Saturday Night Conversations : Kramer O’Neill
Street photographers are so much more than just a simple artists, they are philosophers. Because their pictures are not just simple snapshots, they are visions, of truth hidden from the normal sight. Images in black and white, which divide the flux of the normal life and derive out of them that which amazes us and astonishes us. Kramer O’Neill is such one philosopher / street photographer. His work has a impact of a hard hitting iron hammer on raw steel, black and silver intertwined. And what makes it all the more attractive is that he is invisible, floating between scenes which would be otherwise impossible to shoot.
This is what we had to say about how he sees the world.
I used to take long walks and get myself intentionally lost; having a camera with me makes that make more sense. And as it gives my walks a purpose, it lets me make sense of the outside world. Or to fail to make sense of it, hopefully in an interesting way.
Q. How did you get introduced to photography?
My mother photographed for a local newspaper, and we had a darkroom in the basement when I was growing up. I didn’t take advantage of it enough, but I did a lot of (in retrospect, not very good) photography as an adolescent. Street came later.
Q. Do you think street photographers are scavengers? There is a sense of jump up towards the subject and shoot with people shooting on the street. How do you think that specially works when a street photographer wants to develop a body of work?
Scavengers is a funny way to put it, but it’s accurate: street photographers sift through the detritus that we all negotiate through every day and try to find valuable things. I don’t do much of the jumping up; it’s more about weaving, going with or against the flow, depending on which seems most interesting. Riding the waves of humanity. (Or sometimes riding actual waves.) I think you develop a body of work just by shooting, then looking at what you’ve shot and thinking “what is my subconscious telling me by directing my eye toward these things? Is it part of a larger idea?” I’ve never been great at sitting inside and dreaming up projects; I usually realize I’m shooting a project only after I’ve unknowingly started it.
Q. Tell us a little about your book “Till Human Voices Wake Us”
Till Human Voices Wake Us is the culmination of a project I’ve been shooting for five years, a meditation on the allure of the sea, the fun of being in the water, the thrill derived from our fear. The ocean is genuinely lethal, yet there’s a gentle dreamlike quality to losing one’s self in the water, like the allure of seeing one’s own death. The book is large-format, hardcover and limited edition, and fits the “street” ethos for me, in that it’s all candid and unposed photographs. I was inspired to finish the thing properly when a great Parisian bookstore requested that series in book form; I’m now selling pre-orders to cover the remaining funds I need for printing. I know this is shameless self-promotion, but it’s going to be great.
Q. Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?
Frank’s The Americans was the first street photography book that really turned my head. It was also probably the first photography I saw that I identified as “street”. Then came Garry Winogrand (predictable, I know, but his work looms above everything) and, years later, Paulo Nozolino and Trent Parke re-ignited my interest. The battle between light and dark in their frames feels epic, like Caravaggio’s paintings.
Q. Do you think that street photography shows a vision different from what reality is? Is it a lie or a truth which is hidden from us?
At its best, it shows us another reality, or some kind of truth beyond reality. Sometimes it’s hard to say which is more real: the “real world” or the photograph of it. As time moves on, sometimes they change places.
Q. How do you deal with the issue of space? For a street photographer its so necessary in invade personal space of people, isn’t it?
Richard Kalvar said something great about that: “I’m just collecting the photons that would disappear anyway; I’m not doing anyone any harm.” Maybe that’s rationalizing, but I like it. We’re all just here, inextricably connected yet not really together, descended from the same monkeys, struggling through our lives. They move around me, I photograph them, we blow apart and will never be together again.
Q. One of your fav pictures (shot by you) and why?
The “Lonely Days” bride shot. It’s one of those that at first seems deceiving, then later turns out to express something about these people’s relationship that was true but imperceptible.
Q. Are you working on any personal projects other than the book which just got released?
I’m making a series of associatively-edited books, with the idea that I’ll make one or two volumes a year, every year, from now until I’m dead. These will be paperback, small, and loosely-curated – philosophically the opposite of the more, let’s say, “magisterial” Till Human Voices. They are records of how the photons were moving around me at certain times in my life. It’s a lot of fun to put together.