STRATA: Shared Passion For The Still Image

STRATA is a photography collective based out of Washington D.C. and San Francisco, CA. Bill Bramble (B), Matt Dunn (M), Steve Goldenberg (S), Michael Hicks (H), Chris Suspect (C) and Aziz Yazdani (A).  They brought their talents together in an effort to take pictures that leave the viewer asking questions. Goals of their work include wanting to improve the street photography genre and pooling their resources to reach a wider audience. The interview was conducted by Leica Blog contributor Alex Coghe.

Q: How did STRATA Collective form?

M: In DC, over a few pints.

B: Aziz took the initiative to bring together a group of local street photographers to work together for a common purpose.

H: I credit Aziz for finally taking the initial steps to get us off of our collective asses and actually make it happen, since it’s so easy to have a great idea and let the days. Weeks and months slip by without doing anything about it. Tired of general inaction, he decided to put out a call to a few local photographers, most of which had already been friends. Once the seed was planted, we had a few meetings to decide logistics and best practices going forward as a group.

C: Yeah, I basically received an email from Aziz out of the blue about the collective idea. I was familiar with most everyone’s work online, but I hadn’t actually met the majority of the members before in real life.

A: The idea of forming a photography collective has been floating around with us for a couple of years. The topic would come up from time to time and would be quickly forgotten. DC is a pretty small city, and over the years we became familiar with each other’s photographs. I would run into these guys from time to time and established a respect and interest in the work that they were producing. Over this past summer (2012), we finally hashed out our ideas and came together to form what has become the Street Photography Collective, STRATA.

S: We all spent many hours in and around DC documenting the life in the city that doesn’t make the national news. It’s a growing, energetic, complicated city and there are so many untold stories. So, we decided that we could have more impact joining together to share our work.

Q: What are your goals and common ideas that make STRATA different from other street photography collectives?

A: I would have to say that our main goal is to constantly improve our photographic game. We never want to settle for an average photograph. I try to look and judge our photographs for something that I would expect to see from some of the Street Photographers at Magnum or iN-PUBLIC.

M: One of our goals is to seek exhibition opportunities for our group and individual members. We would also like to publish a book.

S: One of the biggest principles that drives our work is best encapsulated by Joel Meyerwitz: we aim to make images that are “tough”. As he said, “‘Tough’ meant it was an uncompromising image, something that came from your gut, out of instinct, raw, of the moment, something that couldn’t be described in any other way. So it was tough. Tough to like, tough to see, tough to make, tough to understand. The tougher they were the more beautiful they became.”

B: I doubt our goals are terribly different from those of other street photography collectives. We seek to share ideas, critique each others’ work, and pool resources to help make the work happen and get it out there so it can be seen by a wider audience.

H: Well, I think there are goals that we have as artists and goals and ideas that unite us as a group that we would like to put forward and promote to the outside world. As artists what we seek to do every day is create interesting, compelling images that you are not going to see everywhere else. This can mean a variety of different things to different people, but this is what unites us, very broadly speaking. Mostly this takes the form of images of people in public spaces, because we are interested in people and how these types of images can reflect on both individual humanity and society as a whole.

I think we also appreciate the transformative power of photographs, in the sense that once a three-dimensional scene is captured and flattened in two-dimensional space and put within a frame, the image that results becomes something else entirely. Of course we all know that it becomes a photograph, which is no great surprise, but we can play with this idea to create tension, mystery, suspense, humor and pathos in the hopes that the image can transcend the scene that was captured. Garry Winogrand put it more simply and eloquently than I ever could when he said, “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.”

We also have goals that are a little more concrete to STRATA as a group, which is that we’re looking to create more awareness and appreciation for this type of work in the public sphere. Images come so easily these days and so many are put forth with little to no thought or effort, and all of us are perpetually flooded with mediocrity from all corners, from news outlets, from our Twitter feeds, from everywhere. We’re a group of people who are trying to create work that’s a bit more thought-provoking and true to who we are as photographers.

