Welcome to this edition of 'In Focus' where we return to the genre of street photography. Our guest photographer this time is Alexander Merc who is based in Ottawa. He has honed his eye over many years and developed a style of his own and isn't afraid to get in close to get the action.
So let's begin...
Alf - Afternoon Alexander, firstly thank you for giving us some of your time. I hope you'll enjoy the experience as much as I do.
One of the benefits of social media is that it brings people together who have an interest in the same subject but who may not have otherwise stumbled upon each other. Thus it was with us. Our love for street photography has seen both of us in the same groups, seeing each other's images, leaving comments and eventually starting up a conversation.
It is fair to say that you have a passion for street photography that comes over in your posts, and, over the last year or so, via YouTube too. I found the images in your latest video on, 'The New Normal' really interesting, showing life in Canada as people get used to living with COVID-19. It is fair to say that we're all starting to get similar sights in our local cities, town and villages.
Lets start off as I always like to, by returning to the beginning, So can you cast your mind back to your early days of photography and tell us what it was that drew you to taking up the camera in a more serious manner and what was the attraction of street?
Alf - That was a good leap into your photographic life. I'm sure you've seen and learnt a lot over that time.
Like you, I've found that being a street photographer is a process. It takes time to develop your 'style' and eye. We're all drawn to different things, be it the people we find interesting as subjects, the time of day, the use of light, etc. Then we all have our different approaches to how we explore our streets.
As you talked, you hit on how you approach your subject. It is one of the more direct and bold approaches. That is, exploring the city, finding your subject and reacting, bringing the camera to the eye, composing and shooting. It is all very considered and not a spur of the moment reaction, or shot from the hip. I'm sure you're also working the scene when able, thus getting the most out of a subject.
I'm interested to hear your experience of the two countries that you've been based in, originally the Philippines and now Canada. How does your approach to street in the different countries differ and what is it about the countries that makes the difference?
Alexander - Great question, Alf. There are huge differences between Canada and the Philippines. The former is a highly developed country while the latter is a developing one. So much so, that I have a different approach when doing street photography in the two countries.
In Canada, where I am based now, I am extra careful when shooting people. Here, Canadians, in general, are aloof with street photographers, which is the exact opposite with the Filipinos. In the Philippines, you have not yet pointed your camera at them, but as soon as they see it, they are posing already. Hehehe...very funny, eh?! I think this is because of differences in culture of the two countries. Canadians are very serious people - they are always in a hurry, and upright. On the other hand, Filipinos are very hospitable and friendlier, though easy-going.
Furthermore, what you have to wear in the streets when in the two countries is also something to reckon with. Canada has four seasons, namely spring, summer, fall and winter, and the temperature changes abruptly. So you have to be very cautious on what you will wear in Canada. Meanwhile, Philippines has only two seasons, dry and wet or sunny and rainy and the weather temperature here is almost the same throughout the year.
Likewise, safety is what you have to consider when you go in both countries. In Canada, you don't have to be attentive about bringing your expensive camera because the peace and order here is very impressive. You can leave your gear anywhere you like it and no one will take it. Unlike in Canada, the streets of the Philippines, especially in the cities, are very notorious. Being a poor country, you have to be very careful and attentive in showing your camera. As much as possible bring along a friend with you, or be with a group, to be sure you will not meet any trouble along the way. That's why, when I am in the Philippines, I bring my backpack. I put it my chest, not on my back...now i call my backpack a frontback, hehehe!
Alf - And what about your settings? Do you have a 'go-to' set-up?
Alexander - I use auto focus, automatic white balance, high shutter speed not less than 500, and play with aperture.
Alexander - When I am wandering the streets, I try my best to limit how much gear I am carrying. I do not want to go all day long with 10 kilos of equipment on my shoulder. I pack a basic set of gear only, which will cover me in most situations.
What I want to discus, first and foremost , is about my camera bag. As a street photographer I want a bag that wont say, "I am a photographer". For safety and security reasons I like something somewhat discreet. Aside from being discreet, I want it to be lightweight and comfortable since I roam the street for hours and hours. For this purpose, I use my Roots casual leather bag which looks like the one used by Indiana Jones in the movie. I just put rubber foam inside, which I bought from Dollar Store, as padding, and there you go. I have a camera bag, it is not only cheaper than real leather bag but it is trendier and more stylish, as usual.
With regard to cameras that I put in my camera bag, I prefer mirrorless cameras. Why? Simply, they are unobtrusive, silent and not annoying to carry around. The most important thing in street photography is always have your camera with you, ready. The best street photography opportunities always happen when you least expect it.
The Sony RX100 Mark V is the weapon of my choice, with my old Fujifilm XT1, as my back up. These cameras are not only light to carry but very versatile, as well. They are fast, sharp, quiet and easy to operate dials. And, oh boy! their tilting LCD screen is fantastic. You can flip it up and down, allowing you to get a range of shots that would have been difficult, sometimes, to get without it. These cameras are really a joy to use.
Going to lenses, I have the Fujinon 18mm F1.8, which is a wide angle lens, for my XT1. I prefer a wide angle lens so that I can capture all that is happening in the background. On the other hand, my Sony RX100 V has a built-in lens, from 24 to 70mm.
