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Vanessa Cass In focus with Alf Myers

Welcome to the first of my 'In Focus' articles. They are a chance for me to spend some time chatting with fellow photographers. I'll be finding out a little about what makes them click and sharing that knowledge with you all.

You may not know, but I've been involved with the Facebook group called Vivian Maier Inspired The group looks to encourage people to share their street photography which we hope has been inspired by the work of Vivian. One of my fellow admins for the group is Vanessa Cass. She is an artist and street photographer from Haiti and her work constantly draws my attention. Her style is gritty, raw, real and mostly mono. Each image telling a tale of that time and place.

Vanessa and I have talked many times about street photography, exchanging views, approaches and thoughts on different images we've seen in the group. This time our conversation had this specific article in mind...

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AM - I know you from being involved with Vivian Maier Inspired, a street photography Facebook group which gets it's influence from Vivian Maier. I've seen you share some quality images in the time and, if I recall, a few of them are from Haiti and are incredibly moving. We'll come back to Haiti in a while, but on the subject photography.

Can you tell us a little about how you got into photography, and more especially the genre of street photography?

VC - Thank you very much Alf, Its truly a pleasure and an honour to have you interview me.

I have always been in the arts, and although I studied art extensively and was a professional artist and worked in the family business as an antiques dealer and restorer of paintings and painted furniture, somehow, throughout my life, photography always pulled at me. I always had a camera, but nothing great, growing up in the 70s and 80s , the rage was Polaroids and disposable cameras, I knew there was better but couldn't get a hold of it, I kept on with my art. About three years ago, I met someone who was/is heavily into photography and a fire lit inside of me, and thought now is the time to start this again, for real… one thing led to another, she lent me a camera we went out shooting.

I didn't really know what direction I wanted to go into but was so hungry to capture beauty, or the unusual, shot everything I could. Flowers, old, abandoned houses, rain, and then it hit me, living here in Haiti, so many complexities and contradictions, the people having surmounted so much and do continue to do so on a daily basis. I started shooting daily life scenes, but hesitated, as they are very proud people, don't like being photographed much, but yet, couldn't get enough.

I became fascinated with the huge sense of faith they have. Everything is based around A Creator, daily life is governed by the words "God Is Good" and thought, that's what I need to capture. That's the fire that was ignited in me. Christmas came a few months later, my friend gifted me with a fantastic camera, I was over the moon, and then a few months later a photo workshop in San Francisco with the great Eric Kim sealed the deal for me.

I would become a street photographer. I wanted to be able to capture humans in their everyday life, and their emotions, struggles, the complexities, the injustices and the dignity. Haiti is very fertile ground for all of that

Images by Vanessa Cass

AM - So you've come back to photography relatively recently and found a style that really sings to you. You're in great company of accomplished photographers who were also artists. I'm interested in your background in art and how it impacts your photography. I would imagine that it, along with exposure to many different images through the family business, must flow through when you make a photo.

How do you feel being an artist helps or even hinders you as a photographer. Also, is there one thing that you think all photographers should pick up from the artist's tool box?

VC - I'm a firm believer that everything we do, just sets us up, prepares us for the things we are meant to do. As I said, I grew up in the antiques business, was always surrounded by art and artists, its second nature to me. I studied Theatre and Art in college, did the whole rotation, from Classical to abstract , sculpting, finishes, restoration and even curating. When I came for a visit to Haiti from Maryland, my home state, in '91, I got caught in a revolution that afforded this country a severe and iron clad embargo.

I was stuck with no way to get out. So, I ended up taking more art lessons, but privately with a master, Roland Dorcely, that studied under Picasso. What started out as six months turned into years of serious studies with him, invaluable lessons and time spent. We would argue constantly, he always told me, "Your work is good, but you belong in another branch of art, this will serve you well" I used to get so mad, I couldn't understand what he was telling me.

I had success with my art and lived off of it for 25 yrs, but never felt comfortable in it. I didn't like what I produced, I couldn't understand why I should paint imaginary scenes from my heart, feelings, and still-life. Portraiture didn't interest me, abstract was fun but again, not really for me, so I started doing finishes and basic murals to continue to make a living without having to think too much.

I now understand what he meant, photography, wow, yes, that's what my soul was yearning for. To be able to connect, see real life, real emotions, not made up images from my mind that I couldn't transmit in a way that made me proud.

