Craig Semetko: Inside INDIA UNPOSED

Craig Semetko is an American photographer based in Los Angeles. Born and raised near Detroit, Michigan, Craig is a graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. His first book “UNPOSED” was released in 2010 with a foreword by Magnum Photographer Elliott Erwitt. Craig’s work from India is part of the 10 x 10 exhibition that premiered at the Leica Gallery Wetzlar during the new Leitz-Park grand opening. The images have also been compiled in a new book, “INDIA UNPOSED,” that was released in April 2014.

Craig has previously appeared on the Leica Camera blog and will be participating in a live Twitter chat on August 30, which you can learn more about here.

Q: You were last featured on the blog in October 2012 for your project on America. What have you been up to since then?

A: I had a large exhibition of the America work at the Open Shutter Gallery in Durango, Colorado, in 2013, and I showed some of the work in my “UNPOSED and UNSEEN” exhibition at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles in April 2014. The shows were successful, but after revisiting the America work for a book edit I realized I was not finished with the project, and have resumed shooting. Along with photographing, I’ve also been doing a number of speaking engagements and workshops. I was one of the speakers at the opening weekend of the Leica Store Los Angeles and Leica Camera approached me there about being a part of the “10 x 10” exhibition at the grand opening of the new Leitz Park complex in Wetzlar, Germany. That happened in May and it was a fantastic event. Currently, my “INDIA UNPOSED” exhibition is running at the Leica Galerie in Frankfurt.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your travels in India? Where did you go? When did you go? What made you decide to go to India of all places?

A: I decided to go to India for a number of reasons: I had just spent over a year and a half driving around the United States and wanted to experience something radically different, I had always wanted to go to India and had never been, and my sister was in India on a Fulbright Scholarship with my young nieces and I wanted to experience the country with them. Mumbai was my home base, and I traveled to Delhi, Chennai, Goa, Jaipur, Varanasi, Kolkata and the world’s largest camel fair in Pushkar. I was in India from September 2013 through most of November.

Q: A friend whose family is from India once told me, “If you ever wanted to visit another planet, you should go to India.” Did you find that to be true? What was your experience like, both photographically and personally?

A: Your friend knows of what she speaks. India is unlike any country I’ve visited. The colors, the sights, the sounds, the tastes, the smells — it’s easy for a newcomer to suffer from sensory overload. Visually, it is a photographer’s dream. I was inspired every time I walked out the door. I wanted to see something different than the US, and believe me, I did. Personally it was a new experience for me to spend so much time in a strange land and be able to come home to members of my immediate family. That was a big help for the three months I was there.

Working in the streets of India can be challenging … the heat, the constant honking of car horns, and yes the occasional stomach issue can make shooting conditions less than ideal. But the rewards were so great that I was able to put those challenges aside.

Q: I would imagine that your experience traveling around the United States differed drastically from your travels around India, but what is one big difference that stands out to you? And how, if at all, were the experiences similar?

A: The biggest difference was the reaction of people being photographed. In the United States you tend to get the full gamut of reactions, with more leaning toward suspicion. People want to know why you’re taking their picture, what you’re going to do with it and who you work for. India, on the other hand, is the most open country to photography that I have ever encountered. It was impossible to shoot surreptitiously — I stood out like the sore thumb and kids would run up to me constantly and ask to have their pictures taken. And not necessarily for money or even to see the image on the back of the camera. They just wanted the experience of having their pictures taken and then they’d run off. Contrast that with a kid I once shot on the street in LA who could not have been more than nine. I took a picture, and he stuck his hand out and said, “Five bucks.” I told him to have his people call my people.

Generally speaking, people are the same wherever you go — most are great, some are jerks, and all have interesting idiosyncrasies, vulnerabilities and insecurities.

Q: You published your first book, “UNPOSED” in 2010 and your new book, “INDIA UNPOSED” was published earlier this year. How has the process of creating the second book differed from the first?

