Dana Barsuhn: Experiencing the World with Street Photography

Dana Barsuhn, born in 1976, is a Los Angeles based street photographer. Using his Leica M4, Dana’s work is mainly shot in black and white. He has been featured in several Los Angeles exhibitions and in 2011 created a PDF book of his street images as a personal diary titled “Framed.”  Eric Kim, a contributor to the Leica blog, interviews him.

Q:  Describe how you first discovered street photography.

A: It was late 2009 early 2010. I had been photographing a few years, but without any vision. I really had no motivation to just go out and shoot for the sake of shooting. As the universe would have it, a good friend and fellow photographer/author Ibarionex Perello approached me to join him and Emilio Banuelos for a workshop in downtown Los Angeles.

I had been out shooting in the street before, but what I learned that weekend really changed the way I approach photography. More importantly, it changed my vision and how I see.

Q: You shoot with a film Leica for your personal work in the streets. Why do you prefer it to shooting digitally?

A: Trust me; it was never my intention to shoot film. I was perfectly comfortable shooting digitally. In fact, I was probably the guy that was trying to convince the film guys to switch to digital.

Originally, switching to film was more about shooting with something smaller and less threatening in the streets. But after a few rolls of film, I began to see how the change in workflow was actually a breath of fresh air. Over the last two years, I have progressed to developing my own film and most recently, turning my garage into a working wet darkroom! I could probably go on a long rant on all the reasons why I love and choose film (for my personal work), but, in the end, it is just a preference.

Q: Who are some photographers who inspired you early on?

A: Like many photographers in the genre, I hung on to the decisive moment of a Cartier-Bresson and the playfulness of someone like an Elliott Erwitt. Of course, my taste for photographers continues to change as I do. Today my list of inspirations is quite different than those of the past.

Q: Can you share a bit about who you decide to photograph vs. who you don’t photograph?

A: I was listening to an interview by Joel Meyerowitz recently. He had made a comment relating his early years in shooting on the street to target practice. What he said was that at some point it became really easy to put a subject in the middle of the frame and snap a good picture. What I took from that is that often a good subject is not enough, there needs to be something else. So when I see a subject that gets me to raise my camera, I try and ask myself “What else.” So to answer your question, there is often more to who I decide to photograph than just the subject him/herself.

Q: You are quite involved in the street photography scene in Los Angeles. Can you share how you got involved, and how it has helped your photography?

A: I had heard about you (Eric Kim) through the internet and found out that you were teaching a workshop in Los Angeles. At that point I had been photographing in the street for a while, but I really didn’t have any relationships or knowledge of active photographers in the area. If nothing else, I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet new people with similar interests.

Today, as result of that one weekend, I have a solid group of friends that I meet up with and communicate with on a daily basis, locally and abroad. It has been amazing to watch the emergence of the group from those early days. While I still see photography as an individual endeavor, I’m not sure I would have the growth I have had as a photographer without the community.

Q: Where are your favorite places in Los Angeles to shoot, and why?

A: Of course, downtown Los Angeles has always been a go to place for me. It has many elements that make for great shooting. You’ve got a diverse mix of cultures, districts, skyscrapers, historical buildings, characters all packed into a very manageable radius. Did I forget to mention the light? We have a lot of that here in Los Angeles. That being said, I believe there is more to be seen and photographed in Los Angeles, and I look forward to venturing outward to capture it!

Q: Recently you participated in “You are here II: Shoot a Cop.” Can you share with us what the exhibition was about and the experience?

A: The exhibition was a month long meditation on the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The premise of the project was based on the stigma of police brutality and corruption throughout the city’s history. 32 photographers were chosen (without previous knowledge of the subject matter) to go photograph the month long assignment and were asked to chose three photographs to show on the last day.

It was an interesting project for me on many levels. There were the initial challenges of getting in close to subjects of authority and finding situations representative of the project. But in the end, the project wasn’t about just taking photographs of cops, but about a subject, the LAPD. I think many of us (photographers) realized that the subject matter was a sensitive one, and we could not be biased in our approach. While there is a certain negative stigma attached to the LAPD, it was very hard (for me) to validate those stereotypes. In fact, I would say that my experience was just the opposite.

Q: Your work is predominantly in black and white, but you have been experimenting a bit in color recently. How do you approach each medium differently?

A: For me it comes down to subject matter. Of course, my aesthetic for photographing everyday life still leans heavily toward black and white. Certain subjects or occasions, however, call for something different. Last summer, for example, I took a point and shoot camera filled with some Kodak portra and did a fun little series on people, places, and things we encounter on the road, titled “Viewpoints.” In hindsight, I was probably going for something like a Steven Shore aesthetic, interesting photographs of banal everyday travel scenes.

Q: What are some tips or advice you would give street photographers starting off?

A: Get off the couch and the computer and get out and shoot. Read some photo books, study photographers that excite you…then shoot some more! Like the old saying, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst!”

Q: Share with us three of your favorite photographs and tell us the stories behind them?

A: One would be the LAPD on horseback giving a ticket to younger gentlemen with a woman’s hand in the foreground petting one of the horses. Of course the horses were the original attraction in this scene, how often do you see horses on the sidewalk of downtown Los Angeles. As I approached the scene one officer was lecturing the subject while the other was writing a ticket. Simultaneously, I noticed there was a women in the foreground petting the horse in amazement. I made three exposures of the scene, trying to incorporate the scene and gestures of the officer’s, subject and woman’s hand.

The second would be the silhouette of a man with a cowboy hat against a very graphic alley wall.  I happened to be in the right place at the right time; I took a few quick strides to get ahead of the subject, framed it quickly and took the shot. Luckily I had my camera to expose for highlights and my lens pre-focused because I had no time to change settings, it happened that fast. It wasn’t till I looked at the contact sheets that I noticed the awesome graphical elements of the background as well as the master locks and American flag to the left of subject.

The third is a more recent photograph of a random folding chair on the street in downtown LA. For a me it’s a simple (easy) photograph, but then again it stopped me in my tracks. I’m not going to go into the reasons why I think it’s good or what attracted me to it, but I just know that it grabbed me at some level. If anything, the photograph reminds me to always listen to my intuition and not shy away from scenes that talk to me. At the end of the day (all labels and genre’s aside) I am a guy with a camera recording what I see.

Q: What do you think your photos say about your personality and how you see the world?

A: It might not be that apparent to most, but I have always been more of the quiet observer type. Being an only child, I have often been very comfortable being alone or isolated. But there is personality and there is life experience. In the end, my experiences as a human being have influenced what I see photographically as well. I often learn more about myself through my photographs in hindsight (months or years later) than anything else. To be honest, the way I often shoot (35 mm up close) can often be opposite of what you would expect of someone with my personality…go figure!!

Q: A simple question, but not asked much: why do you photograph?

A: Simple, it’s my excuse to slow down and experience the world with a new set of eyes.

Q: Any shout outs you would like to give, and what are some things we can expect from you in the next year or two?

A: My friend and mentor Ibarionex Perello for being a great friend and mentor. The community of friends and fellow photographers (Rinzi,  Ben, David, Todd, JJ, Jason, Ola, Erin and many more) that resulted from being open to meeting new people with a similar a passion. As far as what the future holds, all I can do is continue to photograph, listen to myself, be open to new things and continue to learn. The rest, hopefully, will take care of itself. And of course thank you Eric Kim for being the man you are!

Thank you for your time, Dana!

- Leica Internet Team

Visit Dana’s websiteblog, Twitter and Facebook page to see more of his work.