I see how the laws of composition, lighting, rule of thirds, layering, etc., all apply to a good photograph. I hear his voice in my head and heart each time I take a shot I'm particularly happy with, he's gone now, but I think he's smiling at me.

Needless to say, I left my art business 3 yrs ago, and couldn't be happier. never looked back.

'Preacher', by Vanessa Cass

'4', by Vanessa Cass

AM - "Everything we do just sets us up, prepares us for the things we are meant to do", I like that, it is a little like 'we are the sum of all our parts." We are an amalgamation of all our experiences and this makes us who we are.

It is clear by looking at the art of Roland Dorcely that photography is a far cry from his style and approach. His work gives us an impression and a feel of the world. Whereas photography, depending on the way the camera is used, makes for a realistic view. Less impression, more reality, but in both approaches a strong narrative is needed. This, along with composition, is something that may be in common with another person you mentioned, Eric Kim.

I, like many photographers around the world, have spent many a time watching his videos and reading his material. What comes across strongly is his belief in story and composition when it comes to a good image. What was it about Eric and his workshop that helped you see that photography was for you and could fill that element that was missing from your art?

VC - Very, very astute observation and well said, you hit the nail on the head.... Spending time with Eric Kim, is definitely one of the highlights of my journey in photography thus far. Not because of his fame, and his profound knowledge of all the mechanics and dynamics of photography, but because he helped open me up to a world I had been searching for. He taught me, in his approach to his subjects, just how human we ALL are.

I began to see that in all of us there is in fact a fundamental love of being noticed, of being appreciated. How engaging in eye contact or conversation can open so many doors. We all are basically the same no matter how elegant or slovenly we are, how heavy or skinny, etc, basically how different we are, everyone has a story, we all bear emotions, our job as street photographers is to capture that, connect and transmit in a respectful, conscientious way.

He taught me that we all see things differently even when we stand in the same place, shooting the same subject. To claim our vision and style and to run with it.

Right then and there, I knew I wanted to do and go as deeply as I possibly can . It goes beyond just taking shots, it’s become a quest to document the human story.

Images by Vanessa Cass

AM - Wow, he did make an impact. Something you mentioned there happens every time I take a group of people out for a photo walk, and that it is how people see the world differently. I'm constantly amazed at what is seen and, for that matter, what isn't, by the people on the walks.

Your other comment, 'our job as street photographers is to capture that, connect and transmit in a respectful, conscientious way.' I so want to use it as the motto and mission statement for On The Streets.

You can maybe tell that got me thinking, but back to your story. You've rediscovered the camera, been on a workshop and been inspired by Eric. Feeling energised you return home to Haiti, pick up your camera to go and shoot... But you're on your own. What challenges did that bring and what bit of advice would you give to anyone wanting to try street photography for the first time?

VC - I was definitely feeling energised, I had this brand new passion that definitely was bringing me so much joy, I took to the streets and shot everything….. whaaat?? I shot everything, but what was I really shooting, had no real interest, maybe aesthetically they looked good but what were they really saying? Not much. I took my time to start thinking. I realised, it wasn't enough to shoot someone with orange hair.

What and where is the story ? How does it tie in to the surroundings. If it doesn't, what angle do I shoot it from? Lots of experimenting, and then looked around and realised, there is so much more for me right here in front of my eyes. So many stories unfolding. The shoeshine waiting for a client. The schoolgirls weary of going to church at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning. People just dead tired from heavy, manual labour, taking a break. All of it was right there. Took me a short second to figure out Golden Hour is definitely my favourite time of day, morning and afternoon, the mood is always so intense and evident. One of anticipation in the morning, and quiet contemplation in the afternoon. and definitely always in monochrome.

My advice to any budding photographer is to find what feeds your soul, what really interests you. To experiment with it unrelentlesssly. Don't satisfy yourself by taking shots from across the street, move in, engage. Smile, chat with your subject. Know when to move in, know when to back off. Very important, especially in a third world country to know is that everybody has a right to dignity. Basic human respect. Taking shots of outcasts is a tricky thing, don't do it for likes or applause, you won't even get it. If you can't do it tastefully, don't do it all. There are lines to not be crossed. There is definitely a level of abject poverty here that I won't even go near.

