Jamie Fyson Howard, winner of dotART ‘Urban’ photo competition, 2012. A friendly conversation, on a Monday evening.
It was some time after college. I went to art college, I used to be a comic artist, I’d been into comics since I was eleven years old, I had some published. Then I went to college and studied under the Bauhaus education system, the German system. I was painting, had exhibitions, it was quite successful. But then … I just lost my purpose in painting, I wasn’t satisfied and I didn’t know why I was doing it anymore. So I started traveling. Probably looking for a purpose. I was in India for six months. Then went back to England for a while, and then in 1995 I went to Slovakia and the Czech Republic for four years. And then came up to Poland, and I split my time now between Poland and the UK.
Then four years ago I picked up a camera and I regret it wasn’t earlier, actually. I think I always had something in my head telling me: ‘pick up a camera, pick up a camera’, but it took a long time and it was only four or five years ago that I listened to it.
Then about the competitions … I was at a portfolio review recently and one of the reviewers told me, ‘These are the kind of photographs that win competitions’. ‘Ok … I took the advice’, and I started entering – and it was very nice. It gives you some kind of justification about what you are doing beyond your own head. An answer to the question: ‘Am I actually doing something of value?’. But if other people think the same, if they like the pictures and you win competitions, then it’s very nice.
I am not sure I have an answer, or a good answer.
It’s a conversation between us so you can just answer the way you feel. So … why do you think they gave you this advice, that your kind of pictures can win competitions, beat maybe around two thousand others?
In your opinion anyway!
Good question. I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier, that photography is not a poor sister of art. I used to paint, I have a lot of friends who paint; and we often talk about the rules of composition, the role of colour. And for me it’s just the same rules: the camera is just a medium. So I think that if you had a good focus and studied art … I mean, you don’t have to study art to be a good photographer. But studying art you understand more the language of art, composition for example is a language. If you know that, if you’ve been doing it many years, then it becomes kind of an instinct, I think.
I was building a reputation as a painter. Without wanting to boast about it – that’s not at all my intention – I think I was quite good at it. And it carried over into my photography. So … if you ask, ‘why your pictures among others’, I don’t know, you’d have to ask the judges. But if you ask, ‘why these kinds of pictures’, I think it’s a matter of language, some pictures ‘speak’.
I can’t answer more than that.
I think I understand. ‘The picture speaks’; ‘the picture burns’.
Like any language. If you know the grammar, if you know composition, then your work might be good. Of course, that in itself doesn’t make for a good picture, that’s an instinct and something you have to feel, it can’t be just something coming out of rules – but if you know the rules, you’ve got a good basis.
So did you start with digital camera directly, or did you have some experience with film camera too?
When I was at college, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I did a little bit of analog photography, but I didn’t actually develop that. Like I said it was four or five years ago that I picked up the camera after a long break. And it was digital, yes.
Canon 50D. I used to use a Panasonic, Lumix LX5. But the Polish winter is so dark, in the daytime, that the camera couldn’t handle it. So I just started carrying around the huge 50D. Which is ok, with a Tamron 17-50. Something else that’s better about the DSLR over the Lumix is the viewfinder. I had an EVF on the Lumix, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t very good. It’s much better, much easier to “feel” through the viewfinder of the 50D. Apart from that, I’m not really interested in which camera or which lens, just as long as it does the job.
A lot of street photographers use the fixed lens, 35 or 50mm. But I’m scared I can’t get close enough with that lens. I will try it one day, but I know that I’d have missed a lot of pictures with the fixed lens, being too far, so for now it still scares me. I like the wide angle, too. You know Josef Koudelka’s, pictures of the Gypsies. So many stories in one picture.
I prefer colour, because of my background as a painter I think. I see color as an essential part of the composition. I mean, I think black and white photos are great; if you are good at photographers doing black and white, it’s the cream of the cream, for example William Klein or again Koudelka – the work he was doing, the picture of the Gypsies. They were thinking in black and white. But for me … when I see something, I don’t look at what the picture will be. Unless I am doing some commercial work, which is different. I don’t try to think: ‘Ok. What’s the nice angle? How can I make this subject most interesting or looking interesting?’
