In my interview with the late Dennis Hopper, he described his love affair with photography as an obsession. “I’m a compulsive shooter.”

I think the same thing can be said about the New York street photographer Matt Bialer (who is also a recognized watercolorist and published poet).

KS:
It’s easy to understand the history of black and white photography. That’s how photography began-it was a technical limitation. It wasn’t an aesthetic choice at one stage, because the capability for color just wasn’t there. I know that within photography circles, this is a point that has been discussed and analyzed ad nauseam-but for the benefit of people who haven’t been exposed to these debates, could you sum up the “philosophy” of black and white photography? Why do photographers choose this as a medium?

MB:
Well, I think as you point out, black and white photography was the only choice at the time. And then people like Steiglitz came along and further legitimized photography as a fine art. He had the credibility to make such an assertion because he was a very respected and forward thinking art dealer and he also happened to produce photographs that were “the goods.” I think that his influence was enormous and far-reaching. For instance, Edward Steichen became the first Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was Steiglitz’s friend and the two shared many of the same views. And then Steichen’s legacy continued in his successor. It was a small world (fine art photography) and it was new and there were few players. In a sense, it was easier to differentiate photography from painting because it was indeed in black and white. It was easier for photographers to have these other kinds of concerns such as lights and darks, and tones. And the whole weight of Western Art wasn’t as directly on their shoulders. And, of course, photography came from machines and here was a new art that was the child of the industrial age. The silver gelatin print was a triumph of technology. But I also think it took a long time for photography to become accepted as an art form by the public, dealers and institutions. And maybe the freedom wasn’t quite there yet to take more risks and compete more head on with painting. Now, it’s a very different world. I remember that someone once said that the song “Eleanor Rigby” was defined as Rock because the Beatles did it. Rock music was still new and trying to define itself. I think that photography took a long time to get its sea legs so to speak. There were street photographers who took color in the 1950’s (Saul Leiter, Ernst Haas and others) but the interest wasn’t the same as in the black and white work. Color work was still looked at suspiciously and photographers like Walker Evans basically denounced it (though I think Evans later changed his view). It wasn’t really until the 1970’s that color work started to rear its head. There were photographers like William Eggelston, Stephen Shore, William Christenberry (a disciple of Evans). There was an uproar when Eggelston was given a one-man show at MOMA in New York in the mid-seventies. The work was in color and some of the photographs were images of the photographer’s bathtub or the interior of his stove. Now, the world is completely different. Everything is so fragmented. Music fans can find their own blogs to stay in the bubble of the music they like. The same goes for the other arts. I guess the downside it that it will be harder for there to ever be a consensus on who is GREAT right now. But the upside is that there’s much more of an “anything goes” atmosphere and, if you don’t like what you see, you can start a blog and talk about and show what’s important to you. The choices are infinite.

KS:
Obviously, one thing that appeals to you about street scenes is their dynamism. Blink and the scene is lost-or changes. You talk about the act of shooting in terms of jazz-with both that sense of metropolitan buzz of the environment and the improvisational aspect within you the artist. Yet, many of your photos, and it seems to me, the ones that most decisively display what I’d call your underlying signature have a remarkable level of composition. You incorporate words or fragments of advertising text. There’s a rich, multilayered use of reflections and shadows. There’s a lot more going on than the freezing in time of people on a sidewalk. So, I guess my question goes to two things. One, how impressionistic do you think what you’re doing is? How much of what we end up seeing is “created” either in the sense of being willed upon the scene or revealed by your inner vision?

Secondly-and this is a point I think artists working in any medium can relate to…how do you balance the appreciation of composition-the recognition of a deliberate process and a working toward an expected end, with the spontaneity and improvisational responsiveness required to get to an interesting result?

