Gary Gumanow: The Streets as Theater

Gary Gumanow first picked up a camera at the age of eight and has been shooting ever since. A native New Yorker from Brooklyn, Gary now resides in Houston, Texas. He shoots mainly with film and prints all of his own work in his darkroom. Gary spoke with Alex Coghe about his relationship with film and shooting in black-and-white.

Q: Gary, how did you get started with photography?

A: I feel like I’m starting new every day I go out to photograph, but started a long, long time ago with a Kodak Brownie camera back in the late 1960s. Brownie was handed down to me from my two older sisters. I remember it vividly. I had to write a book report in second grade and wasn’t great at expressing myself with words. So when I picked up the camera and got my photos back I felt like I could describe the world around me. The camera could record the world around me much better than I could put words to it, and it still does.

I owe a deep gratitude to my parents for getting me started. My dad was editor-in-chief of a newspaper so we spent a lot of time together around the newspaper, covering different events, and more importantly, working in the darkroom. Seeing the images come through the developer was amazing. I can still remember it. I was hooked, and have been ever since. He died when I was 11, and I guess you can say he gave me a tremendous gift with the little time we had together.

During high school I continued with photography, serving as photo editor of the yearbook and I built a darkroom in my bedroom. You could say that I lived and breathed photography, even in my sleep! Sure I was interested in other things, but when it came down to it, photography was at the center of it all.

Q: How would you describe your photography? Do you have a main focus in your visual research?

A: I hope the photos describe themselves pretty clearly on their own. Feels weird to describe them with words, but I’ll give it a shot.

I grew up in and around New York City, and lived there most of my life. I have also lived in Europe, the Pacific Northwest, and now in Texas. If I’m traveling for business or on vacation, I usually find myself in a city. I guess you could say that my photography is centered around an urban environment, with and without people.

I love the vibrancy, the hustle and bustle of cities centered around public transportation, cities with subways, buses and trains. I’m interested in how people and cities work, how people get to work, where they eat lunch, and how people interact. Cities like San Francisco, London, Sydney, New York, these are cities where people walk to their offices, buy lunch at street vendors, and smoke in front of their buildings. People walk to stores, restaurants, the dry cleaners. I can’t emphasis people and public enough. It is a public life and the streets are the theater. I thrive on this energy and love to be in the middle of it, hopefully capturing a slice of it as I shoot.

This is very different from the city I live in now where people commute to work by car, park their cars in massive parking garages, go into offices, eat lunch at their desks, get back in our cars at the end of the day, hit the garage door opener and pull into their houses without ever being in the world. There is an emptiness in these cities, and this limits my subject material to urban landscapes, usually devoid of people. We build these huge urban business centers that look deserted, almost apocalyptic. You should see downtown Houston on a work day or weekend. You wouldn’t know there are people here.

Q: You primarily shoot with film, what’s your reasoning behind that choice?

A: I shoot for myself. I would imagine my choice would be different if I was shooting for someone else. So I think it’s important to understand the context of my choice. I choose film, not because I think it is better or superior, but because it’s physical. You can hold it, bend it, feel it. When it comes down to it, I want to create something tangible; much of what I do for a living is not tangible, but ideas, plans and strategies.

Did I mention that film is magic? Seriously, think about it. You’ve got a thin piece of plastic that can record light? That’s pretty awesome if you ask me.

The act of using film goes way beyond the click of the shutter. It’s like challenging Murphy’s Law. Anything could go wrong with that roll of film from the time that you bulk load it to the time you make a print and typically will. Dumb stuff I’ve done includes: forgetting to rewind the film before opening the camera, dropping the film cassette on the ground and having the end pop off, loading it in the camera backwards, developing it incorrectly, and not getting it on the reel correctly in the developer. It’s like running with an egg on a spoon held out in front of you. It requires attention and caring. But when it all turns out, the pleasure of holding a print in your hands is that much more rewarding, a real satisfaction when it all comes together.

Q: You mentioned printing, which you do yourself. Do you do it to preserve the purity of your photography and check each part of the process?

A: All my black-and-white work is printed in my darkroom, the silver gelatin way. Printing is a completely different art and still part of my process.

There are many great photographers that couldn’t print to save their lives, and vice versa. I wouldn’t say that I’m anywhere close to being a great printer. I wouldn’t say it’s entirely about purity or control either. I do it because I love it. It’s a challenge, and hopefully I can learn something about photography along the way.

A few years ago, I took a workshop with David Alan Harvey. He’s a great mentor and teacher by the way, and if you ever get the chance to take a workshop from him I’d highly recommend it. During the workshop we shot each day and were instructed to bring in up to 10 photos for review the next day. I was shooting about eight rolls of film each day and printing my shots each night during the workshop. I’d scan my prints and bring them on a USB memory stick to class the next day. You’d think those shooting digital had an advantage? No, not really. We all got the same three hours of sleep each night. I’m not so sure digital and the computer help all that much with speed.

