Gokhan Cukurova: Tenacity And Planning Required

Gokhan Cukurova, born and raised in Turkey, came to the United States at 23 where he discovered photography. In 2000, he started his succesful career in wedding photography and now shoots street photography as well.  He is founder & director of Chicago Photographic Society and an instructor for many workshops.

Q: Gokhan, let me start by saying that I am very happy for this interview. Can you tell us how you get into photography?

A: Alex, thank you, I’m happy for this interview too. I actually was pushed into photography when I was 23 years old. Until then I did not even own a camera. I was born in Istanbul, the only city that unites two continents with over a thousand years of history. And, since you are from Rome, you know what that does to a human soul… All that history. So I grew up looking at first Turkish Magnum photographer Ara Güler’s old Istanbul photos. When I was a kid, every time his photos were published on magazines or newspapers, I would cut those photos and hang them on my wall. 1940s, 1950s Istanbul captured on Black and White film with his Leica cameras.

When I was 23 I immigrated from Turkey to the United States. My new home was St. Paul, Minnesota, I started living with my older brother Cihan. I have to admit, I was very homesick. I missed rest of my family a lot. One frigid winter morning I went and bought a plastic, disposable camera. My goal was to take a few photos of the city of St. Paul and the mighty Mississippi River because my family had no idea what Minnesota looked like. As you know, people who live outside of the United States will be very familiar with New York, Los Angeles or Miami from the movies. Minnesota does not make it to movies that often.

After taking a few pictures in the city I went by the river. There was this big Catholic Church and a tree with no leafs. I think I made a connection between myself and that tree, a man away from his family and a tree with no leafs… Who knows! After photographing the tree I thought to myself that it would be a nicer photograph if the sky was orange like in the late afternoon. Then I realized that my sunglasses were orange color. I simply put my glasses in front of the lens and took another shot. My older brother liked that photo even more than I did.

After I sent those 4×6 glossy prints to Turkey, one night I came home from work and saw my life was changed forever. My brother bought me my first camera, an entry level film SLR, a kit lens, entry level tripod, a camera bag, a few rolls of film and two photography books. It was the greatest gift of all times. I was so hooked. Within nine months, my photos were hanging in a gallery in uptown Minneapolis, the biggest city in Minnesota. Since then I have had over 20 exhibitions in different venues.

Q: When did you realize that this was going to be your profession?

A: One of my good friends came to my house and told me that he was engaged. I was thrilled with the news, already excited to be a part of his wedding. I had never been a groomsman. He told me that he would be happy if photographed his wedding. I was scared actually. I never even thought of doing that, I had no clue. He said to me very calmly “you have almost a year to prepare, why are you nervous?” But again, this is late 90s, all film, no YouTube, no Google; there were no thousands of blogs or websites to learn from like we do today.

Alex, I burnt lots of film, practiced and got some help from a local camera store sales associate who used to be a wedding photographer. Thanks to him and my hard work, my first wedding was not a disaster. In fact, I enjoyed doing it. Then it was word of mouth, I started photographing weddings every summer and spent the money into getting better gear, to pay for my trips around the United States.

When I say better gear, I mean more capable gear because my first camera and lens were literally the very basic stuff. I wanted to travel and see my new home which I did. I have seen more than half of United States from Alaska to Florida, from California to New York. At some point the hard work paid off, I quit my day job. This is all I do now.

Q: You are a photographer busy in several projects and activities. Nowadays a photographer must be able to move on several fronts…

A: You are right. I make short, medium and long term plans and try to achieve them as much as I can. A working photographer should definitely learn how to diversify him or herself . Although one should not try to be a photographer for everything, diversifying yourself can save your business in the tough economic times.

I do feel very sad when a fellow photographer shuts down his/her studio. We cannot be successful by trying to be a commercial-wedding-product-street-food-architecture photographer at the same time, but a wedding photographer should have the ability to photograph portraits, families outside of weddings. This can bring enough business to keep our heads above the water. A professional photographer has to have a business plan like any other business owner should. Failing to plan is planning to fail. It’s that simple.

Outside of weddings I do teach wedding photography workshops locally in Chicago and internationally. I go to Krakow, Poland every year to teach a week long workshop. This year I extended the workshops to Venice, Italy. I also volunteer for my church’s photography needs as well as Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and run several other fronts for the community and for humanity.

Q: You are also the founder & director of Chicago Photographic Society. This year your organization held a big International Street Photography contest and the winners were announced recently. Could you tell Leica Blog readers about this contest and CPS’s motivations?

A: Great question, Alex. Little over four years ago, I started a small Facebook group for photographers from all levels, all backgrounds and zero tolerance to negative energy, ego and bad attitude. My philosophy was to teach what I know and learn from others. Now that same philosophy “each one, teach one” have become our philosophy as we have grown to almost 2,000 members in more than 34 countries. We encourage our members to connect with their peers in their cities, do collective work, volunteer in their communities, inspire youth in their local area high schools, bring photography closer to low-income neighborhood kids with our Future Photographers Project and become one big family.