When it comes to the fact they’re actually quite dark colours, I guess that it’s something about me. I prefer muted colours. In some senses I feel that I’m taking black and white photos but in colour, if that makes sense. It really depends on the picture, but I honestly do not have an answer about why my colors would be darker than those of other people. Just a personal choice. Something about my personality.
So instinct is more important than rules?
Yes. In a commercial work you have a client and it’s different. But then as we said, if you have the rules somewhere in your mind they will help you and you’ll do better. Are you a photographer yourself?
Yes, a learner and non-professional, I only started two years ago. I’m more a writer, and a non-traditional journalist, but let’s say I try to be a photographer too. And I like it very much, it’s a strong passion. I hope I will continue for a long time.
Is photography an art?
Yes. Absolutely. If I look back to when I was painting, I am not sure about what I was doing or why but coming to the question: yes. It speaks the same language of painting but in a different way.
What do you think about Photoshop, post-production and correction?
I think it depends on the picture. Some is necessary with digital I think, sometimes you need to do that to pick up the differences between lights and shades, the tonal range, but generally I’m not a fan of large amounts of post-production. I don’t touch my pictures up in any detail. Generally I work with levels, colour and clarity, but I don’t generally agree, speaking for myself, in doing anything more than that. And I don’t like pictures by people when they work too much on that. Too much post-production takes you far from an idea of truth, whatever ‘truth’ is in photography. But I think that if you start going away from the feeling of what was true in the picture when you photographed it, then you are going into fantasy. And fantasy is ok, but I am not interested in looking at it or making it.
You mentioned: truth. What is your idea of truth, in photography? Just personal.
I guess I’d say: it’s a feeling in the picture. It’s a good question. I think the picture, each picture has its own kind of truth. When you look at great pictures, each picture has its own sense of authority. The photographer, the author, he or she is not actually there in the picture, but the photograph speaks for itself. And I think that when you’re working on a picture, at least when I’m working on it, I need to listen to what the picture wants to be.
Instinct. Purely instinct. Sometimes when I haven’t taken a good photograph for a couple of weeks, it depresses me, but then I realise that I’m still thinking of a good picture I took before and that I’m trying to do something similar, which is wrong. You shouldn’t try to imitate yourself. Because if you do, nothing good is going to happen. When you see something good, you know it: and that’s it. Forget all the good photographs you’ve ever taken, all the photographs you’ve seen but at the same time keeping them in the back of your mind as composition, as experience – but try to be as fresh as possible.
A good photograph can be anywhere, anything. Really it doesn’t matter what. What about you? What’s your kind of photograph?
I have to say that I agree with you in your vision. I like to go around following instinct too; without thinking about rules. I think that rules help you very much anyway; it’s good to study and know it, knowledge allows you to express easily your feelings. But then, I just said: feelings. As you said: instinct. And rules can’t help you there.
Like playing an instrument. Like Jazz.
Is imitation good?
To imitate yourself or to imitate other people? Imitate yourself, you shouldn’t do it. Imitate other people … I think you can learn from them. But … do you follow Street photography on the Internet – what’s happening in street photography? There’s lot of people out there who just make imitations. That doesn’t lead anywhere. Though it could be a good influence, to see what you can take from someone else. What are your influences?
Well, now while talking to each other I think I recognise myself in what you say, probably I imitate too. And I do not think I have anything original … yet, at least, in my street photography. So, you are right … but then, in your opinion, what can be the answer? What shall we look at? Is street and urban photography maybe ending, as a cultural artistic current – ending because we do not have anything new to tell, anything else to show apart imitation?
Oh, that’s another very interesting question, let me think about that … is street photography ending? Maybe we repeat ourselves and we do not have anything else to say; oh, it’s difficult to say, but I don’t think so. We will be always doing something new. Do you know Alex Webb? Between the Seventies and Eighties he said that he got depressed because he was just doing the same things that had been done before by other people. But suddenly he broke through that and started doing something completely new. His images are great, powerful … and now he’s one of the most imitated photographers out there.
What do you think, is street photography somehow coming to an end?
And now everybody has a good camera with him or her, good cameras on mobile phones and everywhere. I think something will have to change, otherwise street photography will become a … continuous image, maybe private made constantly public, we see it on the social networks, on Facebook, twentyfourhours all around the world and you have a picture of every moment of everyone’s life. Is there any room left for street photography then? Yes, maybe … but it’s very difficult to actually say something with a photograph.