C: I think it’s also important to stress that the group as whole is not looking at STRATA as a commercial enterprise. It’s about passion for the still image and supporting each other’s objectives through critique and advice. We also feel that together we may have a larger impact than we would as individuals, and this has certainly been the case over the past several months. It may be naive to believe this in today’s age, but if we maintain our primary focus on producing top quality work instead of chasing dollars or notoriety, ideally both will eventually come to us. Cream rises to the top as they say.

Q: What is your manifesto about?

S: We started the collective by discussing our values and found that they aligned really well. We’re all individuals doing our own work, so that inevitably leads to conflict at times. But by, starting with such clarity about our shared values, it has helped guide us as we’ve grown.

B: The mission statement on our web site is the closest thing we have to a mutually agreed upon set of shared values and objectives. I believe we’ll continue to sharpen those values and objectives as we develop our goals for 2013. However, our current mission statement reflects our shared passion for pictures that aren’t fully representational. By that, I mean images that suggest things but don’t tell the whole story, and therefore leave you wondering (and looking for a while).

H: We do have a manifesto on our site, which states: “STRATA is a photography collective borne out of a shared passion for the still image. Its members seek to document the beauty, humor, mystery and absurdity in the quotidian. We are not interested in stock photography nor in images that are simply illustrative. STRATA strives to create images that are hard to make and even harder to categorize. Pictures that raise more questions than answers and reflect an eclectic, diverse worldview.” It kind of gets at what I was trying to say with the previous question, which is that our goal is to create images that aren’t easy or cliched. We’re interested in telling stories, but we don’t want to simply show that “this is a picture of x”. If the image evokes a mood, if it raises a question or contains an element of surprise, if the elements cohere in a compelling way, then it’s successful to us. We don’t necessarily want a period on the end of the sentence. With that said, this is very difficult to achieve and 99% of images will fail on these grounds, but this is the goal when we go outside with our cameras every day.

A: To simplify what Hick’s said we strive to not take boring and easy photographs. Sometimes we actually are able to do that.

M: Yes. Our mantra is “Always Be Shooting”.

C: That is key; otherwise we will never accomplish anything.

Q: Your website states: “STRATA strives to create images that are hard to make and even harder to categorize. Pictures that raise more questions than answers and reflect an eclectic, diverse worldview.” How would you define your “style”?

B: Thus far, the similarity in style across our work stems from the fact that we all strive to capture candid unstaged photographs of people in public places, consistent with the tradition of street photography. Beyond that, our styles are somewhat different. Some of us favor black and white, others color. Some of us favor film, others digital. Some of us favor natural light; others have done more flash work. What unites us is a shared awareness of, and respect for the historical canon of our particular genre, which we hope comes across in our work.

H: We each have different styles, which is why I think we complement each other well. What we do can be broadly categorized as “street photography”, but as far as specifics go, we each approach this in a different way, both in terms of subject matter and our style of shooting. Some of us are a bit more direct and confrontational, while some try to blend in a bit more with the scenery. Some are more formalist, while others are a bit more experimental. Our objective, however, is the same, which is to create unique and evocative images that aren’t simply depictive of time and space.

M: Each member of the collective has their own photographic voice. I hope to bring a street photographers perspective to everything I shoot, including portraits and photojournalism.

A: I think that each of us have different and unique photographic styles (and personalities), which is a great thing to have! I personally prefer to photograph in black and white and primarily on film. I think that I have enough Tri-x and Acros to get me through the Apocalypse (if I survive that is). I don’t necessarily prescribe to keeping to a specific “style” though. I always try to keep an open mind when I am shooting. Though I do prefer to shoot at night, when people’s inhibitions have lowered a bit.

C: As a collective I agree with Hicks in that our styles complement each other, which in turn shapes the style of the group. Personally, I like pushing the boundaries of street photography and experimenting with various techniques, especially with flash and color. And I also do my best to avoid clichés.

S: I believe we’re producing work in a storied tradition: seeing what others don’t see. We look for the overlooked or the ugly or the ridiculous and find moments worth capturing.

Q: What do you find most challenging in today’s crowded photography scene?

