Craig Semetko: America: E Pluribus Unum

A classic street shooter in the great tradition, Craig Semetko uses Leica cameras  to capture images that transcend the moment. Semetko grew up near Detroit, Michigan and graduated from Northwestern University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Communication. His images have been exhibited in numerous galleries in the United States and Europe, and his work has appeared in various international publications and can be found in private collections worldwide. His book, UNPOSED, published by teNeues with a foreword by Magnum Photos photographer Elliott Erwitt, was released in the fall of 2010.

Q: What was the inspiration behind this project?

A: About twelve seconds after UNPOSED came out people started asking me what I was going to do next. So much for enjoying the moment. Seriously, after the book was released I began to think about what I’d been doing photographically and where I wanted to go. UNPOSED was a series of stand-alone images whose only shared theme was that they were shot spontaneously–I wanted to work on a project with a more specific theme.

I live in the United States and in early 2011, like most Americans, I felt the country was going through a very unsettling period–the civil discourse was angry and cynical and the people were polarized. I felt a need to get out in the country and photograph what was going on. One day in the shower it occurred to me that our de facto national motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” which is Latin for “out of many, one,” described what I wanted to show. Even though we are very different with enormous diversity in ethnicity, education and wealth, my hope is to show that out of the many, we are still one–each of us an American.

Photographically my main inspirations have always been Cartier-Bresson and Elliott Erwitt, but Robert Frank has also been a huge influence for this project. His iconic book The Americans tells the story of America as he saw it in the late 1950’s. Mr. Frank’s work has inspired me to shoot America as I see it over 2011 and 2012.

Q: What’s the goal of the project? Do you feel you achieved what you set out to so far?

A: Ultimately the goal is to create a unique visual narrative of America and Americans over a roughly two year period by photographing in every major region of the country. I also intend to have the work exhibited and published as a book.

I had a conversation with the photographer Nicholas Vreeland recently, and he suggested if he were doing a project like this he would not look at the images until the project was over. The purpose of that being to work completely on instinct and only discover what the project was really about in the editing process. I thought that was a great idea, but I’m not quite disciplined enough to pull that off entirely. I still post pictures on Facebook and twitter, but I am looking at the results less as the project continues. My instinct tells me I am on the right track.

Q: How long have you been working on the project? How have you decided where to go?

A: I have been shooting this project intermittently from as early as winter 2010, but the project “officially” kicked-off on the Fourth of July, 2011, in Independence, California. I chose that day and place for obvious reasons, but most decisions on where to go arise from informal conversations. For instance, I was in Albuquerque, NM having a drink with a friend three days before St. Paddy’s Day. He mentioned Savannah, Georgia had the second largest St. Paddy’s Day parade in the USA, a fact I was completely unaware of. He also mentioned his father lived there. The next day we got in the car and drove 1,600 miles to Savannah. That was an unusual occurrence, but flexibility has been important on this trip.

Q: Since you’ve already been on the road for over a year and are on the homestretch, is there anything specific you want to accomplish between now and January 2013?

A: I’ve spent a lot of time outside shooting in the streets and at public events–situations where you can find most Americans. It’s generally harder to get into private events where more affluent people spend their time. I’d like to document that segment of society more deeply. If anyone can get me into a country club party or philanthropic event, or anything along those lines, please contact me!

Q: Have there been any really unexpected surprises from the road?

A: More observations than surprises, really. For instance, it’s amazing how many American flags you see driving through the country. If you’re looking you see them everywhere. And the biggest ones seem to be over car dealerships. I was surprised to see how prevalent the Confederate flag still is in parts of the South.

I remember one experience that was more unsettling than surprising. I visited a homeless camp in Ann Arbor, Michigan where the people–many of whom had recently lost well-paying jobs–were living in tents on a strip of land between freeways without toilets or running water, and two days later I found myself in an art-filled penthouse apartment on Park Avenue in NYC. The disparity was startling. Intellectually we all know these two worlds exist, but experiencing one right after the other was jarring.

Q: As an artistic endeavor following a ten year compilation of your work, do you feel any pressure after UNPOSED?

A: Ah…YES!

Q: What equipment have you been shooting with for this project?

A: Virtually all the pictures for the project have been taken with a Leica M9, and over 90% of those were taken with the Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH and Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. Other Leica lenses used are the Elmarit-M 90mm f/2.8 ASPH, and the Summicron-M 28 mm f/2 ASPH. I also pack a Canon 5DMKII and a 24-105 zoom mainly for video purposes. I am very much looking forward to trying out the new Leica M, which would allow me shoot video and consolidate my equipment.

Q: As a street photographer, this seems to cross over into a more photojournalistic approach to documenting this time period in the states. Has shooting this project felt different to you than how you approached your images for UNPOSED?

A: I have referred to myself in the past as a “street photographer” because it was a way to describe what I was doing at the time in a manner people could easily understand. But I really feel the term is limiting, and as you say, it’s not the best way to describe what I’m doing now. I am approaching this project very differently than the work I shot for UNPOSED. The pictures in UNPOSED related to each other only insofar as they were all shot spontaneously and candidly–they did not have to fit together to tell a larger story. With the “Unum” project, I am shooting in terms of a larger narrative. I am hoping the pictures will hang together in the way that a story does, with a beginning, middle and an end.

Q: This seems like a more serious project than UNPOSED where Elliott Erwitt wrote in the foreword, “Good and funny photographs observed in nature not arranged or manipulated but simply observed in real time with amazing consistency, constitute a minor miracle now presented in Mr. Semetko’s book.” With this in mind, there’s definitely still some humor and irony that you’re known for in your images for this project. I’m still shaking my head at the spelling “sereving” (instead of “serving”) in one of them! Can you share with us your thoughts on balancing seriousness and humor in this project?