MB:
Sometimes, I get an interesting picture that I don’t even remember taking. Or, there’s a shot that I took that I think will be the greatest picture ever taken. And it ends up looking like crap. What was I thinking? Technical problems abound. The picture comes out too blurry. I loaded the wrong film. Someone’s obtrusive butt got in the way of what initially caught my eye, and there are always bad, distracting backdrops. I’m constantly willing my “inner vision” on what I see. And a good, interesting picture will depend upon my reflexes and no technical failures (blur, film in camera, not enough light). I think that what interests me visually is a combination of what is going on inside of me, what I’m feeling and something that I see that piques my interest, the definite outside catalyst. I often see something, examine the potential but don’t hit the shutter because I don’t see a way to get an angle, or the “moment” is gone, or there was no moment to begin with. It’s all speed, speed, speed. That’s the jazz connection for me because I feel like I’m playing off of something going on or at least trying to! I think that beginning street photographers often don’t consider the backdrop, the light, who else is coming down the street that might “raise the bar” of the picture in terms of making it more complex and interesting. But one learns this from experience and trial and error. Just because you see an interesting looking person, doesn’t mean that you have an interesting picture.

KS:
You’ve both studied and written poetry-and are back publishing again in some quality places like Green Mountains Review and Retort Magazine. How has this affected your photography?

MB:
Well, having a background in poetry and being a literary agent have definitely influenced my photography. I think with poetry I took some of the elements that make a poem work and applied them to photographs. As a book agent, I’m constantly around writers and helping them figure out what works and doesn’t work. I’m helping writers shape or compose their books. This has an effect. I love being around creative people. I feed on it. It’s also how I make my living.

I’m also a diehard music fan. All kinds. Jazz. Rock. Classical. I like to make a connection between jazz and street photography because they’re not too far apart in age, there’s a short but great tradition, and there’s something about black and white and rhythms that connect them. There’s also improvising on the spot and immediately reacting to what comes your way.

For the past eight years or so, I’ve also been doing watercolor landscape painting. This comes out of the fact that my family spends a lot of time in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. It’s a very beautiful and special place. There are lots of trees and soothing hills. And a lot of high culture. I felt a need to “respond” to this incredible beauty but I didn’t want to photograph it. I mean I do photograph it but I use the pictures as inspirations for paintings. And-yes-the urban black and white street photography and the landscape painting do have some connections. There’s spontaneity. I learned a lot about composition as a photographer and so I think that this came more naturally to me as a painter. Painting is more relaxing to me because I don’t have to worry about a tree beating the crap out of me. And I think that some of what I picked up from painting has applied to my photography. I actually have more painter friends so I pick up on their concerns about composition and color and tone. And now I do color street photography when I go on trips. And I think my color work has a vibe that’s in some of the painting.

KS:
Your photographs all involve people you don’t know, moments of interaction in passing along city streets-sometimes obviously dramatic, others more incidental-the drama in these being more subtle (and often, to me, more engaging as a result).

But across all the imagery I’ve seen, I take away a sense of care for your subjects. I get the feeling that there’s more at work than a vicarious “use” of them-as subjects. Has photographing strangers made you feel more connected to people?

MB:
I think that being a father has made me feel more connected to people. I just know many more people through being a dad and-more important-I want the world to be a better place for my daughter Isabel. And I think that if one compares my earlier photographs to what I do now, I think that they would find more caring for people and a depth in the work. Maybe? I somehow think that this has partially to do with being a father. And it has to do with some life and death issues that have come up in my life. Out on the street, there are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters all around me. And I hope that my passion and commitment to something possibly greater than ourselves inspires and sets an example for my daughter.

KS:
Out of all the pictures you shoot, how many do you end up deeming appropriate to present as finished images?

MB:
Yes, it’s all about that tension. It’s the right balance of both. It can’t be just spontaneous because it won’t come out right. I’ve to quickly capitalize and “compose” fast. Very few end up as finished images. Pitifully few. Part of this is because my standards are higher. Or I go through slumps (similar to baseball hitting slumps, I think). Or I feel that I’ve taken that picture before. It’s never easy and it doesn’t get any easier. I constantly have to push myself or I feel that the work will decline. There’s never any coasting. Doing street photography for many years (for me it’s been 22 years) is a very difficult endeavor. I naively thought it would be easy. At first, there’s the novelty and there’s still that, but it gets harder to keep things fresh, especially if you photograph mostly in the same city. I’m in awe of what great street photography is and I’ve nothing but humility and respect. I try not to rest on my laurels.