M: The challenge is to create a compelling image.

S: Winning attention. There is SO much demand on people’s attention, it’s hard to break through the noise and make an impact. That’s one of the reasons working together in a collective is powerful: our whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

A: The most challenging thing in my opinion is trying to get non street photographers to understand the degree of difficulty it takes to make a good street photograph. I often hear people dismiss street photography as simple snapshots that anybody could do. I guess what I’m trying to say is that (good) street photography is a difficult genre of photography to do right.

H: There are quite a few challenges facing both individual photographers and collectives in the scene today. As Steve said, one is just trying to cut through the noise of everything else that is out there, and really build yourself up into a recognizable brand via networking and social media. Another is getting recognized as legitimate from folks who may dismiss “street photography” as passé or no longer a legitimate form of art, whereas I think when done well it can be the highest form of art. It’s also a challenge because in order to stay relevant you have to constantly be creating and making sure you’re staying fresh in people’s minds.

B: I don’t find the recent popularity of street photography to be a challenge. I see it as an opportunity because more people are interested in seeing the work.

C: Today’s online street photography culture is great and I find it to be mostly supportive. With that said, I find the real challenge is being accepted and respected by the more traditional art venues, galleries and museums. Most museum exhibits and galleries focus on the greats or classics in street photography. They are unwilling to take a chance on newer talent and if they are, they want something conceptual that they can market as an idea, and not as street photography per-se. However, there is hope and I’ve read a lot of criticism recently by influential critics that art needs to move beyond conceptualism. I think what the world needs now is a new John Szarkowski, someone who is willing to take chances in promoting straight photography in the modern age.

Q: Is there a collective that you prefer? And what is the reason?

M: Magnum Photos, a photo cooperative since the 1940s.

S: Burn My Eye produces fascinating images; they are the kind that make me want to look hard and spend time with them.

C: I’ve been fascinated by the work of Calle 35 out of Barcelona and their focus on the Spanish/Latin American aesthetic. The fact that they are intentionally promoting work that strives to differentiate itself from North American and traditional European styles is really compelling.

B: I respect and follow several, but if I have to name one I would say Burn My Eye. I like their diversity of styles and the consistently high quality of their work. I also find the individual characters in that collective, such as Justin Vogel and Charlie Kirk, to be quite interesting; from the limited interactions I’ve had with them.

A: Magnum. Their photographers have had such a tremendous impact on the photographic world and I enjoy the majority of the work coming out of that agency, even to this day.

H: There are a lot of collectives doing interesting things. I really like the work of iN-PUBLiC even though they don’t seem to update their site very often. They’re a very talented group of photographers, and they create unique images that provoke and surprise and really seem to have a lot of fun playing with the form. They’re also very often quite funny, which is no easy feat in photography. Luceo does strong documentary work, though they’ve lost a few members recently. The Street Gang Collective exhibit at the MSPF also had very good black & white work, so I’d definitely like to see more of them.

Q: How do you see street photography evolving in the next years?

B: I foresee continued growth in interest among serious amateur photographers and professionals doing personal projects. I don’t know if it will become mainstream in the art world, but there seems to be an increase in street photography festivals, such as last year’s first annual Moscow Street Photography Festival and this year’s first annual Miami Street Photography Festival. The increasing number of Leica stores around the world can only help drive interest in the genre as well.

S: I think the tradition of “street photography” will be really upended in the coming years. One of the hallmark traditions of street photography was searching for the “decisive moment” Now that everyone has a camera on them (in their phone, at least) capturing the decisive moment will no longer define the most memorable images. It will take style and an opinion to really make an image rise above the crowd. That’s a good thing, the more interest people have in making images, the more they will want to look at them. And a bigger audience is better for all of us photographers.

A: Hopefully this genre of photography will receive a more respected view within the artistic community. There is no doubt that the popularity of Street Photography has increased drastically in the past decade. I hope to personally see more of what I call complicated street photographs (think Alex Webb).

