Street photographer Robert Herman has been taking pictures of New York City since the 1970s. His excellent book The New Yorkers is a vivid collection of his work from 1978 - 2005. In it he has captured the faces and places of the vanished city. I talked to Robert recently and asked him some questions.
all photos by Robert Herman
How would you say the city of today compares visually to the city you captured in your book?
The city I photographed in the early 80’s is almost gone. Back then, it was a city of small businesses and storefronts. Where I lived in Little Italy, the shop owners would invariably recognize you when you walked in. Soho today is mostly a mall made up of corporate stores. I miss the graffiti that made for compelling commentary when juxtaposed in a photograph. The city is safer today, and I like that, but it feels less quirky and less alive.
I like the signage of the small, old shops, the clutter, which is lacking in the chains' facades. What do you think is the visual difference between small, independent stores and big, corporate stores? And what is the feeling those visuals give you?
The difference between the corporate stores and the independents is that the look of the signage and displays are determined at a corporate level and done for multiple stores at the same time. The local store owner is creating the look for their storefront locally, and in reaction to the environment and neighborhood. All of this is obvious, but it is the independents that create the feeling of specificity of place: "only in New York."
When I hear "only in New York," I also think of the people--people looking interesting, doing interesting things that can't be seen elsewhere. Are the people of New York as inspiring as they used to be to your photographer's eye?
The big difference today is that so many people are looking at their phones on the street, which doesn’t make for a compelling photo. Also, everyone is much more aware of the power of imagery because of social media. It’s harder to make a candid picture these days. The iPhone is a good camera for that, because it doesn’t attract attention like a big DSLR. It doesn’t scream "camera!" I’m very excited about a new body of work I’ve been making with the iPhone over the past three years in New York and around the world.
Can you tell us about that work?
The iPhone photos began when I learned about the Hipstamatic app. I liked shooting in a square format and this was an opportunity to do that without using a medium format camera, as I had in the past.
I started using the iPhone/Hipstamatic when I was in Johannesburg about three years ago. I wasn't comfortable using a big DSLR when shooting on the streets. So, to ease myself into it, I made pictures with the iPhone and was pleased with the images I was getting. After that trip, I began shooting this way because sometimes changing the equipment sparks a new way of shooting. Presently, I'm having a book of these photos designed. It will be the follow up to The New Yorkers. A street photography book for the 21st century.
Street photography presents the same challenges regardless of the technology used to make a picture. Be it a Leica M or an iPhone or a Kodak Instamatic. That is, being observant and making strong pictures.
There's a Starbucks in one of them! What are your thoughts about having contemporary chains in your photos? Are they interesting in themselves as symbols of today's city?
Life goes on, change is inevitable. I like Starbucks' blonde. What can I say.