Michael Ernest Sweet: Attraction to the Human Fragment

Michael Ernest Sweet, born in 1979, is a Canadian educator, writer and street photographer. He is a national recipient of both the Prime Minister’s Award and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in Canada for significant contributions to his country in the field of education and the arts. Michael’s first published collection of photography will be released in the winter of 2013 from Brooklyn Arts. His work focuses on the human fragment with shots of random arms, legs, feet and arms that he sees in public spaces with a high-contrast, gritty look to them.

Q: Hi Michael, first off, how would you describe your photography?

A: My photography in this body of work would be considered street I guess. I think I am somewhat unique when it comes to street though as I focus on the human fragment and not often on people’s faces. I focus in on little bits of people and how those bits interact with others and the space around them. Joel Meyerowitz said I had an attraction to the “human fragment” and I think that’s a nice way of describing what attracts my eye.

Q: Are you a serious enthusiast or pro? If pro, what made you decide to go pro?

A: I’m a serious enthusiast I guess (laughing). I’m certainly not going to call myself a professional. I don’t take myself that seriously. I think I’m just an artist actually. A photographer and an artist. Can I just be that?

Q: When did you first become interested in photography?

A: I’ve been interested in photography for as long as I can remember. I used to be fascinated with my grandmother’s 110 camera as a little boy. I thought it was a piece of spy gear, which I guess it kind of was! I’ve owned dozens of cameras and I’m only thirty-three. That should sum up my answer nicely. My aunt is a professional photographer and I grew up next door to her and had access to all her equipment. That was a big part in my choosing photography as my art form.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I’m essentially self-taught. As I’ve said, my aunt was a professional photographer and was usually around. She taught me some of the basics. When I was a kid I used to hang out with this older photographer lady for a week every fall at our county fair. She was the “horse photographer”. She was kind and I learned certain things from here also. Then there have been little mini lessons along the way. I spent twenty minutes with Bruce Gilden last spring and learned quite a bit right there on a Manhattan sidewalk. His work has influenced me certainly. I’ve also studied the work of Mark Cohen and Daido Moriyama; both of which have influenced my style considerably.

Q: What genre are your photos?

A: The body of work I’m presenting here is street photography for sake of argument. I’m not too boxed in with genres though. I’m versatile. I like to push my own limits and continue to learn and experiment.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I became interested in Leica when I got more into street photography. It seems to be the choice of street photographers the world over. I was intrigued by that and started to take more notice of the Leica lineup. Gilden and Cohen both use Leica’s too and that interested me.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography?

A: My approach with photography is often edgy and spontaneous. I’m a bit of a nervous person and I think that anxiety comes out in my work. I like to shoot haphazardly and follow my energy. I like to get up close and take risks. I like to hunt the image. Photography for me is not about standing across the street and shooting through a long lens. That stuff is a dime a dozen. I don’t care for those photographs. I admire people who take the risk and move in on their subjects. I’m usually so close that people can smell my camera. I love that.

Q:  Most of your street images have a random snapshot feel, and you yourself said, “I focus on the human fragment.” However your “fragments” are adroitly composed and captured and seem to reveal larger contexts and deeper meanings. Do you agree, and can you say something about what you are striving to communicate with these compelling, amusing, and disturbing photographs?

A: Well, asking me to agree with the adjective ‘adroit’ seems a little like a trap (laughing). Let me see, I do think that I do something other than merely ‘snap’ away, yes. I try to feel my way into the scene and allow my lens to capture the thing as it is. I think it’s when we look at the images later that we see these other things. I see much of that after the fact myself. And, that’s my whole point. I’m trying to show the viewer that these little snippets that we see on our streets day in and day out are not really seen, as it were. We cannot be so close and yet still see the whole. We need the photograph and the photographer for this. So, what I am striving to do, I suppose, is demonstrate to my viewers that the photograph is capable of showing you something ordinary, something ‘everyday’ in an extraordinary way – in a way that is not possible otherwise.

Q: All of the images in the portfolio you submitted are presented in black-and-white. What is it about black-and-white that comports with your artistic vision, and why do you favor this traditional medium?

A: I think black-and-white is especially suitable to New York City (where I do most of my work). I think it was Woody Allen who claimed New York as a black-and-white town. I agree. I think color distracts us from what is happening here. Also, 34th street is not very pretty. It’s not. We don’t need it in color, or 9th Avenue. I’m getting close to B&H now right? I guess we can see where my mind is going. Shooting in black-and-white allows me to be more focused on the story in the photograph, on the scene and not the colors. Color is terribly distracting. I’m also not good at color. I don’t process it well. It’s strange as most photographers prefer digital for color. I’m the opposite. The color I have done well has been on film. Anyway, let’s see, I’m warming up to color but certainly it was not appropriate for this body of work. And, I think I will always prefer black-and-white, it seems more natural to still photography to me.

