David Carol: Photographing the Absurdity of Life

David Carol was born in New York City. He attended the School of Visual Arts and The New School for Social Research where he studied under Lisette Model. He has been traveling and taking pictures for himself and others for over twenty-five years. The interview was conducted by Leica Blog contributor Alex Coghe.

Q: David Carol, how can we sum up your career of over 25 years?

A: That’s a tough question. I like to use as few words as possible and still make my point. So, a dream come true.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Well, there are two types of photography in my life: the stuff I shoot for money, and the pictures I take for myself. I have no interest in describing the pictures I take for money. The pictures I take for myself are about a few things. Allow me to quote Lewis Hine, “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.” That being said, I’ll say my photographs are about the absurdity of life.

Q: Your photography can be described as similar to “Street Photography”. Do you agree?

A: I don’t consider myself a street photographer. I love to take pictures everywhere. Though I guess I have a street photographer’s mindset in that I take pictures one at a time. I’m not interested in telling a story with a group of photos. I’m not a journalist or a documentary photographer. Every photo has to be of real life and work as an individual image on its own. I think that’s the idea of street photography. I don’t really label what I do because I haven’t come up with a good name for it yet. I’m good with just saying I’m a photographer.

Q: It’s obvious from your work that human subjects are an important part of your visual search, but you do not limit yourself to just that. I’m most impressed with your attention to the composition. I am a fan of your work for this. The images are rich of elements, and all the details are important for the photograph.

A: I feel my job, as a photographer is to organize the chaos. I try to translate what I see and think into a refined, organized and simple image. Now, by simple I don’t mean very few elements. I mean that I only want elements in the photograph that are completely necessary. I don’t really do this in a conscious way, but I know what I want the photos to look like and it keeps happening. I guess something I’m doing must be deliberate. Anyway, composition is very important to me and when I edit I often remove photos that might be interesting but don’t fit into what I want my pictures to look like.

Q: Today I think a working photographer must be more than just a photographer and should be able to integrate with various roles. You are also director of photography for CBS and collaborator for two magazines. Should a photographer today be able to move in different areas like you have?

A: The CBS deal is my day job. It gives me a stable income and benefits and the people there are very nice to me. I write for magazines because I think it’s a way to give back to photography. I look at it as a way to help out and publicize photographers and the photography that I love. I think of myself  when I was just starting out or I guess on some level even now, that it would be cool for someone to come to me and offer to show other people my work simply because they loved it. That’s how I see myself as a contributor or writer for magazines. I just want to say to the readers, “Hey, check out this photographer. I think their work is great!” I feel quite grateful to have the opportunity to do this. Wow, I sound so serious in this interview! I’m like a mature adult. You know, the title of my second book is “ALL MY LIES ARE TRUE…” Just saying.

Q: You primarily use Leica. When did you first start using Leica cameras?

A: I got my first Leica, an M4-2 with a 35 mm Summicron when I was 20 and attending The School of Visual Arts in NYC.

Q: And why Leica? What do you like in particular to working with Leica cameras?

A: I wanted the best cameras and lenses in the world so I have to use Leica. I have no choice. The Ms are the only cameras that work intuitively for me, and trust me I have tried virtually every film camera from Hassies to Widelux. At this point they are a part of me.

Q: What is your equipment? Do you have a favorite lens?

A: I use M4s and M6s. I have all the lenses from 21 to the 75 1.4 Summilux. I would say 98 percent of my photos are taken with either the 21 f/2.8 ASPH or the 24 f/2.8 ASPH. I don’t change lenses I change cameras. I have an M4 and an M6 with 21s on them. The M4 has a 1950s Zeiss Biogon 21 f/4.5, and the M6 with the 24. I keep a 28 Summicron ASPH on an M4, but I almost never use it. The rest of my equipment is put away. It’ll be used one day when I decide to use the long lenses- the 35, 50 and 75.

Q: Is there a Leica camera you want to try?

A: I guess the only new camera that interests me is the new M-Monochrom. But I think if I started to shoot digitally I would just be trying to replicate the look I get from film, so why bother?

Q: How much has changed in the world of photography since you started? And has it changed your perception since then?

A: Well, obviously the digital thing is the biggest change. At first I thought it would make a difference. I naively thought there would be all these new photographers that would be amazing because digital photography is so much easier. Well I have been judging the PDN Photo Annual for many years now and based on the tens of thousands of entries I have seen I can report that nothing has changed. It’s still only a very small percentage of images that are any good. Digital photography didn’t make better photographers, only more photographers. There are two other big changes I might mention. First, in the old days, I think if you were good, it used to be easier to make a decent living as a photographer. On the other hand, I think its easier now for your work to be seen. It’s kind of an ironic twist of fate. You can be seen and get well known, but can’t get paid. Ah, life.

Q: What is challenging for David Carol?

A: Ha…Such a funny question. Well, photographically speaking I guess the challenge at this point is making smart choices. Only take on things that I have a passion for. A good example is: should I do another book? I don’t really want to, but I feel like I’m supposed to. It’s weird that it has come to this point. I’m pretty damn lucky.

Q: Do you think a place can influence the visual research of a photographer? And if so has growing up in NYC influenced your career?

A:I think growing up in New York influences everything that I do. To start out life in one of the greatest cites in the world pretty much removes any chance of being intimidated when traveling. That alone opens doors to so many possibilities. For example, I moved to Paris in my early 20s with no money. I guess if you can be broke in New York you’re not afraid of being broke anywhere else.

Q: Can you name some colleagues that you esteem especially?

A: I have many friends that are very good photographers. I hate to name people I know for fear of leaving someone out. I will just name some photographers I love but don’t know personally. My biggest influences were probably Stanley Kubrick, Elliot Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Robert Crumb and Diane Arbus.

Q: Your photographs and books are in the permanent collections of various museums and corporations. How do you see the state of your art today? And when does a picture deserve a gallery for you?

A: I might look at this a little differently then most photographers, but at this point in my career I’m not interested in having my work in galleries. Major galleries in NYC, Chicago and Houston have represented me in the past and that was fine. They helped me get my work into museums and collections and I’m grateful for that. But at the end of the day the balance between the effort required to be in a show and the return on my personal happiness is not tipping the scales in the shows’ favor. If a great offer or opportunity came along of course I would consider it, but right now it’s just not on my mind.

Q: Is there something you would add to this interview?

A: Yes. I think I sound dry and academic in print. This could be because I am. No no, I’m really not. I have a kind of personal philosophy about photography. Take your work seriously, but not yourself. I think a lot of photographers get caught up in nonsense. They worry about their work in all sorts of ways. Don’t waste time and energy worrying. Just go out and have fun, see the world around you and keep shooting. If you’re passionate, devoted and maybe have some talent in 10 or 20 years you might have a nice body of work. If you don’t, at least you had fun along the way!!

Thank you for your time, David!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of David’s work please visit his website.

Alex Coghe is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events.