A: The processes were very different. UNPOSED was published by teNeues, an international company based in Germany, and INDIA UNPOSED is published by Street View Press, an entity I established. teNeues has been doing this for a very long time, and the team they assembled created a fine book in UNPOSED. With INDIA UNPOSED I was fortunate enough to partner with an established printing team as well, but I obviously had much more responsibility in the publishing process. I can say with certainty both books are of very high quality, which for me is the ultimate goal.

Q: India is known for being a land of many, vibrant colors but all of the images in the book were either taken or output in black-and-white though some of the images you took in India, such as “The Girl & The Goats” were in color. What made you decide to focus on black-and-white images in the book?

A: The decision to shoot black-and-white was made when I was paired with Elliott Erwitt for the 10 x 10 exhibition. The concept was to pair each of the chosen 10 photographers with their respective artistic “fathers.” Leica put Elliott and I together because we both shoot in the street, we are known more or less for the sense of humor in our images, and we both shoot (primarily) in black-and-white. So while I was free to shoot the project wherever and of whatever I wanted, I was asked to keep those three things in mind.

Q: In the past you’ve shot with a Leica MP and Leica M9, but you used the new Leica M and Monochrom in India. Besides the obvious constraint of shooting only in black-and-white with the Monochrom, what were some of the differences and/or improvements you found in shooting with the new M and Monochrom?

A: I will always love my MP — I learned photography on Leica M film cameras and the slightly smaller body width still feels perfect in my hands — but I am now using M240s and a Monochrom for almost all of my work. The advantages of digital have been talked about ad nauseam — the convenience, the instant feedback, clients demand it, etc. While the M9 is a great camera — I shot the entire first year and a half of the America project with it and the image quality was terrific — the M240 is a superior camera all around. With the higher ISO, quieter shutter, better LCD, buffering issues eliminated — I greatly prefer it to the M9. And the main draw with the Monochrom is the high ISO ability and its unique image rendering. It has its own singular visual stamp. One of my favorite images from India is of the boys rowing the boat at night — the Monochrom’s high ISO capability let me use a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action and still have excellent image quality. The photograph looks like a still from a movie.

© Craig Semetko

Q: You own, or have owned, quite a number of different Leica lenses, but use the 35 mm and 50 mm Summilux as your travel lenses. What is it about these lenses and focal lengths that you find conducive to travel photography?

A: I would expand that definition to say they are wonderful focal lengths for candid or street photography, and many other types of photography as well. Cartier-Bresson was a proponent of using one camera and one lens — the vast majority of his images were shot with a 50 mm lens. I started, as you mentioned, with a number of different lenses and as I progress as a photographer I find that limiting my options is ironically liberating. It’s difficult to articulate, but in general, I prefer a 50 when I want a rigorous, painterly composition from a distance and a 35 mm when I want to be closer and a part of the action. It’s the difference between shooting dancers from twenty feet off the dance floor to shooting on the dance floor with them. Right now both lenses seem indispensable to my work, but as I evolve it’s entirely possible I’ll end up just shooting with one.

Q: During your workshops you often refer to the acronym D.I.E., which stands for design, information and emotion, to help photographers evaluate the success of an image. How did you apply this philosophy to your photographic adventures in India and how often were you able to capture all three elements in a single image?

A: I try to apply that philosophy to all my photographs, without thinking while I’m doing it. It’s easy to make a photo that has one of those elements, much harder to get two, and if you get all three you know you have a winner. Having said that, I think I got a few shots in India with all three elements. The “Ask Yourself Who Am I” dog and the boys rowing at night come to mind.

Q: Elliott Erwitt wrote the forward to your book, “UNPOSED” and as you pointed out he was also dubbed your “artistic father” for the Leica 10 x 10 exhibition. You’ve cited Elliott as an influence in your work, but now that you’ve come to know him personally are there any new lessons he’s taught you about photography, or life for that matter?