Q: You mentioned that you spent twenty minutes with Bruce Gilden. What do you think you learned from him in that brief interchange, and how do you think his work has influenced you?

A: What I learned from Bruce was to just do it. Go out there and shoot and not worry too much about what people think. That is, don’t worry too much about the people you are shooting or those who are viewing your work. Who cares? Just do what you have to do. That’s been an important lesson. This body of work has received a lot of criticism (both good and bad) and I don’t really care. I’ve also had a number of people angry with me, as you can imagine using a 28mm and getting as close as I do, but, again, I don’t care. I just did what I felt I had to do to get my shots. I kept doing what I was doing and I got the body of work completed.

Bruce’s own work has influenced me in that there is a level of bravery in it. He’s not in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever. He’s in New York City and yet he’s capturing images that very few people achieve here because they are not brave enough to go in close and be that intrusive. He fires a strobe in people’s faces. I do admire that. Art should be edgy and uncomfortable to produce. It should not be easy.

Q: How do you plan to “push your own limits and continue to learn and experiment” with your M-series Leica and Leica X2? And by the way, which lens did you choose and why did you pick that particular focal length?

A: I’ve been working with the M6 with a 35mm Summarit. I wanted to go back to film for a bit and try it out again. I’m liking it but finding it a bit too restrictive in that I don’t have time to be in the lab as much as I would need to be to process my output. I chose the 35mm because I think it’s a great lens for the street. Wide enough to tell a story, long enough to give me and the subject a bit of space. It’s also pretty much what we see with our eyes and that allows me to visualize my photographs very accurately. The Summarit was an affordable choice as the f2.5 is plenty fast for street work. I cannot focus at f2 fast enough on the streets anyhow (laughing).

You have to know that when it comes to cameras I’m not too loyal. That’s probably an understatement. I try out new gear all the time and am always moving from one camera to the next. The M6 is sticking on me though. I have to admit that much. I’d like to stay with it but I think that shooting and processing film will drive me crazy. I guess an M9 or a Monochrom really would be the ideal camera for me if I could afford one.

I like that new cameras present new challenges. Certainly the M6 presented me with some challenges as I could not merely aim and snap. I had to slow down, check focus, check the meter etc. This caused me to alter my subject matter and I think that was a good thing for me.

Q: Your picture “Crazy Talk” of an evidently disturbed street person in midtown Manhattan is a masterfully composed, grittily high contrast image, and its extended depth-of-field range helps tie in its disparate elements and make a strong statement. Can you tell us how you shot it and something about it?

A: This photograph was taken while we were passing each other in a crosswalk if I remember correctly. When I use the little snapshot camera I walk with it at my side with my finger on the shutter. I began to raise the camera when I saw her coming and she noticed it and ‘posed’ for the image. But in some way it is also candid. I like it. I’m amazed that it worked as we were both moving when I took the shot, yet the image is sharp. The composition in this one is a bit of luck you might say. I didn’t have time to get to the viewfinder. I just shot. With a 28mm you always get something. Another few millimeters and I would have lost her eyes which would have made the photograph junk. And yet, if her eyes were down a few millimeters from the edge of the frame it would have had a lot less impact. It just worked. It’s also worth pointing out that I never shoot in burst mode. All my images are one shot deals. They either work or they get trashed. But I don’t have the luxury of ever choosing from a dozen shots. That seems like cheating to me. Maybe not in sports photography but elsewhere it just seems like something less than an art. Cartier-Bresson didn’t shoot in burst mode did he?

Q: Many would consider your “Dog and Walker” image a failure in technical terms and yet it conveys the intimacy of a passing moment and the distinct impression of being there next to that dog with the inquisitive eyes. What are your views on why this is a successful image?

A: I like it. That’s why it’s successful, because I like it. Who cares about ‘technical’ stuff. Most of the professional photographers I know shoot everything underexposed and then ‘create’ images in Photoshop. That’s a colossal failure in my mind. I don’t do this. I shoot and if I like the image I use it. It really can be that simple. I love the fact that basically only the eyes are in focus, and a bit cross-eyed at that, it’s great. It doesn’t look like other people’s pictures of dogs and I think that’s important to why I like it.

Q: We would certainly agree with your assessment that most of your pictures are “edgy and spontaneous” but a good percentage rely on astutely seen juxtapositions—such as “Hanky Panky,” which shows part of a man in a suit with a carefully array handkerchief in his pocket dominating the foreground, and a well dressed woman with an anxious expression talking on a cell phone in the background. Like many of your pictures, the horizon is tilted. Do you consciously seek such juxtapositions, and do you deliberately tilt your horizons do such things simply arise naturally out of your working methods?