In Chicago, we organize at least a dozen photo walks every year and after the discovery of great Street Photographer Vivian Maier a few years ago, we dedicated one of our photo walks in her memory. Every year on the first Sunday of February, photographers gather in Chicago from different parts of the United States. We walk and take photos and after the walk we have a few drinks together.

But in 2012, as Chicago Photographic Society, we wanted to take this to a whole new level, we decided to start the Annual International Street Photography contest in memory of Vivian Maier. This was a first for us, it took a lot of time, a lot of work. I have to thank all my board of directors and my advisory board members for being so determined to make this a great success. We had photographers’ submissions from all over the world, we had a great judging committee. I have to openly thank you for accepting our request to be one of the judges. From the work submitted, I can tell that the judging was not so easy. There is great talent out there.

Q: Thanks for the invitation to be one of the judges! Can you tell us the names of other judges?

A: Absolutely. Our judges were Markus Hartel, a much respected street photographer from New York City, Mustafa Seven, a major newspaper editor in Istanbul, Jeff Curto, photography professor at the College of DuPage and Stuart Grais, professor at De Paul University.

As for CPS’s motivations, I could tell you that there are a big number of talented people out there. With this contest we wanted to create a bridge between the street photographers. Although membership to our organization is free, CPS’s ethics are well known. We do not accept everyone as a member and we wanted to bring this young talent together under the same roof, help them network, communicate, exchange ideas and knowledge while sharing same ideals. One common ideal we have is to promote the art of photography in every genre as much as possible, bring photography and the photographers closer with the communities they live in.

Q: You were one of the 97 instructors selected for teaching at PPA, this is such a great achievement, tell us little bit about PPA please…

A: PPA is one of the biggest and probably the oldest photography associations in the world, it was started 1869. It was such a great honor for me. PPA is a non-profit organization, dedicated to help protect photographers rights, lobby for photographers in Washington, provide very cheap or a lot of times free education for the working photographers. In addition to prestige and many other perks members receive, every member automatically receives $15.000 worth gear protection insurance. Basically, all of our membership dues are spent back to provide services, products and education for the photographers. At some point in your life you fell in love again, this time with street photography… I call street photography “my love affair” I have great respect for photojournalists, street photographers who bring us the untouched moment, the unspoiled truth of life. Although it looks easy, it is a very hard genre to practice. Street photography is absolutely not taking your rangefinder out of the window and take random picture. It seems like that to many, it’s because really talented photographers make it look easy. It’s all about the combination of vision, readiness of the eye, readiness of your gear. Again, these are my own humble opinions. Although I am madly in love with Street Photography, I still call myself a wedding photographer who is in love with the streets. After 13 years of experience, hundreds of weddings I still call myself an apprentice, craving to learn more. In street photography, I am still crawling. I have a very long way to go.

Q: What are the things attract your attention as a photographer beside the weddings and street photography?

A: I enjoy implementing architectural lines in my work and sometimes in weddings too. Lines, shapes do speak to me as well as portraits of strangers, and Chicago is a great city for that. Offers a very diverse population, has great architecture.

My father was a civil engineer who built tall buildings and bridges in Turkey, I remember this quote from Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Also love the American landscape. It’s short of nothing, absolutely breathtaking in everywhere you go.

Q: How do you bring art into wedding photography where there is a set schedule, high dose of stress caused by the nature of the event, and it’s only one-time event? How do you create art in this stress?

A: Having a camera in hand does not make anyone a photographer as an expensive calculator does not make anyone an accountant. By that, I mean, there is so much that goes into wedding photography. As you mentioned, there can be very high level of stress at times but putting yourself in your clients’ shoes does help a lot. Wedding photographers, especially those who last more than five years should be given a “High Stress Durability Medal.”

When you establish yourself as a business, when you do your homework ahead of time, when you communicate the details with your client, when you become capable of putting yourself in their shoes, long story short, when you know what you are doing, you have more room for art, more freedom, more confidence, more fun. Then the invitation card you are photographing becomes a lot more than piece of paper with names and dates printed on it. Every little detail means something greater. You feel it first, the art follows.

Q: Your approach with weddings is more photojournalistic and not staged. What is your secret?

A: I find my clients always look in their proofs and say “I can’t believe you captured that moment, I never knew it” I hear this all the time. I blend in well, I become a family member, I become one of them even before the wedding. Knowing them starts months before the wedding. That relaxes them a lot. When the client, family, friends are not stiff, are not worried about my camera the real story is written in front of my eyes. When I become one of them, I am also emotionally attached to the event. I can sense what’s going to happen next!