To complete what is inside my camera bag, I also bring personal press card, business cards, sample of my work, notepad, ballpen and cleaning kit. Over the last year or so, I've taken a hard look at what I use and don't use, and gotten rid of all the clutter of things I thought I'd use but really don't. So, that's all I've got inside my photography bag presently.
Alf - I have to agree with being understated when hitting the streets. A simple bag that doesn't look at all like a camera bag. I use one of Think Tank's Retrospective bags with one camera and a prime lens. Keep it simple and zoom with the feet. I like the 35mm but I'm considering dabbling with an 85mm to see if I can get a different feel aesthetically.
I notice in your work you like to mix it up between colour and mono. I'll ask you a question that I'm often asked. Do you deliberately go out to make mono pictures and is your camera set-up to shoot in black and white?
Alexander - Do I deliberately go out to make mono pictures and is my camera set-up to shoot in black and white? My answer to both is, ‘no’.
There is a great debate that is reverberating in the corridor of street photography, “Which is better for street photography? Color or black and white? I think color, or black and white, is a personal preference.
For me, the choice between color or black and white depend upon my vision and mood. If I see the situation needs to be in black and white, I set my camera in black and white, and vice versa. Both are good for street photography. Both have their pros and cons.
The awesome thing about street photography nowadays is that we have creative freedom when it comes to choosing between color or black and white. Unlike during the times of The Masters of street photography, they were working in an era when technology made it impractical to shoot in color. This is the opposite of today where the modern street photographers have all shots in color at one time.
Alf - I notice in your pictures that a few of them have a lot of detail throughout the image. Are you able to give us a little insight into your post processing steps and how it varies between a colour image vs a mono image?
Alexander - Speaking of post processing, my style is not to overdo it. The only tool I’m using currently for post editing is the Snapseed. It is unique, very versatile and has an incredible level of control over its effects and filters. I highly recommend this photo-editing tool. It can be downloaded for free from the Internet
Alf -Snapseed isn't something I've tried. I may just give it a go at some point.
You mention The Masters and in their time the available equipment wasn't practical for colour, which is true. Then when colour came along in the film world it wasn't seen as a professional or serious medium, so was often shunned. This, however, is changing and we now see lots of photographers using colour to great effect within their street photography.
Personally, I love the aesthetic of monochrome images. The mood and feel that can be drawn out from effective processing can be very evocative. That said, I also like colour. It very much depends on the subject and what you, as a photographer, are trying to portray with your imagery as to which process you'd select.
Now, since you've mentioned the masters. Who are the people who have influenced your photography over the years and what is it about their work that inspires you?
Alexander - The world of street photography is very much indebted to these Masters. They were the ones who laid the groundwork of this genre. They were the ones who got the ball rolling and they were the ones who defined certain styles that they loved.
When we talk of The Masters of street photography, we come across such names as Henry Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Elliott Erwitt, David Seymour, Susan Meiselas, Martin Parr, Gary Winogrand, Eugene Smith, William Klein, Helen Levitt, and the names go on.
I read, studied and followed most of these photographers. I see these masters as guides in my journey in street photography.
I couldn’t categorically say that there is particular photographer that influences my work and style. What I could say though, is that I gathered lessons from all of them which made me as I am today. I think I have developed my own style.
As I read from one author, we are the ones who have to take this genre to the next level. We are the ones who have to twist and turn it, re-invent it, and give it a whole new meaning that The Masters would be proud of.
Alf - A lot of those names have appeared in the previous 'In Focus' interviews and they are indeed very influential to our work, even if it is in a subconscious manner. But you are spot on in saying that every photographer should strive to put the own mark on their photography.
I personally think there is a certain satisfaction in hearing someone saying that an image is clearly your work, with no other input to provide that insight bar the image itself.
We've covered a lot so far and there are two other topics I generally like to hit on, and the first of these is around your dream location. So, if money was no object, where in the world would you like to go to shoot and what is it about that location that draws you to it?
Alexander - Well, with so many places in the world to explore and photograph, it’s really tough to decide where to go.
Some go to places because of warm light, historic features, dramatic coastline, or mountain peaks. For me, instead of lounging by the pool the whole day, I go to places to widen my perspective, to seek opportunity, to capture new sets of unique images, like unfamiliar scenery, vibrant culture, and glorious people.
Based on my research, talking to people, and viewing the work of fellow photographers, India would be my dream location to shoot.
Everything a photographer seeks to document is present in the nation of India. From food, culture, religion, festivals to fascinating landmarks and people, India is like a smorgasbord of photography subjects. From the beautiful chaos of populated cities to the almost deserted countryside and many more. The vast nation of India presents endless wonderful photographic opportunities.
Alf - India, nice, a place that will give many opportunities for images covering a wide range of subjects and styles.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a presentation (via the medium of Zoom in these COVID-19 times) from a photographer called Harkaran Singh Gill a photographer based in the UK. His family originates from the Punjab and he has visited their home village many times over the years. However, being a photographer and wanting to connect to his roots he created a project to photograph the village and how it has changed. The resulting book is exquisite. If you can, have a look for it. It is called PIND, Portrait of a Village in Rural Punjab.
The amazing thing about all the images in the book is that they were all taken on a simple 35mm film point and shoot camera. It just goes to show you that stunning results can come from the most basic of equipment, if you know how to use it.
And that takes me into my final question which as always is to ask this one thing. Based on all your experience so far, what have you have found invaluable since you first started out as a photographer?
All Images by Alexander Merc