Interview with Gary Gumanow

When I first discovered Gary Gumanow’s work on Flickr, I was instantly hooked. He shot photos that made me want to grab my camera and get out there because I felt like I was missing something that he obviously wasn’t. People refer to photographers as having a front row ticket to life; Gary is a season ticket holder.

Gary's ability to show the streets echoes the way the masters did and his skill remains unparalleled today. Armed with his Leica and Hassleblad, he’s consistently dominated the streets, turning their stories into black and white negatives and, eventually, silver gelatin darkroom prints. Despite moving to Texas from the street photography capital of the world, Gary has proven that you can take the photographer out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the photographer.

We discuss Gary’s return to photography, his annual visit to Coney Island, and how his frustration with people constantly on their cell phones turned into his project Anti-Social Networking, among other topics.

 

Photos by Gary Gumanow
Interview by Josh Sinn

Photo by Tim Castlen

Photo by Tim Castlen

First, Gary, thank you for being interviewed for Cadillac Ranch Dressing.

You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be here.

How long have you been shooting photos now?

Sometimes it feels like I’ve just started every time I go out with my camera. And sometimes it just seems like forever. I was eight years old when I picked up a camera for the first time; a hand-me-down from my sisters. The classic Kodak Brownie. I’ve still got it with the original packaging, but without the flashbulbs. I don’t know if I would’ve called it shooting back then. I did get hooked though by working with my dad in a newspaper darkroom when I was 9. The whole process mesmerized me.

I guess I didn’t really start “shooting” until high school roaming around New York City, and then later for my high school yearbook and newspaper. Guess you could say at that time photography played a big part of my life; my darkroom was in my bedroom!

My mom had other ideas for my bedroom when I was away at college so I sold off my darkroom since I couldn’t take it with me to college and she needed the space. I remember tossing my negatives, thinking I wouldn’t need them any longer. That was a dumb move.

Life happens and before you know it, you’ve got a job, wife, kids, ex-wife, and the photography that you knew and loved gets put on hold. I’ve seen this with other photographers and it happened to me too. Sure I took the photos of my kids, but I don’t think I was very good at that type of photography.

Fast forward about 25 years, and my second wife, Julie, buys me a digital point and shoot camera, not knowing anything of my past photography experiences, and I was hooked all over again. One day she wanted to shoot and took my camera, so I got out my film cameras, and we started shooting together. Now that I was shooting film again, it only made sense to build a darkroom, and I have been shooting film, developing my film, and making prints ever since.

Do you have any formal education in photography?

Nope. I didn’t have any formal training, just what my dad taught me up until the time I was 11 years old, and what I learned through my close friends and books. I did take one photography class in college though.

Back in the 1970’s photography resources were limited to the people you met or could read about in manuals or books. I read everything I possibly could but I’m a visual learner. I really learned by watching others and asked as many questions as I could.

"I remember tossing my negatives, thinking I wouldn’t need them any longer. That was a dumb move."

I was the photo-editor of the high school yearbook and had license to photograph my classmates up close and personal. I got along with a lot of different groups in school because of this. The jocks wanted me to make them look great on the field or court. The drama kids wanted me to show them in their best light, and the “hoods” wanted to look cool and chill.

I had plans to attend RISD for photography when choosing a college and upon the urging of mom, and a propensity for doing well in math and science, led me to computer science for a course of study. Mom’s advice was, if you are passionate about photography, having a career that affords you the time to pursue your passions and it will pay off in the long run. It was the best advice I could’ve received at the time.

You’re originally from Brooklyn, New York, but now call Houston, Texas home. What’s it like moving away from, arguably, the street photographer’s biggest playground?

First off, I don’t know if I’ll ever call Texas home. It’s where I live right now, but it never feels like home. I’m existing here and enjoy traveling as much as possible.

But yeah, it’s true, NYC is the mecca of street photography. But what’s ironic is after college and living on the upper west side of Manhattan, I wasn’t doing much street photography. So it feels like a lost opportunity.

It’s a lot tougher to try to find and make interesting street shots elsewhere. Before moving to Houston I lived in Portland and Austin, and it took me some time to figure out and get the rhythm of those cities; where to find foot traffic, the light, etc. I can’t say I’ve figured out Houston yet.

I do miss NYC a lot, but living elsewhere also gives me down time from the rat race, and takes the pressure off of needing to shoot all the time. It gives me time to edit what I captured and learn from what I shot. It usually takes me about six months to even develop my film and longer to make work prints. By the time I post a photo on Flickr or Facebook it’s a probably nine months to a year from when I shot it.

I do try to fill the void by shifting to other types of photography, slowing it down with urban landscapes for example. I few years ago I shot a sheep shearing on a friend’s farm. That was a lot of fun and something I had never been that close to before. The boy from Brooklyn on a mutton farm shearing sheep? Never in a million years would I have ever thought this would happen to me. My son was with me and he wrestled with some mutton and to see him do that made me feel extremely proud of him.

Has shooting photos in Texas changed the way you approach subjects?
In Texas people aren’t on the streets during the day; it’s too damn hot! They come out at night, and it’s still damn hot! And the light just seems so much brighter and glaring. I had the idea if I was going to get any photos of people I was going to need to expand my horizons to shoot street at night with flash. I hadn’t shot a lot with a flash, so it was fun to learn about shooting street at night with a flash.

At first I thought people would be upset, but I quickly learned that they think I’m shooting for some magazine. Shooting at night with flash was a new way of shooting for me and it was a blast. Many times people thanked me for taking their photo.

It is a desert out here for street photography, so I turn to other types of shooting. You’ve got to rely on looking at the calendar of events and festivals if you want to shoot people. You just can’t go downtown and watch the people traffic like I can in SoHo. They aren’t there. You’d find yourself chasing one person down the street.

