Street to Street: Brooklyn Theory Revisited
Introduction by Claudine Moitié
Matt, aka Brooklyn Theory, is a New York photographer who began posting pictures taken with a DSLR camera on his Tumblr blog (http://www.brooklyntheory.com). His blog project is to catch the everyday life of New Yorkers. Portraits, street art, even various abandoned objects… He began taking photos with his iPhone about year ago and after discovering EyEm and then Instagram, he began to post there as well.
When I discovered his work on Tumblr, I had an immediate very strong feeling. He is a real talent. His world, made by details of poetry, love and humor is an ode in New York, in it’s inhabitants. We feel them fragile, soft, unsuitable, but brave and beautiful. It’s also, for me as a European woman, a tribute to the human beings, more globally, to their weaknesses, their prides, their strengths, and their mockery. You might already understood: I fell in love with this universe. So much so, that I cannot spend a single day without checking his streams. Even now, while I take a little break from IG and left EyeEm, I still follow his work thanks to his Twitter feed.
Matt is also one of rare people who has succeeded in surprising me regularly, even if I always recognize intuitively his personal “touch” – my age and my profession drove me to see hundreds of photos (I guess “millions” is closer from the reality), I quickly grow tired of very little creative streams.
Well, I’m addict.
The most difficult thing for me, by writing this interview, is to limit my questions and to choose among all the photos I love.
C: Claudine B: Brooklyn Theory (Matt)
C: You studied photography in a specialized school. How many years? How long have you practised it?
M: I went to photography school for a year. I’ve been taking pictures for about 15 years and shooting everyday for the last three.
C: Have you worked in analogue photography, film-based photography? If so, do you still use it sometimes?
M: I started shooting on film, chrome and negative. I still have my film cameras; 35mm, medium format and 4×5. I do occasionally still use them. Although not as much as I’d like to.
Name three of the professional photographers you admire, whatever their domain of preference…
There are so many great photographers out there, past and present. So many that inspire. But if you’re going to limit me to three I’ll name three that inspire me daily.
August Sander - The foremost portrait and documentary photographer of the early 20th century.
Diane Arbus - She was a photographer in NYC in the 50′s and 60′s. Another amazing portrait and street photographer widely known for shooting eccentrics and ‘freaks’ out on the streets and in their homes.
Walker Evans - Documentary photographer known for his work from 40′s through the 60′s.
If you’re not familiar with any of these photographers work, you should definitely look them up. There are so many others as well, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Martin Parr, Alec Soth, Vivian Maier, Weegee, Paul Strand… The list goes on and on. All important historical figures in photography today and all greatly inspirational in their own way.
C: Describe to me a good street photo through your eyes — at least a successful street photo…
M: A good street photo tells a story. It’s compelling to look at and leaves the viewer wanting to know or see more. It makes your eye linger, wonder, question. It evokes an emotion or feeling. It can show us something that may elude a hundred other people that see the same thing, but don’t really “see” it. It’s capturing a specific moment in time for the rest of eternity. It can bare witness or bare a soul. It’s visual poetry. That to me is simply photography, no ‘street’ prefix needed.
C: Tell me more about your project on Brooklyn. What are you looking for? Are your iPhone captures a part of this project?
M: The main objective while out in Brooklyn and NYC is just to document what it’s like living here. The things you might see on any given day. The people you might meet along the way. The similarities and differences in various neighborhoods. I’ve thought long and hard about how to tell the story of NYC and I hope someday to have the time needed to achieve it.
My iPhone captures are definitely a part of it in their own special way.
Previously, you worked on another project, “Lost And Found in Bushwick” [note: Bushwick is in the northern part of Brooklyn]. For this one, you photographed broken objects, found in streets. What has become this project?
My Lost and Found project is an ongoing series. I’m trying to paint a portrait of the residents from my neighborhood through the inanimate objects they leave behind. I hope to show it in a gallery, but I need to complete it before I put it out there.
C: Why does a professional still take photos 8 days a week during his spare time? Do you sometimes go out without camera or iPhone? Some days, do you see absolutely absolutely nothing?
M: I’m passionate about photography and I love NYC, so on my spare time I just do what I love, shoot the city.
I do go out every day to shoot, at least for a couple of hours. Somedays I don’t have much time because of work and other obligations, but I’ll keep my eyes open on my way to and from work, or when I’m running errands and always get at least one shot a day even if it isn’t one I’m very fond of.