Very quick example from a recent wedding: We were in a high-end downtown Chicago hotel suite. Bride was getting ready. After her and her bridesmaids’ hair and makeup was done, the bride went to her bedroom with her mother to get into her wedding dress. I was there to photograph after she was somewhat dressed. As we came out of the bedroom, her best friends and her father saw her in her dress for the very first time. After taking couple shots of the excitement of her best friends my eyes were looking for her father. He sat down on the couch, watching her daughter showing her dress to her friends and wiping his tears… As a photographer, I know those untouched, unspoiled moments means the most and I know where to find them.

Q: You have a funny story of your first experience with Leica glass, can you tell us about it?

A: This was many years ago, when I was working for an adventure travel company, chasing tornadoes, going into wilderness in arctic cold weather to film and photograph those travels…And when I was home from those travels I was working in a local camera retail store part-time, selling cameras etc. If I took an architectural eye from my father, I am sure I took photography from my mother. She is not a photographer but loves taking photos like many mothers, she does have an eye for that. So I wanted to surprise her with a new point-shoot camera. I tried all the cameras on the shelves. I inserted my memory card in each camera and one looked so much sharper. It was a little point-shoot with Leica written in the front of it. I was blown away when I saw a point-shoot camera was producing sharp images, if not sharper than my DSLR. I had to have one. Years passed, my mother received another brand as a gift with huge LCD screen, I see her still using her first camera.

Q: Would you use a Leica to shoot a wedding?

A: Why not? Leica S would make a wonderful choice. If you are not shooting weddings as if you are shooting a basketball game, yes. Every time I fly to New York for Photo Plus Expo, the first booth I go to is the Leica booth. In 2010, Leica associate asked me if I would be interested in shooting with the Leica S2 in studio environment, my answer was of course, YES. They had a studio near the convention center. I went there. They had a model, lights, shooting tethered using Lightroom. It was definitely the right camera for the job. It’s is like a Mercedes with a Boeing engine in it. So pure, solid and rich. The details, color rendition, the sharpness blows your mind. When perfection, high detail and big print is what matters, I don’t think you should shoot with something else. I say this confidently because I have shot with every other brand medium format digital.

And I remember they had a product manager from Germany, Toni Felsner! He poured a bottle of water on one of the S2 lenses. My blood pressure went thru the roof. Then he poured the water back into the bottle to show me how water resistant the lens was. I have seen some other high-end glass being water resistant but most impressive part was that when he poured the water back in the bottle, the lens had ABSOLUTELY NO RESIDUE on it. It was just wow! It was as if you just cleaned the lens with new cloth. My jaw was on the floor.

Q: Is there a Leica camera you would like to carry?

A: I already got my hands on the M8 and M9. I think Leica did a wonderful job on the M-Monochrom and the new M. I played with the Monochrom when one of the local Leica dealers in my area, Calumet Goose Island had a small trade show. Leica is known for simplicity and luxury and Monochrom does that very well. In my opinion the new M is the best M Leica has ever produced. I played with the prototype in New York during Photo Plus Expo. I want one!

Q: You said New York and reminded me a an event you put together, tell us a little bit about it, I think it is a very unique idea…

A: You mean the 24 Hour Non-Stop Photo Walk?

Q: Yes…

A: If I were to live anywhere in the world, I would choose Venice; however, for street photography, there is nothing like New York. So since I was going to NYC for the convention, I organized a 24 hour non-stop photo walk. We started in the morning and finished the next morning. I had CPS members join me from Chicago, Donyel Billings and world renowned Bob Davis, and from New York I had the pleasure of meeting Markus Hartel, Clay Butch Benskin, Dennis Cacho and a few more well known street photographers from the New York area. We spent most of the walk in Manhattan, then went to Brooklyn and concluded in the financial district of New York, by Wall St. It was an experience well worth the hardship. I recommend it to anyone. We planned for 24 hours but it ended up being a 26 hour long walk. Most stores in Manhattan do not provide any wall outlets, having extra batteries or external power devices are must haves.

Q: Can photography change the world?

A: Yes it can. Sebastiao Salgado is a living proof of that.

Q: Who inspires you the most in street photography?

A: I can’t really give you certain names as I have many friends who are very talented and inspiring photographers, the list would be long. One person I call my mentor as his personal and artistic qualities made me dig more into street photography, sort of became my second older brother is Nima Taradji. He influenced and encouraged me the most.

Q: What is next for Gokhan Cukurova?

A: A wedding workshop in Europe is coming up soon, April 2013. Krakow and Venice are in my horizon for the short term. For the mid/long term, I recently published my first eBook on Blurb. It was a first for me received very well, all proceedings go to charity. I have a wedding photography book which is also in the works, I have been slowly writing this book over two years now. When it’s done it will be around 500-600 pages. I am hoping it will be available by Christmas 2015.

Thank you for your time, Gokhan!

- Leica Internet Team

For more information on Gokhan, visit his wedding website, blog and Chicago Photographic Society website.

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