H: I see street photography as constantly evolving, as society and culture evolve. The issues facing photographers today are not necessarily the same ones that Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogr and, or Robert Frank faced a few decades ago, and what we’re seeing now will be different than 20 years from now. We live in an interesting time, because photography has become more ubiquitous and democratic than ever, and the sheer volume of media we are exposed to is overwhelming, yet at the same time in many ways we are more closed off from one another. It’ll be interesting to see how this continues to play out in the images that photographers produce. At the same time, how the photographer is viewed by the public is ever changing as well, which has an impact on everything. In many circles we are viewed with suspicion, confusion, or outright hostility by people who don’t really understand what we do. It’s a very interesting dynamic, and I’m curious to see how it will evolve in the years ahead.

C: I don’t pretend I can predict the future, but I would like to see more traditional art institutions take a fresh interest in modern day street photography.

M: Street photography will be very difficult when the coastal cities are under water.

Q: One unique aspect of this collective is that all members shoot with Leica. What are the reasons for this choice?

C: There is something unique about the images produced by a digital Leica. I use an M9 and I can honestly say that the representation of color is much more appealing, much richer, than those produced by higher end Canons or Nikons. I don’t know what it is, but I believe it has something to do with the sensor. I recently shot an event with several other Canon and Nikon photographers and in the end they all commented that they could tell which shots came from the Leica by the quality of the color representation, whereas they couldn’t differentiate from the other brands of cameras used.

A: I have to start off by saying it is not the equipment that matters; it is the human being behind the viewfinder that is responsible for making a good photograph. I’ve seen plenty of nice images taken with a mobile phone for instance. With that said, I fell in love with the Rangefinder in 2007. It is compact, unassuming, simplified to the essentials, and manual focus is a breeze. Instead of fidgeting with menu settings and fighting with autofocus, I am concentrating on the only thing that matters, what is in my viewfinder frame lines.

B: Small, lightweight, full frame, rangefinder, outstanding optics. That about sums it up.

M: The signature of the Leica lens is sublime.

S: Because they produce exceptional image quality. The lens makes the look and there are no better lenses.

H: I’ve been using Leicas for about three years now, and while I’ve dabbled with other cameras and other formats, I keep coming back to them. There are many reasons for it: the size, the great glass, the rangefinder, the build quality, the intuitive operation and uncluttered interface. But above all, I just enjoy using it more than I enjoy using other cameras. There’s a pleasure that comes from having it in my hands that I’ve yet to experience with another camera. Leicas are not without their flaws, and they can be frustrating to use sometimes – a Leica is not meant as a tool for all occasions, for that you’re probably better off with an SLR. But what it does well it does better than any other camera out there.

Q: What about the latest innovations offered by Leica? What do you think about a camera like Monochrom?

A: I’m happy with what Leica is offering. The latest news of the M sounds quite intriguing. I think this camera will address what I consider the only down drawback of the M9, better high ISO performance. And the Monochrom, what a beautiful tool. I’ve had a chance to shoot with Henri a couple of times and am wowed by the image quality that this camera can produce.

B: I haven’t shot the monochrome or the new M. The images I’ve seen coming out of the Monochrom look great. The high ISO performance of the M9 is my main gripe with that camera, so I’m glad Leica has made improvements there with the new M.

M: I have not used the Monochrom but the results are spectacular.

C: Unlike Aziz, I have not had a chance to shoot with the Monochrom, but I have seen the results with Jacob Aue Sobol’s work “Arrivals and Departures,” which are fantastic.

S: Leica is demonstrating their leadership of the photography world with their major innovations. We need this kind of creativity in the market.

H: Well, to me Leica has always been about quality and engineering and less about offering the latest technological innovations. With that said, I think the Monochrom is a great idea. I like the fact that they set out with the purpose of maximizing image quality with a black and white sensor. A lot of people are scratching their heads as to why an $8000 camera exists that can only shoot black and white, but if you know Leica and you know why they did it, it makes sense. It’s a very bold move and I hope they have a lot of success with it.

Q: Is there something you would like to remove from the world of photography?