I do have bad days, days when I’m not “seeing” anything. Those days can be extremely frustrating and sometimes a bad day can turn into a bad week, which always seems to leave me feeling a bit burned out.
I always have my cameras with me, it’s routine. At this point if I ever leave my apartment without my camera I feel naked. It’s become part of my lifestyle.
As for staying organized, well, that’s another story. I download my images everyday onto an external hard drive and keep it organized by year, month, and day. I used to add keywords into my metadata, but that became tedious and time consuming so I stopped. I highly recommend everyone do it though, because searching for an image can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. So ideally I’d start doing that again.
C: On some of your pictures, there’s no human being, only their tracks. Why? According to you, is it still street photography?
M: I do shoot random objects and street scenes without people in them. People aren’t always my focus and they’re sometimes irrelevant to what I’m trying to say. You don’t always need people in a picture to tell a story. As for if this is street photography, I have no idea. However you want to label it, in the end, it’s just me and how see the world.
C: Do you think that street photographers, these humanity fanatics who, however, put a device between them and others, are more misanthropists or philanthropists?
M: I think that it varies from photographer to photographer. I think that most show both sides. For me, it depends on the kind of day I’m having, my mood at a particular moment, and what I’m confronted with while I’m out shooting. Some of greatest documentary photographers can celebrate humanity and the human spirit and denounce it in a single image. Those are some of the most powerful images we will ever see.
C: Shooting street art, thus other artists work, is it being lazy?
M: I love street art. There are some great artists out there. They work hard at making art for the general public to see. I like to share some of these because sometimes it’s the only way for people outside a given neighborhood, across the country or the world to see them. It’s also part of the environment and hence, part of the story. It also can say something about the neighborhood I’m in on a particular day. It’s definitely not from laziness.
C: You were born in the Bronx, you live in Brooklyn, you work in Manhattan, tell me NYC in three of your photos (I know, I’m a nasty woman, but you can choose your weapons to answer me)…
M: I don’t think you can sum it in just three pictures… That’s why I shoot everyday!
C: Your “stolen” portraits, [note: we speak about “candids” when people don’t know they are being photographed] are always of strangers. How do you choose your characters? What attracts you at first?
M: The first thing I’m always looking at is the light. I love dramatic light and harsh shadows, but who doesn’t? I’m also always examining faces and peoples individual styles. Sometimes it’s someone’s actions that will grab my attention. When I can predict what someone will do just by watching them I have better opportunity to get a good shot.
C: When you walk, what do you see at first? Forms, colors or people?
M: I just try to be open and receptive to my environment. If I try to digest everything in my surroundings all at once, I have a hard time taking a good picture. But when I slow down and can keep my mind open I start noticing little things more, be it a particular person or scene, how the light carves up a building, how colors pop, or hidden textures. If I can put my brain on pause long enough I can see things more clearly.
C: All these characters look at your camera with a soft eye, almost tenderly. I wanna know them all! What is your secret? Are you handsome? Very kind?
M: Ha! I’m handsome and kind of course! Just kidding. There is a no secret. I do my best to make myself invisible and try to capture them in an honest moment.
C: Why do you sometimes photograph with your iPhone? When do you choose one or the other device?
M: I’ll use my phone when I want to take a candid and get really close to my subject without disturbing them. My main camera is a Canon Mark II 1Ds and that’s a large, loud camera. When I stick that in someone’s face it totally changes the demeanor of what I’m trying to capture. People will smile, look away or even pose. Once that happens that honest moment is gone and it becomes something else.
If I’m setting up a portrait on the street, I’ll use my Canon. I obviously have way more control over an image with a DLSR or Film camera. It usually just depends on the particular moment.
C: Tell me more about your technique, which consists in stealing at first a scene with the iPhone, then in asking to take a portrait with your camera…
M: Sometimes I see someone that I’d like to take a candid of, so I’ll shoot with my phone. If I think that they would make a nice portrait as well I’ll ask them afterwards if I can.
As for backgrounds, when I approach someone I almost always have a background in mind. It’s always a few steps from where the person is standing or maybe across the street. If I see someone walking around and I want to take their portrait but there isn’t a good background I’ll wait until I come across something that works before I ask them. Most people are in a rush and can only give you a minute of their time so I don’t push it by asking them to walk very far. But if I come across a background that I like with no one around to shoot and the light is good, I’ll wait for the right person to walk by and ask them. Sometimes I wait a very long time.