"It is a desert out here for street photography, so I turn to other types of shooting."

If we were to rank the best places for street photography, I think you’d find that they all contain some form of public transportation. In Texas the word “public” is synonymous with “socialism.”

So, you’ve got to mix it up to keep your eye active here in Texas, or travel a lot to other cities. I travel for work and always try to get where I’m going early so that I’ll have time to shoot or meetup with other photographers I’ve met online.


Impressively, all of the work you post is printed in the darkroom. What draws you to silver gelatin prints?

First off, I love having prints around to look at and hold. It’s great to look at photos without the assistance of a computer. I can pass them around to friends in a coffee shop and get feedback. Sometimes I think I shoot film so that in the end, I’ll have a silver gelatin print.

A lot of people, I think, mix up the art of printing with photography. They are two very different art forms. I love both. It gives me time to relax, get away from everything; no computers, alone time. I get to listen to my music, and sing as badly as I’d like.

I recently started to print postcards so that I can share prints with photographers in other cities. It’s a great way to share prints without all the expense of putting them in a box, bringing it down to UPS, and spending a fortune on postage. I’m calling this project, “Put a stamp on it.” Who knows maybe it could be a book someday? Fronts and backs of postcards from all these photographers. Could be a fun project.

Another reason I love printing… I can’t stand messing with ink cartridges, paper jams, smears, and everything that sucks about photo printers. In order to get a good print from an ink-jet printer requires more work on the computer. Again, I’m not interested in spending more time on the computer, especially when I’m not at my day job.

What photographers influence your work? Any non-photographic influences?

Starting with the non-photographic influences first, I’d have to say my parents and my wife. They probably have had the biggest influence on me. I wouldn’t call my dad a photographer; he was more of an artist and painter. Sure, he was the family photographer, but I learned a great deal about loving people and humanity from both my dad and my mom.  

Next I’d have to say my wife, Julie, has given me a lot of advice, encouragement and support. She’s completely supportive of what I’m doing. As a theater director, she has opened me up to new ways of interpretation. She’s got an amazing eye for composition and is also a great photographer herself. If you were to ask her though she’d say she is just playing around with the camera. She’s very humble.

But more to the point, I would have to say without question my photographic influences are Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander. There’s a sarcasm, and an irony in Friedlander’s work that really hits me. I see something new almost every time I look at his photos.

You make a return to Coney Island every year for the Fourth of July to shoot photos. What about Coney keeps you coming back?

This is the beach where real New Yorkers go when it gets hot. These are people that don’t have houses in the Hampton’s, or shares on Fire Island. These are blue collar people that work an honest wage. They come out with their families for the entire day. They take the subway with their coolers, umbrellas, chairs, toys, and music. You see everything. Big extended families, young lovers, mom’s with kids, dad’s with kids, old people sitting enjoying the sun, daredevils diving off the pier, people fishing… you’ve got everything here on this narrow piece of sand. Oh, and July 4th, you can’t even see the sand. It is wall to wall blankets and beach towels. Did I mention July 4th is the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest? Joey Chestnut for the win again this year.

"...you’ve got everything here on this narrow piece of sand."

I come each year for the people. Hopefully I can grab a little bit of that relief people feel being free from the confines of their small apartments. People for the most part are out to enjoy themselves and are not self-conscious about how they look in a bathing suit. We’re all in this together.

For the last four years, you’ve been working on a series called Anti-Social Networking. How did the project start?

David Alan Harvey was coming through Austin for a presentation of his work at Austin Center for Photography, and was giving a four-day workshop on the “Photographic Essay.” Basically, you come up with an idea for a photo essay that you can get started on in the workshop, and practice the principles of developing a story through your photos.

I’ve never been big on shooting with a specific project in mind. Typically, I let the photos fall where they may, and don’t have pictures in my head when I go out to shoot. Sort of like letting the work come organically from what I shoot. Seems at odds with my shooting philosophy to “go out and get a story” rather than see what comes of it. Going out and trying to fit photos into a theme just didn’t seem right.

So the Anti-Social Networking project came about out of my own frustration with trying to make an interesting photo with people showing up in my photo on their phone.

I started to observe people getting together with friends or in close proximity with others, and not even appearing interested in being with their physical environment or the people they are with. I thought about how social networks like Facebook or Google+, are supposed to bring us closer together, and in a lot of ways they have. But when we are with our own social networks, the people we are in physical contact with, we tend to bury ourselves in our virtual networks. It’s an anti-social behavior to ignore the people we are with, and exchange it for a virtual environment. So it is these social networks that are creating an anti-social behavior.  

Imagine if you and I get together to hang out, maybe get a beer, but the whole time we are catching up with virtual friends on Facebook. I’m trying to show what we look like in the new millennium. We used to read newspapers or smoke on the street. Now we are enslaved to our devices and this is what we look like.

But it all started with a frustration. I don’t know how else to describe it.


What do you have planned for the future? Any project ideas?

I’m working on several at the moment. New ideas come up all the time. For example, I found myself frustrated with my photography living in Texas. I found myself frustrated with how ugly a place it is. There is an interstate that runs right through the middle of Austin. There is a section of I-35 that is two levels two blocks from where I lived. Sloping down from the highway is brown concrete called a berm. These are monstrosities and take up a lot of ground. I asked myself, how do I make an interesting photo of this place? So I’ve decided to see if there is something there. Can I make interesting photos of berms? Don’t know the answer yet, but I’m giving it a try. I have maybe one or two that I like so far. We’ll see. Oh and by the way, Houston is full of these berms as well. No lack of subject material.