Interview with a street photographer

black and white street photography by Markus Hartel, New York

Meet Me In The Street: Markus Hartel, Street Photographer

On any given day, you’ll find Markus Hartel cruising the subways of New York City with his Leica M6’s strap wrapped securely around his wrist, ready for action. If you walk by him, you probably won’t notice as he frames his camera from the hip, then clicks, and casually turns to pan one more.
Growing up in Duisburg, Germany, an old coal-mining town, Markus Hartel developed his love for photography when his grandma often gave him her old rangefinder to snap family photos. He became mesmerized with the little box; he decided to save up the money he earned by doing odd jobs and bought his very own camera at the age of ten. He enjoyed the camera for a few months, but quickly grew tired of its minimalist capabilities, as a simple point and shoot version of the device. He was ready to have control over his images from concept to finish. Later armed with an SLR, and a few years of experience to boot, he developed the necessary skills for serious photography.
When he landed in New York City, he saw little slices of life happening all around him. He wanted to capture some of these –reflections of everyday life– real, unaltered impressions of public places, places everybody visits every day, the streets where you live, the parking lot of your favorite grocery store, the subway. He’s the eyes and ears of the mundane nuances of life, capturing the mood in a fraction of a second. He freezes a moment that you will forget in the same amount of time.

How do you describe your photographic style?
Oftentimes people comment on the rawness of my photographs, which seems to be out of the ordinary. Note to self: maybe that’s why I’m not selling a goddamn print! My pictures are not necessarily pretty, but they do show beautiful moments of the urban jungle. My style consists of a black-and-white, high-contrast look, and closeness or intimacy of a subject.
Although I appreciate pretty images and can see the photographic effort, the bulk of these images don’t reflect real life to me; they look too polished. It took me a long time to find my niche in photography. I want to show real life, and I guess that’s what my style is.

How do you find your subjects?
Good street photography requires good observation skills and reaction. For that reason, the better photographs "happen" when my mind is free and I have time to switch to “photography mode”. “Class A” pictures definitely have people in them. On a good day, I have my eyes ten to twenty feet ahead and watch for something to happen. On slower days, I wander the streets for hours. I might burn a frame or two of anything that looks remotely interesting or out of place––whether it’s graffiti, some litter, or a window display.

What kind of equipment do you use?
I use a variety of cameras, but prefer the Leica Rangefinder for its unobtrusive, smallish footprint. Secondly, I love it for its quiet operation. Currently in use: Olympus Stylus Epic, Canon AE-1, Rolleiflex 3.5 E, Horizon 202, Leica M6 TTL, Canon 10D. With lenses, I only use prime with focal lengths from 24mm to 50mm; a 35mm Summicron (f2) being my favorite tool.

Why don’t you use telephoto lenses?
I like to use a short focal length to get close to my subjects and to give my images an intimate feel. A long lens compresses the image and detaches the viewer from the subject.

How do you get so close to your subjects? I carefully watch the scene and try to stick around for a while. Sometimes it’s anticipation, and sometimes it’s luck. I blend in the scenery and catch a moment where people are so involved with what they’re doing that they don’t notice me with my camera. The photographer needs to be pretty ballsy, or simply quicker than the subject.

Have you ever offended anyone?
In the past two years, it’s happened once or twice. On occasion, my subjects ask me not to photograph them, after I’ve already taken the shot. But I usually fit right into the scene, especially if I’m shooting from the hip.

Describe how you shoot from the hip?
A hipshot is using the camera without the viewfinder. I guess the distance and set the lens according the distance scale, or I zone-focus by pre-setting the focusing scale of the lens to the working distance and let the depth of field take care of the rest. My camera is usually set to 2.5 meters (8 feet), and I adjust from there if necessary.

Do you carry multiple cameras?
Most of the time, I carry one body with one lens, and stuff my pockets with film.

