Markus Hartel is a New York street photographer whose work covers a range of topics from capturing the bustle of big city life, to small moments that go unseen by most citizens.
I gather from your bio and much of your work that you pretty much fell for the city of New York, as many people (and photographers) do. What it is about New York, different from other great metropolises, that sets it apart from the perspective of a photographer? Have you ever considered spending a substantial period of time living in and photographing another part of the world?
New York City is a very energetic and diverse place, and the island of Manhattan is pretty small compared to other places. We New Yorkers pretty much live in a walking culture and also rely on public transportation; the energy is pretty high between different cultural groups and lends itself to observing street photographers. When I lived in Germany, pursuing street photography never occurred to me, but I could see myself shooting in Berlin, Paris or London easily.
What is it about the streets of New York that speak to you as a photographer? You mention the concept of “truth” on your blog; what kinds of truth do you find through the viewfinder beside the obvious ones of income disparities that we often see in street and documentary photography? Why is it important to you to convey “truths”?
I’m more referring to the reality that street photography is able to portray, in comparison to polished portraits, or even retouched commercial work and social disparity automatically comes into the picture. There are many other aspects of (modern) life that can illustrate the “truth” about people and their environment through street photography. What really interests me though, is capturing the little things that the average person would overlook.
Let’s talk about the challenges street photography bring; I imagine they are varied and intense at times. Give us a glimpse into that world, anything from safety to the technical side.
NYC is relatively safe, but a street shooter must apply a good amount of common sense and street smarts to photograph strangers. A big no-no is whipping out the camera out of nowhere in front of a stranger, which [will definitely startle] your subject… I normally try to keep my camera visible to strangers and carry it in my hand, with the strap wrapped around, oftentimes at chest level to keep my movement natural and as smooth as possible. The raised camera also helps me to get the timing and composition right quickly.
What matters most, of all things, is the photographer’s mindset and attitude — the more open you are about your activities and your approach to strangers, the easier it is to take their photo . Most people hardly notice, let alone object. If you try to sneak and hide, people will be suspicious and get on your case more adamantly.
One thing about street photography that I’ve often wondered about, is the release form aspect. As a street photographer, how do you handle the legal side of things while maintaining spontenaity / keeping low profile? Do you ever capture one of those spontaneous moments where the final result prominently displays a person’s face, and they are in such a rush it’s hard to flag them down afterward and discuss it? Anyone ever recognize themselves in your work and contact you about it?
My work in the streets is pretty much as candid as it gets and releases are impossible to obtain at any time; for that reason my work is commercially not viable. A lot of the photographs can be used for editorial purposes and artistic work. Prints, artistic and personal projects are fair game. [Philip-Lorca diCorcia] set a precedent a few years back when a random stranger recognized himself in a gallery show and unsuccessfully sued the photographer.
I’ve had one instance in ten years where a person recognized themselves; they were really happy to receive a print. Some people ask why I photographed them, and generally I explain the purpose and hand out a business card, usually without dissent.
Do you ever find shots that emotionally speak to you but are just too difficult to capture, either from a technical perspective or a human one (too painful, for example)? How do you deal with difficult situations like that; do you move on to another subject and come back when you’ve prepared for the challenges, or is street photography basically a constant “flow” where, whatever comes your way, you roll with that?
There are many occasions where I can’t press the shutter release, for various reasons. Sometimes I may not have the chutzpah, or the situation doesn’t allow for a good shot. Sometimes I would simply miss the shot due to technicalities – there are so many reasons a shot may not turn out right. I have built a “bucket list” over the years, noting the shots that I have missed and really want to get. For other moments, my instincts tell me to press the shutter, even though the subject may seem cliche to some people.
Moving to the stylistic side of photography, I notice you have an interesting mix of color and monochrome styles in your galleries. For some shots, it seems you’ve added grain or texture to your Leica M9 exposures. With the film world we had no choice but to live with the grain when using films like Tri-X or T-Max but now we can have super-smooth BW shots or we can add the “grit factor” (or at least attempt to). Does creating noiseless BW street shots sort of fly in the face of the genre’s tradition or does it not matter?
When I started shooting street I quickly moved to black and white film and always loved the tonality and grain of pushed Tri-X; with digital I simply emulate that signature look. Digital prints oftentimes look way too clean at a certain size. Since I show film and digital prints side-by-side, I prefer to have a coherent look across the board. People often ask me if the prints were originally film or digital, as they could not detect a difference — there are subtle variances if you know what you’re looking for.
Here’s a loaded question that goes back to the start of our discussion: I have my own view on this, but does color street photography convey the same “truth” that black and white street shots do, and why or why not?
Street photography and straight photography started solely as a black-and-white medium; photographers didn’t have anything other than Leica rangefinders at their disposal. When I shot film I had to deliberately carry a few rolls of color film, or even take a second camera with me, which was pretty inconvenient to say the least, so most of my work back then was black and white. Using digital I have the freedom of choice and now shoot maybe 30% in color on average; I feel very that choice is very liberating as an artist.
Black and white naturally makes the viewer look at the story -the content without the sometimes distracting color layer- so people tend to think that black and white is a better story teller. I think that certain shots work better in color, as the graphic elements may tie in a composition way better than a b/w shot could ever do. Some subject matter works better for me in color, especially when using a flash.
Last one: if you could give an aspiring street photographer one and only one piece of advice to be successful, what would it be?
Keep at it, no matter how discouraged you are at the moment.
Markus thank you for sharing some great thoughts on the medium with us.
If you’d like to learn more about Markus’ work and photography process, you might want to consider signing up for one of his NYC Photography Tours.