C: You’re so skilled that you don’t need to use flattering B&W which a lot amateurs resort to for hiding their weaknesses (I’m not talking about very good black n white, very mastered). When do you exploit it? To express what?
M: I love color, it’s eye-catching. But at times it becomes too busy and distracting. It can definitely draw attention away from the subject matter. I almost always know if the image will be in color or black and white before I pull my camera out.
C: You sometimes turn to Hipstamatic. When, and why?
M: I like Hipstamatic a lot. I also at times, hate it. The challenge of getting the perfect framing and the right film/lens combo is fun and frustrating. I have found a few combinations I like to use in certain situations. I go through phases where I’ll only use Hipstamatic for a few days and then go back to the traditional camera. It’s just something different for me and a bit challenging.
C: Given that they already express themselves with images, most of photographers are rather a little talkative. What do you think about the social networks working, such as IG or EyeEm, which base the success as much on the photos as on the capacity to use words?
M: I don’t have any problem with people leaving long captions or comments with their images, if that’s what you mean. But I’m not much of a writer. So I keep mine short and sweet.
C: What do you expect from these social networks?
M: I really have no expectations from social networks. It’s a nice way to show people what you’re up to and maybe get some exposure. In the end, best case scenario, maybe the right person will come across your work and maybe it will lead to something professionally. I think the strength of social sharing lies in the relationships that develop between people from around the world. I’ve met some people and spoken with countless others from these networks. Most of them I probably never would have met otherwise. I’ve made some friends along the way too. I think that’s the true power of social networking, bringing like-minded individuals together.
Your attention is sometimes attracted by clumsy snapshots (too much contrasted, framed randomly, deceiving filters, etc.). Is it fawning, to get fans, or do you look, as Picasso said, to “forget” what you already know, to unlearn? (Third solution, are you so open-minded that you look for your opposite?)
I “like” images for different reasons. I like some images that involve heavy editing or are composed askew because it’s not how I see things. I like seeing other peoples pictures with a strong point of view. Sometimes it’s about encouraging someone who’s trying something different or new. Other times it might be a private joke among friends. There are all sorts of reasons for liking an image.
It goes without saying that just because an image has a lot of “likes” doesn’t necessarily make it a good picture and an image with only a few “likes” doesn’t mean it’s bad. That will never be a true barometer for how good or bad a picture is.
C: You post squares on EyeEm, where the you can post an image in any format. Why? Any connection with a photographic “classicism”?
M: When I first started posting mobile images I liked the square format because it reminded me of when I would shoot my Hasselblad and my Holga. They’re both 6×6 format, so maybe I was feeling a bit nostalgic. It’s something that just stuck with me.
C: On Instagram, you were tagged by the 9 chain, your 9 prides. Can you explain why you chose these ones — among which 5 BnW? (Oh yes, I also love your black and white, but did I mention yet I’m nutcase of your colors?)
M: I didn’t just want to use color or black and white images, I wanted good a balance. I think I chose those particular images because they meant something to me. In varying degrees they show who I am and who I want to be as a photographer.
C: What do you think, as a professional, of all these platforms (Flickr, Tumblr, 500px…) where photos are at disposal, free? More and more people use it as of a free iconographic collection, including professionals.
M: They’re not free! Just because someone uploads an image and shares it on the web doesn’t mean it’s free for anyone to use as they see fit. Like most people, I’ve had images “stolen” and used for other purposes without my consent. I’ve even had other photographers take my images and pass them off as their own. It’s theft, plain and simple. Unfortunately, as soon as an image is uploaded anywhere on the internet it becomes difficult to protect. Using someones picture without getting proper consent is stealing and people need to be educated about that fact.
C: By studying your photos for one year, I drew a psychological profile of you. Do you think I can be right? Can we know somebody simply by looking at his photos? Or does each of us find what he’s looking for, from his own feelings?
M: Haha! I’m not sure about drawing a complete psychological profile on someone from their photographs. But I definitely feel you can garner some things about their personality and definitely their aesthetics from their imagery, absolutely! Most people photograph things they like or things that are important to them. How they approach and interpret what they see, and what they deem important enough to document and share is definitely a gateway into the psyche of that person.
Thank you, Matt.
View Claudine Moitié’s Interview
View Matt’s First Interview with Marco
View Matt’s TAG Interview with Mr. Bearded One