A: A sense of humor is fundamental to me, as I believe it is for most people. In my opinion, a story without humor is not being truthful–at any given moment, someone is laughing about something somewhere. But yes, in general this project has more provocative images. Ultimately I hope the final edit will reflect reality in that there are funny, poignant, sad, shocking and confounding things happening all around us all the time.

Q: Some of your images are in color and some are in black and white. Is there any deliberate choice of presenting them one way or the other?

A: I shot nothing but Tri-X for 10 years and loved it. But I decided to use the M9 for this project to save on film costs. I started out the project processing most images in B&W by habit. Slowly I started to feel that the project might be better suited for color. So I started to shoot with color in mind, which presents a whole new set of challenges. At this point in the project my default position is color, but I still feel some of the images have more impact in black and white. What I’m showing here is just a snapshot of the project–pictures that I like right now that may or may not end up in the final narrative. The hard choices regarding all color, all B&W, or a mixture of both will be made in the final edit.

Q: You’ve mentioned before that you like to tell the start of a story and let the viewers of your photographs finish the story themselves. Can you tell us any behind-the-camera stories of your pictures? For instance, how did you come to photograph cowboys roping a bull?

A: That shot was taken in late June, 2012, in Manassa, Colorado, a tiny town just north of the New Mexico border. One of the students from my Leica Akademie weekends has become a good friend and I had remembered him telling me about going to rodeos in this area as a kid. I emailed him about it, and he was kind enough to do a little research on places and times. I took his advice and went to three rodeos in two days and they were two of the most productive days of the trip. On a side note–smaller events are better. I was able to actually get inside the ring with the horses and bulls–something I would never have been able to do at a larger rodeo.

Q: The gentleman with his hardened and somewhat covered face in the “Make Love Not War” image is very striking. Given the title of your last book, I’m curious, was this photograph (or any in this project) posed?

A: I was driving near Cortez, Colorado and saw those sculptures from the road. I stopped and climbed up an embankment to photograph them through a barbed wire fence. After a few minutes of shooting, that gentleman–the sculptor, as it turns out–appeared and asked what I was doing. We started talking–and I kept shooting. I caught him mid-sentence on that one. He was a very funny guy. To answer your question, no, the shot was not posed, and, as a rule, I don’t like to pose pictures. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Q: You’ve mentioned a goal is for this project to turn into a book too, but you have a couple of showings prior to that. Can you share with the readers the details about them and the Akademie workshops you’re involved in?

A: I’ve had a great time teaching the Akademie workshops! I have new found friends from all the cities I’ve taught in. I’m looking forward to teaching at more Akademie events.

The Washington DC Leica store will be exhibiting a selection from UNPOSED as well as E Pluribus Unum for Fotoweek DC. The prints are scheduled to be up November 9th, and hang into the new year. I’ll be giving presentations at the store Thursday, November 15th and Friday, November 16th. At the same time work from UNPOSED will be exhibited at the Bergen County Camera store in Westwood, NJ, and I will be speaking at the New Jersey Photo Expo November 18th. And the work from E Pluribus Unum will make up an entire solo exhibition at the Leica Gallery NYC in the fall of 2013.

Q: You also have a kickstarter campaign to gain crowdsourced support for this project. Is this the first time that you’ve used kickstarter? Do you think it’s a good platform for photographers to use for projects like this one?

A: Yes, this is my first kickstarter campaign. It seems to be a very good platform for photography projects in general. What really got my attention was that it also creates a way for people to participate in the project. As I’ve traveled across the country I’ve encountered many people who want to somehow be a part of this project and I love the fact that kickstarter allows them to do that. The thing about kickstarter is that it’s all or nothing–if the pledges don’t reach the goal amount, the project is not funded. I just launched my campaign a few days ago and even though it’s been voted a “Staff Pick” and is about 40% funded, we have to get it to 100% or nothing happens. It’s been very gratifying to see the excitement generated amongst the people who have supported the project so far–I hope your readers will click on the link and become a part of this project as well.

Q: You mentioned that the biggest challenge of the project is “simply juggling it with the rest of my life while on the road. Time and repetition over many months, however, have helped me develop an organized routine.” Many of our readers probably struggle with similar challenges. Can you share any insight or tips about your routine?

A: From a personal standpoint I’ve streamlined mundane but important things like bill paying and maintenance of my place while I’m gone, but photographically it’s a bit more challenging. I try to time my traveling so I’m driving in the middle of the day when the light is harsh–I want to be at a destination shooting in the late afternoon. I stop for coffee or food in places that have visual character. I keep an atlas in the passenger seat to see where I’ve been and where I want to go. I have Sirius radio to keep up on national events and I scour the internet in hotels at night for photographic opportunities the next day. I call old and new friends around the country to see if they can put me up for a night or two. I try to be mindful of the Ben Franklin dictum that guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. Some friends might disagree.

Q: Since this was started literally right after UNPOSED was released, do you have another project in mind for when the book America: E Pluribus Unum gets published? (Sorry, had to ask!)

A: You’re killin’ me here! Let me get through this one! Okay-my next project is to go home, sleep in my own bed for at least a month, and see if my friends still recognize me. And begin editing the tens of thousands of images the last two years have produced into something that will hopefully be memorable. Then I’ll probably get my passport out of the drawer and start putting it back to use.

Q: Is there anything else that you’d like our readers to know that wasn’t covered in these questions?

A: The United States is a vast, fascinating and beautiful place. Whatever the outcome of this project, I will always be grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met along the way.

Thank you for your time, Craig!

-Leica Internet Team

For more information on Craig’s work, visit his website. You can also find him on Facebook.