I think again it’s an instinct, to take a good photograph. I think recognising a good photograph as well from among thousands is also an instinct. Most of the stuff on Flickr, on Facebook – it is completely forgettable. But I think a good photograph will stand out.
I think that street photography is changing, like you said, due to the iPhone and iPad, smaller cameras and all of that. It doesn’t matter. Good images will always stand out and mean something to people. I’m most interested in taking a good image.
Is it something that worries you, this change?
No, I feel that change is always positive, change means going on towards something new, bringing the value of old things and things that you have with you. Now listening to what I say, it seems … very big, but, well, that’s how I feel. Maybe, a change in street photography too is positive.
It sounds like a cliché but I’d say: follow your heart. Don’t imitate, as I said before, because if you take a fantastic photograph that’s so heavily influence by Martin Parr, well you’ve … made a Martin Parr. What’s the point of that?
Look. Because everything comes from looking; thinking comes from looking. Don’t just press the shutter in the vague hope it’ll be a good picture. Can I ask you a question?
You asked me if I edit my images, and how much do I edit. And I said: well, I don’t like to edit too much because it becomes fantasy. And you agreed with me. But then, you told me you’re a writer and you write fantasy and science fiction. And at the same time you’re a photographer. Do you see a conflict between your photography and your stories?
Oh that’s a good question too. I’ve never thought about it. When I take photographs and I work on them, I don’t edit very much either. I don’t make changes. While when I’m writing I am inventing everything, maybe.
They’re entirely different, for me, I think – I mean, photography and writing. Why does this happen? I don’t know. Yet. Maybe because when I write I want to build the best possible context to tell my feelings and describe characters, while with photography I try to feel and tell the whole story through the picture in a single moment – which is very difficult. Without editing it. Looking for the story in a moment, trying to capture it and tell it to others through the picture.
So to what extent do you edit?
Colour temperature, and some saturation and contrast only. I do not normally touch anything else, unless it’s on purpose (to ‘create’ something). Maybe lately I’ve been trying to experiment more, exaggerating colours or desaturating and so on. To learn how. Normally I don’t compose pictures; but I’ve been working recently with a photographer friend who likes to compose everything as on a theatre stage – he likes to build. That’s not my kind of photography. I was skeptical at the beginning but I have to say that I enjoyed working with him very much, anyway – even creating things as in a fantasy story, was nice, funny. Different, and near to writing fantasy stories.
Yes. I can see that.
But I prefer to be spontaneous.
One thing that I like about street photography is that in a good picture people arrange themselves. They make the perfect composition that your imagination could never create. That’s how I feel about it. If you’re fast enough, you can capture that.
Professional or my personal development? I’ll start with the personal, with development as a photographer: I think that the most important thing for me is looking at things in a fresh way. Like I said, forget about the last good photograph, it’ll stop you seeing clearly. Apart from that, you can also play around with things like close ups, background, middleground, foreground a view from very far away, maybe with people very small in the background but still telling something through the picture.
Beyond that – I’m not really concerned with technical aspects, I’m not really interested in theory, it doesn’t really interest me. I find it a little of a barrier, actually, to take photographs. It’s like putting the cart before the horse. What about you?
I’ve been interested in theory and still study it, I believe it’s useful and gives you more instruments. Yet I am a bit scared of it, because I’ve seen photographers, especially still life photographers, going into it too much, and I fear that theory can block you, stop you from thinking too much about light and composition. Losing the idea.
It’s what Cartier-Bresson called the ‘post mortem’. Composition must be a constant preoccupation but at the moment of shooting, it’s only out of intuition.
So that was about personal. Professional?
To pay the bills, I teach and translate and photography is the rest. I’d like photography to be my main profession, so hopefully winning competitions like this will help me get to that stage.
One more question for you. Looking at yourself: who is Jamie, in our world of photography?
Oh. Roberto, I can’t really answer that question.
Just answer with a feeling.
I’ll just start talking then and maybe something will come. I’m not really interested in that. What concerns me is to really take pictures. What I am or will be in the world of photography, I have no idea. It doesn’t concern me. Does that answer your question?
Great!August 10th, 2012. Roberto Srelz (Jamie revised the English version) http://jamiefysonhoward.tumblr.com/info http://www.flickr.com/photos/21510395@N03/