KS:
Who is the one photographer who has influenced you most?

MB:
Garry Winogrand. I’m not sure if he influenced me the most but he certainly shook my world more than any other photographer. You and I were recently talking about Philip K. Dick and how forward thinking he was. You said that he had a profound understanding of California culture and could extrapolate into our current time. Though Winogrand did spend a lot of time in California (and Texas), he’s primarily known for his work on the streets of New York. He and Dick roughly lived around the same time and died within two years of each other. I don’t want to press the similarities too much but they were both extremely interested in alienation and even paranoia (perhaps lesser so in Winogrand). Both had an intensity to their work and a very unflinching vision. They were both so forward thinking and their best work still holds up and feels contemporary decades later. Obviously, some of the same forces were at work on them: the Vietnam War, Assassinations, the Cold War, the Summer of Love. Winogrand reacted to the world in a harsh and satiric manner. There’s so much that I can say about his best work, the sense of composition, the imbalances, the energy, the cruelty. For instance, he would use animals that were not native to New York as illustrations of what New York was really like. The very notion of a monkey in the back of a convertible, snarling at the camera, says it all about what the city had become in Winogrand’s eyes. I love how he photographed the “suits” walking around the city. I was a suit in midtown for 14 years myself and have a similar obsession with photographing the Plight of the Suit. There’s ultimately something so sad, fleeting, fragile beneath this tough Winogrand exterior. His work is so complex. But he captured something about the urban experience that still excites me to this day. He’s a very important artist to me. When Winogrand was dying of gall bladder cancer, he had to fill out a questionnaire at a clinic. He said that he always thought of himself as “some sort of unkillable weed.” And he also said that he had a feeling of “hopelessness and helplessness about the world.” Phil Dick couldn’t have said it better.

Matt Bialer is a literary agent with Sanford J. Greenburger Associates and has worked in the industry for more than twenty years. Originally from Teaneck, New Jersey, he lives in Park Slope in Brooklyn with his wife and young daughter.

For more information about his art work, check out www.mattbialer.com.

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KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is a writer, painter and musical producer. He is the author of the international cult novels Zanesville and Private Midnight. Random House is bringing out his third novel in the USA in March 2011, and a new book called Reverend America has just been completed and is already being sold in Europe. A Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, he has won First Prize in the Boston Review and River Styx Short Fiction Contests, and received the Fiction Collective 2 Award for Innovative Writing, in addition to publishing in a wide range of places such as Playboy, Nerve.com, Opium Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner and ZYZZYVA, amongst many others. You can find more about him on his Facebook Page.

11 responses to “Compulsive Shooter”

  1. Fascinating and insightful Q&A. Searing shots, too.

  2. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Thanks JSB.

  3. Paula says:

    Matt Bialer is a contemporary Renaissance man. Seriously, is there anything this guy can’t do? I’m afraid he’s making the rest of us look bad.

  4. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Yes, and apparently he has several hundred rolls of new shots.

  5. Avo says:

    The people in these pictures seem so involved in what they’re doing, yet their actions seem antlike in the vast, concrete world they inhabit. I feel for them, yet I could squash them.

  6. Kris Saknussemm says:

    I think that’s the poignancy of street photography–we empathize but also want to be seen as more ourselves. To be above the crush. To not just be another face in the street.

  7. Matthew Revert says:

    Great, Kris! Matt sounds like a fantastic guy. Those photographs bite right into me.

  8. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Thanks Matthew. I’m always excited by these photos. There’s a real sense of storytelling to them.

  9. tikulicious says:

    This opened a new window for me. Excellent photographs and so much to learn K . Thanks for sharing this. I will check out the website also. Street photography offers us stories written on faces of the passerby , places transform into magical, mysteries. B&W photography has a charm , something hidden and yet so evident. I loved the interview.

    Awesome.

  10. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Thanks T. Glad you enjoyed. One of my favorite artists.

  11. Richard Cox says:

    I’m sorry I missed this before. Matt is a great artist. He’s also my literary agent.

    Nice inteview, gentlemen.

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