A: We did a book signing together at ICP in NYC and he advised me, “Sign all the books … that way they can’t return them.”

Q: As you alluded to earlier, an on-going theme in much of your work and the work of your artistic father, Elliott Erwitt, has been humor. You were asked to shoot this project with him in mind. But many of the images in this series, though captivating, don’t necessarily convey humor. Is this more a result of the location or of your artistic vision? What about these images would you say are Erwitt-esque (for lack of a better term)?

A: At the 10 x 10 opening in Wetzlar, Elliott and I were interviewed on camera. The reporter asked Elliott what it felt like to have me as a son. He responded, “He must be one of the ones I didn’t know about.”

What was your question again?

Q: Many of your pictures from India are more dramatic…

A: Oh yes. Well, what people don’t realize is that Elliott is so much more than just a “funny” photographer. He shoots life, and life contains drama, sadness, injustice … the whole spectrum of human experience including humor. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of his image of the black man drinking from the “colored” drinking fountain that’s next to the “white” drinking fountain. Or the image from The Family of Man of his wife laying on their bed with their new born baby. These photographs are not funny — but they are great, and that is the mark of an Erwitt photograph.

Ironically, people with a great sense of humor tend to also be very serious. As an artist, I’m more and more comfortable showing that side of my vision. Elliott has said the main thing he tries to convey in his photographs is emotion — he did not specify funny or sad or frightened, but emotion of any sort. In that sense I think my India photos can be considered “Erwitt-esque,” and I hope some of them rise to the level of “Erwitt-esque” quality. Having said that there are many funny images in my India work, and lots of dogs too. “Dad” would’ve insisted.

Q: The image you have named “Krishna’s Butterball” is a very simple but compelling composition. Can you tell us how you came to take this photo and what you were trying to convey or what captured your eye in this scene?

A: I saw the scene, thought it was funny as well as graphic, and pushed the shutter. I think we can all relate to napping under a giant boulder balanced precariously over our head, can’t we?

Q: Where in the world are you off to next?

A: This weekend I am heading to the Art Masters Festival in St. Moritz, Switzerland to teach a two-day Masters Workshop for the Leica Akademie. The workshop is August 28-29. The theme of the festival is India, and there will be an exhibition of my work there at the Kempinski Grand Hotel. Then I’ll be at the Leica Gallery Frankfurt to teach two more workshops September 5-6 and September 26-27. I’ll also be doing a book signing and two-day workshop at the Leica Gallery Mayfair September 12-13. And I’ll be shooting Fashion Week in Milan. When I get back to the States, I’ll be speaking at the Leica Historical Society’s annual meeting in Dearborn, Michigan. I’ll be doing a book signing, exhibition and workshop at the Leica Store Miami, and a book signing and exhibition of the India work at the Open Shutter Gallery in Durango, Colorado.

Thank you for your time, Craig!

– Leica Internet Team

You can purchase “India UNPOSED” at indiaunposed.com and see more of Craig’s work on his website. Connect with him on TwitterInstagram and on Facebook. Email the Leica Galleries in Frankfurt (leica@leicagelleyfrankfurt.de) and London (welcome@lecia-storemayfair.co.uk) to register for upcoming workshops. 

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4 comments

  • Great interview! Craig and Elliott both inspire me on a regular basis. Photographers who can consistently elicit strong visual and emotional responses are few and far between. Add to that the gift of a natural eye for composition, humor, and a love for humanity, and you have Craig Semetko and Elliott Erwitt. Their work will outlive them and change the lives of people yet to be born.

  • Craig has been a big influence on my own work. I have been fortunate to have taken a couple of workshops with him & its great to see his work advancing along side of the masters. Keep rocking buddy!

  • Great interview.

    I can recommend getting the book “India UNPOSED” that has so many familiar and now classic Semetko images. It’s a pleasure to owns and look in.

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