometimes getting overly obsessed with them, and it surely has to do with all this photobook frenzy we see nowadays.
We have some mixed feelings about it, the book is perhaps the most important achievement for a photographer, but on the other hand a book is a collection of pictures, which need to be shot and all. From what you wrote so far, we understand that you manage to keep a very solid balance between the time spent shooting, and all the other phases. We know it’s kinda hard to separate them anyway, and there’s no real need to do so, but still it feels like there’s a general urgency of publishing a book at all costs, because you just have to. Could it be that a good compromise would be just being ‘moderately’ obsessed with it, and trying to not rush things? We’re playing the Devil’s advocate here, of course.
Bryan - Working on that book was probably the single most important experience I’ve had in photography. It had an enormous impact on my own work and process, it was like an earthquake devastated my fragile thinking about photography. There are two very important takeaways from that book and experience: 1) every photographer and artist share the same fundamental struggles and challenges when it comes their process. It was like therapy to hear so many talented photographers echo many of the problems I’ve had back to me. 2) There are a wide variety of approaches to making photographs and photobooks. There is no one single path to that ultimate outcome, and none of those individual paths are more or less valid than any of the others. Each photographer needs to find a process that works for them and what they want to achieve.
There is certainly a photobook craze right now and it might be a bubble as well, but overall, I think it’s absolutely beneficial to have all of these photobooks because it provides marginalized voices an opportunity to get their work out there and seen without going through the traditional gatekeepers. This is vitally important because the photography community historically has been very male, and very white, at least in the west. We absolutely need more diverse voices, approaches and photobooks in the community. Any pushback against that diversity needs to be fought vigorously.
That’s sort of the broadview, but I think what you’re speaking to, as well as Blake in that article is more about the process. A lot of street photographers have been making this same lament for as long as I’ve been involved in the community. They basically complain that the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach is viewed as old, conservative and passe. I’m sure that’s probably true in the art schools and with the MFA crowd, but from my experience, it seems there are plenty of photographers still out there wandering around the world hunting for photographs. But really, who cares if it’s more of a marginalized approach? It’s been the predominant approach to photography for decades. Why not embrace the diversity of approaches that have emerged? The overall photography community is fairly small anyway, so much of this again seems to be about what type of work gets attention and is validated by tastemakers. Again, I think a photographer can use their energy more wisely than fighting that battle.
For me, I absolutely think it’s important not to rush the photobooks! It’s why I haven’t even published one as of yet. I want to wait and see if they hold up over time, or if my perspective on them changes. I’m also skeptical that the books I’ve created thus far contribute much to the wider dialogue so I’m not necessarily in a hurry to put the effort it takes into hustling a photobook and getting it in front of the right people. It’ll probably be ignored anyway.
I believe in photographs and I believe that it’s very difficult to make interesting photographs on a regular basis, so it takes time, patience and a lot of walking. The photographs are important, no doubt, but on the other hand, I try not to fethishize the individual photograph either because if I did then I’d probably end up with about seven photographs I consider ‘good’.
FDS - Well, yeah. It’s a futile struggle if it somehow interferes with the process of completing any piece of work, if it steals any energy that could have been used for better things. But still, once that that project is finished, some battling might be required, in a certain way: fighting for an idea of photography is just another way to promote your own work. Of course, just showing it should suffice, but also starting a discourse won’t do that much harm anyway. As a photographer, one should focus on doing his own thing, sure, and as you say there’s plenty of people which are simply doing that. But from our perspective as FDS, we definitely have to highlight a certain idea of photography, no matter what the current trends are. And, given the fact that we actually appreciate a lot of what we see in the fine art world right now, we want to contribute in somehow smoothing the transition from one world to the other. We feel like there’s not much dialogue between them. Actually, we don’t think they’re separate worlds at all, but you somewhat get that feeling anyway.
Apart from that, you raise a number of tough issues, especially the one about the photographers’ genders and colours. You’re the founder LPV, which indeed represented plenty of different voices and opinions, and contributed to that discourse too. We’ve known it since it was born, and we’ve seen it change a lot over the years. You’ve already hinted to this change at the beginning of this conversation, could you expand a bit on it, and maybe explain how it was born and why?
Bryan - LPV started as a Flickr group because I wanted to curate my own monthly shows. At the time I was an admin of HCSP but I was interested in different types of photography, so I figured I’d just start my own group. The monthly shows ran for a few years, and I had a blog as well. The blog and writing about photography is what first got people’s attention. The blogging community was relatively small at the time, so it didn’t take much to pop up on the radar of people active in it.
That was the beginning, from there I decided I wanted to learn about printing a magazine so that’s the next direction I took it, working with Wayne Bremser on seven issues. It was a hybrid web + print. Every issue was available online and for purchase through Magcloud. After 7 issues I got bored of the magazine format and decide to stop publishing. Photography magazines were popping up all over the place and I didn’t feel I was offering anything much different. Most of these magazines are the same in that they are essentially driven by the taste of the editors. For me, that’s too easy. Making it your mission to publish just new and exciting photography that you like is not all that ambitious. I think magazines need a topic or theme that they cover to be interesting.
By that time I’d started photographsonthebrain and had a built a sizable following on Tumblr, so I used that as my primary outlet to share photography that I found on the internet. I think that archive which is over 9 years now, is probably the most interesting web project I’ve done thus far. I’m sure once Tumblr goes belly up, the archive will be lost.
My next LPV project was the podcast. The first season was just me, a recorder and a photographer talking about their work. The production quality was terrible and it was too raw, but a good amount of people ended up listening to it. I like the podcast format because I like in person interviews and conversation. That’s always been my favorite way to discuss photography. I’m not sure how interesting it for a listener though. After the first season, I started working with Tom Starkweather, who helped me produce the show as well as handling all the audio, and photographing of the books. The production quality improved dramatically and we had more focus with the format, focusing on photography books. Each photographer would bring a few books from their collection to discuss. That’s my favorite way to experience photobooks these days. I like to see what a photographer will bring and why they find the work interesting.
We’re on hiatus right now and I’m not sure if the podcast will come back in its current format. There are a lot of challenges that go with producing 20+ episodes a year. But we’ll see, I’ve got the itch to keep going with the format.
I’m sort of at a crossroads with LPV. It’s always been a side project, but it’s also been how I’ve gained a reputation in the industry which has led me to where I am in my career. I think the next version of it would need to be financially viable, I’ve never been good at that aspect of it. I have some ideas though, so we’ll see. I’m pretty sure whatever version of LPV that comes next will be focused on more than photography. I feel I’ve made a leap intellectually and creatively that has taken me beyond photography.
As important as LPV is for me, it’ll always be secondary to going out for long walks and making photographs. I’m 40 now, and work a desk job, so I need to get out and be active whenever I can. Walking ties together many important aspects of my life and has many benefits beyond making photographs. I hope I can stay on this path for a few more decades, and who knows, with a few medical breakthroughs, perhaps I’ll be doing this until I’m 120! That gives me 80 years to make a few more decent photographs.
FDS - Oh well, that’s a great way to end this conversation, but we have one more question: how many do you think will have the courage to go all the way through this endless rant? Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, Bryan!