A: A bit of both honestly. I’d like to say all of this is planned but it’s not. Yes, I do often shy away from leveling my photographs. If I start doing that then all my photos have to be level. I don’t have time to worry about that stuff when I’m on the street. I do see such things as the suit coat with the hanky and a woman in the background, yes. But do I notice her expression or her dress particularly, no. That just happens and adds to the photograph’s quality after the fact.  So yes, some of my ‘art’ arises out of deliberate technique and some of it, much of it maybe, arises out of organic methods of working. This is, ultimately, why some people are artists and others, who perhaps study art carefully, never really produce anything of any value. It’s a confluence of factors that cannot really be controlled. At least that’s how I feel about it.

Q: “Rain, Montreal” is a wonderfully impressionistic night shot that looks like it was taken at a slow shutter speed because the lights in the background buildings are horizontally streaked yet the vertical streaks of rain are sharply rendered. How did you manage to do this or was at just a happy accident? And by the way was your experience of shooting in Montreal and New York different from one another, either in terms of techniques you used or the emotions you expressed?

A: Yes, that was a happy accident. It had just begun to rain and I was running for the subway. I quickly switched the camera over to “professional mode” while running and decided to grab just one more shot before shielding the camera from the rain. That was what I got. The odd thing about it is that it came out exactly as I had imagined the photograph in my mind. Exactly as I had seen the scene, so to speak. This doesn’t happen often as most photographers know. But this time it just did. I could not have made the image more accurately if I had painted it. It was just the way I wanted it. And, it was also the only shot from that evening that I ultimately published anywhere.

Working in Montreal is different. The laws are different. I often avoid faces in Montreal because it is tricky if the person wants to take issue with you. In NYC everything in public is essentially a go legally. Although, I still avoid certain things like young children and most often the homeless, for example. I just don’t feel comfortable with them as my subjects. Also the energy is different. In Montreal people are paranoid about being photographed, it often kills the inspiration because it puts you on edge yourself. I find this strange as the French are, in general, huge supporters of the arts. Also, the state is photographing us all over the place without our permission. That should worry people more than an artist with a camera.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next 3-5 years, and do you plan to do anything with your urban street images, such as publishing them in a book, in magazines, etc, as well as on the Leica blog?

A: Yes, Brooklyn Arts Press in Brooklyn is publishing this body of work as a full-length title in 2013. I’m very happy and excited to have placed this work with them. They’re a great local indie press and are committed to their artists in a way that many presses are not. As for the next 3-5 years, I’m not too sure. I know that I want to move away from this style but have not really decided where I want to go. I like experimenting with things. I also like projects that have quite tight timelines. I like to start and finish a body of work in a year. I don’t have the patience for longer commitments. This stuff has been quite successful, it’s becoming a book as a body of work and individual images or groups of images have appeared in about a dozen magazines. Much of this work is also part of a group exhibit in Belgrade. I’m happy with these results. The project has been a success in my mind.

Oh yeah, I’m also playing around with an app which makes Polaroid images. It’s kind of a gimmick but I also like its potential. Not much different than using Photoshop to obtain a ‘film’ look I suppose. I might do something with that maybe. I’ve always been drawn to the Polaroid look but cannot imagine spending five dollars a shot for Impossible film. Let’s see where it all goes. For now, I’ll just take it one day at a time.

Q: There is a non-judgmental quality to your images and you don’t seem to have a social, political or aesthetic agenda. What do you think is the fundamental thing that defines your art and sets it apart and how would you define the nature of your artistic quest?

A: I think there is an edginess to my work which defines it and makes it different. I’m a naturally anxious person and I think that comes through in my work, especially here in this stuff. I’m running around trying to capture this little bit and that little bit. That restlessness, both physical and mental, I think shines through. I’m not the first nervous person behind a camera certainly, but I think that a lot of work today speaks of a certain time commitment which is not present in my work. I’ve not sat in front of a computer post-processing for hours, I’ve not taken many minutes, or even many seconds, to compose much of this work. So much of the photography we see today is so polished or it’s just not interesting – a picture of a cat – and so when something edgy and sort of haphazard like this comes along and retains an interesting quality I think it stands out.

The nature of my artistic quest? You’re going to leave me with that? (laughing). Well, I think I’m on a quest to produce something that endures. Aren’t we all? Isn’t that the point?

Thank you for your time, Michael!

- Leica Internet Team

Visit Michael’s website to see more of his work.