Paul Szynol: Looking For Short Stories Everywhere

Paul Szynol has a passion for street photography in the great tradition of narrative photojournalism. He was born and spent his childhood in Warsaw, Poland, and first came to the United States in 1984, which, as he observes, “was the year that New York City’s transit fare rose from 75 cents to 90 cents, 33 previously unknown Bach pieces were found in an academic library; and Canon demoed its first digital still camera.” He likes dogs, music, Berlin, trains, Linux, open source software, depressing movies, gummy bears and translating Polish poetry into English. He is also interested in documentary film, international human rights, and art and technology law. On long distance flights, he passes the time by coding Shutterpixie, a free photo/portfolio hosting platform. You may have read Paul’s previous guest post about his hometown of Warsaw, Poland. Here Paul shares some of his recent work from Tokyo.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: Most of the time, the Leica M9 and the M7, the 24mm f/1.4 and the 28mm f/2.0. I also use the 50mm f/1.4 sometimes, and a 90mm f/2.0 from the ‘80s that I bought used in Vienna some three years ago.  But I see in wide-angle, so the majority of my photos are shot with the 24mm or 28mm. I also use the Nikon D700 with a Zeiss 28mm f/2.0.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I think of photography as a form of anthropology … visual vignettes that communicate something about a person, a community, a place or a situation. So I guess I think of photography as a form of storytelling — accidental or deliberate glimpses into contemporary life, social justice, human rights, human archetypes and idiosyncrasies.

Q: When did you first delve into photography?

A: I owned a Pentax K1000 when I was a kid, and when I was an even smaller kid living in Warsaw, I had some other manual cameras whose make I can’t even remember. I rode around Warsaw on my bike and took black and white photos of the city. I don’t know what’s happened to those negatives, so I can’t check, but I don’t think they turned out all that well. I remember being disappointed with the results, anyway. Maybe that explains why I didn’t start taking pictures again until only about four or five years ago.

Q: Are there any photographers who have influenced you?

A: I’m a lot more interested in content than in aesthetics. My favorite photographs are images that say something about people and their situations, and do so in a way that is accurate, kind and generous. Bruce Davidson’s subway series is among my all-time favorites — each person in his photos shows an individual character, and his images add up to a very rich narrative about New Yorkers and New York City, subways and about people in general. His photographs made a very long-lasting impression on me from the moment I first saw them. I love Peter Turnley’s images, too. There is a tremendous amount of honesty, humanity, kindness and dignity in his photographs, I think. Jason Eskenazi’s “Wonderland” is one of my favorite photography books, in part because, like Robert Frank, Jason takes a whole nation as his subject matter.

Q: Did you have any formal training in photography or are you primarily self-taught?

A: I’m self-taught, in the sense that I didn’t have much formal training, but I also don’t think any of us are really self-taught, in the sense that we all learn from others, even if we do it on our own. I learn all the time by looking at other people’s photographs. If I have a strong emotional reaction to an image, then I think a photo works; if I don’t have have that immediate reaction, well, I think that may be what we mean when we say a photo is flat. It’s the same with music for me, and with poetry or literature or any art form, really. I don’t want to have to think about why a photo is good; I want to see and feel it immediately. But if I do have a strong reaction to an image, I try to understand what about the photograph resonates with me; in other words, why I had a strong reaction to it in the first place, a more engaged, analytical reaction. That analysis inevitably teaches me something not only about the specific photo, but about photography in general, which then influences the way I approach my own photos. So, I’m teaching myself, in a sense, but in reality, photographers whose work I like are teaching me all the time. I think proper gear is critical. You have to own equipment that enables you to take the photos you see in your mind, but just as important, I think, is looking at and learning from other photographers’ images.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I was introduced to Leica when I was living in San Francisco in 2006, at the behest of one of the sales guys in a camera store. It immediately felt very natural. I finally bought one when I moved back to New York City a few months later. At least 90% of the photos I’ve taken since then have been shot with a Leica.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: I look for short stories; I think they’re everywhere. Then I frame them in a way that I think is visually interesting and compelling, both in terms of form and in terms of content. Lautreamont defined beauty as “the random meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating room table.” I think that’s what makes a good photograph, too — the random meeting of form and content, caught by the photographer in a way that tells a compelling story in a compelling way. That’s what I try to do in any case. Out of all the photos I’ve taken, I think I’ve only succeeded a small handful of times, but that’s my objective anyway.

Q: You mention that you “see in wide-angle” and favor 24mm and 28mm lenses. Why do you think this is so and what types of subjects would motivate you to shoot with the 50mm f/1.4 and 90mm f/2.0?

A: I like to get close to the subject, but I like to provide a context, too. With a 50mm or a 90mm, proximity usually means giving up the surroundings. When I can’t get closer to the subject though, then I use one of the longer focal lengths.

Q: You note that you shoot about 90% of your work with Leicas, mostly with an M9 and M7. What particular characteristics of the Leica M do you find especially useful in your style of street photojournalism?

A: I think the M series give you an invisibility cloak, as far as photography is concerned. You can stop traffic with a DSLR and a large lens because people wonder what you’re taking a picture of or they worry that you’re taking a picture of them and they wonder why. With a Leica though, no one really notices you taking a picture.

Q: Many of your Japan images have a whimsical or even humorous quality, such as the one of the upturned toilet seat with “Thanks Tokyo” graffiti on it and another of a white-haired, middle-aged person dressed like a teenager, talking on her cell phone while holding the metal leash of a large Pit Bull dog. Do you agree, and what part do you think whimsy and humor play in your photographic approach to the world?