And mostly , don't let yourself be discouraged. There will always be people that don't like what you do, keep at it anyways. Every time you go out there and step out of your comfort zone, you get better

Images by Vanessa Cass

AM - You describe the journey that a lot of photographers go on, and I think you've described the transition of taking a photo to that of making an image. It is one thing to press a button, but another to have the insight, vision, and in time, instinct to make a picture that resonates with one's psyche. It isn't something that happens overnight and comes with the pain of failure.

I have to ask you a question on gear, because I'm sure people will want to know. To be a photographer we need a camera, what is your current tool of choice and what, in your view, is the perfect lens choice for street?

VC - After trying several other brands, I have to say, my heart remains true to my little Sony mirrorless a6000. Not complicated, light, no frills, with my favourite settings on manual, it never lets me down. As for lenses, after using 35mm and 50 mm for years, I tried a 20mm pancake and fell in love with it. Inconspicuous, it renders fantastic monochrome, light and can stay attached with no worries.

Some might think it's too constricting, but I walk in crowds and get super close to my subject, never worry about focusing and click away. It's perfect for my style!

Vanessa Cass with her Sony a6000

AM - Thanks, Vanessa. I'm going to go onto one topic that rumbles on and on, especially when it comes to street photography and that is - the post-processing. I know we've talked about this many times before and it sure is a hot topic behind the scenes on Vivian Maier Inspired. For me the post-processing of an image is an integral part in making the final image.

What are your views on post-processing, your do's and don'ts so to speak? Plus how do you feel post-processing influences your style?

VC - Great, interesting and very debatable question. When I discovered Lightroom, I was like a kid in a candy store. In my mind, no picture could ever be bad, LR could and would fix it no matter what. Crooked, not a problem. Under or overexposed, no big deal, and all the presets???

Wow!! Well, guess what? I totally overdid it. My shots were coming out overcooked, too cropped, lost. So then, I stopped post processing entirely. Became a purist. In my mind, if the masters of yesterday didn't have all these tools to process then why should I? Doing so pushed me to strive for better shots. That's when I went on manual. To get the rich monochrome. I realised early morning was the best time, the lighting was perfect. I was liking very much the change.

I can't say that all my shots are unedited, but taking a break from editing forced me to do better compositions and better shots. I do use Lightroom now but just to slightly enhance. Mind you I have no issues with those that do use it a lot. I'm technologically challenged and lack a lot of patience for serious editing. My work as a result will always have a rougher edge to it, but I think it fits

'Taxi Ride', by Vanessa Cass

AM - I'm sure we'll get lots of questions on that topic, again and again. It's coming to the end of our chat and I have one last question for you. Of all the places in the world, where would you like to spend a day with your camera and which photographer (or artist) would you like to be with and learn from?

VC - Hmmmm..... if I may get creative with this... Harlem in the 1950s, absolutely with Vivian Maier, and then, one of my favorite places, San Francisco with Mary Ellen Mark..both gone, but definitely not forgotten.

San Francisco in the 60s!

AM - I think I'll have to come back to you at some point to find out why, but for now a big thank you for giving up your time. Your answers have been honest and in the tradition of street photography, very candid. I know a lot of people who will take heart in your answers. knowing that we're all on different journeys but growing with each step.

You can find more of Vanessa's work at -

FACEBOOK

INSTAGRAM

WORLD STREET PHOTOGRAPHY

'This Way has That Way', Haiti by Vanessa Cass
'Taxi Ride', Haiti by Vanessa Cass
'Preacher', Haiti by Vanessa Cass
'Shadows', Haiti by Vanessa Cass
'Bienvenue', Haiti by Vanessa Cass
'First Communion', Haiti by Vanessa Cass
'4', Haiti by Vanessa Cass
'Barbie', Haiti by Vanessa Cass
'Stride By', Haiti by Vanessa Cass

Comments

Diane Stark - "Thanks for interviewing and sharing Vanessa Cass behind and beyond the camera. Beautiful article, woman and photographer!" Via Facebook
Nancy Lisa Phillips - "Fantastic interview and enthralling answers from Vanessa, best thing I've read in ages. Well done to both of you."
Rick Smith - "Great interview Vanessa!! Interesting your mention Eric Kim. He had his workshops where I used to work in Los Angeles. Just a great street photographer and hell of a nice guy. Thanks for sharing that." Via Facebook
Sonja Bowden - "I so thoroughly enjoyed the interview that I didn't want it to end. It was informative and exquisitely conducted." Via Facebook

Credits:

All images within this Blog were taken by Vanessa Cass

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