And last but not least, there is a connection I feel with my dad too. Maybe it is a way to honor him and what he’s given me? I certainly hope he’s proud of me for sticking with it.

Q: Your work is loyal to black-and-white, why is that?

A: I think that art comes from constraints we put on ourselves. We are always constrained by something. Even a blank canvas is constrained by its cost, size, texture and material.

When it comes down to it, I drop a roll of film in the camera and have made a choice. It is a constraint that I think leads to different choices and a certain way of seeing; it’s a commitment. I firmly believe that by shooting with constraints I’m learning more about photography than if I could convert color to black-and-white to save a shot. That just doesn’t interest me.

I’m not going to say I see in B&W. I’m not color blind, although my wife and I do have disagreements about whether something is blue or green. I’m also not going to lie and say that color doesn’t interest me; it does. I love the color work of some contemporary photographers. Maybe it all comes down to odds? The odds of a good street photo are slim enough already, adding color to the mix? Even slimmer. Plus I’ve just never really liked the results I’ve gotten back from the lab with color, and I already spend too much time in front of a computer for work, so the thought of color correcting my photos with a computer bores me.

Q: What Leica camera and equipment did you use and are you using?

A: I use an M6-TTL with an Elmarit 28 mm f/2.8 most of the time, an M4 with Summicron 35 mm f/2.0 for when situations are not as tight, and a D-Lux 4 with a 21 mm viewfinder mounted on top. I recently purchased a Focomat IIc enlarger; unbelievable piece of engineering.

Q: I see a clear influence of Lee Friedlander in your work. Don’t get me wrong, your work is Gary Gumanow, but it is impossible for me not to think of the great master.

A: Lee Friedlander is a big influence in my work. I have a lot of his books and can sit with them for hours on end and find something new each time I sit with them. It’s not only his ironic look at the world, but also his work ethic and continued curiosity. I learn a lot from looking at his photographs. It helps me to deal with problems that I’m trying to work out in my photos.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your project “Anti-Social Networking”? What was the inspiration behind this series?

A: Thanks for asking about “Anti-Social Networking.” I thought I invented the term, but there was someone that had used the term a few years before me for a Facebook-like website intended for people that don’t like being social.

If you are old enough and remember the 1980s, you’d remember a time when we interacted with each other face-to-face. This project came out of observing people in public places — restaurants, friends sitting together, even people on dates with their loved ones — all glued to their smart devices.

When I think about social networks, I like to think about how much closer we are and how great it is that we can instantly share ideas, thoughts and photos with people all over the world. It really is quite amazing. I’ve benefited greatly from it. I’ve met you through the social networks and is the reason we are doing this interview.

So I observed that when people use social networks in public spaces, it created an anti-social behavior with the people right in front of them. It’s like saying, “Hey Alex, let’s hang out on the Zocalo tomorrow and let’s text other people and check out their latest posts to Twitter, okay?” Get the point? It would be considered anti-social to hang out with me, while at the same time using a social network to connect with others. I found it fascinating that people were standing right next to each other, yet pulled away to another place.

Personally, I think we are doomed and I don’t see a way out of it. I read an interesting article about the decisive moment and how it will soon be morphed into something called the continuous moment, with the advent of new tools like Google Glasses.

Q: You’re a native New Yorker but currently live in Houston. Has living in Houston influenced you as a photographer?

A: Every place I’ve lived has influenced me as a photographer. When I first moved to Texas, I thought Texans were so different from New Yorkers. Texans sure sound different, but I bet they’d say the same about me. But when you get right down to it, New Yorkers think they live in the greatest place on earth … and so do Texans. So you see, people aren’t very different.

The landscape in Texas is much different from other places I’ve lived. So yeah, it’s had a huge impact on how I shoot, and some of the photos and subjects I pursue. The light and heat in Texas is much different too. In the summer I find myself driving around looking for interesting things to photograph and will hop out of the car with the A/C running, take a shot and hop back in the car. This Yankee of Russian descent (me) doesn’t handle heat very well. Also, people are not out on the street so it is much harder to do street photography, well, impossible. It has led to other interesting photo projects for me.

Q: What challenges do photographers face today?

A: This is a tough question. But to sum it up, I think there are probably more challenges today for photographers than ever before. I’m fortunate that I don’t make my living from photography.

We’ve got technology hurdles, changing the rules at a Moore’s Law pace. If you aren’t a computer whiz, I don’t know how you’d keep up with it. I work in the high-tech industry and even I have a hard time keeping up with it.

The internet has introduced us to a new way of sharing photos that was unthinkable less than 10 years ago. I still can’t believe the number of people that I’ve met through sites like Flickr and Facebook, and now ipernity. It used to be that you’d be lucky to find a place to exhibit or hang your photos, maybe a coffee shop and even that wouldn’t put you in touch with other like-minded photographers.

I think the future has never been brighter for photography.

Thank you for your time, Gary!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Gary via his website and Twitter.

Alex Coghe, the interviewer, is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events. Alex is a member of the international photography collective, noise. Check out their work on Facebook and Blurb.