What kind of film do you use and how many rolls do you shoot on average?
Any kind of film will do, but my favorite is Kodak Tri-X. It seems to be the most flexible film out there and provides me with the best low-light quality I have seen so far. Sometimes I use as many as 8-10 rolls a day, but on average 2-3 rolls per week.

Do you photograph mostly in black and white?
Yes. I think black and white has qualities of its own. Color often times distracts the viewer from the subject––the color becomes more important than the content, although I like to use color film on sunny days.

When you photograph, do you have a theme in mind?
Usually, I just go out with my camera to capture raw moments of urban life. Since I can’t control these tiny slices of life, I always need to be on the watch out––like the guards at the beach on their little towers. If I would go out today with a theme, I would restrict myself and miss a handful of good shots because I wouldn’t be able to focus, literally. My work is about a grand scheme, city life, and that’s it. Raw. No secret formula. 

Who are your influences?
Photography has always inspired me and I love to look at the work of the masters. When I first started, I didn’t know that the term "street photography" existed. Street photography just hit me by accident. In 2003, I bought a digital SLR and I simply started to take photographs of strangers in the streets; they seemed to be the easiest targets in Manhattan. Later on, I learned about [Henri Cartier-] Bresson and [Gary] Winogrand long after I went out with my camera to take pictures of strangers.
Finally knowing what I want to achieve with my camera, I still spend countless hours looking at classic and contemporary (street) photography–studying what works and doesn’t work––––at least to my eye. 

What projects are you currently working on?
I do have a few projects I’m working on that don’t have to do with street photography, but this is not the right time to talk about it.

How did you end up in New York City?
To make a long story short, my job got me here. I’m a graphic designer.

Will you ever leave New York City?
New York City offers endless opportunities for street photography, but I can see myself leaving the city for other aspects of my life. It is extremely fast-paced here in New York City and sometimes it’s tiring to keep up with the beat of this urban jungle. There is only one thing I can’t see in New York or any other big city––raising a family. I grew up in a small town, away from city life, and I would like my kids to have the same carefree and wonderful experience.

Since your grandmother was the first to appoint you as the family photographer when you were a kid, if she could see you now, what would she say?
I was very close to my grandma. I accompanied her in the kitchen or at her sewing machine all the time when I was around her. She was always supportive towards my creative side. In fact, she was the main person to nourish my creativity. My grandma always encouraged me to draw or to read; sometimes she challenged me to spell complicated words from the dictionary. Back to your question, my grandma would respect my work and appreciate what I do.

What kind of impression do you hope to leave upon other’s who see your photographs?
I only want the viewer to get an unpolished view of my vision. In my case, there is no metaphor for vision. Usually one would state some imaginary marketing gag, but my vision is what I see––what I can capture with my camera. I just keep taking photographs along my way and hope you like them. That is what photography is about; sharing your vision.

What direction do you think street photography will go in the future?
Right now, it seems that street photography is becoming popular again. I see a second wave of emerging photographers getting into it––me being one of them.

Are there any emerging street photographers who you admire? If so, who are they?
There are a few cats with style out there. Matt Weber’s work is great, but he has worked in the streets of New York City for over 30 years now.

What continually drives you to photograph in the streets?
The catch with street photography is that there are many opportunities for good pictures, but not so many opportunities for great photographs––which only happens every once in a while. Street photography is like gambling. You get lucky or you get nothing.

Will you ever feel like your work is completed?
I enjoy what I do a lot, but don’t think one could see it ever as a completed piece. My photographs are an ongoing puzzle of fragments in time. If I stop, I’m done––but life in the street goes on.

Related Posts:

5 Replies to “Interview with a street photographer”

  1. Great Conversation!
    I can’t explain that how much i am excited to watch this kind of brilliant interviews. I believe that a good photographer has different point of view from others to observe an object. He can shoot only special features of natures things. I must say Markus Hartel is one of them. I really enjoy your article. Thank you much for sharing it here.

Leave a Reply