Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Interview with Jeff Mermelstein

Best know for his photographs of quirky inhabitants in New York City, Jeff Mermelstein is considered one of the world's most prolific photojournalists. After completing an internship in photography in 1981, Jeff Mermelstein began a career that's combined personal photographs with assignment work for major publications including Life Magazine, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine.

In 1991, he received the Aaron Siskind Foundation Individual Photographer's Fellowship, and in 1999 he won the European Publishers Award for Photography, which resulted in the publication of his first book SideWalk (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 1999). His advertising clients include AT&T Wireless, Commes des Garcons, Intel, Samsung, Red Stripe, Clarks Shoes and Hewlett Packard.

Can you tell us about your background and how you got into photography?

As a biology student in college I was very unhappy. I had been taking photographs since the age of 13 after I was given a camera from my older brother for my Bar Mitzvah. I am one of those lucky ones who never struggled to find what to do with their life. I was born a photographer. My mother would rather I had been a dentist but that is another story.

What were some real turning points in your career?

In 1983 GEO Magazine gave me my first big break in magazine photography at the age of 25. I proposed doing a feature story on Animal Actors such as Morris the Cat, Benji, Lassie, The Exxon Tiger etc., and I was given the assignment which ended up as a cover story. Another huge turning point for me was winning The European Publishers Award for Photography in 1999 which enabled my first book Sidewalk to be published.

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your work?

Ultimately it is the people around you that influence you the most. For me it was and is my family. I am the son of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to America in 1947. I know that the Yiddish speaking family that surrounded me has fed my drive and help to define my curiosity, humor and way of dealing with life. All artists are also influenced by other artists and I am no different. Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander, Eggleston, Lartigue, Weegee, Faurer. There are so many and they keep changing.

What are you excited about right now?

I remain as excited as ever making pictures mostly in New York. I never tire of it and maintain a constant passion, love and obsession for my next New York image. New York is attractive to me because it has an edge. A grey grit even in color. There is an energy unlike any other city. It never bores me.

Which part of the process of photography is it you enjoy the most? Is it meeting the people, viewing the final image or something else?

Of course going out and making the pictures is exciting. But what is even more exciting is the feeling that I get in viewing pictures I made for the first time. Sometimes it is more than a month or two before I first view pictures I have taken. There is a perpetual thrill of catching up.

How do people generally respond to your voyeuristic curiosity, and has it ever got you into trouble?

There is a danger in what I do because I can not ask people ahead of time to take their picture to get the kind of picture I am looking for. I avoid tension. There have been rough moments, but I like to forget about them.

Much of your work looks at re-occurring patterns in human behaviour; notably the hair-twirlers and runners in New York city. Does your search for such themes ever become something of an obsession for you?

My obsession is with making photographs. I generally do not have a theme when in the act of photographing. Themes emerge after the photographs begin to accumulate. This happened in a clear way with my new book and exhibition Twirl / Run. For me picture taking is pure instinct. Gut. That is why I love doing it. I'm not thinking when I am working.

What are your thoughts on the validity of photojournalism as fine art?

Of course photojournalism can be fine art. The photojournalism of Winogrand is fine art of the highest order. Photojournalism with a personal point of view and expressiveness is fine art.

As the world is steadily becoming over-saturated with digital images, how do you see the future of photography?

Good images will always be good images and the huge increase in image numbers doesn't really effect what is good but just makes it harder to sift out.

Do you have any advice for young photographers?

In my opinion what is most important is to stay true to your personal vision and create a body of work that expresses that. I never believed in making pictures with the goal of showing those to obtain commercial work. Do what you do best and love the most and you will be doing all that you can to be happy.

See more of Jeff Mermelstein's work online, or to see his portfolio, drop us an email

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