Please join us in an interview with Andrew Steiner.
- I am always intrigued by work created in the photographer’s backyard. Looking at your project, with the exception of “New Orleans”, the rest are made in the Chicago area. How important is it for you to work within the familiar space, and how different is the process?
The attraction of working with familiar places - for example, the Chicago train lines and my neighborhood of Uptown - is that they are part of my day to day life. I think all artists are going to make their most authentic work about what they know. My own experiences allow me to develop narratives that somewhat reflect ideas and thoughts I have about the world around me but are also open to the stories of the subjects I choose. When I photograph somewhere like New Orleans, it can be exciting because it’s just new - but it’s also informed by romantic ideas that I have about that place. So, I guess I would say the process isn’t that different for me. Both types of work call upon my own experiences and then kind of meld with what happens while I’m working.
- Your work circulates around the documentary style that touches on the personal. What are some of the similarities and differences between the projects in terms of the concept and decision-making? For example, “East Chicago, Indiana” and “The Admiral Theater” are significantly different but intuitively connected.
I think my overall approach to photography connects the different projects. I’m always concerned with the humanity of the subject, allowing the subject to tell their own story. Naturally, my own aesthetic judgement does some editing but again I want my photographs to be real, moving.
I think the difference is really just based on where the story or event leads and my responses in that moment. What you expect to see, that’s never where the story is.
- “East Chicago, Indiana” displays a universal message prevalent to the overall socio-economic situation in part of our country. Your images are eloquently created incorporating both descriptive and formal qualities, but at the same time they don’t feel exploitative; there is a personal flair in the work. What were some of your aesthetic decisions when making this project?
Going into a project like this, there is always a fear that people won’t want to be photographed and that you won’t be accepted. I don’t have a preconceived idea about what I’m going to find. I The act of photographing is an act of discovery. Part of my process is, I guess, to remain open to people and places and what might spontaneously connect between me and the subject. When I am working, I would say I feel more like a conduit than a director of the situation. I know technically what my equipment can do and then it’s more about communicating authentically.
- Departing the above question and topic, what is your position and thoughts in work that concentrates on areas that have been forgotten? The idea to “create something new” or “it’s been done before” is very famously used around photography circles, and in my opinion has become banal. What are your thoughts on this and how significant are the trends for you?
Honestly, I just don’t worry about those trends. What hasn’t been done before? When you try too hard to be “current” or on trend, you lose your own voice.
- You have approached the “The Admiral Theater” from the perspective of the “visitor” but some of the images fluctuate between fiction and reality. The space, chairs, etc. feel out of place and the overall environment staged. Please talk about this project and are you planning any additions? Personally, I find the approach very unique.
I think that is a great observation. This project definitely has a surreal quality. The women were rehearsing for the night ahead, so the space was empty. The extreme darks and lights and the stage settings do recall film noir and even paintings by Reginald Marsh. I think an element of fantasy is inherent in that subject - so I think that is present in the narrative.
- I found the second image in your “East Chicago, Indiana” to have historical implications; a wink to Paul Strand’s picture of the white fence. How influential is the historical component, and what is its importance to you in your work?
I think part of the job of being an artist is to know who came before you. That particular image - I see what you are saying. I didn’t think of Paul Strand’s image at the time but I definitely see the connection. I think that’s also what we do as artists - there is a dialog between images that remains current.
- There is a vision and personality in your work, even in the candid moments. Some argue that street photography has a tendency and dependency on pure luck; someone once told me that the more you go out, the luckier you would get. I don’t really subscribe to this idea as it results in interesting images based on luck rather than the ability to make images of personal vision and depth. What are your thoughts on this?
Then Cartier-Bresson was pretty damn lucky. Whether it’s “street” or not, good photography has nothing to do with luck. The throngs of people now calling themselves “street photographers” who don’t know how to make pictures may ascribe the occasional decent photo to “luck”. I would say instinct is far more necessary. We take our training and experience with us, that is the preparation, and when we are in the moment instinct can take over - that split second decision is backed up by a lot of practice and knowledge.
- Amidst a noisy and dense visual community, how do you promote your work? Do you find it productive to participate in the constant and frantic upload of imagery on social media?
I admit, I do get wrapped up in the web of social media. I do find social media relatively productive and I would say it’s a necessary avenue for photographers to get their work out there. It can also be an unprofessional fishbowl. So, you need to balance participation in social media with participation in real life. Go to shows, talk to other photographers, talk to curators and gallery owners. And, make time to create work - that is most important.
- What advice would you give to students and emerging photographers in order to create a successful body of work?
I would say you need to look at other photographers work, you have to know your history. Understand your materials and techniques - but don’t rely solely on the machine. Learn to use settings on manual, experiment and make mistakes. Maybe you like things two stops underexposed but you would never know that if you shoot everything on aperture priority. Don’t be a gear-head - start with one camera and one lens. And, don’t be in a rush to have a show or sell your work. That’s all nice - but sometimes what other people like has nothing to do with the work that you really should be making.
- What is your opinion on the current state of American Photography? Do you think there is adequate criticism for the work that is being disseminated, or do we live in the “we like everything era”?
A lot of the photographers I look at aren’t American except for a handful - Bruce Davidson, David Alan Harvey, Carlos Javier Ortiz … I think maybe we don’t strictly have an “American Photography” scene. Everything is global, especially with documentary photography and social issues. Great people are all over the place.
I think that social media and the internet does make it much easier for anyone to make and promote work, but I think the good work for the most part is apparent. It’s best to consider the source on this - if you are just on Facebook then there is not going to be a serious critical discourse. You go there for “likes” but it’s not very deep. However, you can meet really great photographers there and you can go to blogs like Burn Magazine and there is a higher level of discussion there, where people have experience and are actually saying helpful, meaningful things.