A: Yep, generally I like things that are a little out of the ordinary and people who are willing to be a little out of the ordinary. I think the humor in my photographs typically consists of contrasting the slightly off-center against an ordinary and quotidian background, in celebration of the former. But I’m interested in the entire emotional landscape of contemporary life, so some of my photos are sad and serious, too.

Q: There is a charming and surreal quality to your image of a policeman apparently releasing a pigeon. How did you come to take this picture and what do you think it communicates to the viewer, other than being a kind of magical moment?

A: I like it first and foremost because it’s a sweet and tender moment. In another photo in this series, a police officer pets a small dog and I like that image for the same reason I like this one — I love animals and I love seeing people be kind to them. But I like this photo as part of this series because I think it’s an interesting break from the inaccurate stereotype of Japan as a place where people don’t show a lot of emotion. To a small degree, these moments of kindness puncture through the, again inaccurate, image of Japan as a cold and unfeeling country. I also like the photograph because of its symbolism: flight is a symbol of freedom, whereas a uniform, in my opinion, is a symbol of entrenchment, control, etc. So there is a contrast between freedom and fixation, earth and air, ephemera and permanence, spontaneity and routine and so on.

Q: There is something wonderfully enigmatic about your Tokyo street scene showing a geisha in the center of the frame looking straight at the camera, while a slightly blurred salaryman carrying a briefcase rushes past her on the left. Despite its seemingly random quality, this is a carefully composed image that makes a statement. What do you think that statement might be?

A: Thanks. The traditional dress caught my eye because it’s beautiful on its own, but it was the contrast between the modern metropolis and the traditional outfit that really captivated me. The young businessman in a black suit rushes blindly past a woman in a beautiful, traditional garb, entirely oblivious and indifferent to her. I think that’s symbolic of the increasing distance between tradition and modernity in Tokyo. So, for me, this photo is about rapid cultural change — what’s left behind and what’s ahead. I guess one can read some gender dynamics into it, too, or see it as a comment about the woman herself, but that wasn’t my intention. But then no two people ever see the same photograph, right?

Q: Your photograph of a man descending a staircase with tall buildings in the background has a great linear tension created by the oblique lines of the railings and structures that dominate the composition. Aside from the graphic elements, what kind of feeling do you think this image creates in the mind of the viewer or what were you thinking when you shot it?

A: A friend of mine told me it gave her vertigo. The businessman carrying a suitcase is a ubiquitous figure in Tokyo — the city is brimming with men in suits, tireless but exhausted business warriors rushing through a massive metropolitan landscape dedicated to finance and so on. The idea behind this photo is to embed that figure in the absolutely massive and overwhelming architectural complex that surrounds him. Also, it’s late in the evening and it’s after hours, so there is the added suggestion that he is walking down the stairs and leaving the high-rise and high-pressure work offices at the end of the workday.

Q: Your image of what look like cubicles with a young woman slumped in a chair conveys a quality of isolation and detachment, almost despair. Do you agree and do you think it is an implicit comment on modern urban life?

A: Yes, I think so. There is definitely an existentialist dimension to this photo for me. It’s a fast food restaurant at six  in the morning. I’d been out all night with a couple of friends and we were ravenous, so we decided to get some quick breakfast. These girls were awake when we got there, but about 20 minutes later, they just fell asleep, as did the guy sitting in the booth next to them. There is definitely a sense of isolation — two women on the left, a single man on the right, separated by a wall, which is a physical representation of the implied psychological distance between them.

And in an existentialist sense, I think the question is, “What does it mean when we stay out until 6 a.m. and this is how our night ends — sitting in a fast food restaurant, slumped over, passed out and separated from the other people around us? What is the meaning of the decisions that lead to these outcomes?” So that’s the universal question and aspect to the photo, I think.  But I think there’s an interesting cultural element here, too, and that’s the fact that people comfortably fall asleep in public in Tokyo. That doesn’t happen very often in New York City. I like the fact that these two groups are invisible to each other, too, yet doing precisely the same thing – falling asleep in a restaurant – because I think that emphasizes that this is not unusual behavior. Of course, it’s also very, very possible that they all fell asleep just because they got very tired of listening to my friends and me drone on and on about photography.

Q: Is there a reason all your images are presented in black and white? Do you ever shoot in color with your M9 or load your M7 with color film?

A: There has never been a roll of color film in my M7, actually. I’m not sure why, but I think it connects to what I mentioned earlier about liking content over aesthetics and form. I think that with black and white, it’s easier to focus on the story itself. That said, I think there are plenty of photographers who use color in a way that superbly adds to the narrative, often in very subtle but very meaningful ways: Carolyn Drake’s photos from Central Asia are a perfect example, and Jeff Jacobson’s magical photos, or David Alan Harvey whose photos just drip with beautiful colors. I don’t have their talent though, so I think my use of color is a lot more crass. Plus, I really identify with the melancholy and poetry of black and white.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next few years? Are there any particular places you would like to document or different styles of photography you intend to explore?

A: I’d like to focus more on social justice issues and I’m experimenting with documentary film. It’s been fascinating to see the similarities and differences between these two media.

Thank you Paul!

-Leica Internet Team

If you’d like to see more of Paul’s work, visit his website: www.paulszynol.com. In July, Paul’s work will be shown in an exhibition at the Leica Gallery in Warsaw, Poland. The opening reception will take place on 12 July at 19.00.