H: What I don’t like as a byproduct of the rise of Instagram and other digital platforms is the use of manufactured nostalgia by some as an attempt to stir emotion in the viewer. Just because you slapped a preset Kodachrome or Sepia filter on your image doesn’t mean it is suddenly imbued with mood or depth. These things take skill and a photographic eye to achieve, regardless of what medium you use.

S: Inane critique. “+1″ or “Awesome shot” or “Cool Pic” is worthless commentary. People interested in photography or art should work to build their visual literacy so that they can offer substantive and useful.

A: The term “iPhoneography”. You don’t hear people say, “I’m into Canonography or Leicaography, do you?”

B: Gratuitous shots of cats and homeless people.

M: I would like to remove the monetary system and replace it with the barter system.

C: Unlike my comrade Matt, I’d like to see a change in attitude many online media outlets have regarding the value of photography. A lot of news and web sites these days like to crowd source images from citizen media because it’s cheaper and they don’t have to pay as much, or at all. The result is lesser quality images, inconsistency in product and the perpetuation of the idea that photography is not a viable career option anymore.

Q: Let me say that I am one of your fans, because I have absolute respect for each member and you are showing how should be a collective. I am also glad to participate like you at the Miami Street Photography Festival. What about this event in particular but also about initiatives likes this?

B: I wish I had submitted work to the festival. We were preparing for two exhibits and I was really busy as the deadline approached, so I didn’t get my submissions in, and Hicks, Dunn, and Suspect got to have all the fun. I think street photography festivals are fantastic. I hope they will spread awareness and appreciation of the art form so that people will be less paranoid when they encounter a working street photographer.

M: The MSPF was a wonderful experience. STRATA had 11 images in the exhibit and two of those images won the 2012 MSPF award representing the spirit of the MSPF. The awards were selected by Alex Webb, Rebecca Norris Webb and Maggie Steber.

H: This event has been fantastic! It’s so wonderful that people are recognizing the value of street photography and are seeking to promote it, and the fact that it has been so well received can only mean great things going forward. MSPF managed to secure a great space (thanks to Kike San Martin!) and some fantastic featured photographers in Alex & Rebecca Webb and Maggie Steber, which were big wins. We feel some real momentum now that some bloggers and individuals have had success showcasing this type of photography, and I hope there can be more opportunities like this in the months and years ahead. We’ll do our best to continue fighting the good fight.

C: Yep, not enough good things can be said about the hard work the folks in Miami put into the festival. It really showed as the quality and consistency of the work was outstanding. I think a real coup for the festival was having Harpers Bazaar list the MSPF as one of the top ten hot events at Art Basel this year. Hopefully this is a good sign that the rest of the art world is starting to reconsider modern day street photography as offering something new and fresh.

Q: How you see the future for STRATA? Can you reveal something about your next plans?

B: After the Miami festival, we plan to meet and develop our goals for next year. Stay tuned.

M: We are working on more gallery shows, a Street Photography book and hope to participate in more photography festivals, including FOTO DC and MSPF.

S: We hope to continue producing fascinating work and plan to produce more shows in the coming year.

H: Well, when it rains it pours! The MSPF was the third show within a month that featured members from STRATA. We’re hopefully going to take this momentum into next year and continue to build on our recent successes. We’ve got a few broad ideas of where we’d like to take things – more opportunities for shows next year, different features for the blog, ways to continue to build our brand, but nothing concrete yet. We’re going to be meeting soon to hopefully hash all that out.

A: We want to constantly provide high quality Street Photographs for our audience. Exposure is key. Since our foundation five months ago, we have managed to participate in three exhibitions and increase our presence in the local photography community, and to an extent, the international street photography community. We still have not had an official launch party/exhibition, so maybe this will be the next big thing for us. I think that the most important goal for us is to keep shooting, bring our cameras with us
everywhere. Everything else is secondary for us.

C: I agree we do have some more planning to do for 2013, but it all comes back to this: we need to focus on creating the most interesting and compelling pictures we can, because without the images, we are nothing.

Thank you for your time, STRATA!

- Leica Internet Team

For more information on STRATA, visit their website, Twitter and Facebook page.

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