Saturday, April 25, 2009

Interview with Ilan Bresler

I am happy to present an interview this month with Ilan Bresler. Readers of Take-Out Photo will recognize his name from his participation in the monthly specials. Since I always visit the site of people who participate, I began browsing through his work and became increasingly impressed with his point of view. As you will see from this interview, Ilan puts a lot of serious thought into his photography, and I think it shows in his work.

—Note: Please respect the copyright of my guests' work.

How did you first become interested in photography?

Almost since I can remember, I've been into photography. I was born in Belarus, and my family migrated to Israel when I was 8. The language barrier was kind of a trauma, I guess, and as a way to overcome it I used my grandfather's old camera. So, till about 7th grade I was the “Russian kid with the funny looking camera”.

In high school it got too awkward, so I dropped the hobby for a time, but almost as soon as the digital cameras appeared I got one for myself – A small 3 megapixel Nikon 3100 camera. I had a few frames I felt were not too bad and after an agonizing period of trying to overcome my shyness, I decided to post them on a photo forum.

The comments felt almost like an adrenalin rush to me. Pretty soon, a few of the more experienced members of that forum took me under their wing and I quickly found myself surrounded by an inspiring group of photo-mentors.

The easiest side of street photography – “sign and object” kind of photos. Street photos are not only about people.

Tell us about some of the photographers and/or artists that inspire you.

First of all, those photo-mentors I’ve mentioned earlier. I learned something different from each and every one of them. I’m only sorry that none of them has a website I can link to. They influenced me in many ways. One told me about composition, the other, the technical side of photography. One introduced me to Yasuhiro Ishimoto, the other to Henri Cartier-Bresson. A very important lesson and one of the first I learned was that the fact that I’m using a digital camera doesn’t mean I can just shoot without thinking—“Think and then shoot” became a motto.

A funny thing is that this motto lead me to use my digital camera in the same way I used my film camera few years earlier. I might come back from a trip with no more than 40-50 photos while my other “digital photo” friend would come back with more than 400 photos.

Over the years I bought many photography related books, mainly books of those considered to be “Masters of Photography.” Apart from those photographers I mentioned earlier, I find that in different parts of my life I was influenced by different Masters – Sebastian Salgado, Martin Parr, William Eggleston, Eugene Smith. Also, Israeli photographers like Alex Levac and Vardi Kahana. is another great inspiration for me; I visit it almost on a daily basis, going through the photos over and over and over again (Nils Jorgensen is my favorite). However, the biggest influence was a Russian/Israeli photographer I encountered almost by accident—Julia Komissaroff. Her use of a wide angle lens in street photography, the feeling that she is right in the middle of the situation, a part of it, left a very significant impact on me. She made me try and learn to overcome our natural fear of taking photos of people up close.

“Think and then shoot” was a new direction which I still follow.

I notice that you maintain both a photoblog and a Flickr account. How has sharing your photos on the web impacted your work?

I never thought or planned to start photoblogging, actually.
After a few years of photo-forum activity and after starting two photo-related forums myself (both are still active) I got a bit tired of “forum critiques.” I just didn’t feel it contributed to my progress anymore. I felt I have found a formula that will always bring me lots of “Wows!” and praise comments, but that kind of photography lost much of its appeal to me. I didn’t want to get “stuck” on that level.

Meanwhile, I was invited to participate in a few exhibitions and even had an option for a solo exhibition, but I always thought that my photos weren't good enough to waste someone’s time or in the worst case, money.

Flickr was just a nice way to keep my photos online so I can send a link to a friend and/or those whose critique I'm interested in.

One night, on an impulse, I bought a URL address and started a photoblog. I still don’t know why I did that, and I still think my photos are not that good, but I never regretted doing that— I have discovered many new photographers and blogs which influence me, whether it’s a new technique or a new idea or an online interview :)

The feeling of being stuck lead me to photoblogging.

As you know, take-out photo is exploring street photography this month. How do you manage to capture so many great moments? Do you carry your camera with you at all times?

Most of my more successful street photos, I got while traveling abroad. The reason for that is while I’m in another country, the camera is glued to my hand. However, on my daily routine which consists of a train ride to my office and back, going around the whole day with a DSLR is not something that I will consider. It’s just too much hassle.

By connecting these two facts I’ve decided to buy a compact camera that will answer my needs without limiting me too much—so I got myself a Ricoh GX200. That camera, for me, combines all the significant features needed for street photography. It’s fast, it has RAW support (a must) and a 24mm wide lens. And although the camera has its limitations (over 200 ISO the photos are almost unrecognizable) it fulfills my needs and more.

A compact camera brought the hobby to my everyday routine. Photo inspired by Martin Parr.

When not using the compact camera, 99.9% of the time I use a wide angle 17-50mm lens by Tamron. I own an 18-200mm lens, which sounds like the ideal lens for street photography, but the lens is just not fast enough and spends most of the time in my backpack. I don’t believe in going out to a street with lenses with over 70mm range—telephoto takes away that special feeling of actually being there at the scene and maybe it will sounds a bit weird, but it doesn’t feel right for me to “steal” street shots from a distance.

When walking around with my camera, I set my mind to “photo mode.” I’m very aware of my surroundings; the camera is always ready to shoot and the more I do it, the more I practice it, the “easier” it gets for me to get in that mode and the results are getting better. Or at least that’s what I would like to think.

Do you have any advice that may help readers who are new to street photography?

I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice, but these are the “rules” I tend to follow:

The tiniest nuances can become a good photo.
I was standing next to this couple and I saw they were a millisecond before kissing each other. I took the photo, and here is the result:

That’s what I love in Nils Jorgensen’s gallery whom I mentioned earlier—it’s all about those small nuances we see every day, but that we never really look at.

Street photography is not only about people; it’s about situations. People are just another (important, no doubt about it) ingredient.

Street photography is not only black and white. I don’t know why most tend to convert their frame to B&W, maybe because it gives that classic feeling, but sometimes shapes and colors are no less important than the situation itself (Martin Parr’s works are good example for that).

And my most important “rule”, I think, is – “don’t try to impress your critics.” I don’t take or post photos that I think will get the most praise. I take and post photos that I personally love and enjoy.

Tell us about some of your favorite photos.

That’s a tough one. Photos that become my favorite are usually those where I was able to capture a combination of “layers.” Mainly I enjoy those where I manage to include a layer of humor.
The photo below is one near the American embassy in Prague. I saw that frame building up in front of me in a matter of seconds. I jumped so quickly that I startled my girlfriend who stood next to me, and even before I saw the result back home, I felt it was going to be a “nice one”.

On the next one I just saw the sign and waited for the right “shape” to enter the frame. Today I find such photography a bit too easy—it’s all there, you just need to be patient enough.

Thank you, Ilan, for a great interview.
Thank you, Marc for having me on your blog.

You can check out more of Ilan's work on his photoblog and his flickr site.